Well over a thousand years before Islam first came to what is now Malaysia, Hinduism was a well established belief system in the peninsula. Even more than Buddhism, that other great Indian religious export, Hinduism influenced all aspects of life, from marriage ceremonies to concepts of divine kingship.
The founding of the Malacca Sultanate at the turn of the 15th century began the long process of Islam becoming the dominant religion in Peninsular Malaysia. But even the growth of Islamic fundamentalism over recent decades has failed to remove completely the influence of Hinduism over the Malay way of life.
The second great wave of Indian influence started in the early 19th century, with the arrival of thousands of immigrants from the Indian Subcontinent. These days about 7% of Malaysians are ethnically Indian. Some of them are Christians, others are Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains, but the vast majority are Hindus.
For Hindus, the most important religious event of the year is Diwali, the “festival of lights”. Known as Deepavali in Malaysia and Singapore, the five-day festival celebrates the victory of good over evil, and light over darkness. The third day of Deepavali, which this year falls on October 26, marks the official start of the Hindu New Year. The festival is also celebrated by Jains and Sikhs.
Of all the world’s major religions, Hinduism tends to have some of the most exuberant and colourful festivals. So it should come as no surprise that anyone whose visit to Kuala Lumpur coincides with Deepavali stands to experience a feast for the senses.
Although many of the practices associated with Deepavali, such as house cleaning and special family meals, are centred on the home, many of the ceremonies are public, such as processions and firework displays. Probably the most visible sign of the festival, particularly in Little India and Brickfields (the two areas most associated with the KL’s Indian community), is special street bazaars.
Buying new clothes is an important part of marking Deepavali, as it is with Chinese New Year, and the Muslim festival of Hari Raya. Not that most Malaysians, whatever their race or religion, need an excuse to go shopping.
It should not come as a surprise that Indian food also plays a big part in this festival, with savoury snacks known as murukku particularly popular. If you are lucky enough to be invited to a Deepavali “open house” party, best to starve yourself beforehand, and wear loose clothing.
By Pat Fama
Last updated on 26th February, 2015.