January 13, 2017
by Tuan M Zameer Careem

T M Zameer Careem
This community’s knack for combining their Chinese and Malay culture contributed immensely in forming a rich heritage in ancient Ceylon.

When Mahatma Gandhi visited Sri Lanka he made it a point to mention Malays as part of the locals. This helps affirm the status enjoyed by them in an era gone by. It is a pity to note, that the influential Peranakan community of ancient Ceylon is currently a threatened minority whose identity is largely unknown even amongst the local Malays in Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan Malays belong to an integral segment of the Lankan community and have long since played a vital role in both the history and culture of the Island nation. As a community which is renowned for its valor and service to the motherland, the Malays have inevitably carved their own niche as an entity renowned for its glorious past, military honors, Art, language, literature, couture and cuisine. The Malays locally referred to as ‘Ja Minissu’, form an endangered community which traces its proud origins back from the Indonesian and Malayan archipelago. 
The country witnessed the antecedents of this extraneous minority mainly during the Dutch and British colonial eras. Many historical manuscripts trace their antecedents even prior to as early 6th century BC. The present day Malay community, which numbers nearly 40,000 individuals, consists of those who claim Royal descent from the Spice Island of Indonesia. The rest are descendants of valiant mercenaries who were installed for service by the Dutch and British Colonists. 

The Malays in Sri Lanka form an intricate network of different ethnic groups such as Javanese, Bandanese, Sundanese, ethnic Malays, Balinese, Makasarese, etc. so the term ‘Malays’ does not necessarily refer to the Ethnic Malays in Sri Lanka. Instead it was chosen as a conventional term by the British Officials to denote those who trace their ancestry from Malayan Peninsula and Indonesian archipelago. The Baba Nyonyas or Peranakan Malays who reached the shores of Lanka (Ceylon) during the Dutch era from Malacca, Penang and Indonesia was once a prominent sub ethnic group of Malays who eventually ran extinct by the end of the 20th century. During the bygone era, Malays were of much importance in the Lankan society, that Mahatma Gandhi during his three weeks long visit to Sri Lanka, in 1927, made it a point to mention Malays as part of the locals in almost every oration he delivered. 

This helps affirm the status enjoyed by them in an era gone by. It is a pity to note, that the influential Peranakan community of ancient Ceylon is currently a threatened minority whose identity is largely unknown even amongst the local Malays in Sri Lanka thanks to the oversight and lack of cultural awareness.
Babas, Nyonyas or Chinese Malays
Though this vibrant Malay community is relatively small in size and number, its rich history and cultural tapestry has given birth to an intricate network of sub ethnic groups. The Baba Nyonya Community or Peranakans is one such distinct sub ethnic Malay minority which is proud of its own culture and lifestyles, which is a fusion of predominantly Chinese and Malay culture yet the Chinese factor plays an important role. Alas, the sub ethnic Malays, known as Pernakans have long lost their undisputed lineage. Today the Pernakans dwindle to a handful, with just few elderly folks of mixed ancestry. Unlike other Malays, the Peranakans were identified by their patronymics and specific honorary tiles or name prefixes. 

The words Tuan and Gnei are the most common prefixes used before the names of any Sri Lankan Malay which is a long inherited tradition which helps distinguish the Malays from the rest. However, in contrast to this norm, the Malays of Peranakan lineages use the prefixes Baba and Nonya. The word Baba is originally a Persian influenced Hindustani title of respect for men, probably introduced by the British East India trading Company which imposed its trading influences in the coastal belt of Sri Lanka and Malaya. It was once used by Lankan Peranakan male folk as a common prefix which helped distinguish Perankan Malay out from the rest. While the term Nyonya which includes variants such as Nona, nonya and Nyonyah comes from the Indonesian word for non Malay married women of significant social standing and this was the common name prefix used amongst the women. 

Meanwhile Peranakan is a term used interchangeably in South East Asia and in Sri Lanka to denote those of greater Chinese influence and lineage than their native Malay core. The Perankans witnessed a drastic decline in their population by the turn of the 20th century, yet the families which they formed in Ceylon continue the use of Peranakan Patronymics and name prefixes. Prominent Pernakan Malay patronymics include Lyes, Saldins, Bohorans, Burhan, Jainudeen, Sainon, Doles, Chunchie, Doole, Amjadeen, Kutinun and Hallaldin. The Lye family is one such notable family with Perankan bloodline which was founded in the 18th century by Captain Baba Aboo Sally Lye, the second in command of the Dutch Regiment to Ceylon who hailed from the Pecinan village, Java, Indonesia.

Versatile seamstresses
The Perankans are renowned as the local connoisseurs of art and literature as they are credited to have introduced the traditional Portuguese lace, known as Beeralu Renda which the Perankan Malay women from Malacca introduced in Southern Ceylon having studied the ancient craft and having acquired the unique techniques from the Portuguese who ruled over Malacca. 
The Kebaya which is the most alluring yet sedate form of dress which exemplifies the rich cultural background of the Nonyas was introduced by the Pernakans in Ceylon. The Pernakan Malay ladies were versatile seamstresses with innate passion for delicate embroidery, batik sarongs, beaded slippers, and exquisite jewels. The Nyonyas of the Lye family were well trained in needle work and embroidery, and they often crocheted their own clothes such as shawls, handkerchiefs and wall hangings. The well to do Nonyas of the early 19th and 20th Centuries, had plenty of time on their hands to excel in needle work. Many of these items fashioned came to be associated with wealth and status. The Nyonyas were known for their love for ornate designs, a fondness for brilliant and variegated colors, but retained the respect for the finest workmanship. 
Gnei Ruhoon, the last surviving member of the Thasim Lye Peranakan Clan who has expertise in embroidery, lace work and horticulture says, “from an early age all young Nyonyas were taught the art of sewing and embroidery, and by the time they were ready for marriage, they were expected to have completed a number of items for their trousseau.” The decorative motifs that embellished the handkerchiefs, tablecloths and ornamental hangings involved the couching, using Gold and silver threads and the needle work and lace making practiced by the Nyonyas were considered time consuming and physically taxing on the eyes which eventually led this exotic artistry on the verge of extinction.

The early Nyonyas from well-to-do Baba families were expected to be skilled in domestic arts, which included the art of pottery, beadwork and cookery, before they were married. However, despite the connoisseurship for artistry and skills, the Nyonya jewelry indicated the wealth and status of a family more than anything else. Almost every peranakan family spoke highly of their ancestral jewelry, especially of ‘Kaalongs’ the looped chain made of solid gold pebbles of ranging sizes. The ancestral jewels of the Baba-Nyonya were passed down from mother to the eldest daughter, thus passing it down the female line of descendants. The Babas who were educated joined the service of the armed forces and worked as higher officials of great repute and trust.

Artistic heritage
The Baba-Nyonyas who belonged to the higher echelons of society lived a life of luxury, and their homes were furnished with exquisitely carved antique wood suites, heirlooms and chests preferably made of Burmese teak. The chandeliers, spittoons supported by carved elephants, decorated bowls, trays, wall plaques and traditional oil lamps were amongst the finest brass collectibles commonly seen in any Perenakan family home. Thus it helped portray their artistic heritage and social standing.

Pernakans simply loved every piece of brass that gave off a shimmering reflection and large Belgian glass mirrors adorned the dressing tables and the walls of early Perankan homes in Ceylon.

The Nyonyas adorned themselves with every intricate piece of jewel, and were much concerned of the conspicuous display of their jewelry. They would adorn even their hair with “jibbit konde” of gold and diamonds “batu intan” and their ankles with fine gold jewelry pulled into thin wires that pronounced its delicacy and rich decorated art. The early Nonyas wore a variety of bracelets, seven-loop chains, elaborate earrings, anklets and bangles, and their clothes were fastened with brooches of gold, silver and even diamonds and these heavy earrings of thick stems and studs often resulted in enlarged holes in their ear lobes of the wearers. 
Early Nonyas attached purses made of fine silver mesh, with intricate work studded with ornaments similar to Victorian purses, which was then a primary identity to the Nonyas from other local Malays. The Peranakan Malay’s knack for combining their Chinese and Malay culture contributed immensely in forming the rich Peranakan heritage in ancient Ceylon.

In today’s world, the culture and heritage of the Baba Nyonya community is an outmoded form of identity, which is long lost and forgotten. The main reason which led to their extinction was frequent intermarriages with other Malay and non Malay Ethnic groups yet the Pernakans without an iota of doubt have left an indelible mark in the history of Malays in Sri Lanka.
(Author is a descendant of Captain Baba Aboo Sally Lye, based on his maternal bloodline) – zameerwrites@gmail.com
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