Sometime last year, I was hanging around Chinatown’s Mosque Street waiting for a friend who was late for our dinner date. Bored and slightly irritated, I decided to go for a wander. One footstep led to the next and before I knew it, I was in front of Sri Mariamman Temple. I felt a strange indescribable sense of deja vu as I gazed at the gopuram of Singapore’s oldest Hindu Temple.
I have been here before. I know this place. Its soul reverberates with mine as though the two were one and the same.
Built in 1827, the Mother Temple has played an important role in the lives of Hindus in Singapore. Dedicated to Sri Mariamman, the temple served as a refuge for new immigrants during the colonial era. Historically, the temple was the sole Registry of Marriages for Hindus as it was the only temple that was authorised to solemnise Hindu marriages.
I remove my shoes at the entrance and take care not to step over the threshold as I enter the temple. The deja vu I feel is beyond words. Yes, I have been here before. I used to come here as a child. But more than that, I felt a connection to a history and a heritage that I cannot put into words.
A memory that is not mine seizes me. A vision of a proud man kneeling on the ground and bowing his head to earth in reverence of the Great Mother.
And then I remembered…
My grandfather, the late Mr Ratilal Mancharram, went there every Saturday and Sunday. The connection I feel both to him, and this temple is difficult to describe with words.
I had been away from Singapore for over 12 years, but in that moment, I am ‘called home’. My ancient heritage reverberates though me as though I had never left. I unexpectedly realise that the faith I was born into is an integral part of who I am. Neither time nor distance had diminished that certain something that was embedded and nurtured in me well before I was born.
I gaze at the two guardians of Kali Amman that guard the main deity, Mariamman.
Kali Amman is both comforting and frightening. She has always inspired both fear and awe in her devotees. Growing up, her image taught me to be brave and strong. In a world full of suffering and injustice, she reminds me that she is always there – protecting mankind from evil.
Behind the two guardians of Kaliamman is the deity of Mariamman that is housed in an inner chamber. A sacred space and private area, no one except the priests can enter the inner chambers to give offerings and perform prayers.
Mariamman translates to ‘Rain Mother’. Ancient Tamils worshipped her as the bringer of rain and prosperity. In agricultural societies, the abundance of crops was dependent largely upon adequate rainfall. The Mother Goddess is the remnant of a society which venerated femininity. As a Tamil folk goddess, the worship of Mariamman is believed to have originated in pre-vedic India in the rural areas of Tamil Nadu. These days, Hindus consider Mariamman to be an incarnation of Kali Ma.
Close to a year has gone by since my footsteps inadvertently found their way to Sri Mariamman Temple. Nowadays, I go twice a week. The opening prayers and music have a way of calming my restlessness and replacing my endless doubts with firm faith. Unable to stand still, I walk around the temple in a clockwise direction, taking in the sights and sounds and feeling a sense of peace at having returned home after a long journey.
I am surprised by the number of tourists that I see at Sri Mariamman Temple. They come from all countries and creeds. Sometimes they stop me on the way in to ask me if they’re dressed appropriately. Modest dress is part of temple-going etiquette for both men and women. Whilst I’m usually decked out in a simple blouse and jeans, it is common to find women wearing their best sarees and jewellery for a visit to the temple.
As I gaze at the skyline, I see the old Mother Temple and the new modern city coexist in contemporary Singapore.
And after over a decade, I’m home at last.