Singapore’s Little India

Singapore’s Little India is a flourishing centre, alive with colour, noise and constant activity, where ancient traditions fit harmoniously into ultra-modern life, where diverse cultures blend and different religions sit comfortably side by side. It is unmistakably India but uniquely Singapore.

A fragment od temple
A fragment of temple

In 1925, the British brought a contingent of Indian convicts to Singapore to work as construction labourers on the rapidly expanding settlement. For the duration of their sentences they were confined in coolie lines between Stamford and Bras Basah Roads. Once freed, they were given buffalos and land, in the city’s North West, and dispatched to begin new lives in their own India away from India.  Thus, Singapore’s Little India was born.

There are parts of Little India which are all India – bright, bold, extravagant and exotic. In the Arts Belt on Buffalo Road, the walkways are hung with Hindu emblems and paved with painted tiles of Indian design. Sensational souvenirs abound – statues, brassware, homewares, jewellery and silks, not to mention very special photos for those who wish to don a sari or a turban. There are demonstrations of traditional performing arts – Gamelan, Silat and Angklung. Across Serangoon Road, the Little India Arcade offers more; beautiful saris and sari fabric, stunning hand embroidered vests and slippers, shawls, trinkets, incense, ayurvedic herbs, wonderful authentic henna hand tattoos of ancient, mysterious design and the strange, mouth-numbing potions of the paan wallah or betel nut seller.

Nearby Campbell Road is the home of age-old businesses; the medicine shop, traditional provisions stores and furniture stores with elaborately carved wooden wares. Here, too, are the Flower Garland shops, where men and women ply the oldest surviving traditional Indian trade, threading jothi, or garlands of marigolds, jasmine and roses, (symbols of peace, purity and love) as temple offerings or tributes to dignitaries. Further down Serangoon Road are the gold stores, selling dazzling and much-coveted   yellow gold jewellery in a thousand and one elaborate designs. Deeper into Little India, in Cuff Road, is Singapore’s last traditional spice grinder, the only survivor from the days when spices were ground on the day they were used.

Absolutely everywhere, in Little India, there are eateries; restaurants, diners, cafes, stalls and carts in every street and on every block, offering every imaginable dish and drink from every region of India. The air is alive with seductive smells, they permeate every corner, every nook and cranny; curries of every kind and strength, chapati, thosai, puri and naan breads with lassi of every flavour to wash them down and of course, teh tarik.

Nowhere is timeless and traditional India more evident than in Little India’s houses of worship. The Angullia Mosque was built in 1898 on land donated by the wealthy Gujerati Angullia family, who are still its custodians. The Sri Vadapathira Kaliamman Temple in Petain Road is dedicated to Kaliamman, the protective mother-spirit. The Sri Srinivasa Temple in Serangoon Road which began life as a shrine in 1855 is dedicated to Lord Perumal, preserver of the Universe and God of mercy and goodness. The most famous and the oldest is the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple. Built in 1855, it is dedicated to Kali, the many armed Goddess of power. Fittingly, during Japanese bombing raids World War II, the people of Little India sought refuge beneath the richly adorned turrets of Sri Veeramakaliamman.

Then, there are areas of little India which strongly reflect multi-cultural Singapore, like the houses of worship of other denominations which sit alongside its temples and mosques. The architecturally plain Anglican Church of True Light in Perak Road, built in 1952 for a congregation of Chinese tri-shaw operators now holds services in Tamil, Mandarin and English. The Art Deco Kampong Kapor Methodist Church was built in 1929 to serve the local Peranakan Chinese Community. The Leong San Buddhist Temple, in Race Course Road is known as the Dragon Mountain Temple because of the sculpted clay dragons on its roof. The Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple houses a 15 metre tall statue of Buddha surrounded by hundreds of lanterns. A blend of Moorish-Islamic and Southern Indian architecture, the Masjid Abdul Gafoor Mosque, completed in 1907, is famed for the spectacular sundial, decorated with 25 rays depicting the names of the 25 prophets, at its entrance.

Singapore’s blend of cultures and styles is stamped on Little India’s secular architecture, especially on its beautiful old houses and shops. The House of Tan Ten Niah, on Kerbau Road, with its carved swing doors, or pintu paagar, is one of the area’s last surviving stately Chinese villas. Little India is rich in Singapore shop houses, from the early style in Dunlop Street to the transitional in Madras Street, to the blend of Peranakan-Chinese and Malay in Upper Dickson Road to the stunning Art Deco examples along Race Course Road, in the Arts Belt.

There are glimpses in little India, too, of modern, cosmopolitan, commercial Singapore, in places like the gleaming multi-storey Mustafa Centre, in Alwi Road. Crammed with floor after floor of merchandise from around the globe it is packed 24/7 with shoppers from every corner of Singapore as well as tourists from all over the world. The Tekka Wet Market, edged by Buffalo Road, where once long ago, snake-charmers, astrologers, palm-readers and numerologists held sway, has long been a Singapore institution. Rebuilt now, with Housing and Development Board flats above, it is a shiny, clean, up-to-the- minute Singapore place. With its fresh vegetables and meat, the sumptuous fare at its hawker centre and the lively, colourful atmosphere it is always crowded with people – locals shopping for their daily provisions or grazing at the food stalls, tourists browsing and snapping pictures and hopefuls queuing to have their fortunes told by the one last Chinese Fortune Teller.

The full splendour of Little India is revealed at Festival time; Thaipusam, in January or February when men process through the streets with decorated arches attached to their bodies with spikes; Navarathiri, where after nine nights and ten days of fasting, a chariot carrying a statue of the mother Goddess processes through the streets attended by song and dance; Deepavali, the Festival of light, marked by gaily coloured street ligh s and festive bazaars. At these times, ancient rituals and traditions are played out against the backdrop of the 21st century city and modern Singapore comes out to watch.

Thanks to; Uniquely Singapore, Little India Walking Guide.