Whilst we were in Singapore, Isla, The Diplomat, and I all voted to make our blisteringly sweaty way past Hong Lim Park, into Chinatown and thence to locate firstly the Sri Mariamman Temple, then the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. I tell you, you think Bangkok is hot. Chuck in a permanently saturated set of clothes and you’ve got Singapore. You spend your time watching nervously for a cloud to pass the sun, then leg it from one ACed building to the next. We’ve all heard of snow blindness or road rage. Well try heat irritation on for size. Anyway, back to the topic of this blog…the first is a Hindu temple complex, of which the multipurpose centre was opened by Singapore’s 2001 President; a place where neither sticker nor hook, nor nail is permitted on the temple wall. A place where statues are brightly painted, where you have to pay to take photos, where active spiritual worship and devotion is ongoing. It is just round the corner from Pagoda Street, a thoroughfare that used to house street pedlars clustered alongside the Temple. Hawkers would squat and display their wares on old bit of newspaper, piece of cloth, or even on top of bags. The street got its named erroneously from the the entrance tower that frames Sri Mariamman Temple. It isn’t a pagoda, but a gopuram. The glut of shops were built after 1842; by 1862 it was home to opium dens and slave traders who kept each other in business, doubtless silently encouraged by colonial powers.
The Sri Mariamman Temple is the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore. Constructed in 1827, it has alternatively sheltered Indian immigrants, invested Hindu marriages, and attracted devotees seeking healing. Dedicated to the Mother Goddess it was established by Narayana Pillar who was part of Raffles’ 1819 entourage to Singapore. He requested land for a temple in 1823 and it was granted with the first building four years later. One of the best events to see here is the autumnal fire-walking ceremony (Theemithi).
Having shucked our shoes off, we stepped into the entrance and paid our SGD S2 for the privilege of using our camera – it’s amazing how many sunburned, red-faced tourists pretend to put away their cameras then surreptitiously hold them in the crevice of their opulent waistline, subsequently crunching out a few illicit photos whilst pretending a wholesome interest in the cracks in a whitewashed wall in the distance. They fool no one, least of all the bored cultural building guardians. It’s always disappointing to get home and find those pictures are either canted at crazy angles, or unfocused or just plain of something else. Or even all three.
As you can see from some of the photos below the artwork, whilst pastel and geometric in its execution, is fascinating to a European simply because we expect our frescoes, statues and murals to come in diesel-fume white, not with actual colours that give each sculpture a sense of life that is not perhaps solemn, but certainly vivacious. Given this was the first Hindu Temple I have ever visited I was eager to look at everything pictorial, carved, and witness the ongoing rites where priest blessed children and parents alike. What was particularly fascinating was the attention given to artistry on the roof of the building complex. A veritable glut of what you would call in European architecture ‘grotesques’ (not gargoyles, before someone protests….look up the difference) but of a Hindu nature. I imagine several were deities but my knowledge of Hinduism is sadly limited to Wikipedia at the moment, despite owning an unread copy of the Upanishads. Other than the main temple and the functional buildings there were a few sanctums. One was constructed in 1969 by the late Mr Rathinam, rebuilt in 1984 by Sri Sundara Vinayagar Adi Pillaigal. A small shrine, swallowed in intricately beaten silver.
After this visit we re-donned our flip flops and sashayed down Temple Street. Originally it was named Almeida Street (after Joachim D’Almeida, son of the renowned merchant and doctor in Singapore who was also a Portuguese consul). The Hokkiens called the road Gu Chia Chui Hi Hng Au; translated as ‘the street behind the theatre’. The Hokkiens are the Han Chinese people whose ancestral home is in southern Fujian, South China. The theatre was Lai Chun Yuen, an opera theatre on the neighbouring Smith Street. It is suggested that the patrons of the theatre also patronized local brothels and opium dens in Temple Street. All to say, a certain Dr Chen Su Lan, who was a medicus, campaigned to cease the opium and prostitution, helping to improve the lot of the locals. Whilst we were on this street we stopped in a tourist “antique” shop which had some nice pieces; the Diplomat picking up a great coffee table tray. Pop by and see us, we’ll show you.
Just before the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple we went past the Street of the Dead. So named because death houses once lined Sago Lane. These were places where the poor came to die. Usually Chinese immigrants, who lived in overcrowded, poorly sanitized spaces, were sent here in their final days because of the belief that to die at home was incredibly bad luck (for the living relatives). There was little medical care, what little there was consisted of palliative assistance as people entered but never left alive. Funeral parlours were attached to ensure proper burials, banned in Singapore after 1961.
A few steps past this was the second Temple. A Buddhist Temple. This was different to all the Wat we’d seen in Thailand. It was incredibly opulent, every surface glittering gold, every object adorned with precious and semi-precious stones. It wasn’t just a Temple, but also a Museum. Aside from a golden interior, the wood was predominately a rich red, the split entrance bisected with a large bronze pot with dragon handles, full of burned out incense sticks each carrying a prayer. Immediately inside was an active ritual, some thirty people at what looked like rows of desks either side of a pavilion, its four columns wrapped in bright colours. Flowers were everywhere, four Buddhist monks readying for a ceremony which we were told we could film (it’s at the bottom of the blog). Walking around the temple we could see, placed at both sides of the temple lots and lots of statues. I read that there were 100 Buddhas, which are mentioned in the “Sutra of the Names of the One Hundred Buddhas”. In this sutra, Buddha told Sariputra:
If a devout person hears the name of the present Buddha with reverence, he will be protected from all evils, accumulate intense merit, accomplish the Way of the Bodhisattva and gain knowledge of the past, present and future. Moreover, he will possess complete sense faculties and be in the presence of all Buddhas, thereby swiftly attaining peerless Enlightenment.”
Apparently each Buddha is individually hand sculpted. You can see some in the slide show below.
Behind the main room was another which was the Museum. The first wall you followed had deities for each of the Chinese Years. For example, Thousand Arm Avalokiteshvara is the guardian deity for the people born in the Year of the Rat (so those of you born in in 1948, 60, 72, 84 – add 12 each time). This particular deity is renowned for his thousand hands and eyes symbolizing limitless great Compassion and Wisdom. The deity is up for sponsorship as well. For a mere SGD $88 you can become a sponsor and have your name sealed within his throne as a blessing plus the Sangha will make prayers to the deity on your behalf. Now, I was born in the Year of the Ox, so I hunted down my deity who turned out to be Akasagarbha Bodhisattva. Also known for great Compassion, this deity has extensive aspirations to benefit sentient beings. He purifies negative karma, protects from disaster and helps beings to be reborn into the Pureland after death. As I am an Ox, I am blessed with a better memory than most, great virtue and immense wisdom. You can see why the Diplomat decided to marry me. She was born in the Year of the Rabbit (the Wood Rabbit to be precise), her deity is Manjushri Bodhisattva, and she is blessed and protected from all ills. She is also guaranteed academic success, a fabulous family life, business acumen and is the perfect complement to the Ox.
Who knew? We chuntered off happily. Karma just grabs you when you least expect it.
The rest of the circuit of the Museum revealed fascinating facts about Cintamanicakra Avalokitesvara and Buddha Maitreya (the Future Buddha). It is this Buddha who is the primary focus of worship in the Temple. There was a magnificent masterpiece of sculpture carved from a thousand year old piece of Chinese juniper wood, portraying the Buddha seated on a Sumeru throne. Lotus pedestals supported the feet, ornaments abounded, a vase was held in the left hand, his right making the sign of the abhaya mudra. It was a fitting end to our trip. For SGD $68 we could have gone up to the roof to see the Ten Thousand Buddhas and a field of orchids, but with a pushchair and with us literally melting into a puddle of heat, we could not do it, so spent the next hour getting lost in the financial district of Singapore before finding the Asian Civilizations Museum (another blog) down between Clarke’s Quay and Fort Canning.
Before I go, here’s the ceremony I mentioned…forgive the shoddy camera work. Writing’s the game for me.
Is this what diplomacy is all about?