From a language in which many Sinhala terms have originated to relished food including the likes of Nasi Goreng or Pittu, the minuscule Malay community of Sri Lanka has maintained its unique niche in the social fabric of the country for centuries, standing side by side with their brothers and sisters of other communities.
Now the life and times of the Malays, whose origins come from the island of Java in Indonesia, are chronicled in a delightful 224-page coffee table book titled ‘Malays of Sri Lanka’ written by Alvin Sallay, a veteran journalist who has worked in Sri Lanka and Hong Kong.
The book, launched on Tuesday at a gala event in Colombo graced by the Indonesian Ambassador Dewi Gustina Tobing, was released to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Colombo Malay Cricket Club (CMCC) and the 100th anniversary of the Sri Lanka Malay Association (SLMA), both commemorated this year.
The launch also brought under the spotlight colourful traditional dances, one very similar to baila, drumming and songs with a majority of the Malay male invitees sporting batik shirts and female invitees lungi-type attire.
The last official census counted a little over 40,000 Malays, 0.2 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population and the book takes a close look at how the community meets often at the “Padang (playing field)”, the Malay Club at Slave Island.
Generally referred to as “Ja Minissu” meaning people from Java, Indonesia, some of the common last names of the Malays, according to the book, are Jayah, Weerabangsa, Sinhawangsa/Sinhawansa, Jayawangsa, Singalaxana, Bangsa Jayah, Wangsa, Lye, Samath, Cuttilan, Chunchie, Preena, Hannan, Sallay, Doole, Kitchilan, Kutinun, Kanchil, Sainon, Bongso, Bohoran, Kuppen and Lappen.
The book delves into history, going back in time to 1214 and how Kalinga Magha, a prince apparently from India (with some saying he was a Malay monarch), along with an army of 24,000 personnel including Malay soldiers captured Raja Rata and established his seat of power at Polonnaruwa.
In 1505, the Portuguese arrived, establishing commerce and taking over territory with the help of Malay soldiers brought from Malacca. Over a century later, in 1640, came the Dutch, driving away the Portuguese but bringing the ‘constant’ factor of Malays but this time from all over the Indonesian and Malay archipelagos.
In 1944, among the submissions made by the Soulbury Commission appointed to make recommendations for the granting of independence from the British to this island nation, was that there should be Malay representation in the legislature.
Little nuggets of information emerge from the book. On why Malays joined the forces and Police, retired Brigadier T.M. Bohoran says: “We are a martial race. And Malays are famous for their patriotism, unwavering loyalty and bravery.”
From the pages of this colourful book spring the achievements of Malay legal luminaries, scholars, soldiers, policemen, sports persons in many fields, hoteliers, journalists, teachers, musicians, beauty queens and film personalities among others.
Of course, the country’s best known Malay leader was visionary statesman T.B. Jayah. Interestingly, he had once taught History and the Classics at Ananda College and among his many students those who went on to embrace Marxism were well-known politicians Philip Gunawardena, Robert Gunawardena and N.M. Perera.
The Malays represented in the legislature at different times, meanwhile, have been M.D. Kitchilan, R. Zahiere Lye, Dr. T.B. Jayah, M.K. Saldin, Dr. M.P. Drahaman and M.T. Akbar. In recent times there has been no Malay representation in Parliament.
Pages on the ‘last post’ record the wartime losses of Malays serving in the armed forces (too numerous to mention) who died in battle against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
In ‘Voices’, the author gives voice to the views and comments of a number of Malays, while the cover image which spreads to the back cover too portrays numerous faces young and old, with one stark blank as a symbolic representation of any Malay.
An integral part of Malay life has been sports and those who have stood tall in the field were Hishan Abdeen (captain of the national rugger team), and the Preena Brothers – Otto and Mervyn (who represented the national hockey side). Towns such as Matale have produced talented Malay hockey players like the four Mohottar brothers.
The reach of Malays has spread across almost all professions, with 82-year-old Tuan Mohammed Kamoordeen Samat easily getting the honour of the best known Malay journalist who often wrote under the pen name TMK.
Memories, meanwhile, would waft along with the notes of difficult to forget songs such as Rasa Sayang and Burung Kaka Tua, made famous on local radio in the 1960 and 1970s.
Ah, now food! Do you know that the word Achcharu comes from the Malay word Achar known as Malay pickle? How about delicacies like Babat (the lining of the stomach and intestines of cattle); Daging goreng (fried beef) or Daging Chooka (beef made with a vinegar and pepper preparation which my mother was famous for); and Pittu. Also the popular Nasi Goreng – mixed fried rice with a fried egg on top – satay and the ubiquitous dodol (a toffee-like sugar based sweetmeat stirred for hours in a cauldron which I relished especially when made by my mother), delightful food enjoyed by all communities.
The Malay language has strong links to the social fabric of this country where many Sinhala words have had their roots in Javanese. Here are some examples – Sarung (sarong), Rebana (Rabana), Sarekol (Sarungalaya), Botol (Botale), Kamar (Kamara), Bonchis (Bonchi), Banku (Bankuwa), Lemari (Almariah), Kerabu (Karabu), Kereta (Karattaya), Serdadu (Soldaduwa), Pena (Pena-Pen), Sabun (Saban), Saku (Sakuwa) and Rahasia (Rahasa).
However, senior academic Dr. Romola Rassool, former head of the English Teaching Unit, University of Kelaniya, worries about the fading of the Sri Lanka Malay language.
“I preach but don’t practise,” she says. “I hardly speak Malay at home to my three kids, with English being the main form of communication.”
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