(Illustrated by Randy Dwicaksono)

Sumatra’s India Connect (2)


MARCH 19, 2021

Through the centuries, India has been a source of inspiration for art and architecture in Sumatra as it has been to the entire Southeast Asia.

Today, a myriad of cultural vestiges of the Indian connect in the form of landmarks, milestones, rituals and social mores of Sumatra serve as a constant reminder of India’s age-old cultural influence in this part of the world. Due to such linkages with Indian civilization, the ancient Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata are already deeply embedded in the cultural matrix of Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia. 

Ancient trade links between Kalinga Kingdom and Bali translated into cultural bonds as seen in similarities between rice ritual of Odisha’s ‘Garbhana Sankranti’ & Mabinukukung of Bali. 'Baliyatra’(voyage to Bali), which is an annual event in Odisha even today, symbolically floats toy boats to commemorate memory of Odisha's maritime ancestors who travelled to Bali, Java and Sumatra to trade. 

Indian Temples and other places of worship in Sumatra
The gradual settlements and integration of Indians in Sumatra led to the building of several places of worship across many cities of the island. According to Indian origin settlers in Sumatra, there are about 50 to 60 Indian temples of varying sizes and importance. In North Sumatra alone there are 40 of them. Given the size of the Indian origin population in Sumatra (between 100,000 -125,000), it may not be incorrect to say that there are more Indian temples in North Sumatra per person than in India.


Mariamman temple in Medan city is one of the oldest Hindu temples in Indonesia. Built in 1884 by early Tamil settlers & traders, it is today located in 'Little India’. It is a meeting point for people of Indian descent during festive seasons. The chief priest of this temple recalled with nostalgia, the contributions made by his Indian forefathers and some local entities in establishing and nurturing this place of worship.

The Mariamman and Shiva temples in Binjai were constructed way back in the 1860s by Tamil immigrants from the city of Thanjavur (Tanjore), Tamil Nadu in India. The Balaputradewa Museum in Palembang houses an ancient statue of Ganesha dating back to Sriwijaya Kingdom, as part of its collection.  

The advent of the Punjabi Sikhs to Medan also led to the establishment of several Gurudwaras. Today, there are seven of them in North Sumatra itself, many of which are prospering with increasing memberships. The GPC Khalsa School started in early 1900s is slowly getting popular as a recognized institution. To keep these institutions alive, several commemorative events like the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Devji or regular kirtans (special prayers) are being conducted at these venues even today. The Missi Gurudwara in the heart of Medan, built in 1930s, is being upscaled with the blessings of the provincial government.

The South Indian Muslim Mosque of Medan established in the 1900s serves as a common meeting point for Indian Muslims in North Sumatra, where traditional festivals like Id and Ramadan are celebrated with typical South Indian food.

The Graha Maria Annai Velangkanni Shrine, a few miles away from downtown Medan city is a South Indian Marian Christian with a difference. It is a unique mix of Hindu, Islamic, Buddhist and Indonesian style of architecture. Bible quotes and signs are written in four languages: Indonesian, English, Tamil and Chinese. Built almost single handedly by Father James, who migrated to Indonesia in early 1900s from South India, it continues to draw devotees from across North Sumatra.

Ethnic Conclave of Little India
The inauguration of Little India in Medan by the city authorities in 2018 signaled the recognition of contribution made by Indian Sumatrans.  It is today a medley of colourful Indian fabrics, grocery shops and roadside eateries. Sights, sounds and smells are so reminiscent of a Chennai street of the 1980s. Populated by around 7,000 Indonesians of Indian descent, this enclave is a constant reminder of how the early Indians hung on to their Indian roots. 

Influence of Indian languages on Bahasa Indonesia
The most visible manifestation of Indian influence in Sumatra is the widespread use of Tamil, Hindi and Sanskrit words in Bahasa Indonesia. Although Hinduism and Buddhism are no longer the major religions of Indonesia, Sanskrit is still held in high esteem, and its status is comparable with that of Latin in English. 

Sanskrit loanwords, unlike those from other languages, have entered the basic vocabulary of Bahasa Indonesia to such an extent that, for many they are no longer perceived to be foreign. The loanwords from Sanskrit cover many aspects of religion, art and everyday life. The Old Javanese-English dictionary by Prof. P.J. Zoetmulder, S.J. (1982) contains no fewer than 25,500 entries, of which half are Sanskrit loanwords.

Sanskrit scripts were the first form of writing known to have reached Southeast Asia. Similar alphabets were adopted for local languages as well. A large number of ancient inscriptions which have been discovered are in Sanskrit. Sanskrit terminology was used in all legal aspects of court procedures and only factual aspects were described in vernacular.

Sanskrit is also the main source for neologisms, usually formed from Sanskrit roots. For example, the name of Jayapura city (former Hollandia) and Jayawijaya Mountains (former Orange Range) in the Indonesian province of Papua were coined in the 1960s; both having Sanskrit origin names to replace Dutch colonial names. Some Indonesian contemporary medals of honour and awards, such as Bintang Mahaputra medal, Kalpataru award and Adipura award, are also Sanskrit derived names. 

There are several thousand common sounding words used in Bahasa Indonesia derived directly from Indian languages. The first word that comes to mind was the word bahasa (language), which is derived from Hindi word basha. Some common examples of words originating from Hindi/Urdu are utara (north),  asli (genuine), masjid (mosque), halal (lawful), haram (prohibited), jahanam (damned), kitab (book), qurban (sacrifice), anggota (member), maaf (apology), maut (death), mukmin (devoted Muslim), selamat (congratulation) etc. Commonly used words such as apam (rice cake), kuil (shrine), roti (bread), topi (hat), putri (daughter), putra (son), anugerah (gift), raja (king), sakti (powerful), bhakti (dedication) etc, were directly derived from Tamil (some also common to Hindi). Some examples of Sanskrit words used in Bahasa Indonesia are Yudh, Varna, Vicakshana, Nagara, Nirwana, Warta, Kadai and Ahankara.

Use of Indian names 
Another obvious, yet amazing India-Sumatra connect are the Indian surnames used by the Indonesian people routinely, even though many of them are Muslims. Surnames like Dewi, Putri, Rajawati, Maduri, Kobalan, Brahmanna, etc are so ubiquitous that they cease to amaze anyone.

Indian Festivals
The local government of Sumatra actively supports the celebration of major Indian festivals like Diwali, Thaipusam, Pongal and Navaratri by the Indian Indonesians. In particular, Thaipusam is celebrated with much devotion by the Tamil community in Medan who gather at Little India (Kampung Madras) to accompany a 125-year old chariot or Radhoo through the street leading up to the Mariamman temple. The Kavadi Attam (dance) can be witnessed even to this day, along with the traditional practices like the carrying a pot of milk, mortification of the skin through piercing of the tongue or cheeks with vel skewers (spears).

Indian cuisine
Since Indians came from Malabar, Tamilnadu and parts of Gujarat to Sumatra, the influence of Indian cuisine on local food culture has been largely restricted to a particular variety of South Indian cuisine. Obvious manifestations of Indian cuisine in Sumatra are the local pakora (Baewan), roti canai (like a Kerala Parata), apam, putu, ayam tandoori (tandoori chicken), martabak (parata variety), all of which are now an integral part of Sumatran cuisine. Though Indian influence on local culinary scene are common place, Indian cuisine has somehow not been able to mainstream itself into Sumatra’s culinary traditions.

Assimilation of Indian social etiquettes in Sumatran society
It is interesting that closer people to people contact between Indian settlers and people of Sumatra has witnessed assimilation of certain distinct Indian social etiquettes and mores into their society. Some etiquettes such as the offering of gifts with the right hand only or wrapping gifts in red, yellow or green papers to bring good fortune, reinforced my view of such assimilation. Some Sumatrans even avoid giving leather products as gifts to a Hindu Tamil and a general practice is that gifts are not opened just as they are received.

Over the years, Sumatra and the whole of Indonesia did not accept foreign influences in an indiscriminate manner. India and China were two notable external influences that were accepted probably because they were suitable to their local culture. One reason why Indian cultural influences continue to be visible in Sumatra is the fact that India’s cultural forays in the past were peaceful with no intent to impose.

If Indian cultural influence in Sumatra is still entrenched here, it is not just because of its resilience and uniqueness, but also due to the receptiveness of the people of Sumatra in accepting Indian culture and embracing it to some extent.

Raghu Gururaj is the Consul General of India to Sumatra who lives  in Medan.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author.