Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Chetti vs Chettiar - Are Those in Malacca Confused?

There has been a lot of argument lately from the Malacca Chetti community in Facebook. They claim that Chetti and Chettiar are not the same. What they probably meant was the Peranakan Indian community and the Nattukottai community are not the same although both calls themselves as Chetti.

What is a Chetti?

Chetti is a titular surname used by the merchant castes of South India. When we say merchant castes, we are referring to a class of people categorised as Vaisyas in the Hindu Varna system. They can even be bankers, money lenders, businessmen, traders. 

Their surname is spelled as Chettu, Chetti, Chetty, Chitty, Setti, Setty, Shetty, Seth. Although the spelling and pronunciation may differ from one region to another, it carries the same meaning. North Indians from Rajasthan who came to do business in Tamil Nadu are generally called as Seth-ji.

The Chetty mentioned here is a Telugu Chetty. It does not refer to the Malacca Chetti.
PICTURE CREDIT: chennaidailyfoto.wordpress.com

The word Chetti in the Chettinad cuisine usually refers to the Nattukottai Chetti community of Karaikudi. It does not refer to the Malacca Chettis.
PICTURE CREDIT: http://www.tripadvisor.com.my/Restaurant_Review-g186338-d737343-Reviews-Chettinad_Restaurant-London_England.html

There are many castes in South India which use Chetti as their titular surname. Here are the list of examples:

24 Manai Telugu Chetti
Balija Chetti
Devangar Chetti
Elur Chetti
Kottar Chetti
Kuruhini Chetti
Moundadan Chetti
Nattukottai Chetti
Pathira Chetti
Pudukadai Chetti
Sadhu Chetti
Sozhia Chetti
Sundaram Chetti
Telugupatty Chetti
Valayal Chetti
Wynad Chetti

The word Chetti has been in existence in South India even before any Chetti men migrated to Malacca in 15th century AD. The Malacca Chetti have their roots in India. Because this is where their male ancestors came from.

We are unsure of which Chetti group migrated to Malacca. It must have been a few men from one of the Tamil speaking Chetti group. This is because the influence of Tamil in their religious practice can still be seen.

These Chetti men then married the local Malay women of Malacca, producing offspring of mixed races. This is why many of our Malacca Chetti friends don't look like South Indians. Some look like Chindians.

Recently, there were some individuals in Facebook who claim that Chetti and Chettiar are not the same. I believe this confusion happened because they don't understand Tamil language.

The word Chettiar is nothing but a more respectful version of the word Chetti. It is customary for Tamils to include the suffix "ar" behind the surnames so that when mentioned, it will sound more respectful.

This is how Chetti became Chettiar, Mudali became Mudaliar, Reddi became Reddiar and Nayak became Nayakar (Naicker).

When we say Chetti, it can refer to any South Indian merchant caste, not necessarily Malacca Chettis alone.  The word Chetti is still popular as a surname in South India and Sri Lanka. It is not exclusively a product of Malacca.

The Malacca Chetti community are under the false impression that the word Chettiar only refers to the other Chetti castes such as the Nattukottai Chetti who arrived in then Malaya during the British period.

Some of them get angry with us Indians in Malaysia when we use the word Chettiar on them.

What the Malacca Chetti community does not realize is, when we call them Chettiar, we are only using the more respectful version of the word Chetti. Furthermore, when speaking in Tamil, certain words has extension for the sake of better conversation.

In Tamil, we usually say "Chettia-re, nalla irukinggala?"
We don't say "Chetti, nalla irukinggala?"

Similarly, we usually say "Reddia-re, saptacha?"
We don't say "Reddi, saptacha?"

Perhaps the Malacca Chetti community will stop getting angry with us Indians if they understood Tamil language better. 

If you noticed something in the beginning of this article, I referred to the entire community as Peranakan Indians. This is actually the correct term for the community instead of Malacca Chetti.

Why so?

Peranakan Indians are descendants of Indians who left India, settled down in the Straits, intermarried with local Malay women, speak Malay language instead of their native Indian language, follow Malay customs and even wear Malay traditional attires but remained as Hindus.

The Malay word Peranakan is from the Tamil word "pira naakan" which means "he who speaks foreign tongue". 

The Peranakan Indian community are divided into several families, each with its own surname. These surnames were actually the caste titles of their Indian ancestors. Here are the list of surnames in their community:


Of these 10 surnames, Chitty is the only surname of Vaisya origin. The others are non-merchant surnames. Let's take a look at the other surnames:

Pillay - Also spelled as Pillai. Used by people of the Vellalar castes. The Vellalars are traditionally agriculturist.

Naiker - Also spelled as Naicker or Nayakkar. Used by people of Telugu and Kannada origin. The surname came into existence after the formation of the Vijayanagra empire in the 14th century AD. A Naicker is a military commander.

Rajah - May not refer to any castes. Could be a common Indian name. 

Padayachi - Also spelled as Padayatchi. Used by people of the Palli(Vanniya) and Paravar(Parathavar) castes. The surname is used by soldiers.

Mudaliar - Also spelled as Mudali, Moodley, Muthaliar. Used by people of the Vellalar and Kaikolar castes. Traditionally agriculturist, government officers and ministers.

Pathar - Also spelled as Bathar or Pattar. Used by goldsmiths.

Konar - Also spelled as Kon or Kone. Used by people of the Idaiyar (Yadava) caste. The Yadavas are shepherds and cowherds. 

Kullen - Also spelled as Kollan. Used by the blacksmiths.

Pandaram - Used by non-Brahmin village priest.

This shows that 9/10 surnames in the Peranakan Indian community are not of Chetti origin. They originated from other castes. The original Vaisyas do not use these surnames.

An important leader of the Malacca Chetti community
These castes would have arrived in Malacca along with the merchant Chettis. Since there were no other Hindu Tamil community in Malacca at that time, they would have intermarried with the Chettis or even Malays and merged as a single community centuries later.

The other Tamil community that lived in Malacca during that time were Muslims. They are largely from the Marakayar caste. Tun Ali is from this community.

The Malays would have then just called all these Hindu Tamils collectively as Chetti for ease of identification. This is because of all Hindu Tamils in Malacca, the Chettis were the most dominant ones.

This is just like how they used to call every Indian as Keling although most of us are not from Kalinga.  

Similarly, we call Sikhs as Banggalis (Vanggalis) although they are actually Punjabis and not Bengalis. This is because they all arrived from Bengal port.

So locals who do not understand the origin of foreigners often use terms which they are comfortable with. This is just a misconception of identity created by them.

The word Chetti then got stuck with the entire community because they all adopted the same Malay custom and intermarried with each other. But in reality, 9/10 of these families are not of real Chetti origin. They would have had male ancestors from other castes. 

This is the only possible way for non-merchant caste titles to exist as surnames in a merchant Peranakan community.

Research proves that the correct term to address this community is Peranakan Indians. Of the 50 families, only 6 are Chitty. They are the original Malacca Chetti who are descendants of Chetti (Chettiar) men from India. Somehow, the word Chetti was wrongly applied to the rest of Peranakan Indians. It is a misnomer. Image taken from the book Peranakan Indians of Singapore and Melaka by  By Samuel S. Dhoraisingam
I hope the Peranakan Indians or as they prefer to be called, the Malacca Chettis, understand this aspect of their history instead of getting upset with the other Tamil speaking Indians in Malaysia for calling them as Chettiars.

Whether we call them as Chetti or Chettiar, it has the same meaning in Tamil language. It is just that the later sounds more respectful.