There is no shortage of amazing things to do and see in Singapore. Especially, if you’re looking for something a little different and totally unique.
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 Mother Goddess Sri Mariamman, an incarnation of Shiva’s wife Parvati.
In this travel story you will:
- learn helpful info and important before-you-visit tips about the temple
- uncover the temple’s cultural & historical importance for the local community
- view awesome photos of the temple
Sri Mariamman Temple is designated as a National Monument and has been extremely popular with architecture lovers, Hindu immigrants and visitors to Singapore.
It is built in Dravidian style, reflecting the fact that most of Singapore’s Hindu population are Tamils, originating from South India.
How many Hindu temples are there in Singapore?
There are around 36 Hindu temples in the country, dedicated to Ganesha, Shiva, Murugan, Vishnu, Muneswarar and other deities.
What makes it so popular?
The gopuram, the temple’s majestic tower entrance, is the most notable feature of Sri Mariamman Temple. Visitors have the chance to see priests performing ancient rituals or chanting prayers (puja) and worshippers offering tropical fruits to the temple’s deities.
History of Sri Mariamman Temple
The temple’s history closely relates to Mr Naraina Pillai, an Indian merchant who worked for East India Company. He was one of the first Tamils to visit the island, accompanying Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore. Being a competent entrepreneur, he established a profitable manufacturing business in 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 consideration, one of the first things Naraina Pillai did was to establish a temple.
Initially, an area on Telok Ayer Street was allotted to the Hindu community, but the plot was lacking a source of water that is required for Hindu rituals. In 1823, however, the site on South Bridge Road was granted and a simple attap (palm) temple was erected.
Twenty years later, in 1843, Sri Mariamman Temple was reinforced with brick. As a matter of fact, the oldest parts of today’s temple go back to that date. However, several alterations were made over the years. For example, the original gopuram had only three tiers whereas the present six-tiered tower was added later.
Did you know?
According to Hindu tradition, temples are renovated every 12 years in a ceremony known as Kumbhabhishekham. The temple’s first recorded such ceremony took place in 1936. During the last Kumbhabhishekham, in 2010, twenty artisans from Tamil Nadu restored the sculptures to their original vivid hues.
The magnificent & colourful gopuram
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.
That’s reason enough to visit!
But what exactly is a gopuram?
A gopuram is the entrance to a Hindu temple. It’s a pyramid-shaped tower pointing towards the sky. It is divided into tiers; each one is decorated with intricately carved sculptures. The scale of each level is slightly smaller than the one beneath it. This technique creates the illusion of height, making the tower look taller than it really is.
A beacon for pilgrims & visitors
The gopuram of Sri Mariamman Temple is widely recognised in Singapore’s Chinatown. Its great height acts as a beacon for worshippers allowing them to offer prayers or meditate before entering the temple.
This elaborate structure is embellished with sculptures of Hindu deities, ornamental carvings, mythological beasts and other cultural figures. They are all made of plaster, crafted by skilled artisans 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.
The gopuram is flanked by the statues of two significant Tamil deities, Murugan on the right and Krishna on the left. The former is the patron deity of Tamils and the Hindu god of war. On the other hand, Krishna is the god of compassion, tenderness and love.
Did you know?
Colours hold a great significance in Hinduism transcending purely decorative values. For example, deities are always portrayed in colours that signify their qualities and character. Specifically, Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, is often associated with red, reflecting the blossoming of youth and indicating sensuality and purity.
The gigantic temple doors
Beneath the gopuram, there are two imposing double-leaf timber doors leading into the temple. Their immersive scale emphasises on the insignificance of human nature compared to the divine.
You will also notice strings of bananas and fresh mangoes hanging above the temple doors. They are a symbol of prosperity and happiness.
Tip: Don’t forget to ring the bells for good luck!
Inside the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore
Sri Mariamman Temple’s colourful interior is a feast for the eyes; shrines with majestic domes, statues of deities and paintings depicting folklore scenes. Apart from the gopuram, Hindu temples consist 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 Mandapa – full of energy & colours
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 & 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.
A walkway ornamented with colourful frescoes on the ceiling connects the gopuram with the main shrines. As a matter of fact, Lord Ganesha and Goddess Saraswati are prominently displayed. A mandala is displayed next to them; a symbol representing wholeness, harmony and unity.
As if the walkway isn’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 missing from a Hindu temple; Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer.
As I moved deeper into one of the courtyards of the mandapa, I saw a man playing a double-sided drum (mridangam). In another, worshippers were clasping their palms, silently praying to the goddess.
Within the temple compound, worshippers only walk in a clockwise direction. Additionally, they need to encircle the temple for an odd number of times in order to have good luck.
The enigmatic Vimana
In the main prayer hall, there are shrines capped with decorated onion-shaped domes. Those are referred to as vimana. Below the central vimana, is the shrine of Mariamman, flanked by the two secondary divinities, Rama and Murugan. Essentially, worshippers «purify» themselves with water before offering their prayers to the central figure of the temple.
There are multiple colourful vimanas, dedicated to other deities surrounding the central Mandapa. I easily noticed one dedicated to Ganesha, The Remover of Obstacles. Another was of Aravan, who is always worshipped in the form of his severed head. He sacrificed himself in one of the great battles of Mahabharata war.
Did you know?
Cows are animals sacred to Hindus. As a matter of fact, the compound is encircled by a boundary wall lined with sculptures of cows.
Who is Sri Mariamman?
Sri Mariamman, the chief deity of the temple, is a South Indian folk goddess enjoying a four-millennia-long history. She is worshipped by Tamils as the bringer of prosperity and for her power to cure illnesses. Naturally, epidemic diseases, like smallpox and cholera, raged in early Singapore’s jungle environment.
What does the name mean?
In Tamil, the word Mari means “rain” and Amman, “mother”.
In 1827, 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.
What’s the best way to experience Sri Mariamman Temple?
Even if you don’t have to follow Tamil traditions, you will far more enjoy your visit if you:
- purify yourself before entering the temple; wash your hands and sprinkle water on your head.
- ring the bells in the entrance to alert the gods of your visit. Make a wish as you do so and it might come true!
- look for the enclosure where worshippers break coconuts as a symbolism of breaking their own egos. Try it!
- once inside the temple walk in a clockwise direction and encircle it for an odd number of times.
- do not sit with your feet pointing towards the Deities, the priests or other persons.
- abstain from smoking, drinking alcohol and showing extreme demonstrations of affection.
- most importantly, as in any place of worship, treat the priests with respect and refrain from being loud.
The mysterious firewalking festival of Thimithi
If you visit Singapore between mid-October and mid-November, don’t miss the chance to see one of the most captivating festivals. Thimithi, is an annual firewalking ceremony celebrated a week before Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.
It is dedicated to Draupati Amman, a goddess believed to be an incarnation of Mariamman, who had to walk barefoot over hot coals to prove her innocence. During the event, devotees 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. The shrine devoted to Draupati is the second most important in the temple.
Helpful info for visiting Sri Mariamman Temple
The temple welcomes people of all religions, gender or age, however, there are certain things you should know before visiting.
All religious sites have a basic dress code and Sri Mariamman Temple is not an exception. Firstly, you have to take off your footwear and store it around the entrance. Additionally, you need to dress conservatively, covering up your shoulders and legs. Hopefully, the temple provides shawl and wraps in case you don’t have any with you.
There is no admission to enter Sri Mariamman Temple. However, to take photos inside you need to buy a photo pass that costs S$3 (or S$6 if you wish to use your video camera).
The best time to visit the temple is either early in the morning or late in the evening, after the sun sets. Get there in the middle of the day and the temple will be swarming with tourists. Besides, don’t forget that you will be walking around without shoes; during sunny days the floor will literally burn like a fire pit.
As of 24th December 2020, the temple is open from 06:30 to 11:00 in the morning and from 18:45 to 20:30 in the evening. However, you might be allowed to enter outside operating hours; make sure to ask before.
As of 24th December 2020, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, the temple accepts online bookings for services at least 48 hours in advance. However, if you need to visit in shorter notice, please contact the temple at sst (at) heb.gov.sg or 67434566.
The Thimithi is celebrated a week before Deepavali (festival of lights), during Aippasi of the Tamil calendar. So if you visit between mid-October and mid-November there is a great chance you can witness the festival.
More than a Hindu place of worship
From the beginning, Kling Street Temple or Mariamman Kovil, as Sri Mariamman Temple was called, was not only a religious place but also a beacon of the whole Hindu community in Singapore.
The temple served as a haven and provided shelter to new settlers until they moved on to their permanent home 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 temple has also named two nearby streets, Temple Street and Pagoda Street. While the first was given for obvious reasons, the latter was derived by the gopuram of the temple, resembling a Chinese pagoda.
Beyond doubt, Sri Mariamman Temple adds an additional layer of culture and history not only in Chinatown but to the whole city itself. It’s not only the biggest and oldest Hindu temple in Singapore but also holds a pivotal role in local life.
A dedicated supporting community
Quite incredibly, the community supporting the temple is not only composed of Tamils but with people from different backgrounds. For example, 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 we run out of lemons, she would bring more baskets without fail. And I’m so amazed. This is the kind of link that family has.
How can you contribute to Sri Mariamman Temple?
Is Sri Mariamman Temple worth visiting?
Paradoxically built in the heart of Chinatown (even if Singapore has its own 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 make Sri Mariamman Temple a sight to behold.
A true taste of Tamil traditions and original Hindu culture and a rare glimpse into the impressive Dravidian architecture, Sri Mariamman Temple is certainly worth a visit.
Facts about Sri Mariamman Temple
|Built: 1827||Founder: Naraina Pillai|
|Type: Religious Site||Function: Hindu Temple|
|Architecture: Dravidian Style||Festivals: Thimithi|
|Country: Singapore||Address: 244 South Bridge Road|
|Cost: Free||Great for: Culture Enthusiasts|
|Official Website: http://smt.org.sg/||Recommended Time: 1 to 2 hours|
- Ramayana – a modern retelling of the Sanskrit verse epic written 2,000 years ago
- Mahabharata – a short version of the Sanskrit epic of ancient India
- An Introduction to Hinduism – a thematic and historical introduction to Hinduism
- Singapore city guide – an extensive city guide by Lonely Planet
All images are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
We would like to thank media.digest, xiquinhosilva, photosforyou , _paVan_, Ivan Bandura , Ashley Ringrose, Magalie L’Abbé, G.R. Lambert & Company, Sengkang, Zairon, Brian Jeffery Beggerly, Lauren Parnell Marino and AngMoKio.