Enduring links and new connections in the Malaysian Indian diaspora

Enduring links and new connections in the Malaysian Indian diaspora: class, caste and transnationalism

Sudheesh Bhasi


This project examines some of the transnational religious links that exist between Malaysia and South India. Indian presence in Malaysia has a long history which includes continuous pre-modern cultural and economic contact by Indian monarchs and traders, followed by large scale immigration from the end of the 19th century as indentured labour on British plantations in Malaya. Among those who stayed permanently in the country, return visits were few in the first generation, except among some affluent Indian communities such as the business-owning, money-lending group called chettiars. Today, India is closer than ever, connected to several South Indian cities by low-cost airlines and free Whatsapp messages.  Based on fieldwork in Malaysia and India, this study explores the role of religious ritual, class and caste in how old transnational linkages have been maintained and also how newer ones have been formed.

The emergence of the pilgrimage cult of Ayyappan worship in Malaysia as a broad-based phenomenon among Malaysian Hindus over the past 15 years is interesting from the point of view of transnationality. This study explores the nature of this growth and how the movement has gone from its middle-class origins in Malaysia to attracting tens of thousands of working-class pilgrims to the forest hill of Sabarimala in south India each year.  Whilst Ayyappan worship represents a new transnational pathway that has opened up within the mosaic of Malaysian Hinduism, earlier links that existed between Malaysian Tamils and their kin (sondakarar)  in Tamil Nadu have been renewed through increasing travel and communication. This often centres on visits by Malaysian families to their ancestral deity (kula devam) temples in their places of origin. This research also analyses how these economic, symbolic and affective links have been maintained and sometimes renewed across several generations and what this might have to do issues of caste and class within the local context. Overall, the study examines the old Indian diaspora in Malaysia to probe the conditions which have an effect on the maintenance, disruption or renewal of transnational social fields created through religious networks, sacred topographies and ritual traditions.