Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Kelings in History

Recently there were many disputes among Tamil communities of Malaysia, Singapore and even Indonesia when they are referred as Keling. Many take this as a derogatory remarks hurled at them. A few people had tried to give some explanation on the history of such words. But some other disputes their claims. So in this post, I'll try to put forth as many as historical accounts I can find on the origin of the word.

Keling is a Malay word which referred to the Indian in Malaysia and it has been received in a derogatory manner amongst the Indian in Malaysia at the beginning of twentieth century. However, the Malay consciousness of keling is not new and it happened since the existence of Malay Sultanate in Malacca in 15th century.

It has been used widely in many classical Malay books such as Sulalat al-Salatin, Hikayat Hang Tuah and Hikayat Raja Pasai. According to the 17th century Malay epic Sulalat al-Salatin, “Keling” played a very important role to help the administration of the Malacca Malay Empire. Generally, the word “Keling” has been used mostly with a positive connotation. In Sulalat al-Salatin, the word “Keling” was used 66 times in different contexts.

The book also associates 2 prominent characters with the word keling namely; Mani Purindam and Raja Mundeliar and how they had been assimilated in the Malay society and accepted as part of the high rank officials in the Malacca Empire.

In the modern Malay dictionary, the word “Keling” is used to describe merchants coming from the South Indian subcontinent including Kalinga and Telingana to the Malay Peninsula as early as 3rd century. The Malay dictionary mentioned that this word, especially in the Northern area of Malay Peninsula, refers to the Indians who are Muslims.

The story about “Keling” appeared before the existence of Malacca Empire. It was about Raja Suran, who was the King from India, came to the Malay Peninsula in his military expedition with his soldiers. His army, together with large numbers of elephants and horses, fought hard with the military from Siam and finally, the King succeeded to kill Raja Chulan. Later, Raja Suran married with Prince Onang Kiu, the daughter of Raja Chulan, and the army marched towards Temasik, or known today as Singapore. It has been described that they were skillful fighters from the great Kingdom in India and were involved in the process of colonization and expansion of Indian Empire until it reached Southeast Asia. The armed forces were formidable in both land and sea warfare and won against the Kingdom of Gangga Nagara in Perak, Langgiu in Johore and Temasik.

There are many locations in south-east Asian countries Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia named after the word "Keling". This proves that Kelings has been a big factor in the history in those areas. In Medan, Sumatra Utara, Indonesia, there is a place named as 'Kampung Keling' until now the Indians are referred to as Kelings without any offence. In fact recently when the local government attempted to change the town name to Kampung Madras, Tamils living in the village protested and preferred to be called as Keling.


William Girdlestone Shellabear (1862–1948), the founder of MPH Group, a publication house that was founded on 1890 referred the word “Keling” in his dictionary in the early 20th century as “the native of the eastern coast of British India, especially the Telugus and Tamils”. And R. O. Winstedt of Malay-English Dictionary, added that this word has been taken from the old kingdom of Kalinga in India.

The Dutch "Dagregister" referred to Indian inhabitants of Melaka as "Clings" or "Klingers". One must remember that the Dutch ruled Melaka long before the British landed on this part of the world.

Munshi Abdullah an Indian descendant himself used the word "Keling" in his many literatures especially in his book "Sejarah Melayu". In the 2nd chapter, he narrated that the Chinese emperor referred the Chola King as "Raja Keling". This can be cross referenced in the Chinese literatures as well like in the compilation of the Chinese history book, "China: Five Thousand Years of History and Civilization" edited by The Editorial Committee of Chinese Civilization. Under the chapter, "Maritime Transportation and Trade in the Tang Dynasty", page 603 referring the Indian subcontinent as "The State of Keling". This book gives the earliest recorded dates as A.D.813.

In the "100th volume of Tang Hui Yao" in the 8th year of Yuanhe (813), The Keling State offered "two Sengzhi maids"

In his book, "A Descriptive Dictionary of British Malaya", Nicholas Belfield Dennys mentioned as follows:

Inscription, Indian - An ancient inscription, supposed to date from the thirteenth century, was extant on a sandstone rock at the entrance of Singapore river, on the spot now occupied by the Harbour Master's Offices. Col. Low [J. I. A., Vol. I, p. 89] gives the following account of it:—" The inscription, a fragment of which I possess, was only legible in few places, the character appertaining to the Peninsula of India, and probably it may be described in the Malayan annals in these terms: ' Rajah Suran of Amdan Nagara, after conquering the State of Johore with his Kling troops [Kling is the term applied to the people of Coromandel coast], proceeded to Tamsak. When he returned to his country of Kling or Bejaneegar, he left a stone monument of his victories, on which was an inscription in the language of Hindustan. Tamsak is also called Singhapura.' This was about A.D, 1201. Singhapura. observes Mr. Crawfued, was first settled in A.D, 1160 by Sri Sura Bawana." [See J. I A., Vol. I. p. 89. and M. P. I. C, Vol. I, p. 219 et acq.]

This proves that the word Keling was already in use around A.D, 1201. He continues...

Mr. Maxwell states that at the foot of Bukit Mertajam, Province Wellesley, on the south side, there is a block of granite on which some rude characters hare been traced. The Malays call it batu surat, the rock of the writing. " I believe," he says, " that the inscription has never been deciphered, and that the character has not been identified. When I saw it last (in 1874), it was difficult in places to detect the ancient inscription on the rugged face of the rock, its faint lines contrasting strangely with the deeply-cut initials of Col. Low on the same boulder."

He also gives a lengthy description on the word itself:-

Kling - The name given by the Malays (J. I. A.. Vol. II., p. 10) to the Telinga nation of Southern India, and which appears to be a corruption or abbreviation of the genuine name of the country of this people—Kalinga. So many have settled in Malaya that they form an appreciable portion of the population. Being the only Indian nation familiarly known to the nations of the Archipelago, the word is used by them as a general term for all the people of Hindustan, and for the country itself. The trade and intercourse of the Telingas with the Archipelago is of great but unascertained antiquity, and still goes on. Many Telingas have, from time to time, settled more particularly in the western parts of Malaya, as in Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, and their mixed descendants are tolerably numerous. In Singapore, for example, the Telingas form about one-tenth of the population, and in Penang they are eyen more numerous. It was this people that, in all probability, introduced the Hindu religion, and they seem also to have contributed materially to the spread of Mahommedanism, the majority of the settlers being at present of this persuasion. In the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Portuguese found them carrying on trade at Malacca, and Barbosa, who calls them Chetijs (obviously the "Chitties" of to-day), describes them as " wealthy merchants of Coromandel, who traded in large ships."

A propos of this subject, two interesting communications appeared in the Penang Gazzette under date of 16th September, 1887, the greater portions of which we quote hereunder. Vilayat writes :—

In my edition of Elphinstone's "History of India," p. 242, the following passage occurs:—

"Another branch of the tribe of Chalukya * * * ruled over Calinga, which is the eastern portion of Telingana, extending along the sea from Dravida to Orissa."

"Garrett, in his * Classical Dictionary of India,' says: Kalinga is the name of the sea-coast west of the mouth of the Ganges with the upper part of the Coromandel Coast. The inhabitants are called Kalingas."

"Forbes, in his 'Hindustani Dictionary,' says : Kaling, the name of a country, especially applied to a district on the Coromandel Coast between Cuttack and Madras."

When I first heard the name Kling, I considered it a misnomer, but have changed my opinion for various reasons:—
  1. The people we speak of as Klings cannot properly be called Hindus, as the majority in the Straits will, I believe, be found to be Mahommcdans. This disposes of the religious name.
  2. They cannot be called Tamils, as very many, if not most of them, are Telugus (Telingana) ; thus language fails to meet the difficulty.
  3. Coromandels might be used, but this word is only known as a geographical expression by the Europeans. Natives of India do not use it, that I am aware of.
  4. Dravidians might meet the want of a common name (one in common I mean), but philologists would be horror-struck at the desecration of one of their pet words. Nor is it a word in common use among natives of India.
We are thus compelled to fall back upon the despised word Kling, which, I think, may be satisfactorily accounted for on the following suppositions:—
  1. Penang was originally a part of the Bengal Presidency, or rather was ruled from Bengal.
  2. Officials from Bengal must have brought Bengali servants with them.
  3. These, when the first importations of natives of the south-east coast of India were brought over, would class them as Kaling ; that is, as people coming from the districts known to them as Kaling, south of Bengal.
  4. The next step would be easy— Kaling has a short " a " ; omit it altogether (there are many similar instances in philology), the result is Kling, applied to all natives south of Bengal.
The above appears to me the probable derivation of the name as used here. It should be observed that Forbes gives the word as Kaling and not Kalinga, as spelt by other authors from whom I have quoted.

He also continues by adding...

"Scabeboeus" adds the following remarks:—The word is a most interesting one, and points to a connection between the Straits and India reaching nearly as far back as the time of Alexander the Great, and the only trace of which remains in its continued application to natives of Southern India. It is not used only in the Straits, but all over the Dutch and Portuguese possessions in the East Indies, and its universal application in these parts points to a large trade having been carried on between Southern India and the Eastern Seas. It is erroneously derived from Telinga or Telingapatam, once a port on the Madras Coast, from which the sea has receded, and which is now an inland town about 2 miles from the shore. The name of this port signifies that there was a community or nation bearing the name of Talingas or Kalingas, and it is from the name of this people that our word is derived. Indian archaeologists are well aware of the existence of a large nation in Southern India who worshipped Siva, and who called themselves Kalingas. Some record of this nation is found in the oldest of known Indian inscriptions— those at Khalsi—which are probably the moat interesting in the East, as demonstrating the connection of India and Greece, by their mention of the names of Ptolemy and Alexander.

Evidences of this connection are abundant in Greek literature ; but these are the only clear ones on the Indian side. The country that this nation inhabited is now known as Northern Circars—the Telugu Coast of the Bay of Bengal. No doubt emigration and trade from this part of India was then more extensive than any other, and the word Kalinga was applied in general to all emigrants from India. In the Journal of the Indian Archipelago, in an article on the Sijara Malayu—a. collection of Malay legends—it ia stated the word Kaling is used generally for India. The Klings of the Straits do not come so much from the Northern Circars as from districts about Tanjore, and from purely Tamil districts; and the classes who take domestic service in the Straits—Hindus or Lubbais—are never known to serve Europeans in India.

Two quotations which I have found with reference to the word are of great interest; one is from the translation of Mr. Senart of the Khalsi inscription, and is as follows;—" Great is Kalinga, conquered by King Pujadasi, beloved of Devas. Hundreds of thouaanda have been carried off. Immediately the King, on learning of the conquest of Kalinga, turned to religion, &c." This dates about 250 B.C..

The other is from a French translation of a narrative of a Chinese traveller, Huen Tsiang (Polerins Bouddistes); it runs:— "After having travelled 1,500 li, he arrived at the Kingdom of Kalinga, In ancient times the Kingdom of Kalinga possessed a dense population; insomuch that in the streets shoulders rubbed and waggon wheels jostled; if the passengers but lifted their sleeves an awning of immense extent was formed . . . ." The narrative of these travels was written by the traveller about 640 of our era, and though travellers' tales are proverbially liable to being taken at something less than par value, this ancient Chinese traveller seems, in the opinion of his French translator. to have been not only a prince among pioneers, but an observant and truthful narrator of what he saw.

In the book; A History of Classical Malay Literature, the author Liaw Yock Fang described the Hindu influences in Indonesia where itis known as Serat Rama Keling in Jawa, Madura and Yogyakarta.

Kenneth R. Hall in his book A History of Early Southeast Asia describes a group of merchants of Bandar Hilir as "Another group, hailing from Tuban, Japara, Sunda and Lampug, lived in the Upeh quarter with chief Utimuti Raja, though apart from the Keling, Chinese, and Gujarati residential enclaves..."

In Asiatic Researches or Transactions of the Society Instituted in Bengal - Volume 10, which was published in London in 1811, and describes the classical Malay dramas, you may find stories of 5 Pandava brothers. Here the Indian drama is said to be translated from the Keling culture and known as the history of a Keling Rajah.

There are a huge number of reference points in the historical books available to show that the word Keling had been used loosely to identify Indians in general throughout this region and not limited to Malaysia.


Various place names in Malaysia contain the word keling for historical reasons, e.g. Tanjong Keling., Kampong Keling, and Bukit Keling, etc.

In Penang, the Kapitan Keling Mosque, situated on the corner of Buckingham Street and Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling (Pitt Street), is one of the oldest mosques in George Town.

In Singapore, there is a road in Jurong Industrial Estate called Tanjong Kling Road which was derived from the word 'Keling'.

In Jepara Regency, Central Java, Indonesia, there is a subdistrict called Keling. Locals link the location with the historical 6th century Kalingga Kingdom.

In Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, there's a place called Pacar Keling. It's an area in the subdistrict Tambaksari, Surabaya. Phrase 'Pacar' itself means 'Lover' in Bahasa Indonesia.

In Philippines, there is a district in the North Luzon by the name of Kalinga.

Apart from these locations, there are literally hundreds of locations, villages and structures  throughout South East Asia that carry the name of Kalinga in various forms such as Keling and Kling.


The word “keling” in Malaysia has become a socially undesirable term and it has a derogatory connotation for Malaysians of Indian origin. Though the word existed in the Malay vocabulary since 15th century, there was an attempt to remove it from the Malay dictionary due to its negative connotations.

Many attempts have been made over the years to erase it from the Malay vocabulary. One was by a group of Indian Muslim community in Malaysia to remove the word “keling” from the third edition of Kamus Dewan, a Malay dictionary which was published by the Malaysian government agency, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP). It happened in July 30th 2003 when the chairman of Angkatan Pelopor India Muslim Selangor and Wilayah Persekutuan (APIM), filed the summons in High Court against Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka and five others over the use of the term “keling” which, according to them, was offensive and humiliating to Malaysians Indians. He said that the word was in conflict to the Federal Constitution, National Principles (Rukun Negara) and the Publication and Printing Presses Act 1984 (Amended 1987).

This phenomenon is not only happened in Malaysia, but also happened in Singapore. On 1st August 1921, The Straits Times, one of the newspapers in Singapore carried out a notice from Municipal Office entitled “Kling Street - Change of Name”. In the advertisement, it was announced that the name of the Kling Street will be changed to Chulia Street starting from 1st January 1922. It was believed that the name had been changed due to the suggestion by the Indian Association of Singapore.

There were many incidents of Indian migrations. The latest migrations of Indians happened during the British reign in early 1800's. The British brought in many workers to work in Malaya in many industries mainly in rubber plantations. At the same time they also had brought in criminals and Indian freedom fighters to break the movement. This workers group of Indians do not know the local history and assumed that the word was derived from the sound of chains of criminal's feet. They failed to understand that the term was used to all early Indians who came from the Indian subcontinent.

Some argued that it refers only to those who came from the Kalinga city and should not be used to the general Indians. Till today the term is still considered derogatory by the Indian communities in this region.

I truly believe that if we learn the history of the word "Keling" and how it had affected the local community in the past, it will boost the morale of the present day Indians.

  • A Descriptive Dictionary of British Malaya, Nicholas Belfield Dennys - http://www.archive.org/details/adescriptivedic00denngoog
  • Indo-Portuguese History: Old Issues, New Questions
  • The Role of the Keling during the 15th Century Malacca Sultanate, - Abdur-Rahman Mohamed Amin and Ahmad Murad Merican
  • A Historical Perspective on the Word "Keling" - http://www.sabrizain.org/malaya/keling.htm
  • The Penang Gazette, 16th September 1887
  • International Journal of Social Science and Humanity
  • China: Five Thousand Years of History and Civilization
  • W. G. Shellabear, Malay-English Vocabulary, Singapore
  • Singapore Infopedia - http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_156_2005-01-26.html
  • The Keling in Malay Discourses: The Study of Narratives in Selected Classical Malay Prose Epics