Sri Mariamman Temple: All about the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore

The 190-year-old national monument is in South Bridge Road, at the end of rows of shops peddling souvenirs to tourists

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Sri Mariamman temple, singapore, Wikimedia

Singapore, May 1: The ornate Sri Mariamman temple, a yarn woven into the rich tapestry of Singapore’s history was the only place with priests who could solemnise Hindu weddings in Singapore in the early days. The national monument in South Bridge Road is at the end of rows of shops peddling souvenirs to tourists, is nearly 190 years old.

Government clerk Naraina Pillai who accompanied the founder of modern Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles, on his second visit to the island in May 1819 established the temple in Chinatown. He had been working with the East India Company and sought to get its current site at South Bridge Road from the colonial authorities in 1823 with the purpose of serving early Indian settlers.

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The Hindu temple, founded in 1827 is the oldest in Singapore. Its mere presence in the area adds an additional layer of history and heritage to the cultural precinct.

According to Mr S. Nallathamby, 58, Sri Mariamman is one of three religious institutions in the area; the others being the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Jama Mosque.

The chairman of the Sri Mariamman management committee said tourists are very much more interested in the temple for the full cultural experience. On a good day, at least 500 tourists can be found inside the sacred premises of the temple. He said, “This is where the 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”.

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Spanish tourist Tania Folgueza, a 29-year-old engineer, agreed and admitted to having wandered into the temple after listening to its drums sounding evening prayers on Tuesday. “It was nice. It’s a whole different world and very different from Europe, which is mostly dotted with churches and cathedrals,” she added.

Mr Nallathamby pointed out that the temple is venerated by the local Hindu community. The statistical report of visitors presented by him states 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 stated.

“The temple is the focus for all aspects of everyday life in the Hindu community – religious, cultural, educational and social,” he stated.

According to the report by The Straits Times, it is largely believed by the Hindus that the deity goddess Mariamman can cure illnesses and epidemics. One-month-old babies are brought to the temple for prayers and blessings. Early migrants, who moved here to work during colonial times set up a temple dedicated to the merciful and powerful deity, said Mr Nallathamby.

According to the archives, mostly Indian convict labourers were involved in the construction of the oldest sections of the existing brick structure of the temple constructed in 1843. It is believed that a large part of the present monument was built around the early 1860s. But the ground plan of the temple has not changed since 1843.

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The structure was gazetted by the National Heritage Board (NHB) gazetted in 1973. NHB noted that its original three-tiered gopuram, the tower at the entrance of the temple was replaced by its existing ornate five-tiered structure featuring Indian sepoys from the British Raj standing guard with their rifles at hand in 1925.

When Theemithi, the famous fire-walking festival, comes around in October or November every year, the temple becomes the hub of activities and festivities. This tradition has been going on for more than 170 years. Devotees start their 4km procession from Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road to Sri Mariamman Temple as part of the celebrations.

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NHB did not forget to mention the highlight of the celebrations; 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.

The temple has gone through a number of modernization processes in some of its services such as live streaming of webcasts of its major events for the past four years. The temple management mentioned that prayer requests come in from people all over the world.

Mr Nallathamby was appointed as the chairman of the temple management committee in 2014. He talked about how his ties to the temple go back a long way. As a child, he used to drop by the temple every Friday. He also remembers the early days, when the place did not have paved stones and used to be full of sand where he would play.

Mr Nallathmaby cited, “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.”

– prepared by Durba Mandal of NewsGram. Twitter: @dubumerang

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