The unique Deepavali celebrations of Melaka's Chetti community

The Chetti community are a unique hybrid community that practises Malay and Indian traditions.

It is barely a week before Deepavali, and Devi Pitchay is busy preparing her family’s must-haves for the celebrations, such as murukku, love letters and kuih bahulu.

Devi’s festive offerings reflect the Malay and Chinese influences her community has assimilated from the 16th century. She belongs to the Indian Peranakan or Chetti community from Melaka.

Devi’s ancestors mostly originate from the Coramandel Coast of South India. They settled down in Melaka during the Melaka Sultanate in the 16th century. These Tamil settlers married Malay, Chinese and Javanese women, giving birth to the hybrid community known as Indian Peranakan, or Chetti.

Their traditional dressing is similar to that worn by the Malays and the more well-known Baba Peranakan. The women’s traditional costume is baju kebaya, comprising a sheer embroidered blouse and batik sarong.

Chetti men wear a fusion of Malay and Indian clothes in the form of kurta, shawl and sarong. A headdress called talapa, made from batik, completes their traditional wear.

At home, the Chetties speak Malay, which is their mother tongue, instead of South Indian languages like Tamil and Telegu.

Melaka Chitty women wear baju kebaya while the mens attire include kurta, sarong, shawl and traditional headdress (talapa).
Melaka Chetti women wear baju kebaya while the men’s attire include kurta, sarong, shawl and talapa (traditional headdress).

The Chetti cuisine also reflects the assimilation of different cultures.

“Our dishes use a blend of Malay herbs and spices. Our favourite dish is lauk ikan parang pindang, made with coconut milk, lemongrass and turmeric.

“Another favourite dish is sambal telur ikan masak belimbing buluh, a hearty dish made with fish roe, lemongrass and ground chilli. My children love to eat dishes like asam pedas and kangkung masak lemak,” says Devi, a 62-year-old mother of five.

The Chetti’s celebratory dish is nasi lemak and kangkung, which they serve on special and auspicious occasions.

Devi’s family is one of only 20 Chetti families who still reside in the Chetti settlement in Kampung Tujuh, on Jalan Gajah Berang in Melaka. Some live in other parts of Melaka or have moved elsewhere in Malaysia or abroad.

Marriage out of the community has also resulted in the Chetti’s dwindling population.

Devi Pitchay serves a mix of Indian and Malay food like thosai, chicken curry and roti jala at Deepavali.

Family Togetherness

Like the Chinese Peranakan, the Indian Peranakan have retained their religion and its traditional rites, even though they have accepted Malay influences in other aspects of their daily and cultural lives.

“We have an altar in our home and pray to all the Hindu deities. Our beliefs are reflected in the Santhana Dharma which means eternal path of faith and truth,” says Devi.

Deepavali is the Chetti’s most important celebrations, and Devi’s family has gathered in Melaka to prepare for the festivities.

“We serve a combination of Indian and Malay dishes during Deepavali. They include roti jala, chicken curry, steamed nasi lemak and thosai. Our snacks and cookies comprise Indian favourites like murukku, omapodi, athirasam and Malay treats such as wajik, dodol, biskut semprit and kuih bangkit,” says Devi.

Her four daughters Sharmmila, Kavishalinee, Vilashanee and Kogela, have all come home to help her make the cookies and snacks. Their aunt, Devi’ sister, Tialamah Pitchay, 67, has also joined them.

Tialamah (right) and Devi making murukku.

“My elder sister and Vilashanee travelled from Singapore while Kavishalinee and Sharmmila drove back from KL after work. The house feels so lively with their chatter and laughter,” says Devi, who lives in their 100-year-old wooden home with her mother Sakuntalai Subramanian.

The widow looks forward to the days leading up to Deepavali as her family is together.

Each person is tasked with different jobs.

Tialamah shapes the murukku dough – made from urad dhal, rice flour and spices – into spirals, and Devi helps to fry them into crunchy golden brown treats.

Kavishalinee takes charge of mixing the peanut biscuit dough while her siblings roll the mixture into perfect round balls.

Every year, they prepare between seven and 10 types of cookies and snacks.

Devi is pleased her children have returned home to help with their Deepavali preparations as they can also learn their unique Chetti recipes, the same way she learnt them from her 90-year-old mother.

The most sought-after Deepavali treat in this Chetti household is something that Devi is most proud of – her freshly-baked kuih bolu (kuih bahulu), a light and fluffy madeleine-like cake.

Neighbours will know when she is making her kuih bolu because of the tantalising aroma that wafts through the air.

Traditional baking tools for kuih bolu, love letters and roti jala are must-haves in Melaka Chetti kitchens.

“People enjoy my homemade kuih bolu. I make it the tradtional way.

“I still beat the eggs, sugar and flour with a hand-held spring whisk in an earthern pot. While making kuih bolu is time-consuming, I don’t mind as it is one of my children’s favourite cakes.

“Despite the availability of store-bought cookies, I am thankful they are willing and have the interest to learn how to make these traditional items from scratch,” says Devi.

True To Their Traditions

On Deepavali eve, Devi’s daughters will prepare the kolam on their porch. Bright-coloured rice flour is used for motifs such as flowers, and decorated with diyas (clay oil lamps) and kuthu vilaku (brass oil lamp).

“Traditionally, rice flour is used to design the kolam. It is believed the flour becomes food for ants and birds.

“It helps to create the act of giving and sense of harmony among humans and animals,” says Devi’s second daughter Vilashanee.

The house is spruced up, with new curtains and cushion covers to usher in the Festival of Lights.

A clean house is believed to bring in good luck from Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and fortune.

Family members seek blessings from their elders on Deepavali morning.

On Deepavali morning, Devi and her family will wake up at 6am for an oil bath using gingely oil.

“The gingely oil bath helps to purify the mind and soul and reduce body heat. A herbal rub called shikakai powder is used to wash hair. We make it a point to wear new clothes on Deepavali day. It symbolises prosperity,” Vilashanee explains.

After seeking blessings from her grandmother, Vilashanee and her family will walk to the 200-year-old Sri Maha Mariamman temple for prayers.

The temple is one of three Hindu temples in their village.

“A coconut offering (thengai archanai) is done at the temple. It is for the purification of the soul and good luck.

“The breaking of the coconut symbolises breaking of one’s ego before the deities,” explains Vilashanee, who is a postal officer in Singapore.

The Chetti community's festive table reflects their heritage of assimilating Malay influences in their cooking.

After their prayers, the family returns home to prepare a sumptuous lunch for close friends and family members.

Although it is a busy celebration, Devi looks forward to Deepavali every year. The hustle and bustle only adds to the festivities.

“Deepavali is all about the spirit of merry-making, family togetherness and purification of the soul. It is also about illuminating the Chitty community’s legacy for generations to come.”

Besides Deepavali, the Chetti community also observe other Indian festivals like Navarathri (festival of nine sacred days), Parchu Bhogi (held a day before the Tamil harvest festival, Ponggal) and Parchu buah-buahan (held during the fruit season in June and July).

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