From places of worship and educational institutions to the former residences of prominent figures, 72 buildings here have been gazetted as national monuments. This is the latest in a weekly series revisiting these heritage gems. Each is a yarn woven into the rich tapestry of Singapore’s history.
In the early days, the ornate Sri Mariamman Temple was the only place with priests who could solemnise Hindu marriages in Singapore.
The 190-year-old national monument is in South Bridge Road, at the end of rows of shops peddling souvenirs to tourists.
The temple in Chinatown was established by government clerk Naraina Pillai who accompanied the founder of modern Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles, on his second visit to the island in May 1819.
Set up in 1827, the Hindu temple is the oldest in Singapore and its presence in the area adds an additional layer of history and richness to the cultural precinct.
This is… where most tourists will come by because they get to see all the three religious institutions along the same stretch of road. Our temple is unique in our design and set-up.
MR S. NALLATHAMBY, chairman of the Sri Mariamman management committee, who said at least 500 tourists stream into the temple’s sacred grounds on a good day.
Mr S. Nallathamby, 58, said Sri Mariamman is one of three religious institutions in the area – the others being Jamae Mosque and the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple.
The chairman of the Sri Mariamman management committee said tourists flock to the area for the full experience. On a good day, at least 500 tourists stream into the temple’s sacred grounds.
“This is… where most tourists will come by because they get to see all the three religious institutions along the same stretch of road. Our temple is unique in our design and set-up,” he said.
Tourist Tania Folgueza, a 29-year-old engineer, agreed. The Spanish national had wandered into the temple after hearing its drums sounding evening prayers on Tuesday.
She said: “It was nice… It’s a whole different world and very different from Europe, which is mostly dotted with churches and cathedrals.”
The temple is venerated by the local Hindu community, said Mr Nallathamby. He added that between 100 and 200 devotees visit the temple on weekdays, while between 500 and 700 are there on Fridays and weekends.
“The temple is the focus for all aspects of everyday life in the Hindu community – religious, cultural, educational and social,” he noted.
For instance, one-month-old babies are brought to the temple for prayers and blessings.
Hindus also believe that the deity goddess Mariamman can cure illnesses and epidemics. So early migrants, who moved here to work during colonial times, set up a temple dedicated to her, said Mr Nallathamby said.
According to the archives, the oldest sections of the existing brick structure of the temple were constructed in 1843 by Indian convict labourers.
A large part of the present monument is believed to have been built around the early 1860s, although the ground plan of the temple has not changed since 1843.
The National Heritage Board (NHB) gazetted the structure in 1973. In 1925, its original three-tiered gopuram – the tower at the entrance of the temple – was replaced by its existing ornate five-tiered structure which features Indian sepoys from the British Raj standing guard with their rifles at hand, noted NHB.
It is also the centre of festivities and activities when Theemithi – the fire-walking festival – comes around in October or November every year. This has been so for more than 170 years.
As part of the celebrations, devotees begin their 4km procession from Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road to Sri Mariamman Temple.
The highlight is the fire-walking ceremony, during which thousands of male devotees walk barefoot across a bed of burning charcoal before stepping into a pit of milk, added NHB.
To stay up to date, the temple has modernised some of its services. For instance, it has been streaming live webcasts of its major events for the past four years.
Mr Nallathamby said people the world over can also send in their prayer requests.
He was appointed chairman of the temple management committee in 2014, but his ties to the temple go back a long way .
As a child, he would drop by the temple every Friday. In the early days, the place did not have paved stones and used to be full of sand where he would play.
“I grew up in this neighbourhood and have been visiting the temple for the last 40 years. Never did it come to my mind that (one day) I would… lead the temple.
“I find joy and meaning in life when I help the community run the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore.”