Putri Fitria | August 27, 2010
If you have been to the North Sumatra capital of Medan, you may well have passed through an area of the city known to locals as Kampung Keling. For decades, Kampung Keling has been well known among residents as a settlement of ethnic Indian people. Although city administrators tried to change its official name to Kampung Madras — the word keling connotes dark skin and is offensive to some Indians — the change didn’t take and the enclave remains popularly known as Kampung Keling.
Walking through the area, it is hard to miss the Punjabi people who live there. Punjabis are one of India’s main ethnic groups from a northern region straddling the border dividing India from Pakistan. The men are tall, dark and handsome, wearing traditional turbans and long beards, while the women have sharp features and often bright skinned.
The culture and religious beliefs of the Indian residents who live there have added a dimension to Medan’s diversity, yet most Indonesians know little about them. Their striking appearance and unfamiliar customs of the enclave’s dwellers have added to their mystique among locals. But, with a little effort, it’s surprisingly easy to lift the veil on Punjabi culture in Medan. Once you do, you’ll find a warm and welcoming people who are not only committed to preserving their own culture and traditions, but also proud to be Indonesian.
Some time ago, while shopping at a sports store in Kampung Keling, I met a friendly middle-aged Punjabi man, Giani Dalwinder Singh. Our conversation on that hot sunny day was very interesting as he enthusiastically told me about Punjabi-Medanese culture and history. He eventually ended up inviting me to a family wedding, a courtesy that I happily accepted.
The wedding was to be held in a gurdwara — a local Sikh place of worship doubles as an important community center for members of the enclave. This particular building was raised in 1955 and was decorated with passages of wisdom from Guru Granth Sahib’s holy book of writings, some dating back to the 16th century. “The Punjabi identity is closely tied to the Sikh religion. A real Punjabi must adhere to the Sikh ways,” Giani explained.
The history of Punjabi existence in North Sumatra can be traced back to Amritsar and Jullundur in Northern India. Sikh-Punjabis first arrived in northern Sumatra in the 18th century through Aceh. Most of them came as traders who settled in the area and slowly dispersed throughout northern Sumatra.
Another group of Punjabis arrived as part of a Gurkha army brought to Indonesia by the British colonial administration. The Gurkhas consisted of various Indian ethnic groups, including a Sikh regiment. Some of these troops were sent to Indonesia to supply arms to the Dutch who were struggling to suppress Indonesia’s demands for independence.
When the Gurkha soldiers saw the way the Dutch were oppressing of the local Indonesian population, many switched sides, taking over Dutch ships and joining the locals in their fight for freedom. Many of these Gurkha soldiers eventually settled in Sumatra.
When I arrived at the wedding, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was quickly put at ease by a combination of tabla (Indian percussion instruments), and the teasing rhythmic accompaniment of Punjabi singing. It all blended into a symphony called the Punjabi call simran. Simran means to remember, and is a method of contemplative meditation using repetition, which Sikhs believe enables them to reach a kind of state of rapture. Believe me, it works. The beautiful, rhythmic music put me in a blissful trance-like state as I watched the elaborate nuptials unfold.
The bride and groom sat in front of the book of Guru Granth Sahib while a priest read out loud from pages of scripture.Bound together by cloth, the couple then encircled the holy book four times, asking for a blessing at each pass.
Bread and milk, Punjabi delicacies, were served after the wedding. “We are Punjabi people! Indian food will always survive, even though our grandparents have stayed here for a long time. Try how it tastes,” Pritam Singh Chabal, a Sikh official, urged with a warm smile.
Pritam, a prominent figure among the Punjabi-Medanese, introduced me to people at my table, including several gurdwara custodians. I was struck by how open and receptive everyone was, a trait that I couldn’t help but realize flew in the face of their reclusive, mysterious reputation among many Indonesians.
As I fell into conversation, I couldn’t help but notice that, along with fiercely protecting their unique culture, this exotic group of people was also thoroughly Indonesian. From their chatting, I noticed that they were speaking Bahasa Indonesia with a distinct dialect. The stories and talk told the tale of people deeply involved with their country.
Today, there are approximately 1,000 Punjabis living throughout North Sumatra. Many are businesspeople and merchants, but a large segment of the group have become famous for their ability to breed cows for milking. Punjabi people in Sumatra continue to preserve their ways. When asked about their wishes in relation to their social status as non-indigenous people, one of the men at the wedding answered:
“We wish there would be no discrimination against us in the future. We do come from north India, but we are Indonesian now.”
A traditional Punjabi wedding in Medan. Thousands of ethnic Indians live in Sumatra, some of them descendants of soldiers who helped Indonesia win its independence from the Dutch. (JG Photos/Putri Fitria)