In conjunction with Merdeka and in the lead up to Malaysia Day, Prestige Malaysia explores historical streets named after important national figures, with tales of their triumphs as shared by their proud descendants. Third in the series, great granddaughter of Thamboosamy Pillai, Santa Kumarie shares her thoughts about his greatest contributions.
K. Thamboosamy Pillai was recognised as a leader of the Tamil community in the nation’s pre-independence years. A wealthy businessman, tin miner, money lender and government contractor, he is best known as one of the founders and original trustees of Victoria Institution. The Sri Mahamariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Kuala Lumpur was also founded by him.
What do you feel was his most important contribution to society?
I would say road constructions, education and being the founder of Batu Caves. Road constructions were of great importance to the British Administration due to the coming of age of the rubber industry. In terms of education, he recognised its importance. He was a far-sighted man. Having been educated in Singapore and involved in the legal field, he understood the importance of English language proficiency.
Back in the day, a piece of land was needed for the construction of Victoria Institution. He got the ball rolling and together with the pioneers of the Chinese community at the time – Yap Kwan Seng and Loke Yew – the oldest secondary school in Kuala Lumpur was built.
His donation of £1,000 in 1893 launched the construction of the school, which was ready for use on 14 August 1893. In honour of his contributions, Victoria Institution has a sports house named after him. He also contributed to the building of Batu Road Boys School and Thamboosamy School on Jalan Ipoh, as it was known at the time.
Thamboosamy was also the founder of Batu Caves, a well-known religious site for devotees of Lord Murugan. Not only is it a significant place of worship, but a site that draws thousands of people from all over the world to appreciate the beauty of the stalagmite and stalactite formations, contributing to a boom in the tourism industry.
Batu Caves would have remained an isolated and inconspicuous limestone hill if not for Thamboosamy Pillai. As Indians and Hindus, caves are commonly used as temples. And so, Batu Caves was the perfect and obvious choice to hold the Thaipusam Festival, in honour of Lord Murugan. To this day, work on the temple and the cave continues to endure.
Though the temple is headed by a committee, the title “Sanigar” or head of the temple is only held by the Thamboosamy family. Traditionally, the eldest male descendant holds the title. This title was last held by Thamboosamy’s grandson, Rajakrishnan.
What kind of stories did your family share about Thamboosamy Pillai, and did it give you any clues about his character?
His involvement with the business community, both local and the British, led to him living in style. He put the interest of society before himself and became so involved with the development of modern Kuala Lumpur which led to his personal involvement in the Sanitation Board, contribution to school buildings, churches and introduction of electricity to the tin mines in Rawang.
He was also well known in the horse racing circuit and loved horses. He was a keen supporter of the Selangor Turf Club and that meant horse racing. He owned many racehorses and was the life of parties that he attended alongside Loke Yew – another rich tauke who lived on Batu Road (now known as Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman).
He was also the first man in Malaya to own a horse buggy. Moreover, he was the first non-white man to be a member of the “Sported Dog” of the Royal Selangor Club. He died in Singapore, where he had gone to attend a race meeting. He was greatly fond of pedigree dogs and birds.
How did you feel when you first learned that you were connected to a prominent leader of the Tamil community?
Humbled and proud. To have a school and street named after your ancestor is an honour. I also feel disappointed as I never got to meet him. Instead, I am acquainted with his photographs displayed in prominent places like the Royal Selangor Club, Victoria Institution, KL Gallery and Batu Caves. There is always a sense of nostalgia when his name is featured in articles concerning the development of Kuala Lumpur.
Thamboosamy was one of the leading entrepreneurs in road construction, with many roads in Kuala Lumpur built by him in the late 1800s. How do you think he would react to the rapid development and gentrification of the city today?
A man with vision who brought changes during his short lifetime, he would be shocked to see how much KL has developed. I quote his great-great-granddaughter, “He would never have imagined roads up in the air leading to the skies, viaducts, bridges, monorails up above. He would feel very proud to know he played an important role in kick-starting road construction.”
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