Indians have been part of Singapore's development from the beginning. Although Singapore was administered by the East India Company, headquartered in Calcutta, Indian convicts were sent here to serve their time. These convicts left an indelible mark on the city, reclaiming land from swampy marshes and constructing a great deal of the infrastructure and buildings, including St. Andrew's Cathedral and many Hindu temples. The enlightened penal program permitted convicts to study a trade of their choice in the evenings. Many, on gaining their freedom, chose to stay in Singapore.
Other Indians came freely to seek their fortunes as clerks, traders, teachers, and moneylenders. Most came from southern India—both Hindu Tamils and Muslims from the Coromandel and Malabar coasts—but there were also Gujaratis, Sindhis, Sikhs, Parsis, and Bengalis. Each group brought its own language, cuisine, religion, and customs, and these divisions remain evident today. The Indians also brought their love of colorful festivals, which they now celebrate more frequently and more spectacularly than in India itself. The gory Thaipusam, in January or February, is among the most fascinating.
The area Raffles allotted to the Indian immigrants was north of the British colonial district. Little India encompasses most of Serangoon Road, the heart of this district, its side roads extending out to Jalan Besar, plus Race Course Road, which runs parallel to both. The district is bounded by Sungei Road/Rochor Canal Road to the south and Lavender Street and Perumal Road to the north. Although new buildings have replaced many of the old, the sights, sounds, and smells will convince you that you're in an Indian town.
As you walk along Serangoon, your senses will be overwhelmed by the fragrances of curry powders and perfumes, by tapes of high-pitched Indian music, by jewelry shops selling gold, and stands selling garlands of flowers. (Indian women love wearing flowers and glittering arm bangles, though once their husbands die, they never do so again.) Shops here supply the colorful dyes used for the pottu (dot) seen on the foreheads of Indian women. Traditionally, a Tamil woman wears a red dot to signify she's married; a North Indian woman conveys the same message with a red streak down the part of her hair. The modern trend, however, is for an Indian girl or woman to choose a dye color to match her sari or Western dress. Occasionally you'll see an unmarried woman with a black dot on her forehead: this is intended to counter the effects of the evil eye.
A Good Walk
A good starting point is at the junction of Serangoon and Sungei roads. On the first block on the left is Tekka Market, one of the city's largest wet markets. Adjacent to the market is the Tekka Mall, a multi-ware emporium. Down Serangoon is the Little India Arcade, a cluster of art deco-style shophouses built in 1913 that have stores selling candies, saris, and incense. The streets to the right off Serangoon Road—Campbell Lane and Dunlop Street (home of the highly regarded Haniffa Textiles, at No. 104)—as well as Clive Street, which runs parallel to Serangoon, are filled with shops that sell such utilitarian items as pots and pans, rice, spices, brown cakes of palm sugar, red henna powder (a great hair dye), and sundry Indian groceries. You'll also see open-air barbershops and tailors working old-fashioned treadle sewing machines, and everywhere you go you'll hear sugar-sweet love songs from Indian movies. Along Buffalo Road, to the left off Serangoon, are shops specializing in saris, flower garlands, and electronic equipment. Above the doorways are strings of dried mango leaves, a customary Indian sign of blessing and good fortune. (If you detour down Dunlop Street, to the right off Serangoon Road, you'll come to the Abdul Gaffoor Mosque, with its detailed facade of green and gold.)
A little farther down Serangoon Road on the left (opposite Veerasamy Road), you'll notice the elaborate gopuram of the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, built in 1881 by indentured Bengali laborers working the lime pits nearby. Turn right on Race Course Road, well known for Singapore's most famous Indian curry restaurants, to Farrer Park, site of Singapore's original racecourse. Farther along Race Course Road is the charming Leong San Temple, dedicated to the goddess of mercy, Kuan Yin. On your way there, you'll pass a row of shops selling Chinese porcelain, a rather unusual feature in Little India. Across the road is Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple, more commonly referred to as the Temple of 1,000 Lights. Backtrack on Race Course Road to Perumal Road; to the left is the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple. Behind you to your right is the Serangoon Plaza complex, on Serangoon Road itself, together with the famed Mustafa's Centre, up Syed Alwi Road, a multistory emporium of goods at extremely attractive prices. If you continue along Race Course Road, you'll come to the Banana Leaf Apolo, an excellent place for a drink and a curry.
Try to plan your walk for a weekday morning or mid to early evening when crowds are at their thinnest and temperatures at their lowest. Avoid the area on Sunday afternoon, when the neighborhood teems with people. You should be able to do this tour in three to four hours. Factor in half an hour extra for each of the temples. Start off in the morning as the temples usually close by 4 or 5 PM.
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