No one really talks about the history of Datuk worship. So, what I am writing here reflects my musings on the historical geography of Malaysia and makes no claim to be “correct”. I’m taking some educated guesses.
It is interesting to note that this is a religious custom that only exists in Malaysia and some parts of Indonesia. In my opinion, the patterns of immigration and the interaction of different groups of people in this part of the world, combined to create something that truly reflects the special history of Malaysia.
When the Chinese immigrants arrived in the Malayan peninsula in the mid nineteenth century, they encountered a local population that was Muslim. Local religious practices included the worship of “holy men” – those who brought Islam to the region, those who were strong spiritual leaders, those whose benevolence gave them special recognition in the community. It was common for the graves of these men (and sometimes women) to be sacred places where Muslims brought offerings in the hopes of having their prayers heard. This practice of worshipping the holy man has its roots in Muslim India and is still practiced there today. Even in Malaysia today, some tombs are very sacred spaces to Muslims.
There are several located in Georgetown.
On Lebuh Chulia, two shop lots north of the Cantonese Association, is a small mosque and the Wakaf Alimsah Waley, that marks the last resting place of the first Imam of the mosque. Across the street on Lorong Masjid is another mausoleum, quite conservative and quiet, built to honour a Muslim holy man known as Maulana Miskin Waliallah who was affiliated with a mosque on the street.
On Jalan Transfer, is a particularly important tomb, that of Syed Mustapha, an Indian Muslim leader who was reknowned for fighting against injustice and who was thought to have mystical powers. He became known as Dato Koyah, meaning guru. Think City is now completing a project to restore the tomb. More information here.
There is another mausoleum in the Heritage zone, in an area known as Kampung Kolam. It is the tomb of “Kapitan Keling”, the Indian Muslim man who built the large mosque, now named after him. The mausoleum is officially named after his third wife, Ma’Amah or Aminah, who is also buried there.