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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Little India (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Kuala Lumpur is unusual in that as well as having a large and flamboyant Chinatown, it is also blessed with a bustling Little India neighborhood to complement it. The only other city in the world that I think of which has both a Chinatown and a Little India is Singapore, an hour's flight south of KL. But while Singapore's Little India neighborhood, based around Rowell Street, has become gentrified in recent years, KL's Little India remains rugged and raw. It has an edge, and that's what gives it a charm. I won't say it's dangerous, but it's definitely edgy. It is also home to some of the finest dining experiences to be had in Malaysia, some of the most memorable odors, and plenty of shops. If you want to feel what India (particularly south India) is like but you don't have the courage to go there, visit Kuala Lumpur instead. And if you are an Indian tourist holidaying in Malaysia, it is almost compulsory for you to visit Little India KL. For Indians and non-Indians, Malaysians and non-Malaysians, the place has interest and allure by the bucketload.

Before going on too much further, there is a contradiction which needs to be addressed: what exactly is Little India? and where is it? According to Adrian Logan, over the years both the Masjid India/Lebuh Ampang area and Brickfields have vied to hold the title of Little India. While Brickfields is traditionally associated with the local Indian population (and has the most personality, in my opinion), the Masjid India/Lebuh Ampang area is in the heart of Kuala Lumpur's city centre (and is thus convenient for tourists.) Both areas are a hive of activity during the traditional Hindu celebrations like Deepavali. Many argue that Brickfields should be given the honour to become "Little India", a fact acknowledged by City Hall, which intends to recognize the Masjid India/Lebuh Ampang precinct as a "Malay Street" instead. One Malaysian I encountered online, szehoong, explained it this way: "KL had 2 Little Indias. One is the area around Masjid India which is more of a fusion but then again the area next to it is purely Indian and not Indian Muslims which Masjid India is ;) Brickfields is the closest we could get to the actual Little India. The problem is that Jalan Travers is kinda wide and it separates the place into 2! :(."

Another Malaysian, Argory, argues that there in fact three Little India's in KL! "And if you can't choose either," Argory says, "it's good to know that they're all connected by train. The three Little India's are:

"1. Masjid India -- Lebuh Ampang (Masjid Jamek LRT).

"2. Brickfields (KL Sentral LRT, KTM Komuter and Monorail).

"3. Klang (Klang Station KTM Komuter). The little India in Klang is about 5 minutes walk from Klang Station, so it's quite convenient if you prefer not do drive la. ;)"
But wherever Little India is (and perhaps it is deep down just a state of mind, wherever you wish to find it), one thing is sure: Brickfields is a well cool place, kind of like a desolate industrial town from the North of England in the 1800s, dropped into the middle of the jungle. I once spent a pleasant half an hour or so trudging around a temple I found on the side of the rail line (see here.) This was my dream of the perfect South Asian experience, and one fellow visitor to Brickfields, writing on her blog, apparently felt the same: "Last night, I dreamt that I was in India. My hotel room was facing this massive Hindu temple - gods and goddess in elaborate poses and colours. Looking down, I could watch the busy streetlife: the loud vendors, rushing passer-bys, the congested traffic, the noise, the smells - all were vivid. I wanted to take a couple of photos of the people but whenever I raised the camera up, I was met with angry stares.

Indian deity, as seen in Chinatown Kuala Lumpur, near where I was staying (Malaysia, 2005)
"I think my dream was influenced by the fact that I am currently staying in Brickfields for the weekend. There is a very significant proportion of Indians living here that it's become a stereotype - "you're Indian? Do you live in Brickfields?". For the Indian food lover, it's a delight although I must say that Indian food in KL so far have disappointed me."

Talking of the angry stares -- I must add that I when I spent 30 minutes traipsing through the aforementioned Brickfields Tamil temple, taking loads of photos, I did receive the odd angry glance and grimace. Perhaps Brickfields is not the best place to take happy snaps of folks. I had much more luck taking street photos in Mumbai in India proper, but that's another story.

Anyway, Little India as it is traditionally known, expands around Jalan Masjid India, its heady and hedonic heart. It basically covers the area between Jalan Bunus and Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. One of the oldest streets in the city, Jalan Masjid India takes its name from a mosque (masjid) built in 1870. At the time tin mining was booming in Malaysia, and Indian Muslims were swarming to the region for work. Over time, they built up a community around the India Mosque.

Today, the atmosphere is still swarming. If you visit, expect to find plenty of shops selling saris, Indian silver tableware, perfumed oils, sandalwood oil, and so on, and on. Since the majority of the products on sale here are imported from India, the smells and sights are pretty much what you would expect to find in Chennai, although the air is cleaner and the traffic regulations more strictly enforced than they are in Tamil Nadu. And they don't have five foot ways in India, but they are everywhere in Kuala Lumpur. If you want to get your fortune read you can get your fortune read. Indian palmistry is a big deal here, just as it is in Singapore. I once sought the advice of an Indian palmist in Little India Singapore, and some of his predictions have already come true. He told me that I would have two wives, and one of them would always berate me, always shout at me... but would love me very much. She has already come into my life -- the prediction has been fulfilled, and that is why I respect Indian palmistry.

Tamil skyline, Brickfields (Malaysia, 2005)
A name often says so much about the history or origin of a place; Kuala Lumpur for example means "Muddy Estuary", and you can still see the mud in the Klang River today. How do you think Brickfields got its name? Yes, that's right -- they used to grow bricks there! Seriously. Old-time Brickfields' resident Kaulsalya said: "The area was the centre for brick making in the early days when the whole area was a clay pit with cows grazing everywhere. Brickfields produced the best bricks as good quality bricks is made from clay."

For those interested in spirituality and a higher meaning to life, you might just find your salvation in Brickfields. One of the streets here, Jalan Berhala, must rank as one of the great centers of Eastern religion. On Jalan Berhala you will find the Buddhist Maha Vihara Temple, the Arulmegu Sree Veera Hanuman Temple, the Sri Sakthi Vinayagar Temple, the Lutheran Church and the Three Teachings Chinese Temple. For an excellent and photo essay about the Maha Vihara Temple, click here. The temple is located at 123 Jalan Berhala (phone: (03) 2273 0150, email:

At nearby 2 Jalan Chan Ah Thong in Brickfields can be found a Buddhist institution called WAVE -- that's short for the Wisdom Audio Visual Exchange. WAVE has an extensive catalog of Dhamma books for free distribution, with titles by such authors as Ajaan Lee, Ajaan Chah, Mahasi Sayadaw, and many others. If you want to get in contact with them or see what they do, phone them on (03) 2274 9509 or email them at

One of the great shopping institutions in Malaysia is the ubiqitious pasar malam, or night market. Naturally, there is one in Brickfields which you ought to check out if you have the chance. Usually held once a week, the pasar malam starts at about 6pm and goes right up till 11pm. This is the archetypal Asian bazaar, dominated by incredible bustle, vibrant sights and tons of interlocking scents and smells. Basically what happens is this: little vans and trucks pull up along a designated street, unload their wares and spread them across several makeshift tables. That is it. You want something on the cheap? You'll find it here, from groceries, clothing, toys, food, accessories, CDs, household items to the latest fads. Naturally, bargaining is mandatory, if you want to get the best value for your precious ringgit.

Holy pantheon, in Little India, Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia, 2005)
Virtual Malaysia reports: "One of the best reasons to come here would be to savour the various Indian snacks, such as vadai, stringhoppers and appum, all freshly made on the spot. There's even a Punjabi food stall with authentic, freshly made chappati, prata and sweetmeats. Not everything at this night market is Indian, though. You can still get your Malay and Chinese food fix with delicious char kueh teow, yong tau foo, tau foo far, lol-lok and nasi lemak.

For a detailed account of the Indian dining possibilities in Kuala Lumpur, click here. There are Indian eateries scattered across Kuala Lumpur, but here we are concentrating on the Indian restaurants in Little India. And the selection is:

Restoran Gopala: 59 Jalan Thambypillai, Brickfields.
This is a Hare Krishna joint in the heart of Brickfields. The cooking rules are so strict here, no onion nor garlic is allowed. And while there may be items called sambal fish, mutton masala and spicy stir-fried chicken on the menu, there is no actual meat anywhere on the plate. That's right, it's all soy. This eatery is located at Jalan Thambypillai, which is one row behind the Post Office in Jalan Tun Sambanthan.
Open daily from 7am to 1am.

Vidya Curry House: Brickfields.
This place serves any number of authentic Indian dishes including chicken, mutton, vegetable and fish biryanis. You can also dine on chicken 65, chilly chicken, black pepper chicken, black pepper fish, cauliflower Manchurian, deep-fried chicken and fish, squid masala, prawn and egg sambal, omelette, fish head curry, chicken curry and mutton curry, and so on, and on.
Lunch and dinners range from about RM4.50 to RM8 per person.
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