Where have all Penang’s Malabaris gone?

Suresh Narayanan, Professor of Economics, School of Social Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang1

People from Malabar, in the present-day state of Kerala in India, had made their way to the settlement on Penang Island, established by Francis Light of the East India Company in 1786. They were referred to as Malabars and later, Malabaris, by the local population and in official communications between Light and his superiors in Calcutta, India. Consisting mainly of Muslims, this early wave of Malayalam-speaking people had a distinct identity setting them apart from other groups like the Tamils, Sikhs, and Bengalis from India who also found a place in Light’s settlement.

Evidence of the contributions of the Malabaris to the growth and development of the township is present in George Town to this day—the places where they lived, traded, and flourished remain. The distinct community known as the Malabaris has disappeared, however. This article traces their origins, their contributions to Penang, and speculates on the reasons for their apparent disappearance.

Who are the Malabaris?

Malabari is a term that refers to a group of people that came from a region known as Malabar in India. Situated on the Southwest coast, its exact area has evolved over time (Singh, 2014). Its ports welcomed traders from around the world, including Arabs. The name Malabar is widely believed to be the fusion of the Malayalam term Male (or hill) and bhar (Arabic for region). Contact with Arab spice traders since early times makes this fusion hypothesis highly probable (Mohamed and Mohammad, 1999), although other theories also exist. The common lingua franca of the area is Malayalam.

For centuries the Malabar Coast served as a gateway to trade with lands as varied as ancient Phoenicia, Greece, Rome, Arabia, and China. A flourishing trade in spices, ivory, and sandalwood existed at that time, and the Malabar Coast is still a major centre of the world’s spice trade. Its major ports include Quilon, with trade contacts since Biblical times, Cochin, Calicut, and Cannanore. The ships of King Solomon of Biblical fame are supposed to have visited Ophir in 1000 B.C., which is believed to be Poovar, located to the south of Trivandrum, the current capital of Kerala State (Fodor and Curtis, 1974).

Under British colonial rule, and even immediately after Indian independence in 1947, Malabar was a part of the Madras Presidency, a largely non-Malayalam-speaking region. At its peak, the Madras Presidency comprised all of present-day Andhra Pradesh, and almost all of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Odisha and Telangana. In 1956, well after Indian independence, Malabar—along with the princely states of Travancore and Cochin—came together to form Kerala—a unified homeland for the Malayalam-speaking people now identified as Malayalees or Keralites.

The term Malabars was used by Francis Light in his early letters to Calcutta reporting on developments in his township in Penang to describe the people from the Malabar region (Langdon, 2015). It gradually evolved into Malabaris. It is commonly assumed that the term Malabari referred exclusively to Malayalam-speaking Muslims from the Malabar region (Razak and Kunhimon, nd). An alternative view is that, since the Malabar region is home to other religions as well, including a small cluster of Jews, the term can refer to anyone from that area, regardless of the person’s religion (Narayanan, 2001). This view is strengthened by the fact that the first unambiguous reference to Malabaris in the Malayan context is found in descriptions of the fighting men who accompanied the Portuguese Viceroy, Alfonso Albuquerque, on his campaign to attack Malacca. He sought not only to avenge the defeat of the first Portuguese expedition in 1509 but also to stop the influence of Islam, and destroy the Arab spice trade (Panikkar, 1953). He had left Cochin on the Malabar Coast on 2 May 1511, with 19 ships and 800 Portuguese and 600 Malabari fighting men (Sabri Zain, nd; Wright, 1989). It is unlikely that Malabari Muslims would have participated in such an anti-Islam venture.

In the context of Penang, the Malabaris were commonly thought of as being Muslim because the majority who came as traders or were brought in as convicts were Muslims from Malabar. Historical records indicate that traders from South India were active between the 9th and mid-14th centuries in Southeast Asia, including Kedah. Inscriptions in Tanjore (Tamil Nadu), seat of the mighty Chola Dynasty, refer to an attack during the reign of its King Rajendra Chola (A.D. 1014–1042) on the Kingdom of Kedah (or Kadaram) in 1025. By the 15th century, Indian Muslims from South India became a well-established community in Malacca. While there is no explicit reference to Malabaris in Malacca, their presence cannot be ruled out.

Early Contributions of Malabaris in Penang

When exactly the early Malabaris came to Penang may never be known, although they probably came as traders, some of whom settled on the island. Later waves include convict labourers brought to Penang after it became a penal settlement for India in 1789. In the 20th century, many young male Malabaris came voluntarily, largely in search of white-collar jobs in Penang and in the other states. Here we are concerned with the earlier waves of traders and the subsequent inflow of convict labourers brought to the island by the British.

If British-based historical sources are to be believed, Penang was a sleepy island with a few scattered villages—mostly Malay fishermen—when Francis Light established a trading post there in 1876 (Jessy, 1972). However, local sources suggest that the earliest mosque on the island was in Batu Uban; built in 1734, it pre-dated the establishment of George Town and was already serving as the centre of Malay-Muslim life on the island (Merican, 2015).

Nonetheless, the number of inhabitants of Light’s township grew rapidly, largely because of his policy of permitting Asiatic settlers to occupy what land they could clear. This, coupled with the free trade allowed under British supervision (Ooi, 2015), catapulted Penang into a commercial centre, alongside lower Burma, the southern provinces of Siam (Thailand), northern Sumatra, and the northern states of the Malay Peninsula (Map 1).

Map 1 Map showing Southern Siam, Burma, the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra, 1863
Source of map: National Archives of Singapore database (2023), Burma, Malay Peninsula, Sumatra Map search, 1863,, accessed Dec 2023.

The evidence of Malabari contributions to the growth and prosperity of Penang is present everywhere. For example, in April 1789, just three years after Penang became a British trading post, a fire was reported in Malabar Street (City Council, 1966). The Malabari community appeared large enough by that time for a street to be named after them. Along this street and in the nearby areas emerged Malabari settlements such as Kampong Kaka, Kampong Malabar, and the Dato Koyah Shrine (Khoo, 2001).

Kampong Kaka was named after a prominent Malabari family that lived on the west side of Kampong Kolam. A settlement that began with Malabari ex-convicts grew to become Kampong Malabar. The ex-convicts, who had become petty traders, formed the core group that started the Chowrasta Market. At the turn of the century, however, Chinese and Japanese traders moved into the Kampong Malabar area, changing its character permanently (Khoo, 1993).

The Dato Koyah shrine, or Keramat Dato Koyah, developed around a Malabari Muslim personality who acquired the status of a saint and was known locally as Dato Koyah, alias Syed Mustapha Idris. He had fled from Malabar to Penang to escape arrest on a murder charge, which he denied. He reportedly worked miracles, healed the sick and fed the masses. He was believed to be a saint by the convict labourers among whom he was popular. On his death in 1840, Dato Koyah’s followers built his tomb and shrine on the spot where he used to sit under the trees. The British authorities apparently shared the respect his followers had for him because they not only granted the land but also named the nearby road Dato Koyah Road. Dato Koyah’s original followers were, not surprisingly, drawn largely from the Malabaris of Kampong Malabar (Khoo, 1993).
The Dato Koyah Shrine

Mohamed Merican Noordin (a Tamil Muslim who came to Penang around 1820), succeeded as the Kapitan Kling (or leader of the Tamils) in Penang. He had a family tomb built for his mother by Indian masons in the mid-19th century. The vestibule of the tomb accommodated one of the first schools for the Muslim community and he had endowed it with 20 dollars a month “for the learning of English, Hindoostanee, Malay, Tamil, Malabar and the Alkoran” (cited in Khoo, 1993, p. 73; emphasis added). That Malabar (presumably Malayalam) was one of the languages taught and studied in Penang speaks to the importance enjoyed by the Malabari Muslim community in the state during that period.

After 1789, the government of India began sending convicts sentenced to more than seven years imprisonment to Penang. The first government convicts arrived in 1790 and proved to be a source of cheap labour (Sandhu, 1968; Turnbull, 1972). Convicts were trained in useful trades to make them more productive and to give them a means of earning a living after their release. Unlike Chinese convicts transported from Hong Kong, who could easily cause trouble and disappear into the general community with the help of secret societies, Indian convicts were allowed a great degree of freedom. They worked on roads and buildings, often without guards, and as domestic servants or in government departments (Turnbull, 1972).

According to Khoo (1993), the Malabaris—as convict labourers—were reputed to have built most of the government buildings and roads in Penang. Among them were also craftsmen who were responsible for the masonry and fine plasterwork found in Penang’s elite Muslim homes and prestigious civic buildings. There is a widely prevalent notion that Fort Cornwallis, built by the British East India Company, employed convict labourers, but this is contested by Langdon (2015) who argues that it was the work of local labour. Chowrasta Market was at the centre of Malabari influence. Penang’s favourite cuisine of roti canai and teh tarik were likely Malabari concoctions popularized by petty traders. This cuisine was later taken over by Tamil Muslims (Khoo, 2001).

Fort Cornwallis old entrance gate in George Town, Penang
Source of photo:

Even after Penang ceased to be a penal station by 1860, Malabari construction workers continued to be employed by Chinese and Indian contractors, as well as the Public Works Department and the City Council of George Town. Some rose from being contract workers to becoming reputed contractors themselves.

Khoo (2001) reconstructs the life of one such prominent Malabari, P. A. Mohd. Ibrahim. Popularly known as Ibrahim Kaka (and later as Indian Tuan), he came to Penang in around 1905 from Paravoor in Kerala as an 18-year-old youth. Ibrahim Kaka worked in piling, construction, and engineering before becoming a contractor. At 30, he married a local woman and raised a family in Jelutong. He is credited with having built the Police Headquarters along Penang Road in 1938. In 1951, he undertook possibly the biggest council housing schemes at that time at Cheeseman Road, Taylor Road, Phillips Road, and Jalan Sir Hussain. He also built the Umno Hall at Jalan Zainal Abidin (formerly known as Yahudi Road), which was officially opened in 1953 by Tunku Abdul Rahman, who became the first prime minister of independent Malaya.

Robert Townsend Farquhar, who served as the Lieutenant-Governor of Prince of Wales Island (Penang Island) from January 1804 to 1805, recognized the skills of Malabari fishermen when he wrote in a report dated 18 September 1805:

The North passage to Penang over the flat (from Pulo Tickoose to the North Shore) might at little expence [sic] be contracted to One Mile in breadth, by having Piles sunk in the ground in the same way the Malabar Fishermen sink them on that Coast which is well known to all Seamen who have been on that Side of India (cited in Langdon, 2015, p. 62).

Malabari construction workers were also noted for their skill and daring. Khoo (2001), for instance, quotes the son of Ibrahim Kaka, Mohd. Rashid, as saying:

The Chinese…did small-scale bakau piling in swampy areas ... [b]ut the risky piling work was done by the Malabaris. They used to climb up the piles and they were good at “guiding the monkey” – the weight used to hammer in the piles ... the Malabaris were the ones who pioneered difficult techniques and the most dangerous ones.

Other notable Malabari Muslim contractors who were contemporaries of Ibrahim Kaka were V. K. Ismail, T. A. Omar, and B. Ismail. They were registered government and council contractors. A close friend of Ibrahim Kaka, Mohd. Ismail Kaka specialized in engineering and road works. The sons of both Ibrahim and Ismail also became well-known Bumiputra contractors. Malabar Hindu contractors of the period include R. G. Senan, P. N. Kurup, and N. Raghavan.
It is perhaps not surprising that it was largely Malabaris who undertook the arduous task of not only constructing the Penang Hill Railway but also manning it till recent times. According to old-timer P. C. Kanan, Malabaris helped build the Penang Jail, the Mariamman Temple in Air Itam, the Methodist Church in Kebun Nyor, and ran much of Penang’s early tram services (personal interview).
The contribution of Malabari Muslims to the Malay language requires a separate study. However, old and original Malay terms describing sea vessels bear a striking resemblance to terms popular among the Malabaris who used 19 types of vessels in trade and battle. For example, it has been speculated that sampan in Malayalam may have fathered sampan in Malay, parao became perahu, pathamari became petamari, kappal became kapal, and sambuk was retained as sambuk in Malay (Razak and Kunhimon, nd.). While some of the Malayalee terms may have been derived from Sanskrit or other sources, these terms were probably introduced into the Malay language via Malabari Muslims. It must be added that kelasi, an old Malay word for sailor, is also the name of a group of predominantly Muslim people, the Khalasis of Malabar, famous for their boat-building and boat-repair skills using simple but cleverly designed equipment and devices designed by their ancestors (Abdurahiman, 2004). 

As a footnote, we might record a Malabari contribution that had ramifications beyond Penang. It begins with one Iskandar, a Malabari Muslim who settled in Penang. His son, Mohammed Iskandar, was born to a local woman, Siti Hawa. Mohammed Iskandar eventually left Penang to settle in Kedah and subsequently became an English teacher and the first headmaster of Alor Star’s first English School (now Maktab Sultan Abdul Samad). Mohammad Iskandar’s marriage to Wan Tampawan produced nine children. The youngest was Mahathir bin Mohammad (Morais, 1982) who rose to lead Malaysia twice as its fourth and seventh prime minister.

Where have the Malabaris gone?

Despite evidence of their significant contributions, references to Malabaris virtually disappeared from official records within three months after the establishment of Light’s settlement. This is ironic because Light’s township (George Town) sat within a grid made up of Malabar Street (that formed its southern boundary), Pitt Street, Light Street, and Beach Street. (Langdon, 2015).

In a letter dated 10 January 1788 to the Government of India in Bengal, Light—among other matters—wrote about his new township on the island. He said that it contained 200 houses of Chinese, Malabars, and Malays. Apart from these, he noted the presence of small villages in several other locations (Langdon, 2015). The Malabaris, therefore, received specific mention.

When the fire broke out in Malabar Street in April 1789, it was significant enough to receive mention in Light’s letter dated 18 July of that year to his superiors in Fort William, Calcutta (Langdon, 2015). However, his enumeration of the inhabitants of his township (as of December 1788) numbered around 1,000 persons, comprising 19 Europeans, 199 Catholics, 334 Chulias and Malays, and 425 Chinese. This totalled 977, with the remaining number presumably being Light and his military personnel (Langdon, 2015, p. 177). Where were the Malabaris?

Again, in 1793, in another letter to the Government of India in Bengal there was no mention of this thriving community. Describing the main communities in Penang, Light referred to 3,000 Chinese, who were involved in trades such as carpentry and masonry, worked as shopkeepers and planters, and ventured to surrounding countries in small vessels. He took note of the Malays, who formed the majority of the population, and referred to them as being drawn primarily from Kedah, and to a smaller extent, other parts of the peninsula, Java, and Sumatra. He described them as being largely woodcutters and paddy cultivators. Light also recognized the presence of 100 Burmese and Siamese, and added that Arabs, their descendants, and the Bugis were all part of Penang’s population. However, the only reference to Indians pertained to the Chulia Tamil Muslims—1,000 of them, who worked as shopkeepers or labourers (Cullin and Zehnder, 1905).

Surely, Malabaris must have outnumbered the “100 Burmese and Siamese” whom Light specifically mentioned in his letter. Thus, within just five years after the founding of the township, the Malabaris escaped official notice. One can only speculate on the reason for this curious omission.

It is possible that the large subsequent waves of Chulias overwhelmed the largely Muslim Malabaris and deprived them of their separate identity in official circles. The Chulias were Tamil-speaking Muslim immigrants who originated from the Chola-controlled region in India (known as the Cholamandalam or its anglicized version, Coromandel Coast). They were referred to as Chulias in early Penang sources (although the spelling varies in different sources). 'Chulia' is believed to be a corruption of 'Chulier’, or people originating from the Chola region.

From the beginning of the 18th century, after Malacca fell into Portuguese hands, it was closed to Muslim trade. Tamil Muslim traders therefore started settling in Kedah. And when Light established a trading post in Penang, they began to move from Kedah to the island as well. All Tamils in Penang from the Coromandel Coast would fall under the label of Chulia, but because the majority who settled in Penang were Muslims, Chulia in common use was taken to mean Tamil Muslims from this region.

The growing influence of the Chulias can be deduced from the fact that Malabar Street was extended to include areas of Chulia influence and renamed Chulia Street in 1798—a mere 12 years after the city had been established. In later years, the Chulias grew in number and were assimilated into the local population through marriage to form the core of the Malays in George Town, or the Jawi Pekan (Salleh Hussain, 1990). It is possible that the Malabari Muslims were being grouped with the growing Chulia population in later official documents, given their common Indian origin and Muslim faith, out of convenience or ignorance.

Despite the official omission, Malabaris continued to retain their identity even as they spread out of the confines of George Town and pursued varied interests that departed from their traditional trades. Malabari children were being identified as a distinct group in schools well after Light failed to mention them. To illustrate, in January 1831, following the reduction of government assistance to schools, one educator wrote to the authorities to highlight the hardship it would cause to some 83 boys in his school who were composed “of Chinese, Malabar, Mahomedans and Christians” (cited in Langdon, 2015, p. 269). Interestingly, the Malabaris, despite most of them being Muslims, were still being identified separately from “Mahomedans”.

In 1946, an article written by a Tamil Muslim, K. Sultan Merican, in The Islamic Voice of Malaya, called for the formation of a pan-Malayan Muslim association to help the government of the day. The Malabari Muslims were recognized as a group separate from other Muslim communities. He wrote, in part:
Unity is strength, and let us all, whether we be Malays, South Indian Muslims, Malabari Muslims, Punjabi Muslims or Bengali Muslims, pool our resources at this critical stage of world situation [sic], and stand shoulder to shoulder by [sic] the Islamic association of Perak and help the Government by our united Muslim effort in return for the blessings and contentment the Government has given us” (cited in Sundararaj, 2016).
In contrast to the recognition of Malabaris as a distinct group, the Chulias failed to gain a mention in the article, probably because they were already being included in either the Tamil Muslim or Malay category. Commenting on the Chulias, Khoo Salma Nasution noted that “We are looking at the same people, yet they had different names. From Tamil Muslims and Keling to Chulias” (cited in Sundararaj, 2016)—and eventually known as either Malays or Tamil Muslims in present-day Penang.

In Penang’s early decennial population censuses, conducted by the colonial administration from the later 19th century and into the early 20th century, all Indians were classified together. However, in the first unified census of the Malayan states in 1921, a detailed classification of the Indian community by race was provided, but this did not include a named category for either the Malabaris or Chulias. Most of Penang’s Indians were classified as Tamils, 91 per cent, with the Telegu the next largest group at 4.4 per cent. The Malabaris were likely categorised as Malayali, and numbered just 449, or 0.8 percent share of Penang’s Indian population. By the 1931 census, now temporarily classified as Malayalams, their number had grown to 1,796, 3.1 per cent of Penang’s Indian population, with sizeable numbers living elsewhere, most in the prosperous Federated Malay States of Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, as well as in Johor and Kedah (Table 1). From the 1947 census onwards—no census was taken in 1941—the Malabaris were reclassified as Malayali, but their numbers have not been published in official census statistics.

Table 1 Malabaris in Penang, 1921 and 1931
Note: a All other states in the Malay peninsula and Singapore.
Sources of data: Nathan, (1922); Vlieland, (1932).

Thus, despite their identification as Malabaris well after the Chulias lost their identity, in time the Malabaris too suffered a similar fate. To paraphrase Khoo Salma Nasution, the same people have evolved from being Malabaris, to Malayalees (or Malayalee Muslims), to Keralites, and eventually Malaysians. Malabaris also enriched the local Malay community by intermarriage, although in doing so they lost their distinct identity and assimilated the culture and customs of the latter.


The term Malabari is not commonly used in Kerala and the term Chulia is virtually unknown in Tamil Nadu which suggests that these labels were identifiers that became common in Penang during the early years of its development. And because the early waves of immigrants from Malabar and the subsequent waves of Tamils from the Coromandel Coast were mainly Muslim, it was perhaps convenient to group them as Chulias who were the larger of the two, at least in official documents during the colonial period. Yet, they were distinct in their specializations and contributions.

That an identifiable community known as Malabaris (or Chulias) no longer exists in post-independence Malaya or Malaysia is not a surprise. In population censuses, some were simply categorised as Indians (Muslims or otherwise), while others were classified as Malays if they spoke the Malay language, followed the Muslim religion, and adopted Malay customs and traditions. Nonetheless, they all form part of the larger rich human tapestry that is now known as Malaysians.

Further reading:
Abdurahiman, K. P. 2004. Mappila heritage: A study in their social and cultural life. Thesis. Department of History, University of Calicut.
Cullin, E. G and W. F. Zehnder. 1905. The Early History of Penang, 1592–1827, Penang: The Criterion Press.
City Council. 1966. Penang: Past and Present: A Historical Account of the City of Georgetown Since 1786, Penang: City Council of Georgetown.
Fodor, E and Curtis, W. 1974. India, New York: David McKay Co. Inc.
Jessy, J. S. 1972. Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, 1400–1965. Kuala Lumpur: Longman.
Khoo, S. N. 1993. Streets of George Town, Penang: Janus Print and Resources.
Khoo, S. N. 2001. “Muslim Migrants from Malabar.” Unpublished.
Langdon, M. 2015. Penang–The Fourth Presidency of India, 1805–1830, Vol. Two: Fire, Spice and Edifice, George Town, Penang: World Heritage Incorporated.
Merican, A. M. 2015. ‘Batu Uban in Pulau Pinang: Past, Place and Presence’. Penang Story Lecture. The Star, 15 November.
Morais, J. V. 1982. Mahathir: A Profile in Courage, Petaling Jaya: Eastern Universities Press.
Mohamed, K. M., and Mohammad, K. M. 1999. ‘Arab relations with Malabar Coast from 9th to 6th Centuries’. Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, 60, pp. 226–234.
Narayanan, S. 2001. ‘From Malabaris to Malaysians: The Untold Story of Malayalees in Penang’. A paper presented at the Second Colloquium of the Penang Story Project, on 22 September 2001, Penang. Reproduced in
Nathan, J. E. 1922. The Census of British Malaya 1921, Volume II. London: Waterlow & Sons Limited.
Ooi, K. G. 2015. ‘Disparate Identities: Penang from a Historical Perspective, 1780–1941’. Kajian Malaysia, 33 (Supp. 2), pp. 27–52.
Panikkar, K.M. (1953) Asia and the Western Dominance, London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.
Razak and Kunhimon (nd.) ‘A Cursory Glance at the Historical Background of Malabari Muslims’. ( Updated; accessed on 14 Oct. 2017.
Sabri Zain, (nd.) ‘Sejarah Melayu: A History of the Malay Peninsula’. (http://www.
Salleh Hussain. 1990. A History of Early Penang, 1786–1867. Penang: Malaysia German Society.
Singh, A. K. 2014. ‘Probable Agricultural Biodiversity Heritage Sites in India: XXI. The Malabar Region’. Asian Agri-History 18(4), pp. 311–341.
Sandhu, K. S. 1968. ‘Tamil and Other Indian Convicts in the Straits Settlements, AD. 1790–1873’. In Proceedings of the First International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies 1966, Vol. I, Kuala Lumpur: International Association of Tamil Research, pp. 197–208.
Sundararaj, A. 2016. ‘The Chulias of Penang’. New Straits Times, March 21.
Turnbull, C. M. 1972. The Straits Settlements, 1826–67, London: University of London, The Athlone Press.
Vlieland, C. A. 1932.A Report on the 1931 Census and on Certain Problems of Vital Statistics, British Malaya. London: The Crown Agents for the Colonies.
Wright, A. 1989. Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, Singapore: Graham Brash.

1 This paper draws, in part, from my earlier work that was presented at the Second Colloquium of the Penang Story Project, on 22 September 2001, in Penang. That paper received valuable inputs from Mukundan Menon, C. T. Padmanabhan, and V. V. Sarachandran.


c/o Asia-Europe Institute
University of Malaya,
50603 Kuala Lumpur
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