Chetti Melaka: A Celebration of Diversity in Singapore

The Chetti Melaka share an affinity with three major racial groups in Singapore — the Chinese, Malays and Indians — which Ryan Mahindapala says perfectly captures the essence of what it means to be Singaporean.

  • 4 Nov 2022

A photo of Ryan and his mother, both donned in traditional Chetti Melaka costume.

‘Hybrid’ isn’t usually the first word that comes to mind when discussing one’s cultural roots, but for 30-year-old Ryan Mahindapala, it’s a word he feels best describes his Chetti Melaka heritage.

The Chetti Melaka community first originated when the South Indian traders arrived in Malacca (then Melaka) during the 15th century and intermarried with the local Chinese and Malay women. Later in the early 20th century, many of them migrated and found employment at other cities, including Singapore, under the British civil service.

For the community, also known as Peranakan Indians, celebrating a diversity of religious and cultural beliefs is at the heart of what it means to be Chetti Melaka.

“It is really about being inclusive and open to the customs and practices of other ethnic groups in Singapore,” he adds.

Ryan shares that the Chetti Melaka not only share a convergence of different faiths, but also possess their own unique set of traditions, attire and food.

Even so, many are not aware of the Peranakan Indian community, which is something he hopes to change.

A feast for the family

Growing up in a large family of Chetti Melaka meant that every festival would be a grand occasion for Ryan.

Aside from Deepavali, Ryan fondly remembers his extended family coming together for the Parachu festival – a ceremony of prayers and offerings to ancestors, usually held in January and July every year.

A Chetti Melaka feast typically served during the Parachu festival. Pictured in the frames are Ryan's maternal grandparents.

Part of the festivities include tucking into traditional Chetti Melaka food, something that Ryan thoroughly enjoyed as a child as he remembers piling up all the fixings on banana leaves.

His late grandmother would prepare the family feast weeks in advance and the menu comprised a blend of Indian, Malay and Peranakan Chinese cuisines.

A photo of Ikan Pindang, which consists of fish in coconut and tamarind curry, served with Timun Santan, a salad made of cucumber and coconut milk.

The spread would include Ayam Buah Keluak (chicken curry), Pulut Inti (steamed glutinous rice with sweet coconut topping), Tepung Gomak (glutinous rice flour snack) and his all-time favourite, Ikan Pindang (fish in coconut and tamarind curry).

Dato Chachar is another festival that is commemorated by the Chetti Melaka community. The 12-day long celebration, usually held in April or May, is dedicated to Mariamman – the Hindu goddess of rain.

Ryan’s relatives regularly make the pilgrimage to their Chetti kampong in Malacca to celebrate this festival and he hopes to be able to join them one day.

Familiar fabrics with a twist

One of the defining features of Chetti Melaka attire is the traditional talapa, a piece of headgear worn by the men that bears visual similarities to the songkok worn by Malay men.

The talapa comes in various flowery Batik prints with striking colours. It can be differentiated from the songkok as it has a triangular piece of fabric pointing down near the middle of the wearer’s forehead.

A photo of Ryan's talapa, a traditional Chetti Melaka headgear.

This headgear is often worn during special occasions and festivities. Ryan’s talapa was gifted to him during an event organised by the Peranakan Indian (Chitty Melaka) Association of Singapore in 2019.

For Chetti Melaka women, the baju kurung and sarong kebaya are commonly worn as their traditional attire.

Preserving a native tongue

The Chetti Melaka speak Chetti creole – a language that includes a mix of Malay, Tamil and Chinese words – and it is fast becoming a thing of the past. Today, the majority of those who speak it fluently are among the elders of the community.

In Ryan’s family, their shared language is passed down from one generation to the next through pantun or Malay poems.

During family gatherings when he was younger, Ryan’s grandmother would often recite pantuns that enthralled him and his cousins.

“She used to improvise poems in Malay and recite them on the spot. It was really amazing,” he adds.
Pantun  Translation
Mari kita main dan bersambut hari jadi kawan kita
Kanak-kanak amat gembira, senyuman di wajah mereka
Matahari bersinar terang hari ini
Kanak-kanak akan bermain sepanjang hari
Let’s play and celebrate our friend’s birthday 
The children are very happy with a smile on their faces
The sun is shining brightly today
The children will keep playing the whole day
Hari ini kita akan mendengar cerita

Cerita tentang kerja keras nenek moyang kita

Mesti mencontohi mereka dan sentiasa setia

Supaya budaya kita hidup dan hati ria
Today we are going to hear a story

A story about the hard work of our forefathers

We must follow their example and always be faithful

So that our culture is alive, and hearts are happy 
Angkat periuk! Angkat kuali!
Kacau kuah! Kacau kari!
Kita kena hidang ramai orang!
Cepat, jangan berhenti,
waktu makan malam akan tiba tidak lama lagi!
Lift the pot! Lift the frying pan!
Stir the gravy! Stir the curry!
We need to serve many people!
Quick, do not stop,
dinner time is coming soon!
Pantuns written by Ryan, inspired by his grandmother and his memories of her.

Keeping a shared history alive

To ensure that certain aspects of the Chetti Melaka culture aren’t lost to history, Ryan volunteered at the Peranakan Indian Association where he gained a deeper understanding of his heritage.

“It was through the Association that my appreciation of being a Peranakan Indian took full shape,” he quips.

One of the ongoing projects that he’s particularly excited about is a cookbook of Chetti Melaka recipes. Ryan was able to turn to his aunt, who was a helpful source of information for their family’s recipes.

A photo of Ryan's grandmother and cousins. He is the baby that is being carried.

Despite his efforts, Ryan and many others of the Chetti Melaka community remain concerned that the younger generation aren’t taking as much of an interest in their own heritage as they could.

However, Ryan remains optimistic that fellow Chetti Melaka can connect with their roots if they venture out to learn from sources that are readily available to them.

While there are exhibitions at the Indian Heritage Centre and Asian Civilisation Museum for them to learn more, Ryan shares that meeting other Chetti Melaka as a volunteer of the association is also a good place to start.

“The opportunities to learn more about your heritage are always there. The people in the community will always be happy to impart their knowledge.”

To learn more about Chetti Melaka culture, watch our video where we play a game of ‘Fact or Cap?’ here: