Orang Melayu: The story of Sri Lanka's Malay folks by Asiff Hussein (Explore Sri Lanka)

Renowned for their martial prowess and happy go-lucky attitude, Sri Lanka"s Malay folk have but a relatively short history in the country, albeit a very fascinating one.

This small Muslim community which comprises of about 50,000 persons are mainly descended from Javanese political exiles (nobles and chieftains), soldiers and convicts, who arrived in the island from Dutch-occupied Java during the period of Dutch colonial rule in Sri Lanka from 1658 " 1796.

Although the vast majority of Sri Lankan Malays are of Javanese ancestry, there are also considerable numbers descended from the folk of other islands in the Indonesian archipelago such as the Balinese, Tidorese, Madurese, Sundanese, Bandanese and Amboinese.

Thus the ethnic term "Malay" should not be misconstrued as indicating their origin from the Malayan peninsula. Although there do exist Sri Lankan Malays descended from the folk of the Malayan peninsula, their numbers are very few indeed.

The local Malays refer to themselves as orang Java (people of Java) and orang Melayu (Malay people) while the majority Sinhalese community call them Ja-minissu (Javanese people).

Indonesian political exiles comprised a significant portion of the early Malay population brought hither by the Dutch.

These exiles posed a serious political threat to the Dutch East India company (or "vereenigde oost indische compagnie", known as the VOC for short) which had its headquarters in Batavia (the Dutch name for Jakarta).

Sri Lanka and the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa were the principal centres of banishment for such exiles.

According to B.A. Hussainmiya (Lost cousins, the Malays of Sri Lanka. 1987) there must have been at least 200 members of this eastern nobility including the younger members of aristocratic families born in the island, in the latter part of the 18th century.

This is indeed a significant number considering the fact that during this time, the entire Malay population in the island amounted to about 2400 persons.

However, during the early British period, Governor Maitland (1805 " 1811) who believed the exiles to be "a great pecuniary burden to the colonial revenue, besides being a danger to the British interests in the island", took measures to expel them.

Although the Dutch authorities in Batavia were reluctant to take back the exiles, Maitland"s threat that he would forcibly "send them in one his Majesty"s cruises to the Eastward to be landed among these islands", sufficed to change their minds. However, a few exiles who had espoused local women stayed back and gave rise to a small community of Malays claiming aristocratic status.

However, it was the Malay soldiers brought hither by the Dutch to garrison their strongholds, who comprised the bulk of the Malay community in the island. By the turn of the 18th century, there were about 2200 Malay soldiers in the island.

Malay troops are said to have taken part in the wars of the Dutch against the Portuguese such as the storming of Galle (1640), the siege of Colombo (1656) and the capture of Jaffna (1658).

The Malays also served in the Dutch wars against the Kandyan Kingdom (17th "18th centuries). With the surrender of the Dutch to the British in 1796, the Malay soldiers were absorbed by the British military, and so served them as they had done their predecessors, the Dutch.

The British authorities who were not unaware of the martial prowess of the Malays, imported over 400 Madurese soldiers and about 228 Javanese soldiers along with their families from 1813 " 1816. This was during the brief period of British rule over Java from 1811 " 1816. Following the Dutch takeover of Java in 1816, the British had to turn elsewhere for the supply of Malay soldiers and set up recruiting offices, which were however a miserable failure.

Captain Tranchell"s mission (1856 " 1857) which travelled extensively in the East Indies including stopovers in Brunei, Lubuan, Pahang and Kelatan, managed to recruit only seven Malays, which prompted a contemporary British officer, Cowan, to remark:

"The expedition and the expenditure as compared with the proceeds of it must show these four of five (Malay recruits) to be about the most expensive in the British army." He says that everyone of them were subsequently set at liberty as they were physically unfit for fighting when they arrived at headquarters.

As for convicts, these comprised petty officials and commoners deported by the VOC. However, these were very few compared to the soldiers. It has been shown that in 1731, there were 131 of these convicts serving the VOC in Sri Lanka, besides those convicts serving in the army and those who had been set free.

Although it appears that the majority of Malays did not bring their womenfolk with them, there is evidence to show that a good many of them did.

Christopher Schwitzer, a German resident of Dutch Ceylon alludes (1680) to Amboinese soldiers in the Dutch service who had Amboinese Sinhalese, and Tamil wives, so that we may assume that some of the Malays, especially the soldiery, brought their wives with them.

However, as borne out by later Dutch records, the Malays preferred to marry local Moor women, due to their common religious background. Intermarriage with Sinhalese women has however also been considerable since the 19th century. It is for this reason that local Malays somewhat differ physically from their brethren in the Indonesian archipelago.

As for Malay culture, we know that the Malay language (known to local Malays as "bahasa Melayu") is still a living one and is spoken in Malay homes, though there is evidence to show that it is being fast replaced by Sinhala.

The local Malay language which somewhat differs from standard Indonesian (bahasa Indonesia) and standard Malaysian (bahasa Malaysia) was however a thriving one in the olden days, so much so that two Malay newspapers, Alamat Lankapuri and Wajah Selong in Arabic script (known to local Malays as the Gundul script) were published in the latter part of the 19th century.

As Hussainmiya (Lost cousins 1987) has noted, Sri Lanka"s Malays have belonged to a fairly literate society. Although a great part of their literature, which includes "Hikayats" (prose works) and "Syairs" (works in verse) have had their origins from classical Malay works popular throughout the Malay world, a considerable number of such works have had their origins amongst the local Malay community.

The Hikayats which have derived from Arabian, Persian, Indian and Javanese sources, comprise of fantastic tales including romances, legends and epics. Some of the notable Hikayats found in Sri Lanka are the Hikayat Amir Hamzah, Hikayat Isma Yatim and Hikayat Indera Kuraisy. According to Hussainmiya (1987) the Hikayat Indera Kuraisy is peculiar to Sri Lanka.

This fantastic Malay romance, which is interspersed with pantuns (traditional Malay quatrains) relate the adventures of the hero Indera Kuraisy who departs from his homeland Sarmadan in order to win the heart of the inapproachable princess, Indera Kayangan. The Syairs are Malay classic poetry that have for long captured the fancy of local Malay folk.

Two notable local syairs are the syair syaikh Fadlun, a romance-epic narrating the story of the pious Fadlun who lived in Arabia during the times of the Caliph Omar, and the syair Kisahnya Khabar Orang Wolenter Bengali which describes the armed skirmish between Malay and Bengali soldiers in Colombo on New Years Day 1819. These Hikayats and Syairs were also written in the Gundul script.

However, despite attempts at reviving the Malay language, it is fast dying out and giving way to Sinhala. The vast majority of vernacular- educated Malay youth today speak Sinhala at home.

In spite of all this, it can still be said that the local Malays have been much more conservative than their brethren domiciled in South Africa (Cape Malays) who have had similar beginnings but have ceased to speak that Malay language long ago (as far back as the 19th century, as evident from John Mason"s "Malays of Cape Town" 1861). This is despite the fact that the Cape Malays constitute a community three times as large as the Sri Lankan Malay community.

There have of course been numerous attempts at reviving the local Malay language and culture by such organizations as the Sri Lanka Malay Confederation, an umbrella organization of the local Malay community.

The second Malay world symposium held in Colombo in August 1985, and co-sponsored by the Malay Confederation and Gapena, the Malaysian Writers Federation, is a case in point.

To this day, the Malays have jealously retained certain aspects of their culture, examples being the honorific Tuan which precedes the names of Malay males, their family names, social customs and culinary habits.

Today there exist many Malay family names that have fiercely resisted the inroads made by Islamic Arab names; these include Jaya, Bongso, Tumarto, Kitchil, Kuttilan, Kuncheer and Singa Laksana.

Although Malay social customs such as those pertaining to births, circumcisions and marriages are not significantly different from those of their Moorish co-religionists, there nevertheless do exist a few practices that do differ. A practice peculiar to the Malays until fairly recent times was the singing of pantuns on such festive occasions.

The Malays have also retained some of their traditional fare such as nasi goreng (Fried rice), satay and Malay Kueh (cakes and puddings). Pittu (rice-cake) and babath (tripe) is another favourite dish that has found much favour amongst other communities as well.

Traditional Malay dress has however ceased to exist for some time. Local Malay women, like their Moorish sisters, dress in sari (Indian-style with a hood left at the back to cover the head when going outdoors) instead of the traditional Malay Baju and Kurung.

However, it is possible that the sarong which Malay men as well as those of other communities wear at home is a recent introduction from the archipelago.

It appears that in the olden days, Sinhalese, Moor and Tamil folk wore a lower garment similar to the Indian dhoti and not exactly the same garment we know as the sarong, whose name itself is of Malay origin.

The arts of batik printing and rattan weaving, both lucrative cottage industries in the country, also owe their origins to the Malay.