One of the joys of Georgetown is that you never quite know what to expect next. A walk down Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, Penang’s ‘Street of Harmony’, allows visitors to appreciate the wealth of different cultural and architectural influences that make up this town. Within a matter of minutes you are transported from the colonial British enclave around St George’s Church into the heart of the Chinese community at the famous Goddess of Mercy Temple, and then past one of Penang’s most fascinating areas: Little India.
If you have only just acclimatised to Chinese Penang then prepare for another culture shock. Step down Lebuh Pasar and into the surrounding streets of Lebuh King, Lebuh China and Lebuh Penang (not to be confused with the much busier Jalan Penang), and the first thing that will strike you is the change of smells in the air. After the heady incense of the Goddess of Mercy Temple, the sandalwood scents drifting out of the shops, mingled with delicate spices from the roadside snack stalls, are intoxicating and whisk you away over half a continent to the streets of South Asia.
This isn’t simply a few businesses transplanted to the streets of Penang, and the island has a large and long-established Tamil population. Little India is a thriving community and a feast for the senses, where bright — even garish — shop signs in Tamil and English sit above window displays of beautiful silks, shalwar kameez, garlands, Hindu statues and flowers. If you are a fan of bling, the area’s goldsmiths and jewellers will fascinate you and everywhere you look there is something to catch the eye. Take some time to work your way around the shops and you may be surprised at what you find. There are some real treasure troves of all things Indian, and this is great place to shop for clothes and to pick up trinkets and souvenirs to take home.
For those who are not so interested in the shops, an enormous amount of activity is always going on in the streets themselves, from stall vendors shouting their wares, jewellers and tailors at work in front of the shops, groups of sari-clad women doing their regular shopping and waiters welcoming bypassing pedestrians into their restaurants. If you feel like dancing to the banging Bollywood beats that blare out of the area’s music and video stores, just go with it! This is a welcoming community and your enthusiasm will definitely raise a smile and some good humour among the locals.
It goes without saying that if you are craving Indian food, this is the place to come and the smells of coconut oil and spices will lead you right to the doors of the best eating spots. Choose from piping hot and fragrantly spiced samosa, bhajji, vadai and pakora, fried in front of you at the excellent stall on the corner of Lebuh Pasar and Lebuh King, or sample a calorific overload of sugar and e-numbers from Indian sweet shops such as Thali Sweets Cafe at 75, Lebuh Penang.
You can also pick up good vegetarian meals at Thali Sweets Cafe, and there are plenty of other sit-down restaurants to choose from. Our current favourite is Sri Ananda Bahwan, located in two branches along Lebuh Penang. Vegetarians can go to number 66 for a wide variety of vegetable and paneer-based curries, including favourites such as daal palak and aloo gobi (from 5 ringgit), while carnivores will enjoy the tandoori-cooked chicken and lamb dishes (from 12 ringgit) at number 55, on the corner of Lebuh Penang and Lebuh China.
If you enjoy browsing shops and spend some time at one of the restaurants, it is more than possible to spend a morning or afternoon soaking up everything that Little India has to offer. The area is also a photographer’s dream, and there are picture opportunities at every turn.
Round off your Little India tour with a visit to Penang’s oldest Hindu kovil at the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple, on the corner of nearby Lebuh Queen and Lebuh Chulia, from where you can work your way back on to Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling to complete your ‘Street of Harmony’ walk.
By Mark Thompson
Last updated on 23rd September, 2014.