5 Sept 2015: Little India of George Town

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Little India holds a very special place in the heritage of not just the state of Penang, but also of Malaysia as a nation. This is where the values of our past are fused into the context of the present, even as we look forward to the prospects of the future.—YAB Lim Guan Eng, Chief Minister of Penang

This week’s featured book—Little India of George Town—focuses on a most colourful and dynamic enclave nestled within the George Town World Heritage Site. Lavishly illustrated with over 230 specially commissioned photographs (some hitherto unpublished), the coffee-table book presents a pictorial record of contemporary life in the area and its long evolution over the past two centuries. It also relates interesting and little-known facts from various perspectives—history, communities, trades, landmarks, festivals, streetscapes and architecture.

Like other eponymous communal/ethnic enclaves around the world—Little Italy, Little Ireland, Chinatown etc—Little India ‘sprouted’ to cater to the arrival of large numbers of traders and labourers from South India in the early 19th century. Today, Little India continues to thrive, prosper, expand and adapt to continual changes to the landscape. It is located within an area known as the Francis Light Grid, bordered by Light Street in the north, Beach Street to the east, Chulia Street to the south and Pitt Street to the west.

little india-4little india-2 little india-1Here, sacred spaces, traders (florists, street stalls, otthu kadais or convenience stalls, grocers and spice shops), textiles, tailors, millers, bookstores, jewellers, printers, general stores, hairdressers, solicitors, astrologers, Ayurvedic practitioners and eateries operate from sidewalks, roadsides and from rows of vintage and contemporary shophouses from early morning to late night. Trivia lovers will be interested to know that the name Little India only became official in the early 90s, after an initial proposal in the late 60s by Datuk Mustafa Jumabhoy, the President of the Indian Chamber of Commerce at the time.

The appeal of Little India as an intriguing allure draws gastronomes, shoppers, heritage enthusiasts and conservationists from within and outside the country. It is particularly loud, colourful, vibrant and crowded in the weeks before and during Thaipusam and Deepavali/Diwali, two major festival for Hindus.

Himanshu Bhatt, author of Little India in George Townwas raised in Little India where his family had a traditional trading business. His extensive knowledge of Little India has been featured in print media and documentaries including Discovery Channel and the German SWR TV. Little India in George Town also features the talents of researchers Leonard Selva, Preveena Balakrishnan and Rajasekaran Rajamoorthy, and photographers Foo Yong Yang and George Cheah.