Singapore – Raffles’ memorial, over eating in Little India and Vishnu
Consisting of the low-lying Singapore Island and 62 smaller islands, Singapore is best known for its main city area on the shores of the Singapore River in the south.
Strategically placed on the Straits of Malacca, it has always made the most of its trade route advantage.
Today, it is full of luxury hotels, sky-scraper offices and air-conditioned shopping malls.
Singapore is tropical, hot and humid. It suffers from heavy rainfall between November and January, but was merely stiflingly hot during my stay.
It has an anti-smoking policy and fines for littering, jay-walking and dropping chewing gum. All this creates the image of a safe, clean and orderly place – although back streets and areas away from the salubrious city centre tell a different story.
The smell of the city gets to you immediately and it is certainly not a pleasant one. The area around my hotel was so pungent in taste that I rushed to escape to more breathable parts of the city.
My first stop was Little India, described as a ‘modest but colourful area of wall-to-wall shops, pungent aromas and Hindi film music’.
The first Indian settlers in Singapore arrived with founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, as assistants and soldiers in 1819. In the late 19th century, many more Indian immigrants arrived to find work, be it as labourers to build roads or to take up key positions in the civil service.
During Deepavali – usually between October and November – the Indian Festival of Lights, Little India is transformed into a fairyland of gaily decorated, brightly lit streets bustling with shoppers.
The area, centred around the southern end of Serangoon Road, was full of places to eat and the small shops I had been promised. The smell certainly improved as various Indian foods wafted their smells into the crowded streets – Singapore crams a population of three-and-a-half million into just 250 square miles.
Unsurprisingly, I decided to eat there as a result.
The little place I stopped at was amazing. I paid three US dollars for a prawn masala; but it was the never-ending extras I was given that made the meal. Poppadoms came with a variety of sauces, a mound of rice and side dishes to boot – all served up by a waiter who topped up any pile of food that came close to being empty.
The food was served on a green leaf that filled my plate and I soon became seriously stuffed. It was all first class; hotter than an Indian would be at home, yet with more flavour and variety.
Only on my return to England did I discover the reason behind the restaurant owners generosity.
The custom in Little India is that customers can eat as much as they like, until they have had enough when they should fold over the edge of their leaf.
Not knowing this I had continued to eat far beyond when I should and could have.
Eventually, I had to wave the waiter away and make I run for it before I burst. He must have thought me very strange – not to mention greedy.
It was the only meal I needed that day.
My next step was to look around the Hindu temples in the area. having already walked past the Sri Veeramakaliamman Devasthanam temple, I stopped to visit Sri Srinivasa Perumal.
Opened in 1984, Sri Veeramakaliamman consists of an altar on the right made up of six white horses alongside snarling lions, pink elephants and mythical figures. Sri Srinivasa has more history, dating back to 1855.
It honours Perumal (or Vishnu), who is believed to have reincarnated nine times for mankind’s sake. Vishnu’s legend is depicted upon the gorupam. Constructed in 1979, this gorupam. was built with funds donated by Mr P Govindasamy Pillay, a local merchant and devotee. The temple holds shrines for the deity’s two wives, Lakshmi and Andai, and his bird like steed, the garuda.
Removing my shoes at the door I explored the insides of the temple. It was very lavish and ornate, full of various vicious looking Gods and Goddesses and sprinkled in gold. A somewhat out of place living quarters and seating area was placed at the rear of the temple, while the front of it saw Hindu images being sold.
A certain Christian may have felt the urge to kick over the tables in the temple…
With my head full of Indian culture I made my way to the colonial centre of Singapore, although only after a protracted, and ultimately useless, search for the Temple of a Thousand Lights and a rather quicker escape from a local trying to flog cheap suits.
The heat at this time was oppressive – the first time I had really felt heat like it. Although places like Australia and Peru are hot, they are nowhere near as harsh and I don’t think I had ever sweated so much before.
Temperatures in Singapore hardly ever drop below 20 degrees Celsius, even at night, and often reach 30 degrees during the day. Humidity – the real hardship – hovers around the 75 per cent mark. Walking around this island is a battle.
Once in the colonial area, I made my way past the large number of churches situated there, including Chijmes – which now boasts a shopping complex – and the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd.
The Gothic elegance of Chijmes dates back to 1890. Formerly a convent it accommodates Singapore’s oldest free-standing house (the Caldwell House), whose lawns, courtyards, sunken forecourt and water features make Chijmes a rustic version of London’s Covent Garden.
The Cathedral is the oldest Catholic church in Singapore and stands majestically along Queen Street. Opened by French priest Jean Marie Beurel, the church was completed in 1846. In 1897, the Renaissance-style building was consecrated as a cathedral by the Bishop of Malacca.
Today, it also serves as the home of the present Archbishop.
Eventually I moved onto the famous Raffles Hotel; as ornate and posh as advertised.
The mark of Sir Stamford Raffles is stamped on the central area. Raffles moved the business district of Singapore south of the river, making the northern area into an administration centre. In doing so, he created the framework that has remained the blueprint for central Singapore through generations of colonial rule and republican years of independence.
The hotel itself remains a byword for oriental luxury.
Raffles himself has an interesting story. Born on July 6, 1781 on a ship at sea off Jamaica, he was the son of Benjamin Raffles, a captain in the East West Indies trade.
Mostly self-educated he entered the service of the East India Company aged 14. After seeing service in Penang and Java, where he was Lieutenant Governor, he was knighted in 1817.
He became Lieutenant Governor of Bencoolen in Sumatra soon after, before establishing a settlement in Singapore with the aim of extending British influence in southeast Asia.
Raffles is best known for his suppression of the slave trade and humane treatment of people subject to the severe and austere rules of the colonial system.
Singapore – and particularly its central areas – remain a memorial to Raffles, who eventually died in Bravet, England on July 5, 1826, a day short of his 45th birthday.
> Main picture: The Singapore skyline. By Raul Heinrich (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons