Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore in Singapore
The Sri Mariamman Temple is Singapore's oldest Hindu temple. It is an agamic temple, built in the Dravidian style. Located at No. 244 South Bridge Road, in the downtown Chinatown district, the temple serves mainly South Indian Tamil Hindu Singaporeans in the city-state. Due to its architectural and historical significance, the temple has been gazetted a National Monument and is a major tourist attraction. Sri Mariamman Temple is managed by the Hindu Endowments Board, a statutory board under the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports.
The Sri Mariamman Temple was founded in 1827 by Naraina Pillai, eight years after the British East India Company established a trading settlement in Singapore.
Pillai was a government clerk from Penang who arrived in Singapore with Stamford Raffles on his second visit to the island in May 1819. He went on to set up the island's first construction company. He also entered the textile trade. Pillai rapidly established himself in business and was identified as a leader of the Indian community.
Initially, the British authorities allotted land for a Hindu temple along Telok Ayer Street. This street ran alongside Telok Ayer Bay, where most early Asian immigrants first landed in Singapore, and where they went to pray and give thanks for a safe sea journey. Singapore's earliest Chinese and Indian Muslim places of worship are located there. However, Telok Ayer Street lacked a convenient source of fresh water, which was needed for Hindu temple rituals.
The British Resident of Singapore, William Farquhar, then let Naraina Pillai occupy a site near Stamford Canal in 1821. Once again, the site proved unsuitable, this time due to the 1822 Jackson Plan. While the Stamford Canal area had been reserved for other uses, the plan designated an alternative site next to the existing temple - marked as 'Kling Chapel' ('Kling' was an old name for Indians in Singapore and Malaysia, now considered derogatory). This site was near the area earmarked for the Indian community.
In 1823, the current South Bridge Road site was finally granted to Pillai for the purposes of erecting a Hindu temple. The side streets flanking the temple were later (re)named in reference to the temple and its prominent tower - Pagoda Street and Temple Street. Informally, Chinatown residents referred to Pagoda Street in Chinese as "back of the Indian place of worship."
By 1827, Naraina Pillai had built a simple temple made of wood and attap. In the same year, he installed "Sinna Amman", a small representation of the goddess Mariamman, in the temple. Mariamman is a rural South Indian mother goddess who is especially worshipped for protection against diseases. According to the Hindu Endowments Board, the current managers of the temple, the existing deity in the principal shrine of the temple is the original installed by Pillai in 1827. As is common practice, the temple is named after its principal deity. The temple was also known to devotees over the years as the Sithi Vinayagar and Gothanda Ramaswamy Mariamman Temple or, more simply, Mariamman Kovil ('Kovil' being the Tamil word for temple).
The temple grounds were expanded in 1831 when private land was donated to the temple. This event is recorded on a stone tablet, which still stands in the temple. The inscribed text on this tablet reads "The grant N:075 With its building transferred for charity sake to Cothunda Ramasamy by Sashasalapilly son of Cuddalore Amicarapoatrapilly Singapore March 1831." The oldest parts of the existing brick structure date to 1843 and additions and alterations were subsequently conducted at various points in the history of the temple. It is believed that most of this work, especially the elaborate plaster sculptures and ornamentation, were produced by skilled craftsmen from the Nagapattinam and Cuddalore districts of South India. A major part of the present structure is believed to have been built in 1862-1863. The walkway connecting the main entrance to the principal shrine was originally covered in attap, but this was destroyed in a fire in 1910. The architectural firm of Swam and Maclaren then designed a more permanent walkway in 1915.
The original three tiered gopuram was constructed in 1903. It was slimmer and less richly embellished than the current tower. The sides of the tower also appeared to be more stepped than sloping. Nonetheless, it had an iconic presence in Chinatown, and was a widely recognised landmark. The present six tiered gopuram was built in 1925. It was repaired and restored with an elaborate proliferation of sculptures in the 1960s.
Sri Mariamman Temple was gazetted a National Monument on 6 July 1973 by the Preservation of Monuments Board.
More recent works include the addition of a new elevated viewing gallery - which is especially popular as a spectator gallery during the annual fire walking festival. Another major addition is a three storey annexe building, sited to the rear of the temple. This annexe has a separate entrance onto Pagoda Street, with an elaborate facade featuring traditional sculptural plasterwork. The spacious building has a fully equipped auditorium and facilities for weddings, multimedia presentations, corporate meetings, seminars, and cultural events.
Social role of the temple
From its inception, Sri Mariamman Temple served as a for new immigrants, particularly South Indian Tamil Hindus. Besides providing an important place of worship for these immigrants, the temple granted them shelter until they found work and more permanent accommodation. Historically, the temple was the Registry of Marriages for Hindus. At that time, only the priest of the Sri Mariamman Temple was authorized to solemnize Hindu marriages in Singapore. Today, in addition to its religious services and functions, the temple promotes various social, cultural and educational activities.
Art and architecture
Built in the South Indian Dravidian style, most outstanding feature of the temple is its impressive gopuram (entrance tower). The gopuram rises above the main entrance along South Bridge Road. It is richly embellished with six tiers of sculptures of Hindu deities, other figures and ornamental decorations. The tower tapers up towards to a moulded ornamental ridge. The scale of each tier and its sculptures is slightly smaller than that of the tier immediately below it. This helps to create the illusion of height, and adds to the symbolic importance of the building. Flanking the gopuram are a sculpture of Murugan on the right and Krishna on the left (as you enter). The sculptures are all of plaster, which allows for fine detailing. They are painted in a variety of bright colours, which adds to the visually spectacular quality of the gopuram.
The floor plan of the gopuram base block is rectangular, and is bisected by an entrance passageway. The entrance contains a pair of very large double leaf timber doors. The scale of these doors is intended to induce humility in the visitor and emphasise the diminutive human scale in relation to the divine. The doors are studded with a small gold bells arranged in a grid pattern. Devotees are supposed to ring as they move through. Footwear is also stored around the entrance area, as this is not allowed within Hindu temples, as a sign of respect.
The main entrance gopuram is only one of the entrances into the temple compound, which is surrounded by a perimeter wall. Side openings also exist, which open onto the flanking Pagoda and Temple Streets. However, these are mainly used as service entrances, with all devotees and visitors entering through the gopuram doors. The compound wall is also decorated with ornamental mouldings, as well as figures placed on top of the wall at various points, including several prominent seated cow sculptures.
Within the walled compound, the temple comprises a combination of covered halls, shrines and service areas as well as open to sky spaces. Leading directly from the gopuram entrance via a covered hall is a main prayer area, with richly ornamented columns and ceilings with frescoes. The ceiling paintings include a large mandala diagram.
Shrines and deities
The focus of this main prayer hall is the central shrine of Mariamman, which is flanked by the shrines of two secondary deities - Rama and Murugan. The main prayer hall is surrounded by a series of free-standing shrines, housed in pavilion like structures with decorated dome roofs, known as 'Vimana'. These are dedicated to the following deities: Durga, Ganesh, Muthularajah - also known as Mathurai Veeran, a rural Tamil deity, Aravan and Draupadi.
The shrine to Draupadi is the second most important in the temple, as she is central to the annual fire walking festival held in this temple. To the left of Draupadi are the five Pandavas from the Mahabharata epic - Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Sahadeva and Nakula. They are presided over by Lord Krishna.
Another important element of the temple is the freestanding flagpole. A few days before major festivals or ritual ceremonies, a flag is raised here. The temple compound also contains a Lingam sculpture and Yoni sculpture.
Once every 12 years, in keeping with Hindu tradition, the temple is reconsecrated. The unique annual fire-walking ceremony is held about a week before Deepavali -- the Festival of Lights.
- National Heritage Board (2002), Singapore's 100 Historic Places, Archipelago Press,
- Lee Geok Boi (2002), "The Religious Monuments of Singapore: Faith of our Forefathers", Landmark Books,
- National Heritage Board (2006), "The Encyclopedia of Singapore", Editions Didier Millet,
- Hindu Endowments Board webpage (accessed 16 March 2007)
- Asian Oriental Architecture webpage (accessed 16 March 2007)
- Uniquely Singapore website
- Interactive 360° VR image of the Sri Mariamman Temple
- Chinatownology: Sri Mariamman
- Hindu Endowments Board website
- Flickr photos of the temple
- Original gopuram image- National Archives of Singapore site
- Asian Historical Architecture: Sri Mariamman Temple