Penang Taipusam – The Chettiars’ role

 |Jan 17, 2017
The silver chariot about to kick-start its annual journey from the Nattukothai Chettiars' Koyil Veedu to Thandayuthabani Koyil in Waterfall, George Town during Taipusam celebration.
The silver chariot about to kick-start its annual journey from Nattukothai Chettiars’ Koyil Veedu to Thandayuthabani Koyil in Waterfall, George Town during Taipusam celebration.

Chettiars or Chettis, notably the Nattukothai Chettiars or Nagarathars, moved into Penang island circa 1818.

Being an enterprising community, these Chettiars flourished under the British colonial regime.

They were bankers, and money lending was their core business.

They were also investors, property and land owners, credit suppliers, private financiers, merchants and traders.

Overall they were simply among the richest community in Penang island during the British era.

This inevitably invoked jealousy, envy and rivalry among other communities.

Kavadi bearers making their journey to Waterfall during Taipusam.
Kavadi bearers making their journey to Waterfall during Taipusam.

They got their name Chettis because they have traditionally worshiped Muruga Perumaan in another form of deity called ‘Chettiappan.’

Chettis later were called Chettiars by other communities in India as a mark of respect to the wealthy and religiously learned community.

Since Chettiars were wealthy and dominant temple builders and managers, the sub-community has in a way led an exclusive lifestyle.

They don’t ask for public donations nor handouts from others.

If a non-Chetti wishes to offer cash or in kind for religious functions, such as chariot procession, organised by the Chettiars or for the construction of Chettiar temples, he or she will be told to offer it into the undil (donation box) in Chettiar-operated temples.

So to say Chettiars do not receive public offerings in cash, it is not true.

But to say Chettiars have called for public donations, it is also not true.

In short, the Chettiars don’t ask for donations but they also don’t stop one from offering cash for their religious activities through their undils.

The bottom line is Chettiars don’t solicit donations for their religious activities.

On Aug 9, 1850, the Chettiars established their temple-cum-home – Koyil Veedu – in Penang Street, George Town.

Penang Taipusam silver chariot procession (left) and Nattukothai Chettiars' temple Thandayuthabani Koyil in Waterfall, George Town.
Penang Taipusam silver chariot procession (left) and Nattukothai Chettiars’ temple Thandayuthabani Koyil in Waterfall, George Town.

In 1854, the Chettiars also purchased another piece of land in Waterfall area to build a temple dedicated to Muruga Perumaan in form of Thandayuthabani.

Craftsmen and artisans were brought from India to build the temple in the style of Chettinad architecture.

Construction of temple was completed 1857 and its inaugural kumbaabishegam (consecration ceremony) was held Dec 12, 1857.

It now stands as Nattukothai Chettiars’ Thandayuthabani Koyil.

This temple, Koyil Veedu, Sivan Koyil and Kandasami Koyil, all in George Town, comes under the management of the Registered Trustees of Nattukothai Chettiar Temples Penang.

In 1858, the Chettiars kick-started their wooden chariot procession ferrying the idol of Muruga Perumaan from Koyiil Veedu in Penang Street to the Thandayuthabani Koyil in Waterfall.

Note that the Chettiars chariot procession in Penang Taipusam is the longest running of any religious chariot procession in the country, hence a proud history of the Tamil-speaking Hindus in Penang.

The Chettiars will organise their 123th chapter of the silver chariot procession this year.

As the festival attracted more crowd, became more colourful and popular, the British government finally decided to declare Taipusam as a holiday.

Devotees carrying paal kudam and paal kavadi making their journey to Waterfall during Taipusam.
Devotees carrying paal kudam and paal kavadi making their journey to Waterfall during Taipusam.

According to a colonial era Straits Times Overland Journal:

As early as 1879, during the passing of the Holiday Bill, Taipusam, together with Chinese New Year, was listed as a bank holiday.

Taipusam was declared a bank holiday through a British government gazette on July 22, 1879.

Initially listed as a Hindoo festival (note the spelling for ‘Hindu’ during early colonial Straits Settlement era), the festival was renamed as ‘Taipusum’ (early spelling of Taipusam) under the bill in an amendment on Aug 19, 1879.

The first Taipusam holiday – as a bank holiday – in Penang was in 1880.

Questions may arise on why Taipusam was declared as a bank holiday, not a public holiday.

The logical answer was that Chettiars were dominant bankers during the colonial era, and since they were already conducting wooden chariot procession for Taipusam by then, the British had acknowledged the holiday as a bank holiday.

The inaugural silver chariot procession in Penang, simultaneously in Singapore, began during the Taipusam festival that fell on Monday Jan 22, 1894.

The chariots each cost Straits $30,000.

Kolaattam - Tamil stick dance, performance by teenagers during Taipusam in George Town, Penang.
Kolaattam – Tamil stick dance, performance by teenagers during Taipusam in George Town, Penang.

In other words, the Chettiar-sponsored silver chariot procession started way even before the originally Penang Mohamedan (Muslim) and Hindu Endowments Board came to existence.

The board was separated into respective Hindu and Muslim boards very much later.

So if it was originally Penang Mohamedan and Hindu Endowments Board, how did the board now claim that it was the torch bearer for Hindu religion and Taipusam since beginning?

Moreover Taipusam festival, Chettiars’ chariot procession – wooden and silver – and declaration of Taipusam as a holiday in Penang happened long before the board even came to existence through the Mohamedan and Hindu Endowments Ordinance 1906.

According to a report in The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser on Nov 13, 1913 – “The Hindu temple beside the foot of the Waterfall is being removed to a site near the Chetty temple, in order to prevent contamination of the Municipal Town water supply.”

in 1914, the Mohamedan and Hindu Endowments Board purchased a new piece of land at a hilltop near the Chettiar temple, to construct a temple dedicated to Muruga Perumaan, namely Balathandayuthabani Koyil.

It’s also commonly addressed as the Waterfall hilltop temple.

The first Taipusam at this hilltop temple was celebrated in 1915, years after the Tamil-speaking Hindus, led by the Chettiars, had already celebrated Taipusam in Penang.

Balathandayuthabani Koyil - the old hilltop temple in Waterfall, George Town Penang.
Balathandayuthabani Koyil – the old hilltop temple in Waterfall, George Town Penang.

Wonder how did PHEB now claim that the Chinese-dominated DAP’s golden chariot would restore Tamil pride and dignity?

When did ever Tamils lose their pride and dignity due to silver chariot?

Isn’t it not the silver chariot a pride and symbol of dignity for Tamils?

People must realise that PHEB is a government body created by past colonial rulers to manage Hindu properties in Penang.

It’s not a religious body. Religion is not its business.

Just because the board has the term ‘Hindu’ and its commissioners have Indian names, one shall not think that they represented the Hindu religion.

These commissioners are all appointed by the Penang chief minister, hence currently representing a Chinese-dominated DAP state government.

Related links:
Police told to check on legality of the DAP government’s Taipusam golden chariot
Penang Taipusam – A reflection on its history
Ignominious battle of Taipusam chariots – DAP government’s golden move to split Penang Hindus
DAP’s golden chariot critic assaulted by thugs in Penang
DAP’s shameful, appalling Taipusam golden chariot monetary agenda

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Athi Shankar has been a journalist for past 30 years. He believes that democratic rights come with responsibility.