Tracing the Tamil diaspora in Singapore and Southeast Asia
This 17th-century map of the East Indies is among the treasured artefacts on show in the virtual exhibition From the Coromandel Coast to the Straits: Revisiting our Tamil Heritage.

Tracing the Tamil diaspora in Singapore and Southeast Asia

If the enforced stay-home period has you itching for new experiences, visit the Indian Heritage Centre’s online exhibition, From the Coromandel Coast to the Straits: Revisiting our Tamil Heritage.

The exhibition brings to life lesser-known stories about the Tamil diasporas in Southeast Asia and Singapore. It traces the heritage of the people back to the Chola Dynasty of Southern India, which dates as far as the 3rd century BCE. It is from this period that the show gets part of its title – the Coromandel Coast, a key trading region in the Indian subcontinent, is an English derivative of Cholamandalam, which means “the realm of the Cholas.”

Online visitors get to ogle artefacts from as early as the 2nd and 3rd centuries and listen to stories about early Tamil settlers in Singapore. Here is our pick of highlights from the exhibition:

siva nataraja

Siva Nataraja
This 12th century bronze sculpture of the deity Siva is truly one-of-a-kind. It was made using the lost wax process, which meant that its unique mould was broken after the sculpture was completed. This dancing form of Siva embodies the deity’s roles as creator, preserver and destroyer of the universe.

heart in hand

Heart in Hand – a marriage of identities
Little is known about the lives of early female Tamil migrants and their stories often go unheard. The Indian Heritage Centre therefore commissioned Tamil artist Anurendra Jegadeva, who has lived his life split between Malaysia and Australia, to create a work for the exhibition that gives voice to the experience of female migrants. His painted wooden altar features his daughter as the central figure, caught between her ethnic cultural background and the Western values she grew up, trying to negotiate her identity and place in the world.

larger Leiden grant

Larger Leiden Grant
This copperplate from 1006 is a crucial piece of evidence that records the cross-cultural relationship between Tamils and Southeast Asia. The plates contain an edict issued by Cholla king Rajaraja Chola about the construction of a Buddhist complex in their realm, under the patronage of King of Kedaram (Kedah, in Southeast Asia) Maravijayatungavarman, in the name of his father Chudamanivaram.

singapore stone

Singapore Stone
The Singapore Stone, believed to date between the 11th and 13th century, has long been an enigma for historians. It carries 50 lines of inscription in Kawi, a Southeast Asian script derived from Southern Indian Brahmi, but for a long time, no one has successfully interpreted the inscription. Historian Iain Sinclair, however, offers a reader of the stone that suggests early Tamil presence in the Straits of Singapore.

ship bell

Ship’s bell, with inscription in Tamil characters translated as “Bell of the Ship Mohideen Baksh”
Who knew a ship’s bell could be used as a cooking pot? This happened when Maori in New Zealand came upon a Tamil merchant ship’s bell on land, without realising it was a bell. Inscription on the bronze object identifies it as originally belonging to a 17th– or 18th-century merchant ship that would have likely piled the Coromandel Coast. The mystery of how the bell came to New Zealand has never been solved.

View the online exhibition, From the Coromandel Coast to the Straits: Revisiting our Tamil Heritage here.

(Photos: National Library Board, National Museum New Delhi, Indian Heritage Centre, National Museum of Singapore, Leiden University Library and Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa)

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