Travel

Explore Singapore's Little India

VISITORS TO SINGAPORE SHOULD MAKE TIME TO FOLLOW IN PAULA TAN’S FOOTSTEPS AND EXPLORE THE CITY’S HISTORICALLY FASCINATING AND CULTURALLY RICH LITTLE INDIA.

There is a magical place, a mere walk away from the uber-hip shopping enclave of Orchard Road, which sends one’s senses into overdrive. Amid the lingering scent of spices and clang of temple bells, I make my way through colorful alleyways that mirror the personalities spilling through them. Standing outside a hand-ground flour mill, I feel like I’ve been transported to another time, another world, yet I am, in fact, in Singapore – and this is Little India.

BLOOMING WHERE PLANTED
With a history that dates back to the early 1800s, Little India began in Tanjong Pagar as a colony set up by Indians who came to Singapore as prisoners of the British Raj, while other were brought from Indian villages as indentured labourers. From a distant land and on unsure footing, these early Indian immigrants chose to remain in the country on their release from prison, hoping to shape a new life. As time passed, their will to survive surpassed homesickness; they dreamt and they planned – and for those who followed through, the rewards have been great.

Located near the Serangoon River, the present Little India proved, in historical times, to be an excellent location for cattle rearing and agriculture, while the Indian labourers and prisoners contributed greatly in building hospitals, official buildings, churches and many of the features that remain Singapore landmarks today. When the British left Southeast Asia, the Indian community chose to draw from their own cultural background, and in their new land they built temples to worship and thank the deities for mercies received.

One of Singapore’s oldest temples is the revered Sri Veeramakaliamman temple along Serangoon Road. The building was constructed in the style of South Indian Tamil temples common in Tamil Nadu and is dedicated to the Hindu goddess

Kali, Goddess of Power and also Lord Shiva’s wife. As the area’s first temple, it is believed to also be the first in Singapore to venerate Kali. The temple was built as early as 1855 by Tamil labourers who worked at the lime kilns that lined Kampong Kapor in the mid to late 19th century. Sri Veeramakaliamman was a focal point of early Indian social cultural activities and has been renovated over the years, thus transformed from a modest wooden building to its present structure. Step inside today to witness worshippers prostrate themselves before the shrine in the same way as their forefathers.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Being a gregarious community, the early Indians who came to Singapore maintained their bond with one another by gathering frequently over meals. One of the area’s best-loved restaurants was the famed Komala Vilas. Mr Rajoo, the restaurant’s founder, originated from Tamil Nadu and took his first job in 1936 at the original Komala Vilas. Over ten years, he saved diligently and eventually, when his employers decided to pass on the business (having no children of their own), Mr Rajoo bought it from them and established his Komala Vilas, along with his brothers, in May 1947. Today, Komala Vilas comprises a vegetarian restaurant flanked by a traditional Indian sweet shop along Serangoon Road, proudly serving delicious Indian favourites of the finest quality in a time-honoured tradition.

In Little India’s sea of idli, poori, and naanserving restaurants, another that holds its own is the Banana Leaf Apolo. Established by a homesick native of Karaikudi named Chellapan in 1974, this little four-table restaurant recreated all the dishes he yearned for back in the 70s, and has grown into one of the island’s largest, boasting one of the best fish head curries in town.

Somewhat less historical, but certainly worth a mention is Lagnaa on Upper Dickson Road. Here, one walks upstairs barefoot for tasty Indian food rustled up by the friendly chef and founder named K7 (short for Kaesavan) Take a cooking course, vote for your favourite dishes, or accept a “slave” deal, which involves working for three hours to have one wish granted!

PURCHASE POWER
In its 700-by-500-meter space, Little India offers a mind-blowing shopping experience, featuring goods from the traditional to the sophisticated. At the Little India Arcade, the cluster of shophouses dates back to the 1920s and consists of colourful novelty shops and eateries. The Arcade building has been lovingly preserved to capture the essence of the early Indian settlement that occupied the area during colonial times. The arcade’s winding alleys are full of Indian bric-a-brac stalls, curio and sweet shops, restaurants, and bookshops. This cultural curiosity is a prominent landmark in the Little India district and a favourite among tourists and locals looking for the best Indian buys.

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On the banks of the nearby Rochor Canal, an area once abundant with bamboo (tekk), a market was built in 1915. Originally known as Kandang Kerbau and located across the street between Hastings Road and Sungei Road, the market was torn down in 1982, relocated to its present site, and renamed ZhuJiao Market. In 2000, it became officially known as the Tekka Market, and within the building Chinese vendors, Indian stall owners, and Malay retailers offer everything from casual clothing, hardware and religious paraphernalia, to traditional Indian apparel and watches. Tailors specialise in clothing alteration, and much of Singapore’s most popular food can be found. Part wet market, part food centre, and part shopping mall, Tekka Market is a rich blend of ethnic communities that converge to provide a multicultural shopping experience.

Synonymous with Little India and Singapore, the household name Mustafa was created by Indian businessman Mustaq Ahmad in 1971 and initially consisted mainly of clothing. In 1985, Mustaq moved his business to the ground floor of Serangoon Plaza, and as his business expanded, he bought over a shophouse on Syed Alwi Road. Subsequently, he also bought the neighboring units, but decided to build a new shopping mall to house his business. In April 1995, Mustafa Centre was completed and Mustaq began operations at the new six-storey building. The Mustafa Centre also sold imported cars in 2005, but has since stopped. The department store at Mustafa Centre now sprawls across two blocks and comprises two shopping centres operating 24 hours a day and carrying over 150,000 items: a paradise for insomniacs, indeed.

As I watch a small green parrot pull out predictions from a card deck, coaxed by his fortune-telling master, I am warmed by the thought that, no matter what the forecast, life is what we make it. The community of Singapore’s Little India is living proof that what stands between people and their dreams is simply the determination to see it through. And see it through they have, in the Lion City they now call home.
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Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple
141 Serangoon Road; +65 6295 4538

Komala Vilas
76/78 Serangoon Road; +65 6293 6980

The Banana Leaf Apolo
Little India Arcade, 48 Serangoon Road; +65 6297 1595

Lagnaa
6 Upper Dickson Road (East off Serangoon Road, on the south side of the street); +65 62961215.

Little India Arcade Pte Ltd
48 Serangoon Road; +65 6295 5998

Tekka Market
665 Buffalo Road

Mustafa Centre
145 Syed Alwi Road; +65 6295 5855

This article was written by Paula Tan for The Expat magazine.
Source: The Expat October 2012

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