Keling (pronounced [kəliŋ]) or Kling is a word used in parts of Southeast Asia to denote a person of the Indian subcontinent.[1] This includes both those from India and overseas Indians. In modern colloquial usage it is commonly not capitalised. The term is used in the Malay Archipelago — specifically Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei — but cognates exist in neighbouring countries as well. Although the early definition was neutral and linked to the historical Kalinga kingdom of Eastern India,[2] its use in later history came to be perceived as a derogatory term to refer to people of Indian descent, especially in Malaysia.[3]


The word Keling derives from the ancient Indian kingdom of Kalinga. While this was apparently sometimes localized as Kalingga (as in the Indonesian Kalingga Kingdom), the terminal schwa sound was dropped in common usage to form Keling. Though ostensibly denoting the Kalinga kingdom, the term Keling in ancient Southeast Asia came to be a more general term for India and its people. The Khmer word Kleng (ក្លិង្គ) and the Thai word Khaek (แขก) derived from the same root. Prior to the introduction of the English word "India", Keling and Jambu Dwipa were used to refer to the country in the Malay and Indonesian language, while Benua Keling referred to the Indian Subcontinent.


The earliest known occurrence of the word Keling appears in the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals).[4] The legend mentions Raja Shulan as the king of Kalingga who sets out to conquer China with his descendant Raja Chulan. Scholars identify Raja Chulan with the Chola king of southern India,[5] from whom the term Chulia derives, as in Penang's Chulia Street. Later parts of the Sejarah Melayu mention the voyages of Hang Nadim and Hang Tuah to Benua Keling (India). However Keling must not be misunderstood as a specific territory, rather it refers to people of Indian origin and not only the inhabitants of Kalinga.[4] For example, a colonial-era Indonesian tradition refers to the Ramayana epic as Rama Keling meaning "Rama the Indian".[6] After the introduction of Islam, Keling sometimes referred specifically to Tamils or Telugu people while Gujaratis and Indo-Aryan peoples from Pakistan were often confused with Parsi or Persians.[7]

The Dutch used the words "Clings" and "Klingers" to refer to the Indian inhabitants of Malacca. The British colonial writings also use the word "Kling" to describe the immigrants from Madras Presidency and Coromandel coast.[4] John Crawfurd (1856) mentioned that the term "Kling" was used by the Malays and the Javanese as "a general term for all the people of Hindustan (North India), and for the country India itself".[8]

The 16th-century Portuguese traveller Castanheda wrote of the Keling community in Melaka in the period between 1528-1538:[9]

In the northern part [of the city of Malacca] live merchants known as Quelins [Klings — a name applied to South Indians]; in this part the town is much larger than at any other. There are at Malacca, many foreign merchants ...

In its early usage Keling was a neutral term for people of Indian origin,[10] but was perceived negatively beginning in the 20th century due to various socio-political factors. From the mid-1900s, words denoting ethnic origin were used derogatively in Malay to imply immigrant status. Consequently more neutral language was chosen for political correctness. This can be observed in the book Cherita Jenaka, where the term orang Keling (Keling people) in the 1960 edition was changed to orang India (Indian people) in the 1963 edition.[11]


The word Keling has been used variously within the Malay community to mean Indian, Tamil, or south Indian. The title "Kapitan Keling" was used for a representative of an Indian community, similar to the "Kapitan Cina" of a Chinese community. In early Penang of the 1790s the Kapitan Keling was Cauder Mohideen who, together with the Kapitan Cina Koh Lay Huan and other prominent members of the community, formed the first Committee of Assessors to decide the rates and collection of taxes.[12] This usage is preserved is the name of the Kapitan Keling Mosque, a prominent Penang landmark.

In many modern cases Keling is used as a derogatory term.[10] It was used in 2005 by Members of Parliament in Malaysia because of misconception about Indian ethnics, which resulted in an uproar accusing the MPs of racism.[13]


Traditionally in Java, Indonesia, Keling is linked with India while Kalingga refers to the 6th century Kalingga Kingdom, which ultimately derived from the Indian Kalinga kingdom. It can possibly have other meanings, such as "ship". Rivets used to connect metals are called paku keling or "blunt nail" (however, it came from Dutch klinknagel).[14] in modern colloquial Indonesian, it is sometimes used to refer to any dark-skinned person, a stereotype of southern Indians,[15] though this usage is considered offensive.


In Cambodia, the slang term for Indian people is Kleng (ក្លិង្គ),[16] also derived from the kingdom of Kalinga and cognate with the Malay Keling or Kling. It may also be used as a nickname for people who have stereotypically Indian features such as big eyes and dark skin.[17]


The equivalent of Keling in the Thai language is Khaek (แขก). It is a generic term referring to anyone from South Asia. The term generally has no negative connotation and is used even in polite or formal communication. However, outside influence and confusion with Mughals and Indian Muslims has broadened the meaning in modern times to include certain predominantly Muslims communities, particularly Persians and Arabs. This extended meaning is considered inaccurate and at times rejected as derogatory, especially by Thai Muslims, but has become increasingly widespread.


The phrases Keling-a (Hokkien; 吉寧仔; POJ: Ki-lêng-á[18]), Keling-yan (Cantonese; 吉寧人; Yale: gat-lìhng-yan), and Keling-kia (Teochew) are frequently used within the Chinese community in Malaysia and Singapore. As with the Malay word these were not originally offensive today may be used in either a derogatory or non-derogatory manner: e.g., in Penang Hokkien, which is spoken by some Indians in Penang, Keling-a is the only word that exists to refer to ethnic Indians.

The Hokkien and Teochew suffixes -a and -kia are diminutives that are generally used to refer to non-Chinese ethnic groups, while "-yan" mean human.

Names of places

Various place names in Malaysia contain the word Keling for historical reasons, e.g. Tanjong Keling.,[19] Kampong Keling,[20] and Bukit Keling, etc.

In Penang, the Kapitan Keling Mosque, situated on the corner of Buckingham Street and Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling (Pitt Street), is one of the oldest mosques in George Town. Various other Penang Hokkien street names contain the word Keling, e.g. Kiet-leng-a Ban-san (Chowrasta Road), Kiet-leng-a Ke (King Street/Market Street).

In Singapore, there is a road in Jurong Industrial Estate called Tanjong Kling Road which is probably derived from the word 'Keling'.

In Jepara Regency, Central Java, Indonesia, there is a subdistrict called Keling. Locals link the location with the 6th century Kalingga Kingdom. In Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, there is a place called Pacar Keling meaning "Keling lover".

See also


  1. Aiman Mohamad (1991). Minerva English-Malay Malay-English Dictionary. Kuala Lumpur.
  2. "KBBI - Keling". Kamus Besar bahasa Indonesia.
  3. M. Veera Pandiyan (10 August 2016). "'Keling' and proud of it". The Star online.
  4. "A historical perspective on the word 'Keling'". Retrieved 24 April 2017.
  5. John N. Miksic (2013). Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea, 1300–1800. NUS Press. p. 147. ISBN 978-9971-69-574-3.
  6. Singaravelu Sachithanantham (2004). The Ramayana Tradition in Southeast Asia. Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press. ISBN 983-100-234-2.
  7. Abdul Rahman bin Yusop (1964). Collins Malay-English Dictionary. Glasgow.
  8. John Crawfurd (1856). A descriptive dictionary of the Indian islands & adjacent countries. Bradbury & Evans. p. 198.
  9. Sastri, Kallidaikurichi Aiyah Nilakanta (1 January 1939). "Foreign Notices of South India: From Megasthenes to Ma Huan". University of Madras. Retrieved 24 April 2017 via Google Books.
  10. "Malaysian Indians". World Digital Library. 1890–1923. Retrieved 30 May 2013.
  11. "Malay Concordance Project, Cerita Jenaka. bibliography". Australian National University. Retrieved 24 April 2017.
  12. "Recipe for rebellion: THE THIRD SPACE By NEIL KHOR and KHALDUN MALIK, The Sunday Star Sunday 3 August 2008". Retrieved 24 April 2017.
  13. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 1 November 2005. Retrieved 19 December 2005.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  14. "'Keling'" (in Indonesian). Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia (KBBI). Retrieved 1 August 2014.
  15. "Definisi 'keling'" (in Indonesian). Arti Kata. Retrieved 1 August 2014.
  16. Headley, RK et al, "SEALang Library Khmer", SEALang Library, 1977
  17. Vorng Vanny, Heartbreaking: A Survival Memoir, New York, Page Publishing, Inc, 2018
  18. Tan, Siew Imm (2016). Penang Hokkien-English Dictionary. Areca Books. Retrieved 21 August 2019.
  19. Singaravelu, S. (1 January 1986). "The Malay-Tamil Cultural Contacts with Special Reference to the Festival of "Mandi Safar"". 45 (1): 67–78. doi:10.2307/1177834. JSTOR 1177834. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  20. "Archnet". Archived from the original on 29 September 2008. Retrieved 24 April 2017.
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