The Melaka Chetti community, also known as Malacca-born Hindus or Chitty Melaka, traces its roots to Indian merchants from the Coromandel Coast, the southeastern coastal regions of the Indian subcontinent. Coromandel is derived from the Tamil Chola Mandalam (Land of the Chola), one of the longest ruling dynasties in the history of southern India.
Indian merchants are believed to have plied the trading routes in the Malay Archipelago even before Melaka was founded by Parameswara, a fleeing Hindu prince from Palembang, Sumatra. The Srivijaya kingdom based in Palembang controlled major ports in the region during the 8th century and propagated the Saivism and Vaishnavism influence.
In the 14th century, due to its strategic location, Melaka emerged as a favoured resting point for merchants on their journeys as they waited out the monsoons. And as trade activities flourished in Melaka, Indian merchants started their own settlement, marrying local communities consisting of Orang Laut Malays, Chinese, Javanese and Bataks.
According to Portuguese records, there were around 300 to 400 Chetties living in the Melaka Sultanate while Naina Chattu, a Chetti leader, held the position of Bendahara and reputedly minted the city’s first coins. Many other Chetti community leaders held key positions during the Melaka Sultanate but their influence waned during the later years.
The Melaka Chetti community moved out of Campon Chelim (Kampung Keling), an affluent parish within the ‘Tranqueira’ suburb of the Portuguese era. It was described that this area was populated by the Chelis of Coromandel, in reference to the Melaka Chetti community.
They settled down in various locations including Gajah Berang, Tranquerah, Bachang and Balai Panjang. A majority subsequently stayed in Kampung Tujuh, Gajah Berang, to become farmers.
There are several theories relating to the origin of the name ‘Gajah Berang’. One theory suggests that ‘Gajah Berang’ was initially called ‘Kanja Pidam’, coined from ‘Kanjipuram’, a town in Tamil Nadu, India, where some of the Chetti community may have originated. Janakey Raman Manickam wrote in her book, ‘The Malaysian Indian – Forgotten History of the Colonial Era – Sweat, Blood and Tears’ that ‘Beram’ also means ‘elephant’ in the old Malay, creating another possibility as to how ‘Gajah Berang’ was named.
The community retains the Hindu faith of their forefathers and through cultural assimilation, have adopted the Malay language interspersed with Tamil words. They consist of several families namely Pandaram, Neiker, Raja, Pather, Pillay, Chitty and Padiachee. Most have however lost all forms of connection with their native land and descendants.