Of all the old districts of Singapore, the most charismatic has to be Little India. Here Indian pop music blares from shops, the air is perfumed with incense, spices and jasmine garlands, Hindu women promenade in bright saris, a wealth of restaurants serve up superior curries – and there are a couple of busy temples to visit, too. Though the remaining shophouses are fast being touched up from the same pastel paintbox as that which restored Chinatown to its present cuteness, the results seem to work better in an Indian context.
The original occupants of this convenient downtown niche were Europeans and Eurasians who established country houses here, and for whom a racecourse was built in the 1840s on the site of today’s Farrer Park. Many of the roads in Little India started out as private tracks leading to these houses, and their names – Dunlop, Cuff, Desker, Norris – recall these early colonial settlers. Only when Indian-run brick kilns began to operate here did a markedly Indian community start to evolve. Indians have featured prominently in the development of Singapore, though not always out of choice: from 1825 onwards, convicts were transported from the subcontinent and by the 1840s there were more than a thousand Indian prisoners labouring on buildings such as St Andrew’s Cathedral and the Istana. Today, migrant Tamil and Bengali men labour to build the island’s MRT stations, shopping malls and villas, and on weekends they descend on Little India in their thousands, making the place look like downtown Chennai or Calcutta after a major cricket match.
The district’s backbone is Serangoon Road, dating from 1822 and hence one of the island’s oldest roadways. Its southwestern end is a kaleidoscopic of Indian life, packed with restaurants and shops selling everything from nose studs and ankle bracelets to incense sticks and kumkum powder (used to make the red dot Hindus wear on their foreheads). Here you might even spot a parrot-wielding fortune-teller – you tell the man your name, he passes your name onto his feathered partner, and the bird then picks out a card with your fortune on it. To the southeast, stretching as far as Jalan Besar, is a tight knot of roads that’s good for exploration. Parallel to Serangoon Road is Race Course Road, at whose far end are a couple of noteworthy temples.
Never dull, Little India springs even more gloriously to life over the colourful Hindu festival of Deepavali (or Diwali), which falls in October or November. Local Hindus mark the festival by lighting oil lamps (diyas) or candles in their homes. And no wonder – this is, after all, the Festival of Lights. The festival marks Lord Krishna’s slaying of the demon Narakasura, who ruled the kingdom of Pradyoshapuram by terror, torturing his subjects, and kidnapping the women and imprisoning them in his palace. Lord Krishna destroyed the demon, and Hindus across the world have given praise ever since. More universally, the festival celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, and of good over evil.
For Hindus, Deepavali is a period of great excitement, a time to dress up in colourful new clothes, deck their houses out in multi-hued decorations, prepare festive delicacies, exchange cards and gifts, and pay respects to their elders. On the morning of the festival itself, worshippers bathe themselves in oil, then proceed to the temple to thank the gods for the happiness, knowledge, peace and prosperity they have enjoyed in the year past, and to pray for more of the same in the coming year.
If you visit Little India in the run-up to Deepavali, you may find special markets selling decorations, confectionery, garlands and clothes around the Little India Arcade and also in the open areas close to the Angullia Mosque on Serangoon Road.
At the start of Serangoon Rd, Tekka Market is a must-see, combining many of Little India’s commercial elements under one roof. It’s best to arrive in the morning when the wet market – as Singaporeans term a traditional market where the floor is periodically cleaned by hosing it down – is at its busiest. More sanitary than it once was thanks to recent renovations, the market is nevertheless hardly sanitized – halal butchers push around trolleys piled high with goats’ heads, while at seafood stalls live crabs, their claws tied together, shuffle in buckets. Look out also for a couple of stalls selling nothing but banana leaves, used to serve up delicious curry meals all over Singapore but especially in Little India. The cooked food at the hawker centre here is excellent, and though the same can’t be said of the mundane outlets upstairs selling Indian fabrics and household items, there are great views over the wet market to be had from here.
The most prominent shrine on Serangoon Road, the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple has
a fanciful gopuram that’s flanked by lions atop the temple walls. The temple is dedicated
to Kali, the Hindu goddess of power or energy, and within the mandapam (worship
hall) are several depictions of her with ten arms; some have blue skin and fangs, while
others show her apparently trampling on her husband Lord Shiva, recalling an episode
from the Hindu scriptures.
If you’re in Little India at the weekend, you can take in a long-established flea market
a short walk from Dunlop Street, up Jalan Besar. To the right you’ll soon see dozens
of traders selling all manner of bric-a-brac. Once upon a time, much of the gear was
of dubious provenance – hence the appellation Thieves’ Market – though these days
it’s merely of dubious desirability, everything from old slippers to assorted mobilephone