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Keling (pronounced [kliŋ]) is a derogatory word used to describe people originating from the Indian subcontinent by native Malaysians, Singaporeans and Indonesians.


The origin of the term is rooted in the former cultural and historical influence of the Kalinga kingdom over Southeast Asian kingdoms. During the reign of Khārabēḷa (Khāravēla, 193 BCE – after 170 BCE) who was the third and greatest emperor of the Mahameghavahana dynasty of Kaḷinga (present-day Odisha), the Kaḷinga state had a formidable maritime reach with trade routes linking it to the lands including Simhala (Sri Lanka), Burma (Myanmar), Siam (Thailand), Vietnam, Kamboja (Cambodia), Malayadvipa (Malaysa), Borneo, Bali, Samudra (Sumatra) and Jabadwipa (Java). The use of the word as a synonym for Indian suggests it first entered the Malayo-Sumbawan lexicon during this time.

In the 7th century, an Indonesian kingdom was named Kalingga[1] after the aforementioned Kalinga in India. Chinese sources mention this kingdom (訶陵 Hēlíng[2]) as a centre for Buddhist scholars around 604 before it was overshadowed by the Sanjaya or Mataram Kingdom. The most famous Kalingga ruler was Ratu Shima.

The Sejarah Melayu (the Annals of Malay history), written in the 15th century, used the term keling to refer to India. In its early usage, the term was not considered offensive or derogatory.[3]

Castanheda was a Portuguese traveller who lived in Malacca during its heyday—1528 to 1538 has written about the Kelings of what should have been said Kalinga.

"In the northern part of the city, live merchants known as Quelins (Kling, the people of Kalinga, from India); In this part, the town is much larger than at any other. There are at Malacca many foreign merchants, who I said before live among themselves. They are moors and pagans..... "[4]

The change of the word keling as an offensive term can be said started around 1960 / 1963. This is based on the change in terms of orang Keling Keling people in Cherita Jenaka published in 1960 to orang India Indian people in Cherita Jenaka published in 1963[5]


In the Chinese and Malay communities, keling is augmented into various words of their language to form new phrases that may considered offensive and to discriminate Indians.[citation needed] Keling is original word that refers to the Indian migrated to Malay peninsular back to 15th century whereby the Kapitan Keling came for trading in Malacca and Penang. The Malacca ruler at that time has provided them a land for them to dwell call "Kampung Keling" (Keling village). They (the Indian Moslems) then built a mosque called Masjid Kampung Keling for religious activities. Nowadays, the Kampung keling is longer exists but Masjid Kampung Keling remains as a historical place to visit. In the Malay language, the name keling which is a derivative of Kalinga, became the common name for all Indians. The Chinese call them kleynga.[citation needed] They usually add a suffix kui which means "ghost". The ancient Chinese used to call the Kalingas kaleynga and the Tamils zhùniǎn. Zhùniǎn (注輦) is derived from Chola. Now the word has become chulia (朱列/烈 zhūliè or 朱利亞 zhūlìyǎ) and is used to denote the Tamil Muslims. The advent of the Kalingas stopped about six hundred years ago.[clarification needed] But the Tamils were still coming and going. However, the name Keling stuck to them. Every town had its own quarter where the Tamils lived. These were known as Pekan Keling, Kampong Keling, and Tanjong Keling.


The word keling has been used since 15th century within the Malay community to mean "Indian-Muslim children". The term "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.[6] This usage is preserved is the name of the Kapitan Keling Mosque, a prominent Penang landmark (see below).

In many cases the word is used as a derogatory term.[3] Keling was recently used by Members of Parliament in Malaysia, resulting in uproar by the Malaysian community accusing the MPs of racism.[7] Popular usage in Malaysia also suggests a tone of general disrespect to Indian Malaysians[according to whom?].

The phrase janji keling (janji being "promise" in Malay) OR cakap macam keling (cakap macam being "talk(s) like" in Malay) is sometimes used by people of Malay-speaking communities (regardless of race) to refer to a liar, someone who gives conflicting statements, or, more commonly, someone who changes their minds and decisions often. Considered offensive, this term is comparable to the North American English expression Indian giver (although referring to different types of "Indians") or the English expression "to welsh", meaning to fail to honour a bet.


Traditionally in Java, Indonesia, the term Keling is linked with the ancient 6th century Kalingga Kingdom, which ultimately derived from Indian Kalinga kingdom. The term however also refer to several meanings, such as "ship", paku keling which is a technical term to describe "blunt nail" or rivets used to connect metals,[8] and also means "dark skinned person" which traditionally associated with Southern Indian people.[9] In contemporary Indonesian vocabulary use and also in colloquial Indonesian, the term do not have any derogative meaning or racial connotation, as it can be applied to any person with dark complexion, not only Southern Indian descents, but also to native Indonesians with darker complexion and foreign blacks.


The phrases keling-a (Hokkien; 吉寧仔; POJ: kiet-lêng-á), 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. These 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. "-yan" mean human.

Names of places[edit]

Various place names in Malaysia contain the word keling for historical reasons, e.g. Tanjong Keling.,[10] Kampong Keling,[11] 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 deprived from the word 'Keling'.

In Jepara Regency, Central Java, Indonesia, there is a subdistrict called Keling. Locals link the location with the historical 6th century Kalingga Kingdom. In Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, there's a place called Pacar Keling. It's an area in the subdistrict Tambaksari, Surabaya. Phrase 'Pacar' itself means 'Lover' in Bahasa Indonesia.


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