Sri Mariamman Temple in the 1800s – the original Rajagopuram constructed for the Temple was three-tiered and less ornate than the one which can be seen today. (Left Photo: National Archives of Singapore)
Sri Mariamman Temple is the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore. Built in 1827, Mariamman Kovil or Kling Street Temple as it was popularly known then was constructed for worship by immigrants from the Nagapattinam and Cuddalore districts of South India. The temple is dedicated to Goddess Mariamman, known for her power in curing epidemic illnesses and diseases.
Located in the heart of Chinatown, the Temple’s ornamental tower entrance or gopuram, has been a landmark to generations of Hindu worshippers and Singaporeans alike.
The building of Sri Mariamman Temple was the inspiration of Mr Naraina Pillai, a clerk with the British East India Company in Penang. Mr Pillai is known to have accompanied Sir Stamford Raffles (Founder of Singapore) on his second visit to the island in 1819. Mr Pillai, who set up the first brick kiln in Singapore, rapidly established himself in business and was identified as a leader of the Indian community.
The East India Company’s original allotment of land for a Hindu Temple was along Telok Ayer Street. However, as it had no convenient source of fresh water needed for rituals, Colonel William Farquhar (appointed the first British Resident and Commandant of Singapore, from 1819 to 1823), allowed Mr Pillai to occupy an alternative plot near what is today’s Stamford Canal in 1821. Due to changes in colonial town planning, the Stamford Canal site was not made available. The South Bridge site in the Chinatown area where the Temple currently stands was finally granted to Mr Pillai in 1823.
By 1827, a temple structure made of wood and attap was built at South Bridge Road. ‘Sinna Amman’, a small deity of Sri Mariamman, was installed by Mr Naraina Pillai in 1827 when the Temple was first built. It is an interesting fact that this deity can be found in the main sanctum of the present-day Temple.
In 1843, a building made of plaster and brick was put up for the first time. It was only in 1962, one hundred and nineteen years later that a new temple structure was developed complete with intricate sculptural works reminiscent of temple architecture in India. The original gopuram (grand tower entrance) was constructed in the late 1800’s but did not contain much ornamental works. It was rebuilt in the 1930s and repaired and restored with elaborate proliferation of sculptures in the 1960s. In the last hundred years, the original temple structure underwent several redevelopment phases.
The Temple’s historical records do not show of any Kumbabishegam (consecration) ceremony having been conducted prior to the first one which was held in June 1936. The second Kumbabishegam was held 12 years later on – in June 1949. Following this, Kumbabishegams were held on 6 June 1971, 6 September 1984 and 19 May 1996.
Sri Mariamman Temple served as a refuge for new immigrants during colonial times. The Temple was also the Registry of Marriages for Hindus. At that time, only temple priests were authorised to solemnise Hindu marriages in Singapore. The Temple Panchayat (council of elders) also helped solve marriage disputes and intervened when there were improper weddings.
In 1973, Sri Mariamman Temple was declared a National Monument by the Preservation of Monuments Board. The main festival celebrated at Sri Mariamman temple is Theemithi (Fire Walking Festival) held annually in October/ November.