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You are now facing the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore. As it is dedicated to the goddess Mariamman, the great protector against illness, it is without a doubt, one of the most visited.
When you talk about this temple you are also talking about Singapore’s early Hindus. In the early 19th century a wave of immigrants came from southern India, mostly Tamils, as workers and day labourers for the British East India Company. And of course, these immigrants brought their homeland’s religion and culture with them. The construction of temples began with their arrival and it was the start of a fascinating Hindu culture.
The temple was founded in 1827 by Naraina Pillai, who is believed to be the first Indian immigrant, as he arrived in Singapore with Stamford Raffles on his second visit to the island in May 1819. Pillai started several highly successful textile and construction businesses and he soon became a leader of the Hindu community.
The first construction was a simple wooden temple with a small statue of the goddess Mariamman. As is the custom, the temple is named after its presiding deity.
It is a temple built in Dravidian style, an architectural style typical of southern India, also called Dravidian. Because of its architectural and historical importance, the temple has been declared a National Monument.
The site was expanded in 1831 and in 1843 the temple underwent additions and modifications. Much of this work, especially the plaster sculptures and ornamentation, was done by craftsmen brought especially from Tamil Nadu in southern India.
Since its inception, the temple has served as a refuge for new immigrants, especially Tamil Hindus. In addition to providing a place of worship, the temple offered them shelter until they could find employment and permanent accommodation. The Sri Mariamman Temple priest was the only one authorized to perform Indian weddings in Singapore. Today, along with its religious services, the church promotes a range of social, cultural and educational activities.
The temple you visit today is structured around three central elements of Dravidian architecture. An entry tower or gopuram, an interior chapel or Vimanam covered by a decorated dome and a prayer room or mapadam.
The tower or Gopuram is the main entrance but it is only one of the entrances to the temple grounds, which is surrounded by a perimeter wall also decorated with ornamental moldings, and even sculptures of sitting cows.
This tower is the most outstanding feature of Southern Indian temples. The original 1903 tower had only three levels, while the one you see today, from 1935, was built on six levels. If you feel up to it you can count the over 100 figures on each level. These mainly represent Hindu deities. As you can see, each level, including its sculptures, is slightly smaller than the level immediately below. This technique helps create the illusion that the tower is taller than it really is. To the right of the Gopuram is a statue of Murugan, the patron deity of the Tamil land and to the left Krishna, the god of war.
The tower has a rectangular base and the entrance has a pair of large and imposing wooden doors. The vast size of the gopuram and of its doors is a way to make all visitors feel small. It reminds us to be humble, and that the human dimension is tiny compared to the divine. The doors are studded with small golden bells. These are rung by devotees to bring good luck.
Inside you will find a combination of covered pavilions, shrines and open spaces.
The main prayer area or mapadam, is richly decorated with columns and frescoed ceilings. You will also see murals of three manifestations of the Supreme God: Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the maintainer and Shiva the destroyer.
The Vimanm is the central shrine. This is where you will find Mariamman, flanked by the shrines of two secondary divinities - Rama and Murugan. The main prayer hall is surrounded by a series of small shrines dedicated to the deities Durga, Ganesh, Muthularajah, Aravan and Draupadi.
The Draupadi shrine is the second most important in the temple. This goddess plays an important part in the Timithi Festival held every year between September and October. For this festival hundreds of men prove their faith by walking more than 4 meters on a bed of burning coals to fulfil their promises. Meanwhile, other devotees await their turn outside the temple singing and dancing to enhance its value.
As is always the case with Hindu temples, it has undergone many changes over the years. One of these changes was a three-storey building, added to the rear, used to celebrate weddings as well as for seminars and cultural events. Once every 12 years, according to Hindu tradition, the temple is re-consecrated.
Live a unique experience in the hustle and bustle of devotees who call on the Goddess Mariamman to cure their ill health as well as the illnesses of their loved ones.
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