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If you were to ask where the heart of the Indian community in Malaysia is, one of the first answers you’ll get is definitely Brickfields. Home to a great number of Indians, in Brickfields you can also find businesses that sell almost everything related to traditional Indian culture, such as food, flowers, clothes and others – not surprising for a place that has always traditionally been known as the Little India of Malaysia.
As a location close to the centre of Kuala Lumpur, Brickfields is has unsurprisingly always gone through rapid development all these years. However, the area still retains its rich cultural heritage that has made it unique since many years ago.
It’s common to find modern architecture overlooking old shoplots and structures, a strange combination that has contributed to the unique charm of Little India – a quaint and interesting place to explore and experience.
How It All Started
Brickfields was the brainchild of the last Chinese Kapitan, Yap Kwan Seng (1846-1902). Foreseeing an increased demand for bricks, he established a brick-making facility at a clay pit Kuala Lumpur. As the place became renowned for producing good quality bricks, the area naturally became to be known as Brickfields.
The reason the area became to be known as Kuala Lumpur’s Little India, however, is due to the main Keretapi Tanah Melayu depot which is located nearby. During the time of the British colonisation, the government brought in a great number of workers from India to man the depot. Many of the Indians have since settled down in the area, leading to the development of one of the largest Indian communities in Malaysia.
The rapid development of Brickfields since the early 1900s has led to the building of many landmarks that are either commercially or culturally significant. It’s certainly an exciting area to wander for any interested urban explorers!
One of the biggest efforts recently is the transformation of the KTM main depot into the KL Sentral station, resulting in the area becoming an important link in Kuala Lumpur’s transport network. Stations for Putra LRT, KLIA Ekspres, KTM, busses and other public transport can be found here. High class hotels thrive in busy Brickfields, with the 5-star Hilton and Le Meridien being the most notable examples.
One of the most prominent landmarks in Brickfields is the Young Men’s Christian Association KL (YMCA KL), a place that has been established over a century ago and still continuing to serve the community today. Another would be the Malaysian
Association for the Blind (MAB) located along Jalan Tebing, which would probably explain the high concentration of blind pedestrians and massage centres found in the area.
Despite mainly populated by Indians, Little India Kuala Lumpur still exhibits an important Malaysian trait – multicultural and inter-religious harmony. Brickfields, being the home to many different houses of worship, is known to some as a “divine location”. Buddhist Temples, Mosques, Churches, Indian Temples, Buddhist Maha Vihara and many more can be seen peacefully co-existing with each other in the area, exemplifying the spirit of Malaysian inter-cultural tolerance and respect.
Lastly, the stalls and shops in Little India are also denitely worth exploring. A walk along the streets will expose the average visitor to a variety of Indian foods, goods
and ingredients. Make sure not to miss it during the eve of Tamil New Year, Varisha Piraippu, too, where it will be even more vibrant and colourful with many exciting decorations. It is doubtful there is a better place to learn more about Indian culture in the whole of Malaysia!
A New Little India
For the people who have not been to downtown Kuala Lumpur recently, passing by Brickfields-known colloquially as “Little India” to locals-might turn out to be a huge surprise to them.
All along, Brickfields has always been known to be a centre of Indian culture in Malaysia. Despite that, it was expressed primarily through the people and community -other than that, there were not many traits that would identify it as the Little India of Kuala Lumpur. Despite the unique character of the area, it was often not something that can be seen at first glance. One often has to look carefully to discover the vibrant life in Brickfields.
A Massive Facelift
In an effort to more adequately express the rich culture that resides within that part of town, Malaysian Resources
Corporation Berhad has been tasked to reassert Brickfield’s role as Kuala Lumpur’s Little India. With work starting on May 2010, as of the end of 2010 the first phase of the project has been completed, transforming the once-normal street into a vibrant expression of Malaysian-Indian culture.
“The streetscape, the whole ambience, the whole feel
will reflect the major ethnic composition of Brickfields, which is Indian,” says MRCB Chief Executive Ocer Mohamed Razeek Hussain in a feature about Brickfields in The Edge Merdeka Special, Options. “Little India Brickfields is a microcosm of Malaysia-you have Indians, Chinese, Malay and others. But because Brickfields is traditionally recognized as an Indian community, the whole purpose and intention is to inject some vernacular architecture, colours and feel of the ethnic majority in Brickfields to manifest that in the streets and streetscapes.”
Unlike other development projects that erode away the rich heritage of a place, steps have been taken to ensure Brickfields retains its unique culture through the process. Other than the upgrading of conveniences to suit the times (such as redirection of the traffic flow to better suit the modern traffic requirements) and addition of street decorations, almost all other areas such as the architecture has been left alone. As a matter of fact, other than retaining its original charm, the distinctively Indian-influence additions create an atmosphere that is entirely fitting for the title of “Little India”.
To better display the unique traits of the new Little India to the world, DBKL (the Kuala Lumpur City Hall) has made effort to have a Guided Walk across Little India on the 1st and 3rd Saturday every month for the most of 2011, perfect for visitors who want to get the most out of their exploration of the place.
Today, if you turn into Jalan Tun Sambanthan, the main street of Brickfields, you would be struck by the distinctively Indian ambience the area possesses. A massive arch enters your view at the entrance, welcoming you into the most vibrant Indian community in Malaysia. Along the streets, what were once normal roads are now paved with vibrant tiles, forming complex motifs inspired by the Indian art form kolam. They are now also flanked by intricate, colourful columns which were carved in India and custom-made lamp posts that are reminiscent of the Indian snack murukku.
Also catching the eye of any visitors would denitely be the majestic 7.62-metre-tall fountain decorated with owers and elephants formed from concrete. The fountain, which draws its design heavily from traditional Indian culture, is also notable for being the tallest fountain in the country.
The large-scale project has certainly caught the attention of people all around the world, most noticeably the attention of the Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh. The Prime Minister Manmohan came from India for a special visit to launch the newly refurbished Little India along with his Malaysian counterpart the Prime Minister of Malaysia Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak. More than 5,000 people appeared to show their support towards the “new Brickfields”. The launch, which was a glamorous event attended by a number of other VIPs and with performances by top local celebrities, officially cements Brickfield’s identity as the Little India of Kuala Lumpur.