Photos: Indians in Malaysia


Statue of Lord Murugan at the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia is home to some of the most significant modern Hindu facilities outside South Asia.
All photos by Preston Merchant

The Batu Caves complex is home to a number of shrines inside vast limestone amphitheaters at the top of a mountain.

Shrines at the base of the Batu Caves

A bus driver, Mr. Govindasamy has lived in this house, built by his father, for 45 years. Nearby property development has turned the area into a slum. The land was owned by the Batu Cave temple corporation, who sold it to a developer, who has in turn evicted the family. Refusing to leave, they squat in their family home.

The Subramaniam family lives on a former rubber plantation, where Mr. Subramaniam worked as a rubber tapper. When the estate was parceled and sold to developers, the workers were fired. They are supposed to receive a compensation package based on their tenure. Since the Subramaniams have not been paid, they refuse to vacate their home, which is their only leverage.

Candlelight protest in Kuala Lumpur against the Internal Security Act (ISA).

Evening in Brickfields, one of KL’s Indian shopping districts.

The Petronas Towers

A. Sivanesan, a labor lawyer turned political activist, spends his weekends speaking in temples and gatherings throughout Malaysia, raising money for the families of the HINDRAF 5.

Sivanesan speaks.

Prayers for the HINDRAF 5.

A rally for the PAS, the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party. An opposition party, the PAS gained support from Indians and Chinese, most of whom are not Muslims, after the Nov. 25 violent crackdown on the Indian protest organized by HINDRAF. Non-Muslims see the PAS as one of several alternatives to the Barisan Nasional (National Front or BN), which has ruled Malaysia since independence and promotes Malay-first policies that discriminate against minorities.

Lim Kit Siang, leader of the Democratic Action Party, the largest opposition party in Malaysia’s parliament: “The continued marginalization of the Malaysian Indians will become an international issue, even more so for the Indian diaspora with a population close to Malaysia’s population – over 20 million.”

At the Rumah Kebajikan Anbu Illam Home for Underprivileged Boys.

With the demise of the rubber plantations, which began in the late 1960s, the main employer and social safety net for Malaysia’s Indians has been destroyed. Homes and livelihoods are gone, the government provides no support, and the unskilled and semi-skilled are forced to move into low-paying jobs like driving trucks for hire.

Krishnamara (80), Saraswathy (70), Saraswathy (53), Mahalaxmi (60), and Silachama (75) at a private old folks home in Kuala Lumpur.

Madurai Veeran shrine at a scrapyard.

Puja at the Madurai Veeran shrine, built by the owner of a scrap metal shop.

18 thoughts on “Photos: Indians in Malaysia

  1. my batu caves… every time i visit KL i make a sure stop to see this place..the first time i went was in 1987… the statue of Lord Murugan wasnt’ there then… hopefully when you walked up the steps you saw the sadhu with the longest matted hair i’ve EVER seen ..stay safe preston, and thanks for sharing!

  2. 1 · chick pea said

    my batu caves… every time i visit KL i make a sure stop to see this place..the first time i went was in 1987… the statue of Lord Murugan wasnt’ there then…

    I don’t recall the statue from when I visited the Batu Caves in 1989 either.

    Your coverage continues to fascinate, Preston. I appreciate the news about how some of the Malaysian Muslim population is addressing anti-Tamil discrimination.

    Are Lat’s cartoons still everywhere?

  3. Thats a great post. Just last night I was watching Anthony Bourdain’s show on Malaysia (I beleive its a re-run). He covered this temple and I was intrigued and now your coverage. Thanks to you both.

  4. Fascinating pictures. It is sad to see “development” mess up the lives of those in their path…

  5. Wow! These are some sick photos. Like they belong on a national magazine or something. I want more! Go to Trinidad next, Preston! j/k

  6. Photos are okay. Seems like something you would see in a National Geographic. I have been to Malaysia a couple of times and it is okay there but I hear they treat poorer indians badly and they destroy temples.

  7. Great pictures, Preston! Nice work.

    But Nina P:

    I appreciate the news about how some of the Malaysian Muslim population is addressing anti-Tamil discrimination.

    That’s actually not accurate and I don’t think it’s what Preston meant to suggest. PAS isn’t addressing anti-Tamil discrimination, as far as I know, and if they are feigning interest in the plight of non-Muslim Indians, I’m sure most Indians and Chinese know it’s only for politically expedient reasons — PAS is not a party that will do anything for non-Muslim Indian (or Chinese) interests. They’re a fundamentalist Muslim party — a bunch of horrifying fanatics — and their leaders have spoken in favour of imposing Sharia law on all Malaysian citizens if elected. Support for PAS from Hindu Indians and Chinese is a form of protest and nothing more — a way to show for them to show just how disenchanted they are with the party that’s been in power for 50 years.

  8. @ Nina P: Thanks. The Murugan statue went up in January 2006.

    @ BSG: Canon 30D with 10-22 lens.

    @ shlok: I was in Trinidad in 2003.

    @ Sadaiyappan: Indians face legal and illegal discrimination, as the government promotes Bumiputra (“sons of the soil”) policies that favor the Malays, who consider themselves the native, superior, and rightful people of Malaysia (yes, there is irony in the fact that Bumiputra is a Sanskrit word and is also used on the subcontinent in a different context). The legal discrimination comes from policies that reserve government jobs for Malays and from business laws that require percentage Malay equity stake in all companies, to name two examples. The illegal discrimination comes from the fact that crimes against Indians go uninvestigated; racial hiring quotas in government, university seats, and in the awarding of business licenses rarely give Indians their due; and every Indian here has tales of major and minor slights — from Bumiputra business partners cheating them with impunity to school children denied ranks in class, even when their grades are superior.

    Temple destruction is the issue, though, that has mobilized the Indian community (and now minority communities generally) after the Nov. 25 HINDRAF rally, which was suppressed by the government. The phrase, though, should be clarified. In India, when you read about “temple destruction,” the perpetrators are an angry mob and the incident is communal. In Malaysia, temples are destroyed by property developers. Rubber estates, which used to dominate Malaysia, all featured Hindu temples for their workers, who were almost exclusively Indian and Sri Lankan Tamils (this is why Malaysia has such a cultural storehouse of Hinduism–many of the temples date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries). As the estates have been broken up over the last 30 years, the land has been sold and developed. Often there are no Indians left in the area and the temple is unused. The government is supposed to offer alternative land for the temple and the opportunity to move it; or at least sufficient time to relocate the deities with the appropriate rites. In practice, however, some temples just get bulldozed. So most Indians hear or read about temples being destroyed somewhere in Malaysia — but these are usually not the ones they worship in (not that this excuses the practice).

    The other big factor in mobilizing the Indian communities recently is that the Malaysian Indian Congress — an Indian party that has been part of the governing coalition since independence — has not been able to stop temple destruction. Its leader Samy Vellu, one of Malaysia’s longest serving members of parliament, said he would stop the practice, but the government just ignored him (it was seen as a sign of his, and the party’s general ineffectiveness). So Indians are looking elsewhere for leadership. Samy Vellu went to Chennai recently, where state officials refused to meet him (here is what Lim Kit Siang wrote about his trip).

  9. Preston, thanks for your comments, especially the backdrop to the destruction of the temples.

  10. Seems like the Indian community is big enough where they actually have a Malaysian Idol ad where a Punjabi and a South Indian square off in some kind of standoff.