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

Sudheesh Bhasi

- completed -

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 nineteenth century as indentured labor 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, as well as 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 especially interesting from the point of view of transnationality. This study investigates the nature of this growth, and how the movement has transitioned 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. 

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