Dancers in colourful costumes are energetically swinging to tunes played by the enthusiastic musicians. The singer is clearly singing crowd favourites because the revellers around me all sport wall-to-wall smiles.
Delicious food is doing the rounds as people line up at various stalls to bring platefuls of their favourite dishes back to their tables. The electric atmosphere has the children all charged up and they are running around or dancing little jigs as the spirit takes them.
While this could be anything from a pujo pandal at Durga Puja time to a Christmas party anywhere in India, it’s actually an ‘Open House’ in Kuala Lumpur to celebrate the Malaysian festival of Hari Raya Aidilfitri.
In India, Eid il Fitri as we call it, is celebrated the day after the month of fasting Ramzan ends. In Malaysia, the festivities continue for almost a whole month and feature open houses similar to the one I’m at, across the country.
The words ‘Hari Raya’ may sound a lot like Sanskritised Hindi, but they come from the Malay language and loosely translate to ‘festive day’.
The day before the open house called the Majlis Rumah Terbuka Malaysia Aidilfitri 2019 that has been organised by their Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture at the former royal palace, I get the opportunity to attend the ‘Rewang’ at the same venue.
This is a collaborative community-based activity that involves prepping for the open house the next day. It probably originates from the traditional customs where an entire village got together to cook, decorate and plan the event.
The activities are carried out in huge makeshift tents and the heavy rains of the region are no deterrent. My guide Aspaliza Abdullah tells me how the set-up is meant to be a throwback to the ‘kampong’ or rural hometown.
Many residents of Kuala Lumpur even today go back to their villages at this time of the year and those that do not, are happy to be reminded of the simpler pleasures of life by attending such rewangs in the city.
I get to watch them slow-cooking the meaty rendang and even to stir a pot of the sticky sweet dodol, made with coconut milk, rice flour and jaggery, just like the one we have in Goa! Nearby, guests are pitching in to weave the palm-leaf pouches called ketupat, in which dumplings made of glutinous rice will be steamed later.
These are an important part of the local customs, just like the lemang – glutinous rice cooked in a hollowed bamboo stick that is lined with banana leaf.
Another creation with the glutinous rice is the moreish diamond-shaped wajik, made with palm sugar and coconut milk and flavoured with pandan leaves. I also sample some bahalu, which are like spongy, round madeleines.
Getting there: There are a number of daily connecting flights to Kuala Lumpur from Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, and Kolkata on all the major airlines.
When to visit: The best time to visit Kuala Lumpur in general is when the weather is slightly less wet between May and July and December and February.
But if you want to attend an open-house celebration, you’d need to check when the next Eid is and seek the grandest, most elaborate open-to-the-public affair.
Accommodation: Being the country’s capital city, KL has all the big hotel chains as well as quite a few options that range from budget to luxe. A comfortable, mid-range pick would be the Park Royal Kuala Lumpur, which is in the heart of the shopping and entertainment hub of Bukit Bintang, less than 2 kms from the Petronas Twin Towers and 3 kms from the Petaling Street China Town.
‘Selamat Hari Raya!’
The next day, when more than 10,000 guests arrive at the venue, it’s a riot of colour and sound. The compere seems to be running on sheer enthusiasm, the crowd is all agog for the dignitaries to arrive and the dancers and musicians are in high gear.
Apparently, Hari Raya songs is a music industry vertical unto itself and there seems to be no dearth of musical styles paying tribute. When I hear a Hip-Hop version with ‘Allahu Akbar’ as the refrain, my incredulous eyes meet the similarly enlarged ones of my fellow journalist from Saudi Arabia.
We silently acknowledge that this would have met with disapproval, to say the least, by the radical elements in our own countries and we are amazed and charmed yet again by the openness of Malaysian culture, even as they observe a deeply religious festival.
And, just like this delicious mix that incorporates influences of Indonesia, China and South India and others, Malaysia too seems to combine the best of many surrounding countries. No wonder, their apt tagline goes ‘Malaysia, truly Asia’!