A Guide to Little India, Singapore
What to do in Little India?
The first Indians in Singapore arrived transient – labours, soliders, convicts, arriving in the new city to contribute to its foundations, with no intentions of settling. Yet, as with much of the world, enterprising Indians carved out their own place in Singaporean society, and now make up around 9% of the country’s population. Whether you’re travelling in the Caribbean or the deepest Congo, there are pockets of India, where communities have established a home for themselves through the tenacity and entrepreneurship that they’ve become known for.
While largely comprising of Tamil Indians, the Indian community of Singapore have developed their own distinct culture over the past 200 years. Integrating elements of local Malay culture, and associating closely with the culture of Indian diaspora that connects Indian communities across the globe, the Singaporean-Indians have created a aculture distinct from that of their South Asian roots. A recent spike in immigration from India seen increased ethnic distinction, with Tamil, Malayalee, Punjabi, Sindhi and Gujurati Indians making up the largest groups. They brought with them their distinct cultures, languages, class systems and skills. The Singaporean government also classifies all South Asians as ‘Indians’, meaning that their statistics also include immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, rather than solely India.
While ancient India has played a pivotal role in the development of the Malaysian peninsula for centuries, through war, trade and religious missions, few Indians migrated here in earnest until the Portuguese colonisation of Malacca. The forerunner to Singapore as a global commerce giant, Malacca attracted many of the businessmen and workers that later moved to the emerging economic capital of Singapore. Another significant increase in Indian immigration came during World War II, when India and Singapore were both still occupied under British colonial rule. This combination of enterprising young workers and soldiers meant that the Indian community in the peninsula was predominantly made up of young men, and it was only when the island saw an influx of Indian women and families that Singaporean-Indians became less transient and established their own consistent local community.
In recent years the Singaporean government have geared their immigration policy towards attracting educated foreign professionals from around Asia to bolster the country’s young workforce, which has attracted a fresh wave of Indian immigration.
Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple
The imposing aesthetic of the tower of Sri Veeranakaliamman reflects the fear and the power held by the god it is dedicated to: Goddess, destructor of evil, Kali. One of the oldest temples in Singapore, having survived the second world war unscathed, the temple has been a central point for Indians in the city since they first started immigrating to Singapore. While other temples have cropped up all over Little India as more and more Indians have arrived, Sri Veeramakaliamman has overseen the history and the progression of the Hindus in Singapore that have sought her refuge since the city’s conception.
Abdul Gafoor Mosque
In 1849, the first mosque in this spot was built by the South Indian Muslims that moved to the area to trade. The original no longer stands, but the location continues to be one that Indian Muslims can rally around. The religious diversity within India itself is already wide, but once placed in this Singaporean microcosm the extent of the religious diversity and tolerance is exacerbated, with Indian Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians worshipping peacefully alongside one another. Now standing amongst shopfronts, the contrast of decadently decorated religious structure and local commerce shows the manner in which religious tolerance has been normalised amongst the community in Little India.
Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple
Another of Singapore’s oldest temples, Sri Perumal Temple depicts instances from the lives of each of the incarnations of Vishnu. The five tier structure, intricately carved and colourfully painted, has become an iconic symbol of the neighbourhood. Inside too, the temple is thoroughly decorated, effigies of deities looming as you wander through, colourful and intricate and a testament to the dedication of their crafters.
If you visit the temple in January/February, you may catch the starting point of the Thaipusam festival. A Hindu tradition stretching back centuries, the festivities are most famous for the colour and curiosity they bring to the streets. Devotees will pierce their tongues and cheeks with long metal skewers, decorated with peacock feathers, one of the more common of the sacrificial body mortifications that are performed in honour of Murugan during the ceremony.
Sri Thendayuthapani Temple
The Thaipusam procession ends at another of Singapore’s most beautiful Hindu temples, Sri Thendayuthapani, otherwise known as Chettiars’ temple. One of the most important Hindu monuments in Singapore, the temple is dedicated to the 6 faced god Murugan, the Hindu god of war. Son of Shiva and Parvati, and brother of Ganesha, Murugan has been one of the most important holy figures in Hinduism since the religion found its feet in ancient India.
The temple was built around 35 years after Hindus began arriving in earnest in Singapore, being completed in 1859. Renovated and updated over the years, the local community have devoted much energy and funds to maintaining the beautiful temple.
In a similar style to many of Singapore’s great Hindu temples, the towering stack of figures that line the roof are a colourful dedication to Murugan, depicting the god and his famous family in many forms.
Sri Vadapathira Kaliamman Temple
This grand temple is believed to have the humblest of beginnings. One worshipper, a young Indian woman far from home in 1830, during the first years of Indian immigration into Singapore, placed a picture of Amman under a tree in what was to become Little India. Initially alone in her devotion, her dedication spread, and her fellow displaced Hindus came to join her in her makeshift spiritual sanctuary. Over 100 years later, in 1935, the spot was converted into a full fledged temple complex.
Stylistically, the temple differs somewhat from many of Little India’s famous spots. Rather than building upwards, the colourful figurines that are characteristic to the temples of the region are spread horizontally along the side of the building. While it may not make the same imposition on the skyline, the burst of colour that appears in along the street is a sudden roadside reminder of the bright traditions of the region.
Now one of the most important and historic religious sites in Singapore, the origin story of Sri Vadapathira Kaliamman temple is a testament to the spirit of Singapore. Young, determined individuals came here to find a new life and build a future, but found themselves displaced from their countries, their people, and their religious foundations. One young woman’s dedication to her religion and her origins was a central point for generations of Indians that came after her, all of whom were integral to creating the unique culture of the city that Singapore is today.
Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple – The Temple of 1,000 Lights
Giant statues of the Buddha aren’t a rare sight to those of us who travel through South East Asia. For every stupa-shrouded figure, colossal tribute carved into a mountainside, or roadside effigies for devotional drivers, there are yet 1,000 more figures in the local temples, houses, caves, skyscrapers and squats of South East Asia. They are a dominating image of Asia, and a testament to the spirituality and devotion of the region. The Buddha that sits inside The Temple of 1,000 Lights may not be distinct from any other, but it remains one of the most visited in Singapore.
Light bulbs are placed around the statue to create a bright aura, most distinctive at night, which earned the temple its nickname. The 15-metre high statue is a depiction of the bhumisparsha Buddha, with left hand placed in the lap while the right hand faces the ground, representing the moment that Buddha became enlightened under the Bodhi tree. Bhumisparsha means ‘touching the earth’ and is one of the most commonly represented poses of the Buddha.
House of Tan Teng Niah
When I visited this site, I fairly quickly dismissed it as the ‘instagrammable’ spot of Singapore. Lines of tourists waited patiently for quick candids in front of the colourful house, which is something I’ve never had the time or the interest for. Little India is beautiful and varied and there are photo opportunities on every corner for those with a creative eye.
However, I was unfair to dismiss it. The historic home of Tan Teng Niah is one of the only surviving Chinese-Singaporean homes in Little India. A relic of the diversity of industry in early Singapore, the house serves as evidence of the ethnic tolerance that has prevailed in the city. The building itself displays a hybrid of Chinese and European architectural design features, influenced even further by the rich cultural diversity of both early and modern Singapore.
No matter where you explore in Singapore, you’ll always find yourself surrounded by incredible food. Tekka Market is a historical hawker market in Little India which specialises, shockingly, in Indian food. You can pick up any number of household goods here too, for reasonable prices, or just indulge in the huge range of street foods on offer, influenced by traditional food from all over India.
As Singapore’s most colourful section, wandering the streets of Little India you’ll find everything from bright, multi-coloured houses and shops, to intricately designed street art pieces. The murals around the suburb are varied and bright, depicting everything from market scenes to homages to historic Indian-Singaporeans. They make the area one of the most interesting to stroll through if you enjoy high quality street art and artistic tradition.
As the story goes, there’s nothing you can’t buy in the Mustafa Centre. Open 24 hours a day, you can find anything you can imagine on one of their four floors, whenever the moment may inspire. Originally opened as a garment store in the 1970s, you can now head to the Mustafa centre for food, clothing, jewellery, household goods, visa services, catering, or even a hotel. Nowadays the store is a famous staple of Little India and a testament to the enterprising Indians that moved here to build businesses.
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