Chiang Mai’s vibrant Indian community

We take a look at the deep relationship between Thailand and India and focus on the Indian community that make their home in Chiang Mai.

By | Sat 1 Sep 2018

It’s no coincidence that the Thai wai and the Indian namaste gestures are similar. Thailand and India have enjoyed a long and deep relationship for over a thousand years. Indian influence can be found in Thai cultural and religious practices, from the arts to scriptures and language. Many of Thailand’s iconic festivals have their roots in Indian traditions; the Karthik Purnima festival has evolved into Thailand’s Loy Krathong and the famous Long Boat Racing found nationwide shares a connection with the Indian festival of Onam, an important event in Kerala, South India’s, calendar. Much of Thai cuisine has been influenced by Indian cuisine, adopted and adapted over the years and it is impossible to gage exactly how much influence India has had on Thailand, though it’s very significant.

This article is my personal exploration of Chiang Mai’s Indian community. I arrived from India to do an internship at Citylife and decided to learn more about this close connection between our people, deciding the best way to do so was to meet members of the community who have had generations of ancestors live here as well as those who have contributed greatly to the city.

The Pioneers

Chiang Mai saw the early arrivals of Sikh traders from India’s Punjab in the mid-19th century, most coming to trade in fabric, returning home to invite more and more relatives to join them and eventually setting up a small community in the Wat Kate and Warorot Market areas on both banks of the Ping. In 1907 the first gurudwara, or Sikh place of worship, was built, solidifying the presence of what has become a vibrant and strong community here in Chiang Mai. It was a quarter of a century after the arrival of the first Sikhs that the Hindus arrived, mainly via Bangkok, from India, the two communities settling near one another, co-mingling, trading and eventually cross marrying to form a larger community.

The Consul

I decided to meet the Indian Consul Shirish Jain, in order to gain a better understanding of the origins of the Indian community and the consulate’s relationship with them. Jain says that there are about 150 Indian families in Chiang Mai, of which 90% identify as Sikh. He further explained that the Namdhari Sikhs and the Sikh Sabha Sikhs, sub-traditions of Sikhisms, make up most of that 90%, with the majority hailing from Pakistan. He explained that while 150 Indian families might not sound like many, some come from prominent families who are socially active and contribute vastly to the Chiang Mai economy, mostly in the real estate or textile industries. There are also quite a few families from the Northeast of India, places like Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram, who are mainly associated with and work in Christian organisations, churches, NGOs etc. There are also a few families from Kashmir who mainly deal in arts and crafts. According to Jain, the interesting fact to note here is that, though some of the people might be from the Indian side of Kashmir or the Pakistani part of Kashmir, in Chiang Mai they all identify as one. All these members of the Indian community have close relations with the consulate and come together to celebrate national holidays like Independence Day and Republic Day as well as collaborate on various fundraising initiatives. Jain also noted that most of the Indian-Sikhs are third generation Thais and are completely integrated into Thai society.

The Indian community in Chiang Mai is very active with public service and charitable works such as their annual blood drive, yoga day, educational initiatives which include scholarships, blanket distributions to the hill tribe villages and water distribution etc. They also provide disaster relief. For example when the Wild Boars team were trapped in the cave, they collected money and purchased food and water for the volunteers. After the earthquake in Nepal, the community came together to raise a significant amount of money for disaster relief.

Small Indian communities can also be found in the surrounding provinces such as Lampang and Lamphun, and also further north in Chiang Rai. It can also be found to the south in Mae Sot in Tak province. A more recent migration to our area has been those working in the diamond polishing industry, a number which is growing annually. Though the Indian community strives to help all the members of society and involves them in their daily activities, Jain believes that the community needs to be more inclusive and open as this would help people understand our culture better. He suggested that I try interviewing Ranjeet Singh, the current president of the Indian community, in order to gain a better understanding of their daily functions, which I did.

The President

I met Ranjeet Singh, who is currently serving his third term as president of the Indian community, at his clothing store called Ga Boutique. When I asked him why he chose to run for this post, he said that when he had first moved to Chiang Mai he had no family or friends in the new city to keep him company. The Indian community had welcomed him with open arms and had given him a family and a foundation. Therefore, he wanted to help others experience the same feeling of inclusiveness that he had enjoyed at a pivotal time in his life. When asked about the main functions of the community, Singh said that during the celebration of certain traditional festivals or national holidays, as well as for all their fundraising projects, everyone in the community volunteers in order to make the occasion a success. The community also maintains a school built almost 60 years ago for hill tribe children.

Singh, with the help of Consul Jain, contributed towards the opening of the Indian Study Centre at Chiang Mai University and will soon be joining the faculty in his spare time to teach both Hindi and Sanskrit. Calling himself an Indian with a Thai heart, he hopes one day to see more Indians represented in the Thai government so that the community can have more participation in working towards Thailand’s future.

The Fashion King

I met the couple-about-town Frank and Vanita Sethi in their fabrics store Fashion King, in the Night Bazaar. The charming couple, who are very well known in local society for their active participation in so many areas, offered me some Indian chai and were very excited to share their history with me. Their grandfathers were friends in college and that’s how the Sethis met. Vanita Sethi’s maternal great grandfather arrived in Thailand in 1890 when King Rama V opened the doors to Indian immigrants in order to gain labour to improve the nation’s infrastructure and to facilitate the growth of the nation. This policy lead to a flood of immigrants from India and Pakistan. Before the separation of the two nations, all the Indian immigrants came from Punjab, mainly small districts like Phagwara and Gujranwala (now in Pakistan). In fact, the Sethis were the first group of people allowed to visit Pakistan on the condition that they owned a Thai passport, visiting Lahore almost twenty years ago, while being closely monitored their entire trip.

Vanita’s father, who was the president of the Sikh gurudwara in Bangkok as well as President of Thailand’s Lions Club, had good relations with a few prominent members of the government and was instrumental in pushing for the Thai army to allow Indian-Sikh men to express their religious identity by wearing the turban with the consent of king Rama IX. Both Sethis feel as though they are fortunate to be born in Thailand and while they travel to India often, it is only here that they feel a true sense of security and comfort.

Today Frank Sethi is the secretary of the Sikh gurudwara in Chiang Mai which is the oldest gurudwara in Thailand and was also once the stronghold of the Indian Liberation Front of Bose via Burma. He came to Chiang Mai from Bangkok twelve years ago to set up Fashion King and has since become an active member of the community acting as Vice-President of Five Religions, an organisation where leaders in Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism meet in order to support and help one another. Before I said my farewell, they introduced me to an old friend of theirs who ended up becoming my next interview.

The Tycoon

When asked about why he made Chiang Mai a base for his family and business operations, Manmohan Singh said that his story started in 1910 when his grandfather arrived in Thailand via Malaysia. However, Singh himself arrived in Thailand along with his father via Calcutta and in August 1947, just 10 days before the independence of India. They were originally from Gujranwala, Pakistan, having first arrived in Southern Thailand and later moving up to Bangkok where they worked in sales at a fabrics store called Anglo-Thai, travelling upcountry to Chiang Mai in order to sell their wares. He soon fell in love with Chiang Mai and decided to open his first textile shop here, Niran Textile, named after his son Niran Chawla. Once settled, he invited more and more of his family to migrate to Thailand and over the years the humble shop has grown into a multitude of successful ventures.

After nearly three decades in the textile business, Manmohan Singh’s sons began to diversify, exploring business opportunities, and finally settling on focusing on real estate and hotel management. Today the family owns the B2 chain of hotels which includes 32 properties, and many other real estate ventures. With profits from real estate, the family founded Chawla Charity Organisation, funding many of the charities and initiatives within the Indian community and beyond.

Chiang Mai’s South Asian community plays an important role in the city, and its broad engagement belies its size. I returned to India after meeting these inspiring people, with a much deeper understanding of the impact cultures and people can have on one another, and the power of intercultural connection.