Right into the heart of Chinatown, there is a temple almost as old as the city of Singapore itself. Sri Mariamman Temple is not only the oldest Hindu temple in the country, but it is also one of the most significant centres of Hindu life, serving as a vibrant cultural and religious focal point.
The temple is dedicated to the goddess Sri Mariamman, an incarnation of Shiva’s wife Parvati.
Sri Mariamman Temple in Singapore is designated as a National Monument and has been extremely popular for architecture lovers, Hindu immigrants and tourists flooding in from around the world. It is built in Dravidian style, reflecting the fact that most of Singapore’s Hindu population are Tamils, originating from South India.
The gopuram, the temple’s majestic tower entrance, is the most notable feature of Sri Mariamman Temple. Once inside, you will have the chance to see priests performing ancient rituals and chanting prayers (puja) or worshippers offering tropical fruits to the temple’s deities.
Sri Mariamman Temple History
The temple’s history is closely related to Mr Naraina Pillai, an Indian merchant working for East India Company in Penang. He was one of the first Tamils to set foot on the island in 1819, accompanying Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore. An entrepreneur, he established a profitable manufacturing business in what is now Tanjong Pagar.
“Do not live in a place where there are no temples”, an ancient Indian apophthegm cautions.
Taking the advice of his forefathers into serious consideration, one of the first things Naraina Pillai did was to establish a Hindu temple in the city. Initially, an area on Telok Ayer Street was allotted to the community, but the plot was lacking a source of fresh water that is required for Hindu rituals. In 1823, however, the site on South Bridge Road was granted and a simple attap (palm) temple had been erected by 1827.
Sixteen years later, in 1843, Sri Mariamman temple was reinforced with brick and replaced the initial structure. The oldest parts of today’s temple go back to that date; however, several alterations and repairs were made over the years.
The colourful gopuram of Sri Mariamman Temple
The most outstanding feature of Sri Mariamman Temple is the grand tower crowning its entrance in South Bridge Road. The gopuram, as it is called, is a distinctive feature of Dravidian style temples, in South India.
But what exactly is a gopuram?
A gopuram is a pyramid-shaped tower pointing straight up, towards the sky. It is divided into tiers with each one being decorated with intricately carved sculptures. The scale of each level is slightly smaller than the one right beneath it. This technique creates the illusion of height, making the tower look taller than it really is, adding to the symbolic meaning of the temple.
The gopuram of Sri Mariamman Temple in Singapore was a widely recognised landmark for generations and had an iconic presence in Chinatown. Its great height acted as a beacon for worshippers allowing them to offer prayers or meditate to better prepare before entering the temple.
The original gopuram constructed in 1903 had only three tiers whereas the present six-tiered tower was built in 1925. This elaborate structure rising above the main entrance is vividly embellished with figurative sculptures of Hindu deities, ornamental carvings, mythological beasts and other cultural figures.
They are all made of plaster and it is believed that they were crafted by skilled artisans coming from the Nagapattinam and Cuddalore districts in South India. Their fine details along with a variety of bright and vivid patterns make Sri Mariamman gopuram a visual delight.
Did you know?
Colours hold a great significance in Hinduism transcending purely decorative values. Deities are always portrayed in colours that signify their qualities and character. For example, Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, is most often associated with red, reflecting the blossoming of youth and indicating both sensuality and purity.
The gopuram is flanked by two significant Tamil deities, Murugan on the right and Krishna on the left. The former is the patron deity of the Tamil land and the Hindu god of war whereas the latter is the god of compassion, tenderness and love.
The massive temple doors
Beneath the gopuram are two imposing double-leaf timber doors leading into the temple. Their immersive scale emphasizes on the insignificance of human nature compared to the divine. You will also notice strings of bananas and fresh mangoes hanging outside or above the temple doors; they are a symbol of prosperity and happiness.
What about those bells hanging in grid patterns?
Visitors are supposed to ring them as they move through the temple doors, to alert the gods of their arrival and departure accordingly.
Stepping inside the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore
Sri Mariamman temple’s colourful interior is truly a feast for the eyes; shrines with majestic domes, statues of deities and paintings depicting folklore scenes. Besides the gopuram, each Hindu temple consists of the mandapa and the vimana(s).
In the old days, before people had electricity, the rising sun would light up the whole temple. That’s the reason the shrine of Sri Mariamman faces the entrance to the east.
The main prayer hall of the temple is where devotees and priests take part in sensual, antique rituals. Each day they hand-pick offerings for the gods; neem leaves and mangoes as a sign of purity and bananas, a symbol of abundance. Before each major festival, a flag is raised in the temple’s mandapa announcing the preparations for it.
A covered walkway ornamented with colourful frescoes on the ceiling connects the gopuram with the main shrines. Lord Ganesha and Goddess Saraswati are prominently displayed on the ceiling along with a mandala; a symbol representing wholeness, harmony and unity.
As if the walkway wasn’t impressive enough, a series of square columns decorated with sculptures of deities surround it. The three manifestations of the supreme god could not be absent from a Hindu temple; Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer.
Deeper into one of the courtyards of the mandapa, a man was playing a double-sided drum (mridangam) while, in another, worshippers were clasping their palms, silently praying to the goddess.
Within the temple compound, worshippers will only walk in a clockwise direction making sure they encircle the temple for an odd number of times in order to have good luck.
In the main prayer hall, one can easily distinguish shrines capped with decorated onion-shaped domes, referred to as vimana. Below the central vimana, is the shrine of Mariamman, flanked by the two secondary divinities, Rama and Murugan. Worshippers, firstly «purify» themselves with water before offering their prayers to the central figure of the temple followed by the ones on either side.
The central Mandapa is surrounded by multiple other pavilion-like shrines with colourful vimanas dedicated to other deities including Ganesha, The Remover of Obstacles and Aravan, worshipped in the form of his severed head, who sacrificed himself in one of the great battles of Mahabharata war. The compound is encircled by a boundary wall lined with sculptures of cows, an animal sacred to Hindus.
The chief deity of the temple
Sri Mariamman is a South Indian folk goddess enjoying an over four-millennia-long history. She is worshipped by Tamils as the bringer of prosperity and for her power to cure illnesses. Epidemic diseases, like smallpox and cholera, were raging in early Singapore’s jungle environment.
Tip: In Tamil, the word Mari means “rain” and Amman, “mother”.
In 1827, when the temple was built, Mr Naraina Pillai installed a Murthi (image) of Sinna Amman or Little Goddess (a representation of the goddess Mariamman). That same statue can be found today in front of the principal shrine.
The firewalking festival of Sri Mariamman temple
If it happens to visit Singapore between mid-October and mid-November, don’t miss the chance to witness one of the most captivating festivals of the temple. Thimithi, is an annual firewalking ceremony celebrated a week before Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. It is dedicated to Draupati Amman, a goddess from the epic poem Mahabharata, who had to walk barefoot over hot coals to prove her innocence.
It is also believed that the deity is an incarnation of Mariamman. During the event, devotees will walk over fire pits; only those who are truly devoted to the goddess will make it to the other side unscathed.
Did you know?
Sri Mariamman Temple in Singapore has been hosting Thimithi since 1840 with the shrine devoted to Draupati being the second most important in the temple.
Things to know before visiting the temple of Sri Mariamman
The temple welcomes people of all religions, gender or age, therefore, do not have any second thoughts whether you should visit or not. However, there are certain rules and traditions that you need to be aware of before visiting.
All religious sites around the globe have a basic dress code with Sri Mariamman temple in Singapore not being an exception. To begin with, footwear needs to be taken off and stored around the entrance area. Secondly, you need to dress conservatively making sure you cover up your shoulders and legs. Hopefully, the temple provides shawl and wraps in case you don’t have any with you.
Admission to the temple is free, but to take photos inside the temple, you need to get a photo pass that costs S$3 (or S$6 if you wish to use your video camera). Trust me on this, it is totally worth it.
Visit the temple in the middle of the day and it will be swarming with tourists. What is more, during sunny days the floor will literally burn like a fire pit; don’t forget you will be walking around without shoes. Therefore, I would suggest visiting the temple early in the morning or late in the evening after the sun has set.
The temple is open from 07:00 to 11:30 in the morning and 18:00 to 20:45 in the evening. However, there might be a chance that you will be allowed to enter outside operating hours if you see the doors to be open. However, make sure to ask first.
Even if you are not obliged to follow Tamil traditions, you will far more enjoy the whole experience if you do so. For example, make sure to ring the bells in the entrance to alert the gods of your visit and your departure. As you do so, make a wish and maybe it will come true! Look for the enclosure where worshippers break coconuts as a symbolism of breaking their own egos. Don’t forget to purify yourself before entering the temple; wash your hands and sprinkle water on your head. Last but not least, as in any place of worship, make sure to treat the priests with respect and refrain from being loud while inside the temple.
The Thimithi is celebrated a week before Deepavali (festival of lights), during Aippasi of the Tamil calendar. This month in Gregorian calendar months is equivalent to mid-October until mid-November.
Sri Mariamman Temple is more than a Hindu place of worship
From the very beginning, Kling Street Temple or Mariamman Kovil, as it was called back then, was not only a religious place for the early settlers but also a beacon of the whole Hindu community in Singapore. The temple served as a haven and provided shelter to new immigrants until they moved on to their permanent residence and found work. On top of that, it functioned as a social place, where traditional ceremonies, like weddings, and cultural events were held. As a matter of fact, it still does. The very presence of Sri Mariamman Temple in Singapore adds an additional layer of culture and history not only in Chinatown but to the whole city itself.
Quite incredibly, the community supporting the temple is not only composed of Tamils but with people from all around the globe. According to Mr Nallathamby, chairman of the temple management committee, the 25.000 lemons needed for the annual firewalking festival are supplied for the past 30 years by a Chinese family, free of charge.
It’s a two-week event, so if on the third day we run out of lemons, she would bring another basket of them. She brings the lemons without fail. And I’m so amazed. This is the kind of link that family has.
The prominent temple has also named two nearby streets, Temple Street and Pagoda Street. While the first one was given for obvious reasons, the latter was derived by the gopuram of the temple resembling a Chinese pagoda. It is easy to understand that the biggest and oldest Hindu temple in Singapore had a pivotal role in the lives of the people in the region.
Did you know?
According to Hindu tradition, temples are renovated and restored every 12 years in a ceremony known as Kumbhabhishekham. The temple’s first recorded such ceremony had taken place in 1936. During the last Kumbhabhishekham, in 2010, no less than 20 artisans from Tamil Nadu were brought in to restore the murals and the sculptures to their original vivid hues.
Is Sri Mariamman temple worth a visit?
Paradoxically built in the heart of Chinatown (even if Singapore has a Little India distinct), Sri Mariamman temple is fully in line with the country’s multicultural atmosphere. The fabulously animated gopuram covered in kitsch plasterwork, the ornate detailing of the sculptures gracing the inner compound and the colourful domes of the shrines makes Sri Mariamman temple a sight to behold.
Date Visited: October 2018
Type: Religious Site
Official Website: http://smt.org.sg/
Recommended Time: 1 hour
Cost: Free, Photo Pass needed
Great for: Culture Enthusiasts
A true taste of Tamil traditions and original Hindu culture and a rare glimpse into the impressive Dravidian architecture.
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