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Chettiar Temple

c.1930

2018

One of several Hindu temples around the city, the Sri Nagarthan Sulamani temple is now partly hidden by overpass that leads to a bridge over the Pazundaung creek. Thankfully the road didn’t quite reach the level of the colourful gopurum tower, so at least the legion of commuters making their way in and out of the city have a little something to look forward to along the way.

This particular image was colourised for use as a postcard, and the gopurum was made a simple brown. It’s hard to say if this was accurate. Colour has certainly been used on gopurum throughout history, but not in all cases. Indeed there is a lively debate today over the future of gopurum design: modern gopurum tend to focus more on geometric shapes than mythological figures, and favour plain monochromatic colouring. Some commentators link this to a creeping influence of Western design thinking.

Thankfully, this hasn’t extended to the hindu temples of Yangon, and today they are a riot of colour, offering a contrasting but equally eye catching alternative to the gold of the pagodas.

This temple was funded by the Chettiar community, Indian immigrants that came from what is now part of the Tamil Nadu area of southern India. The temple’s modern name refers to the specific sub-group of Chettiar, the Nagarathar. The majority of Chettiar were part of the influx of Indians that followed the British arrival in Burma.

Chettiar, with traditional white markings on head and torso (via Roar)

The Chettiar are one of the most vilified groups in Myanmar’s history, thanks to that most risky of vocations for public relations: moneylending. The scale of their involvement in Burma’s financial sector was incredible. A British 1930 provincial banking report found that 70% of all loans in the country were from Chettiar organisations, and by independence they had collectively invested more in the country than the British government had.

The majority of loans were for agricultural purposes, providing capital for farmers, or covering the gap between the sowing of crops and their sale. Chettiar loans were secured against collateral, something of value that would be confiscated if the loan was not paid, and this was usually the land itself.

A Chettiar financial ledger

For a time everything went well – the Chettiar were described in the British report as the financial back-bone of the Burmese people. The loans they provided were a vital component in Burma becoming known as Asia’s Rice Bowl. Then came the Great Depression.

Crop prices plummeted; rice that had been worth 202 rupees for a hundred baskets in 1926 fetched just 89 rupees a decade later. Cultivators could not even afford to pay back interest on their debts to the Chettiar, and so their land was forfeit.

Many farmers became tenants on their former land

By 1938 a quarter of all land in the main rice-growing areas of the country was in Chettiar hands. Against a background of increasingly anti-Indian sentiment, the Chettiar were particularly demonised in the press, and blamed for the full spectrum of economic problems. Amongst other more lurid accusations, newspaper cartoons depicted the Chettiar as greedy villains who had intentionally stolen Burmese land, and claimed that this turn of events had been their plan all along. European writers joined the frenzy, with one particularly unpleasant screed describing them as ‘the leeches of the country, clean as snakes are clean’.

The irony was that most Chettiar were desperately keen to rid themselves of their newly acquired land. They were financiers, not landowners, and their very social structure was built around the former. Many worked with debtors to avoid default – lowering interest rates for instance, seeking to keep the original owner on their land. In the past when farmers had defaulted on their debts and their land been confiscated, the Chettiar would immediately find a new buyer. But the value of land had also crashed, and no one wanted to purchase the land, as they would then be committed to a regular land revenue tax.

A statue celebrating the Chettiar’s role as moneylenders in Singapore, where their reputation is considerably better (via the Deccan Chronicle)

With Japanese invasion imminent, many Chettiar joined the long, perilous, and frequently fatal march out of Burma. Scapegoated for the failure of the colonial economy, they were not allowed to return after independence and many that remained were expelled from the country. Their property and land was systematically nationalised by successive governments.

Today, some Chettiar are hoping to retrieve ownership of their property in Myanmar. Though they acknowledge that much of the land they were in possession of would be impractical to return to them, there remain various houses, shops, warehouses and industrial sites that theoretically still belong to their ancestors: another complexity in the impossibly intricate issue of land ownership in modern Myanmar.

For (a lot) more information on the Chettiar’s role in Burma and their subsequent vilification, I recommend tracking down Sean Turnell’s paper ‘The Chettiars in Burma’. It includes an important look at interest rates charged by Chettiar, and how they compared to other moneylenders of the period. Thanks also to Sharman Minus of the highly recommended Chasing Chinthes blog for the original image.

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