With its throngs of people, chaotic commerce and pungent smells, a visit to Little India will quickly dispel any notions of a sterile Singapore. In fact, if you added a few free-range cows and honking rickshaws to the mix, it could pass as the real deal.
Historically, Little India was an extension of Chulia Kampong, the Indian "ethnic quarter" established during British colonial rule. As the original enclave became overcrowded, the South Indian Tamil population moved to this riverside area, where they farmed tropical fruit and raised livestock. While the only trace of these agricultural activities is in street names like "Buffalo Road", the Hindu temples, sari shops, classical Indian music and dance centres, and vegetarian-friendly restaurants remain in full force.
Though Singapore's official policy has shifted from ethnic segregation to racial harmony, Little India continues to serve as a gathering point for Singapore's Indian community as well as new arrivals from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Nearly all of Singapore's construction is done by temporary workers from these South Asian countries and they swarm to Little India by the thousand every Sunday, their one day off per week. They mean no harm, but female travellers may feel uncomfortable from the very obvious stares from the very large crowds of men.
Little India is also a culinary paradise featuring the best of each Indian region's cuisine. Feast on rich mutton curry from Kashmir, the vegetarian staple of dosa masala from Tamil Nadu, coconut seafood from Kerala, or find the ingredients to cook these dishes yourself at the wet markets and spice shops. With Bollywood music and burning incense in the background, the small shops are an exotic alternative to Orchard Road; you'll find Ayurvedic medicine, mobile phones, glittering saris and souvenir T-shirts just for starters.
As you explore the sidestreets keep your eyes peeled for astrologers with a bird and deck of cards. The ancient art of Indian parrot astrology is still alive in Little India and a parakeet named Mani, usually found with his owner on Serangoon Road, became a local celebrity after correctly predicting matches during the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Little India pulsates with sights, sounds and colours 365 days a year, but puts on an even more spectacular showing for holidays and festivals. In January or February is the Thaipusam festival which commemorates the birth of Lord Murugan, a Hindu deity of great importance in South India. Devotees undertake a pilgrimage through the streets of Singapore performing acts of devotion: some carry pots of milk or baskets of fruit, but the gruesome highlight is devotees who skewer their faces and carry large, ornate kavadis piercing their chests and backs -- and that's after they've walked on hot coals, barefoot, at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple.
The biggest event on the Hindu calendar is Deepavali, "the festival of lights", which celebrates the triumph of good over evil. This festival is held in mid-October or November (the exact date is determined by the cycles of the moon) and you'll find Little India bursting at its seams with festive decorations, cultural shows and holiday bazaars.
Little India is a collection of narrow streets and alleys radiating out from Serangoon Road. Its southern limit is the Little India MRT station, which has exits leading to Tekka Centre and mid-range restaurants on Race Course Road. Its northern limit is Farrer Park MRT station, which leads to modern City Square Mall and the 24-hour shopping mecca of Mustafa Centre. In between you'll find countless clothing shops, curry joints, temples, and hotels of vastly varying price and quality.
Near the start of Serangoon Road where it crosses the Rochor Canal are two Little India landmarks: Tekka Centre and the Little India Arcade. Tekka Centre is sensory overload, with a wet market, cooked food and traditional clothing. Try the famous biriyani at the renovated hawker centre or tuck into the juiciest mangoes you've ever had at the fruit stalls. Across the street from Tekka, the Little India Arcade is a maze of shops selling everything Indian from statues of deities to handmade sweets like jalebi and gulab jamun.
A block east is the backpacker quarter along Dunlop Street, where cheap bars, convenience stores, and internet cafes have cropped up to fill the needs of international travellers. A few hostels can also be found on the quieter outskirts of Little India and midrangers like Perak Hotel and Mayo Inn are scattered throughout the area. Be wary of budget hotels with banners displaying rates under S$100 — much of their business is by the hour and the cockroaches are complimentary. Also on Dunlop Street is the Abdul Gafoor mosque with hints of Moorish architecture and a unique sundial with 25 rays denoting the 25 prophets of Islam.
Continuing along Serangoon Road, the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple with its intricate roof is one of the most important Hindu temples in Little India and not to be missed. Pooja (offerings) are scheduled at 8:00, 12:00, 18:30, and 21:00. A few blocks past the temple take a right at Syed Alwi Road to reach the renowned Mustafa Centre, the best place for in Singapore to change money, book a flight, and buy absolutely anything from saffron to a new watch. It's open 24 hours yet somehow always crowded.
Even further north along Serangoon Road is the Sri Srinivasa Perumal temple, dedicated to the god Vishnu and best known as the starting point for the annual Thaipusam festival. The yummy but out-of-place French Stall restaurant is a few doors down then it's a short detour to the Buddhist Leong San See and Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya temples on Race Course Road.
Serangoon Road eventually intersects with Lavender Street, the site of a new backpacker quarter that's not quite Little India and not quite Bugis, but walking distance from both.
Text and/or map last updated on 30th October, 2013.
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