If you are planning a trip to Kuala Lumpur, there are guided walking tours available in the city but majority are paid tours. Fortunately, Kuala Lumpur City Hall has been organizing free walking tours for tourists: Dataran Merdeka Heritage Guided Walk, Jalan-Jalan @ Kampung Baru Cultural Guided Walk, Old KL & Nature Walk and KL Night Walk. I went for the Dataran Merdeka and Kampung Baru walks earlier this year – you can read about it here.
There was a guided walk organized by City Hall called Little India Brickfields Guided Walk but unfortunately, they stopped the tour in 2014. Rumour has it that City Hall did not view Brickfields district “appealing” to tourists for the district lacks the grand colonial buildings and many parts of the district have been left neglected over a long period of time.
In recent years, Brickfields has undergone a major transformation – high-rise buildings, skyscrapers, 5-star serviced apartments and suites and a shopping mall – but the transformation is at the periphery of the district. However, I personally don’t feel that skyscrapers and fancy hotels should be the primary aim to draw tourists. It should be the Indian heritage and culture that is part of our unique Malaysian multi-cultural ethnicity the reason to attract tourists to Brickfields.
Although the guided walk by City Hall is no longer available, one can still explore Little India Brickfields on a self-guided walk. Before I share the route with you, here’s a little bit of history.
Massive fire and floods swept through Kuala Lumpur in 1881 which destroyed many of the wooden and thatched structures at that time. To rebuild KL, the British Resident-General, Sir Frank Swettenham ordered all buildings to be constructed with bricks and tiles.
The kapitan who was in control of KL during the late 19th century, a Chinese immigrant called Yap Ah Loy purchased a piece of land for the setting up of brick factories. When KL expanded from a frontier town to a fast-growing city in Malaya (pre-independent Malaysia), there was more demand for bricks. The last kapitan Yap Kwan Seng took advantage of the “market situation” and established a kiln on that piece of land for that area was originally a clay pit and clay is used to make good quality bricks. That piece of real estate is Brickfields and it became the centre of brick-making – that was how the name Brickfields came about.
By the early 20th century, Brickfields district was also the site of the main depot for Malayan Railways during the British colonial administration. The British brought workers from South India and Ceylon (formerly Sri Lanka) to work on the railway tracks and at the depot. Many of the railway workers eventually settled in Malaya and lived in quarters* in Brickfields. Today the depot is now KL’s inter-city railway hub called KL Sentral.
When Malaya achieved independence and became Malaysia in 1957, Brickfields became an Indian enclave vibrant with retail shops, eateries, cultural schools and institutions serving the Malaysian-Indian community in KL.
*Until recently, the quarters can still be found on Jalan Rozario (Rozario Street) but sadly, the quarters were demolished to make way for another high-rise building 🙁
To explore Brickfields, I imagine you would alight at KL Sentral train station. Walk from KL Sentral to Nu Sentral shopping mall (5 mins’ walk) and exit at The Loaf Bakery & Bistro on the Lower Ground Floor.
Take the escalators down to the street level of Jalan Tun Sambanthan (formerly known as Brickfields Road) and you will pass restaurants and shops on the left.
#1: The first heritage building you will see is Vivekananda Ashram, established in 1904 by Sri Lankan Tamil immigrants in honour of Swami Vivekananda. The ashram serves as a hostel and cultural institution for their community. Yoga, meditation and Tamil language classes are also held in the ashram. Back in 2014, the ashram was going to be demolished to make way for a condominium project but protesters insisted that the ashram to be protected as a heritage site. Thankfully, City Hall and the ashram trustees stopped the demolition.
#2: Across the road from the ashram, you will see a brightly coloured fountain of elephants and lotuses, and the Torana Gate, an entrance archway, both of which were gifts from the Prime Minister of India to Malaysia, marking the friendship between India and Malaysia.
#3: The archway marks the entrance to Little India. You will see rows of shops selling Indian food, spices, coconuts, flowers, sari, prayer items, incense sticks, kitchenware, Tamil music CDs, Tamil and Hindi movie DVDs and beauty parlours offering bridal treatments. The atmosphere is loud, vibrant and even livelier especially during Indian New Year or Deepavali/Diwali Festival.
Little India Brickfields is also known as the Divine Location because of the many places of worship in the district representing different faiths.
#4: Further ahead from the main area of Little India – a 5-min walk – is the St. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of St. Mary the Theotokos. It’s a small parish with only 30 parishioners left; the parishioners trace their forefathers to Indians who arrived from Kerala to Malaya in the early 20th century. The Syrian Orthodox denomination was said to have been established by the Apostle Thomas who arrived in Kerala in AD52.
#5: From the Syrian Orthodox Church, loop back to the main road Jalan Tun Sambanthan and cross over to Jalan Sultan Abdul Samad where you will find the next church which is a Catholic Church – Our Lady of Fatima Church.
#6: You could continue walking down Jalan Abdul Samad to see the Lutheran church called Zion Cathedral or turn right to Jalan Berhala where you will find Buddhist Maha Vihara, a Buddhist temple founded by the Sinhalese community to provide a place of worship in the Sri Lankan Thevrada Buddhist tradition.
I visited this Buddhist temple 3 years ago on Wesak Day* which is a day observed by Buddhists to commemorate Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and his departure from the human world. The temple held a light and float procession at night, many floats beautifully decorated bearing images of Buddha.
*2017 Wesak Day falls on 10th May, this coincides with the full moon.
#7: Just around the corner from the Buddhist temple is Temple of Fine Arts (TFA). Primarily funded by private donors and members of the public, Temple Of Fine Arts is a centre of learning and advocate for Indian classical dance and music. Many volunteers assist in the daily operations of the institution including its vegetarian restaurant, Annalakshmi. I have eaten at Annalakshmi thrice, and I absolutely loved it; the food is fresh and MSG-free, and I could taste the freshness in their food.
#8: After eating a sumptuous meal at Annalakshmi, you may walk off the excess with a 15-minute stroll passing by residential flats and apartments, Ganesha Hindu temple, the Tamil Methodist Church, schools and shophouses (including Gandhi’s Vegetarian Restaurant) before arriving at Jalan Scott.
You will not miss the impressive-looking Sri Kandaswamy Temple, also known as Scott Road due to its location on Jalan Scott (Scott Road). Sri Kandaswamy Temple is one of the most prominent Sri Lankan Tamil temples and reputed to be one of the most orthodox temples in Malaysia.
#9: More Hindu temples to be found on Jalan Scott: Sri Krishna Temple and Sree Veera Hanuman Temple. I visited the Hanuman Temple with a photographer friend for street photography in Brickfields a few years ago, and I took this shot during the morning puja.
If you are not keen on vegetarian fare at Annalakshmi, you could have Indian banana leaf rice at Vishal’s Food & Catering restaurant. I have come here for lunch three times, and trust me, it is so good that you wouldn’t bother to walk anymore for all you want to do is call Uber to drive you back to your hotel to sleep! 🙂
And that pretty much sums up the self-guided walk in Little India Brickfields. The walk takes about 2.5 to 3 hours including drink and/or meal break.
Do remember to bring a hat/cap and a bottle of water, put on some sunscreen, wear sunglasses and a good pair of walking shoes, and you will enjoy your exploration of our Little India in Kuala Lumpur!
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