The Sri Mariamman Temple is Singapore
's oldest Hindu temple. It is an agamic temple, built in the Dravidian style. Located at 244 South Bridge Road
, in the downtown Chinatown
district, the temple serves the majority Hindu Singaporeans, Tamilians, 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 East India
Company established a trading settlement in Singapore. Pillai was a government clerk from Penang who arrived in Singapore with Sir Stamford Raffles on his second visit to the island in May 1819. Pillai went on to set up the island's first construction company, and also entered the textile trade. He rapidly established himself in business and was identified as a leader of the Indian community.
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 the 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).
More recent works include the addition of a new elevated viewing gallery which is especially popular with spectators during the annual timiti (firewalking) festival. Another major addition is a three-storey annexe building sited to the rear of the temple. This annexe has a separate entrance on to 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 refuge 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 authorised to solemnise 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, this temple features a gopuram that 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.
The main entrance with the gopuram is only one of the entrances into the temple compound, which is surrounded by a perimeter wall. Side openings also exist, which open on to the flanking Pagoda Street and Temple Street
. 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 courtyards open to the sky. Leading directly from the gopuram entrance through a covered hall is the 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 the 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 (a rural Tamil deity also known as Mathurai Veeran), Aravan and Draupadi.
The shrine to Draupadi is the second most important in the temple, as she is central to the annual timiti or firewalking 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 free-standing flagpole. A few days before major festivals or ritual ceremonies, a flag is raised here. The temple compound also contains Lingam and Yoni sculptures.
Once every 12 years, in keeping with Hindu tradition, the temple is reconsecrated. An annual timiti or fire walking ceremony is held about a week before Deepavali, the Festival of Lights.