A visit to Singapore’s Sri Mariamman Temple gives Alan Teh Leam Seng the opportunity to learn more about Thaipusam and why this year’s celebrations will be very different
“THAIPUSAM this year will be different as the Jan 31 date coincides with the total lunar eclipse taking place that night,” a middle aged female devotee informs her companion.
Standing within earshot, I continue to listen intently to the conversation between the two saree-clad women.
After a while, it becomes obvious to me that Hindus consider the impending lunar eclipse as inauspicious because Earth’s exact position between the sun and the moon prevents the energy nourishing moonlight from reaching Earth.
As a result of this “unprecedented stellar event”, Hindu temples throughout Singapore, including the Sri Mariamman Temple in South Bridge Road, will shutter once darkness sets in that evening.
Taking into account this year’s shortened Thaipusam procession time, devotees will start walking from Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road and arrive at the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple in Tank Road earlier compared to those in the past.
According to the banner on the temple wall, all kavadi and paal kumdam (milk pot) bearers have to start their journey latest by 1pm and must reach their destination by 6.30pm.
This year it is estimated that some 10,000 devotees will be carrying milk pots while the kavadi bearer numbers will be about 600-strong.
Thaipusam is an annual celebration honouring Lord Subramaniam, also known as Lord Murugan, who represents virtue, youth and power, and is the destroyer of evil.
This annual event usually attracts about 50,000 to 60,000 people, including thousands of tourists, who stand by the road pavements to observe the festival as it proceeds along its four-kilometre long route.
I take leave of the duo and begin my walkabout of the temple, reputed to be the oldest Hindu place of worship in Singapore.
Strategically located right in the middle of the downtown Chinatown district, this agamic temple built in the Dravidian style serves a large majority of Hindu Singaporeans as well as receive crowds of curious tourists daily.
According to the information board nearby, the Sri Mariamman Temple was established by Naraina Pillai in 1827, a mere eight years after Stamford Raffles from the East India Company founded a trading settlement in Singapore.
Pillai, a Penang government clerk, arrived in Singapore with Raffles during his second visit to the island in May 1819.
An entrepreneur at heart, Pillai started looking out for business opportunities the moment he arrived and, within a short period of time, set up Singapore’s first construction company. Sadly, Pillai’s business suffered a huge setback when a fire destroyed his shop on Cross Street in 1822.
Unperturbed, Pillai persevered and thanks to a helping hand from Raffles, he managed to revive his business in Commercial Square (now Raffles Place).
Apart from his initial venture, Pillai also dabbled in the lucrative textile trade. A few years later, he managed to set his business on a firm footing and emerged as one of the most prominent leaders of the Indian community on the island.
Success stories like Pillai and other Indian businessmen in Singapore spread far and wide. Soon, immigrants from the Nagapatnam and Cuddalore districts of South India began arriving at the shores of the growing colony in droves. Their large numbers soon gave rise to a need for a proper place of worship.
The British East India Company had originally allotted a plot of land on Telok Ayer Street for the construction of a Hindu temple but the site was deemed unsuitable as there was no ready supply of freshwater needed for daily religious rituals.
The Indian community continued pressing the Company for a better location and when 1823 came, they found themselves with the present South Bridge Road site.
A temple made of wood and attap (palm fronds) was completed in 1827. Known then as the Mariamman Kovil or Kling Street Temple, the building merely housed a small deity installed by Pillai. Many believe the deity was the Goddess Mariamman who possessed the power to cure illnesses and diseases.
Singapore during Pillai’s time was a far cry from the clean and well structured city we know today. Back then, sanitary services were poorly managed and the general population often resorted to the Singapore River nearby to ease themselves.
This unhealthy practice quickly gave rise to debilitating diseases like typhoid and dysentery. Without much access to basic health care, devotees visited the temple with the hope of seeking divine intervention, to either cure themselves or their affected loved ones.
Other than its main function as a place of worship, the Sri Mariamman Temple was also closely intertwined with the Hindu community in several other aspects.
Until the early part of the 20th century, the temple served as a first place of refuge for newly arrived immigrants, a venue for dispute mediation and also a registry of marriages. Back then, the temple was the only place in Singapore authorised to solemnise Hindu nuptials.
GRANDEST TEMPLE IN THE FAR EAST
Stepping into the interior, I just cannot help but marvel at the ornate and elaborate detailing on the walls of the main temple building. The painted ceiling of the mandapam (central hall), which leads up to the main shrine, is also another place of beauty. One of my favourite murals here depicts a huge mandala which is a spiritual symbol connoting our known universe.
Further down the elaborately decorated passageway, in the inner sanctum of the main shrine, is the statue of Sri Mariamman. The temple priests only unveil the deity during service and on special occasions.
The sight of such magnificence makes me pause and realise how far this place has progressed since the days when just a simple wood-and-attap structure stood on this same site nearly two centuries ago.
By 1843, the wood-and-attap temple was replaced with a brick structure after the former could no longer accommodate the growing congregation. Thanks to a generous donation in the form of a piece of adjacent land by wealthy land owner Seshasalam Pillai back in 1831, the Indian community soon benefitted from a larger and better planned place of worship.
Despite the many improvements, devotees at that time still felt that the new temple, which was constructed using Indian convict labour, lacked ornate finishings worthy of their pride.
The temple only managed to achieve its present magnificent form in 1862 when skilled Indian and Chinese craftsmen were brought in to create what was, according to a report in a local daily, the “grandest Hindu Temple in the Far East” .
Several domes within the temple grounds were also added during that period. Called vimanam, these tall ornate structures mark the location of shrines or altars beneath them. Like many South Indian temples, the Sri Mariamman Temple has many smaller shrines dedicated to different deities.
Under an especially decorative vimanam close to a side wall, I come across the deity Aravan who is commonly worshipped in villages throughout South India. It is believed that Aravan was the son of the Pandava prince Arjuna in the Hindu epic, Mahabharata.
Many South Indians honour Aravan for his self-sacrifice to the Goddess Kali in order to ensure her favour and victory of the Pandavas in the great Mahabharata war. Legend has it that God Krishna took pity on Aravan and allowed him to witness the entire duration of the battle through the eyes of his severed head.
Until this day, Aravan is worshipped in the form of his severed head and is believed to cure disease and induce pregnancy in childless women. Apart from its own shrine in the temple complex, the image of Aravan is also placed on the corners of temple roofs to guard against evil spirits.
Noticing that it is nearly time for lunch, I start retracing my steps back to the main entrance. Just as I am about to step out onto the sidewalk, I notice a group of Japanese women in deep conversation while gesturing to something above the heavy wooden entrance doors. I look up curiously and immediately experience an awe-inspiring moment.
The majestic gopuram (grand tower entrance) is a highly recommended place to see the temple at its best. If not for the searing noon heat, I could have stood there for a much longer time admiring the countless three-dimensional sculptures of Hindu deities in various poses, mythological beasts and other beings.
Interestingly, even the 19th century Sepoy soldiers in their smart khaki uniforms once graced part of this six-tiered tower. These were, however, replaced with figures wearing traditional Indian costumes during a temple makeover in 1971.
Other note-worthy installations nearby are the eye-catching statues of Shiva and Vishnu flanking both sides of the gopuram. These statues were installed in 1903 when the gopuram was at its original three tiered height. The levels on the gopuram only doubled when the main entrance was rebuilt in the 1930s.
Sri Mariamman Temple, which was gazetted as a national monument on July 6, 1973, should definitely be on the bucket list of any tourist visiting the Lion City.
The sculptures of sacred cows sitting peacefully atop the temple wall bordering Pagoda Street form the last few images of my unforgettable visit. Right at that moment, I vow to return again at the end of this year to experience the Theemithi (fire-walking festival), one of the most important annual festivals celebrated at the temple.
Sri Mariamman Temple
244 South Bridge Road, Singapore 058793
Tel: +65 6223 4064
Fax: +65 6225 5015