Sri Mariamman Temple
Sri Mariamman Temple on South Bridge Road is the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore.1 Commonly referred to as Mariamman Kovil (“Mariamman Temple” in Tamil), the temple was constructed for the worship of Goddess Mariamman by immigrants from the Nagapattinam and Cuddalore districts of South India.2 The temple was established by Indian pioneer Naraina Pillai (also spelt Narayana Pillay) in 1827.3 Originally a wood-and-attap structure, the temple was reconstructed with bricks in 1843.4 Sri Mariamman Temple, managed by the Hindu Endowments Board, was gazetted as a national monument on 28 June 1973.5
Pillai was a government clerk from Penang6 who accompanied Stamford Raffles to Singapore in 1819.7 Pillai’s business suffered greatly in 1822 when a fire destroyed his shop on Cross Street. With the assistance of Raffles, he revived his business in Commercial Square (later renamed Raffles Place).8
The British East India Company had allotted a plot on Telok Ayer Street for a Hindu temple, but it was deemed unsuitable as freshwater supply required for rituals were unavailable nearby. In 1823, the present South Bridge Road site was granted.9 It was marked out as “Kling Chapel” in Lieutenant Philip Jackson's first town plan of Singapore drawn up in 1823, and published in 1828.10 Back then, southern Indians were referred to as “klings” or “kelings”, and Indian temples were marked as such.11
A temple made of wood and attap (palm fronds) was completed in 1827, with a small deity installed by Pillai. The site was then expanded in 1831 with a land donation by an Indian landowner, Seshasalam Pillai. In 1843, this wood-and-attap temple was replaced with a brick structure built by Indian convict labour.12 The walkway between the main entrance and the building was once covered by attap, but this was destroyed by a fire in 1910.13
“Mari”, meaning “rain” in Tamil, is an important life-giving element in rural life, while Goddess Mariamman is also known as the curer of diseases.14 Besides being a place of worship, the temple was also closely intertwined with the Hindu community as it served as a first refuge for new immigrants, dispute mediation venue, and an early registry of marriages for Hindus. The temple has since undergone several rounds of renovations and additions.15 Much of the present building is believed to date from 1862/63, constructed by Indian and Chinese craftsmen.16
Pagoda Street and Temple Street currently flanking the temple gained their names from this ornate building.17 The elaborately decorated gopuram, or entrance tower, is a landmark in the area.18 Its five tiers feature three-dimensional sculptures of Hindu deities in relaxed poses, and used to have statues of sepoy soldiers wearing khaki uniforms inspired by the military tradition of the British raj.19 The latter, however, were replaced with figures donning traditional Indian costumes during a renovation in 1971.20 The statues of Shiva and Vishnu were installed at the sides of the original three-storey gopuram in 1903. The entrance was rebuilt in the 1930s, and repaired and decorated with the present sculptures in the ’60s.21
The top of the boundary wall that surrounds the compound is lined with sculptures of cows, an animal that Hindus consider sacred. The entrance is a pair of timber doors flanked by two square pillars.22 Within the grounds are several domes called vimanam, which mark the location of shrines or altars beneath it.23 Hindu temples usually have shrines for different deities.24 The mandapam, or central hall, that leads up to the main shrine is an elongated passageway with painted ceilings. One of the murals is a huge mandala, a spiritual symbol connoting the universe.25 The statue of Sri Mariamman is kept covered in the inner sanctum of the main shrine, and only unveiled during a service and on special occasions.26
The main festival celebrated at the temple is the annual fire-walking festival known as Theemithi, which falls in October or November.27
Hindu temples are reconsecrated every 12 years after renovation and restoration, and artisans from South India are usually engaged to do the work.28 According to the temple’s records, the first known kumbabishegam (consecration) ceremony was conducted in June 1936. Subsequent kumbabishegam ceremonies were held in June 1949, on 6 June 1971, 6 September 1984 and 19 May 1996.29 The temple was reconsecrated in April 2010 following the completion of a S$4-million restoration project.30 A team of about 20 artists were brought in from India for the project, which included repainting all the stone deities.31
Bonny Tan & Valerie Chew
1. “Sri Mariammam Temple,” National Heritage Board, accessed 20 July 2016; Gretchen Liu, In Granite and Chunam: The National Monuments of Singapore (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1996), 114–21. (Call no. RSING 725.94095957 LIU)
2. E. Sanmugam, et al. eds., Sacred Sanctuary: The Sri Mariamman Temple (Singapore: Sri Mariamman Temple, 2009), 10. (Call no. RSING 294.535095957 SAC)
3. National Heritage Board, “Sri Mariamman Temple.”
4. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 114.
5. Preservation of Monuments Order 1973, Sp. S228/1973, Government Gazette. Subsidiary Legislation Supplement, 1973, 377 (Call no. RCLOS 348.5957 SGGSLS); National Heritage Board, “Preservation of Monuments Board merges with the National Heritage Board,” press release, 8 July 2009. (From National Archives of Singapore website document no. 20090715004)
6. National Heritage Board, “Sri Mariamman Temple.”
7. Norman Edwards and Peter Keys, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 406. (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW)
8. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 115; National Heritage Board, “Sri Mariamman Temple.”
10. Survey Department Singapore, Plan of the Town of Singapore by Lieut Jackson, survey map, 1828. (From National Archives of Singapore accession no. SP002981)
11. Lee Geok Boi, The Religious Monuments of Singapore: Faiths of Our Forefathers (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2002), 72. (Call no. RSING 726.095957 LEE)
12. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 115.
13. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 72.
14. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 73.
15. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 118.
16. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 72; National Heritage Board, “Sri Mariamman Temple.”
17. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 72; National Heritage Board, “Sri Mariamman Temple.”
18. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 72.
19. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 118; National Heritage Board, “Sri Mariamman Temple.”
20. Edwin Lee, Historic Buildings of Singapore (Singapore: Preservation of Monuments Board, 1990), 65. (Call no. RSING 720.95957 LEE)
21. Kwek Leng Joo and G. Uma Devi, Resonance: Songs of Our Forefathers (Singapore: Preservation of Monuments Board, 2009), 49. (Call no. RSING 725.94095957 RES); “History,” Sri Mariamman Temple, accessed 25 July 2016.
22. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 118; National Heritage Board, “Sri Mariamman Temple.”
23. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 114–21; Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 75.
24. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 76.
25. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 118; Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 76.
26. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 76.
27. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 118.
28. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 72.
29. Sri Mariamman Temple, “History.”
30. Tay Suan Chiang, “Brighter and Better,” Straits Times, 10 April 2010, 8; Yen Feng, “Sri Mariamman Temple Unveils Its New Look,” Straits Times, 6 April 2010, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Yen, “Sri Mariamman Temple Unveils Its New Look.”
Anasuya Soundararajan and Sri Asrina Tanuri, “Time-honoured Temple Design,” BiblioAsia (Oct–Dec 2016)
E. Sanmugam, Sri Mariamman Temple: A Glorious Monument (Singapore: Hindu Endowments Board, 1996). (Call no. RSING 294.535095957 SAN)
The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.