Sri Mariamman is the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore — its roots can be traced back to 1827 when it was the only Hindu temple in the city and its priests had the authority to officiate over Hindu marriages.
The temple was founded by Narayana Pillai, who had previously been a government clerk in Penang before arriving with Sir Stamford Raffles on his second visit in 1819. He first requested the land for the site in 1823 but it wasn’t until 1827 that the first building was constructed. After it was completed, the streets on each side of it were renamed Pagoda and Temple Streets. An earlier plan by the colonialists to locate the Hindu temple on Telok Ayer Street floundered as the area did not have a convenient source of fresh water, a feature required for Hindu rituals.
Dedicated to the mother goddess Sri Mariamman, who exerts control over the rains and can cure disease, the temple has a strong reputation as a healing centre (we guess Singapore didn’t need much assistance on the rain front). Sri Mariamman is also the epicentre of a fire walking ceremony that takes place here in October or November and sees devotees walk over hot embers in bare feet. The temple’s most impressive feature, the entrance tower, is a more grandiose version of an earlier model and was added in the early 1900s.
The plaster statuary here is notable not just for its bright colours, but details. The South Indian artisans who crafted it made the figures on each level smaller than those on the preceding level — this is to amplify the impression of height. Below the tower you’ll see two enormous wooden doors decorated with small bells that devotees ring as they enter for good luck. Worshippers will walk around the central shrine in a clockwise direction and only for an odd number of times.
Sri Mariamman is a national monument and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Chinatown. As such it can get extremely busy with gawking tourists photographing devotees — photography is permitted, though for a fee. The ticket booth is to your left as you enter. Certain areas are cordoned off to keep the tourists at bay. Before the grand wooden doors you MUST remove your shoes. Under no circumstances are you permitted to enter wearing shoes and stating that “I’m not a Hindu” isn’t a valid reason.
Just to repeat, this site can be extremely congested with tourists — some who could really do with behaving themselves in a more considerate fashion. Popular with bus tour groups, if the site is too busy, go and have a coffee and return later — the crowds can disperse as quickly as they appear.
Sri Mariamman Temple is right on South Bridge Road and the closest SMRT station is Chinatown, a five-minute walk away.
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 11th April, 2015.