Saturday, November 2, 2013

Little India Preps for Deepavali

Little India is bustling right before Deepavali

Happy Deepavali! The Little India section of George Town, Penang is always a vibrant and bustling feast for the senses. In the week leading up to the Deepavali (also called "Diwali") celebration, everything is amped up a bit. The crowds are bigger, the stores are busier, and the Bollywood music blares from large speakers out on the sidewalk. Most stores have open fronts, and their merchandise displays extend on to the street. As you stroll through Little India, it's easy to see what everyone has to offer without having to stop to poke your head through a door.

Deepavali is a five day "festival of lights" and quite important in the Hindu religion. Traditionally, a row of lamps is lit to signify good's victory over evil, and people celebrate by shooting off fireworks to ward of harmful spirits, wearing new clothes, and sharing sweets with each other. As I write this, firecrackers have been going off all night on the streets below my home.

Delicious sweets from Sri Ananda Bahwan

Last Monday, I dropped the kids off at school a mere 12 hours after our return from our trip to China and Tibet. In the school parking lot, I ran into a friend who invited me out sari shopping in Little India that morning. Hmmm.. go back home to unpack and do grocery shopping or hang with my friends to go shopping? The decision was not difficult.

Dosai and Saris
Note that the Dosai is almost as long as the table.

Our first stop was Woodlands Vegetarian on Penang Street to fill up on Paper Dosai, a paper-thin pancake made of fermented rice batter and black lentils, served with masala potatoes. To say that my friend ordered the Large size would be an understatement. Afterwards, we headed down the block to Maya Silk Centre to check out their sari cloth collection. As Mr. Rajan pulled out one beautifully embroidered silk after another, we quickly became overwhelmed by the selection. His shop was quite busy that week finishing orders for Deepavali, but by next week, he could make our custom saris in as little as an hour. Thankfully, he could also hide Velcro and hooks in the folds of the fabric so we wouldn't have to rely on our Indian friends to come over and dress us whenever we wanted to wear it. After mulling over the vast selection, we decided to come back post-Deepavali to figure out what we wanted.

A little shop on the corner of Penang Street and Market Street

On Thursday, I found myself back in Little India for a walking tour with Teresa from the Penang Heritage Trust and organized by Spiral Synergy. Teresa was part of the committee instrumental in getting part of George Town named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I had no idea that they were rejected 8 times before getting the recognition. I commend them for persevering and bringing the charms of George Town to the attention of the world.

Indian Treats from Thali NR Sweets on Penang Street

This day began with a traditional Indian breakfast at Sri Ananda Bahwan or SAB as it is affectionately called. While the open kitchen has become a trendy concept with swanky restaurants,  SAB has had an open kitchen for a long time. With griddles positioned at the front of the restaurant, people walking by on the sidewalk can easily be lured in by watching the cooks spread out elongated ovals of dosai batter or flip Roti Canai dough around in the air to stretch it out.

Making delicious Dosai and Roti Canai by the sidewalk

Afterwards, we headed to a small beauty centre to watch a demonstration of threading and henna art. Threading involves removing unwanted hair by twisting thread around each wayward strand and yanking it out. According to Teresa, it's better than using tweezers. In either case, ouch! Although, I will admit that it's rather a bargain at US$1.70 a visit. Henna tattoos are created by squeezing natural dye from the henna plant out of a small cone and onto the skin. After leaving it on for a few hours (careful of smudging), you wash it off and have a temporary design that will fade away over the course of a few weeks.

Applying henna to make a temporary tattoo.
The finger in the background has the color after the dye is washed off.

Then, it was off to visit a sari shop. It turns out I was headed back to Maya Silk Centre. We learned how to tell "art silk" with a polyester blend apart from real silk. Let's just say that setting fire to a store's merchandise might put you on the bad side of the shop's owner. I think I may have also found a gorgeous georgette which is much more affordable than silk, US$30 versus US$100, that I may have made into a custom sari for myself. Most of the tour group could have easily spent the rest of the morning shopping for saris and Punjabi suits, but Teresa pushed us out of the store so that we could stay on schedule.

Gorgeous silk sari cloth with Swarovski crystals and gold thread

Our next stop was a spice shop further down on Penang Street called Mohamed Meera Sahib. The savory smell of curries mingled with other spices wafted out onto the street. Early in the morning, this store was packed with customers. I could barely move. Tubs of powdered spices sat at an angle along one side while sacks of lentils, dal, cinnamon and star anise sat around the scale. On the shelves, I saw tin after tin of Ghee and solid chunks of Gula Melaka palm sugar. It smelled heavenly in there. Teresa scooped up handfuls of each item and told us how they were used. Some were even in the breakfast we had dined on that morning.

Spices are historically an important part of George Town's heritage

After we exited, we turned left to head down Market Street towards a lovely shop where ladies can find all sorts of accessories to dress up their outfit, hair, and faces. Stick-on Bindi dots above the nose can signify a woman's married status if it's big or just a beauty mark if it's small.  I was particularly drawn towards the stacks of golden bangles and the elaborate necklaces. So pretty!

A variety of adornments in this shop

A streetside flower stall a few doors down was making garlands with fresh flowers from the Cameron Highlands. Some blooms were their natural colors while others had been dyed a brilliant hue. Hindus purchase these flowers and take them to the temple or one of the nearby altars as an offering.

Lush garlands are used as offerings at Hindu temples and altars.

We made it to Queen Street's Sri Mariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Penang, just in time for a blessing before it closed at noon. I've always wanted to go in and look around but have been a little intimidated by my worry that I would ignorantly do something offensive. With our guide, Teresa, there, I wasn't worried and listened carefully to her explanations of the various statues inside the temple. At the end, she received a blessing from the Hindu priest.

A blessing on your head

With all the scents of street food floating through the air, it was hard to ignore the rumbling in our stomachs. We sat ourselves down on a plastic stool at a streetside table and watched a man prepare Teh Tarik, "Pulled Tea." To quickly cool hot tea, streams of the sweet, milky brew are poured back and forth between two cups, starting with them close together and then pulling one higher and higher into the air. Veggie Samosas from the stall across the street provided some yummy noshing, too. Teresa also recommended the buffet style Nasi Kandar meals at Restoran Tajuddin Hussain on Queen Street near the temple as being an important combination of hygienic, frequently replenished, and tasty.

Making Teh Tarik "Pulled Tea"
Veggie Samosas, only US$0.33 a piece

With my hunger sated, I peeled of from the tour and made my way back to the car. Even though it was only noon, the streets of Little India were packed with people. What I had mistaken for a pedestrians only street was actually open for vehicular traffic, and cars slowly made their way down the road with the crowds parting before them. This part of town is certainly busy during the festive Deepavali season.

People were eager to buy a new outfit for Deepavali. Perhaps a Punjabi Suit?

The rest of Penang is happy to share in the Deepavali celebration, too. It's not just limited to Little India. Shopping malls and office buildings will decorate the floor with a kolum, an intricate design made of colored rice, that is also known by the name "rangoli." They are sacred welcoming areas for Hindu deities and are meant to bring good luck.

Rangoli at Straits Quay

A closer look at the colored rice kernels of the rangoli

Here's wishing you a very Happy Deepavali!

Related Posts:
This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox. Check it out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.


  1. Wow, seems like you had a good time around the area, Happy Holiday to you and your family Michelle :)

  2. I love the colors! That rice decoration is amazing - I'd love to see someone making one.

  3. You captured the holiday festivities with beautiful images.

  4. I suspect the Captcha you have enabled is limiting your comments. A lot of bloggers fine that annoying and won't post a comment as a result. I usually give it one try before I give up.

    1. Thanks, Rebecca. I need to look into how to make it easier for the real people to comment but keep all the spambots out.

  5. I loved all of the beautiful photos as always, Michele! The bright colors definitely help the brain to get going on this chilly Fall day here. The breakfast and samosas look soooo yummy - yes please! I saw pulled tea being poured on a travel show a couple weekends ago - oh my gosh I would be spilling it all over the place ha, ha! That is fantastic on the World Heritage Site recognition for George Town too! Wonderful post :)

    1. Was it the travel show on Malaysia with Samantha Brown? If so, she and I went to the same stall and many of the same places. Teresa, my tour guide, is the one who took Samantha around. Apparently, Samantha is just as nice and bubbly in person as she is on TV.

  6. Such amazing experiences! I am intrigued by the "sweets"...what spices and flavors do they use in their baked goods? Are they sweet or savory? I didn't notice any chocolate...I'm just curious, as I never really thought about the sweets in that region of the world.

    1. Overall, they are not as sweet as American treats. In fact, I once ate something that looked like a donut, but it turns out it was made of lentils and only had a faint hint of sweetness. However, Ghee (clarified butter) is used for cooking, and I had this incredibly delicious sweet called "mysore pak" made with ghee, sugar and flour.

  7. Oh what a fun outing that was - felt Iike I was right there with you. The colors, tastes, smells, everything - you brought it to life.

  8. Beautiful, I love the vivid colors...

  9. Hi Michelle, Happy Diwali (that's the variation the Indians in NY use) ! Such a festive and coloroful celebration which I wish to experience one of this year. A co-worker invited me to a Diwali parade in Queens, NY but alas I already made other plans. Anyway, nice to see a glimpse of the celebration in your post. I enjoyed your tour of Little India. I LOVE that sari with Swarovski - so exquisite! I've never seen or heard of a rangoli before - another colorful and exqusite thing. George Town sounds an interesting place. Really great that people fought for its World Heritage status. I wished to visit Penang someday.

  10. Happy Diwali, Michele!
    Thanks for the tour of George Town, glad they finally received their WH status.
    I've not done henna but I've had threading. You're right, it stings.

  11. What a great post and a fascinating look at what goes on around the holiday. I loved the pulled tea shot and what a suitable name. Looks like you hit the ground running after your latest trip.
    Happy Diwali and may the firecrackers not go off all night long.

  12. All the pictures are so colourful! I've always loved the fabric used for saris.

  13. Wow, it looks great in India. Visiting there is high on our list of future destinations, and the food alone would be an amazing highlight.

    1. This is actually in Malaysia. Indians have been here for centuries and created their own enclave.

  14. What some gorgeous colours, and what better way to spend the morning! Quite agree, domestics can wait :) Loved the photographs, and thoroughly enjoyed my jaunt with you today. The last time we were in Georgetown was in 1983 - wow, a lifetime ago!

  15. Diwali is a new year for Hindus. I'd like to wish you a happy new year dude. BTW, did you check the collection of poems collection posted here

  16. You have provided a nice collection of Deepavali greetings. Happy deepavali to you and your family..diwali wallpapers


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