The establishment of British rule in Penang and Province Wellesley, in 1786 and 1800 respectively, provided the impetus for the arrival of South Indians. The first group to arrive in Penang together with Francis Light, were domestic servants, sepoys*, and camp-followers**.
The development of two key export industries namely tin mining and rubber plantations led to further migration of Indians as many townships emerged all over the West Coast of Malaya. Among them were the Chettiar business community noted for their devotion to Murugan and the zeal to build and maintain temples. Originating from the Chettinad region in the South Indian State of Tamil Nadu, the Nattukottai Chettiars (or Nagarathars) were among the earliest immigrants to arrive in Teluk Anson (now Teluk Intan). They were largely traders, merchant bankers and money lenders and many of the money lenders ran their businesses in a long shop-house called kittangis.
As in India, they first set up a basic shrine within their business premises to which prayers were offered before any transactions of the day were carried out. Subsequently, in the late 1890s a formal temple was established. According to The Perak Pioneer dated 16th September 1899, it stated that:
“The Hindus in Lower Perak have reason to congratulate themselves. A year or two ago they were without a place of worship. Now they have a temple of their own and is said to have cost more than 5000 Straits Dollars chiefly raised by the Chettiar community through the efforts of S.T. Somasundram Chettiar and M.N. Muthukaruppan Chettiar, local money lenders.”
The temple is called Sri Thendayuthapani Temple, commonly referred to as the Chettiars’ Temple and is dedicated to Murugan, the Hindu deity who is also known as Sri Thendayuthapani. This temple stands as a living testament to the Chettiars’ contribution to Teluk Anson’s colonial economy. In today’s estimate the original cost of the temple then would be about RM 375,000.
While initially, the temple was meant as a private place of worship for the Chettiar Community, over the years it gradually opened its doors to other Hindus from the wider Indian community. Based on a South Indian design that features elements that are typical of Chettiar architecture, a local architect Chen Voon Fee offers the following description in HRH Raja Nazrin Shah’s book, “Landmarks of Perak”:
“The temple has changed little since the 19th century. The entrance is topped not by usual gopuram (entrance tower) as seen on Hindu Temples but by a pillared temple façade with side shrines and a row of standing figures arranged by height. The pillars support a roof decorated by a central figure of a many–armed deity in a dance pose. The front lean – to roof forms a verandah, above which is a row of seven windows, each framed by paired attached columns carrying a strong cornice with a balustrade. Wing-shaped vines and leaves with central finials accent each pair of columns on the balustrade. On the left a tall building with high doors stores the deity carriage, used for annual celebrations.
Nothing of the building’s exterior prepares the visitor for the inside. The reticent front opens into a pillared hall with a polished terrazzo floor. Light floods into the open main prayer space through rows of columns with carved capitals carrying dark polished timber beams. Over the ceiling span richly carved timber joists – fine woodwork is a typical feature of Chettiar temple architecture.
The Chettiar temple plan does not differ from that of traditional South Indian temples. The garbagraham (sanctuary) of the main deity is separate structure raised three steps above which the vimana (sculpted tower with figures of deity).
The Sri Thendayuthapani Temple has fine plaster sculptures: the paired peacocks at the corner of the roof balustrade and above an external store are particularly notable. The temple is enclosed within surrounding walls.”
Only the best teak wood from their sawmills in Burma (now Myanmar) was used for the superstructures. The best quality rice and pulses from Burma and spices from India were shipped for festivals to prepare food offerings for the deity. Since Murugan has several festival days, these would be allocated to different temples. For instance, while the Taipusam festival is celebrated in Penang in a grand fashion, Teluk Intan celebrates another important festival, the Chitra Paruvam. This takes place during the Tamil Calendar of Chithrai (April–May). This festival lasts 3 days and on the third day of the festival, the Silver Chariot (Velli Ratham) is taken on a procession through the old part of the town. The Silver Chariot was brought to the temple in the year 1932.
The temple is managed by the Chettiars from several towns including Teluk Intan, Tapah, Kampar, Sitiawan and Lumut. They make financial contributions annually especially during festivals. The day-to-day management of the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple is delegated to three Chettiar families, who have their premises at No. 57, 59 and 61, Jalan Bandar. This temple is one of eighteen constructed by the Nattukottai Chettiars in Malaysia.
While the temple serves primarily as a religious institution for worship, it also functions as a social and commercial entity. Every Chettiar businesses make voluntary financial contributions to the temple. Special social programs and weddings in accordance with traditional rituals are also held. In 1926 a prominent person in the community, Mr. Vellayappa Chettiar donated generously towards the building of the double-storeyed Anglo-Chinese Primary School. In 1948 Mr. K.N. Kannappa Chettiar, an old boy of the school, donated a brick building to the Secondary School to be used as a library in memory of his late father Mr. Vellayappa Chettiar.
* Sepoy: an Indian soldier serving under British or other European orders
** Camp-followers: is a term used to identify civilians and their children who follow armies
- Krishna Gopal Rampal, “Sacred Structures: Artistic Renditions of Hindu Temples in Malaysia and Singapore. Bluetoffee Pte Ltd. 2008
- Perak Pioneer, 16 September 1899
- HRH Raja Nazrin Shah, “Landmarks of Perak”. RNS Publications Sdn Bhd. 2006.
- Ho Seng Ong, A Brief History of the Anglo-Chinese School, Teluk Anson. In “Methodist Schools in Malaysia – Their Record and History.” The Board of Education of the Malaya Annual Conference, Methodist Education Centre. 1964.