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Time out at the temples

(ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN)

Publication Date : 12-10-2012

 

Deepavali, the Festival of Lights, which celebrates the victory of Lord Krishna over the demon king Narakasura, falls on November 13 this year.

On that day, many Hindu devotees will take an oil bath, ask their parents for blessings and then visit a temple.

Life!Weekend takes you on a tour of five historical, highly venerated Hindu temples around town: Sri Mariamman in South Bridge Road, Sri Veerama Kaliamman Temple in Serangoon Road, Sri Thendayuthapani (Chettiars') Temple in Tank Road, Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road and Sri Krishnan Temple in Waterloo Street.

While the spotlight is on Deepavali in the month ahead, these temples each have major festivals entirely separate from Deepavali. Most of these temples are Saivite - devoted to the worship of Siva in particular - or Sakti, meaning that a goddess is venerated. Some temples, such as the Perumal Temple and the Sri Krishnan Temple, are Vaishnavite, which are devoted to the worship of Vishnu.

The Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple is observing Purattasi, a month-long event for Lord Vishnu, who is believed to be most powerful at this time. This started on September 17 and runs until Tuesday. Vegetarian meals are served free, courtesy of donors, during lunch on Saturdays. Tomorrow is the last day for these meals.

Between Monday and October 23, some temples will also celebrate a nine-day festival called Navarathiri. Devoted to the worship of the three forms of the Mother Goddess - Durga, representing physical strength; Lakshmi, representing wealth; and Sarasvathi, representing intelligence - it is usually celebrated at temples where a goddess is the dominant deity.

However, the Sri Thendayuthapani (Chettiars') Temple, whose presiding deity is Lord Murugan, will also celebrate Navarathiri with eight days of classical Indian music and dance, closing with a procession on the ninth day. You can also observe firewalking, also known as Theemithi, on Nov 4, at the Sri Mariamman Temple.

SRI SRINIVASA PERUMAL TEMPLE

Where: 397 Serangoon Road

Main deity: Lord Vishnu, also known as Perumal and Balaji. Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, is worshipped alongside him.

Look for: A sanctum devoted to Lakshmi. Said to be the only South Indian temple in Singapore where the goddess has her own sanctum.

Open: 6:30am to noon, 5:30 to 9pm

You cannot miss this sprawling temple, located one junction away from Mustafa Shopping Centre.

Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple was originally a simple brick building when it was established by a group of influential community leaders in 1855. They had purchased the land from the East India Company, according to the Hindu Endowments Board website (www.heb.gov.sg).

In 1979, well-known philanthropist and community leader P. Govindasamy Pillai funded construction and refurbishment works, which included a new majestic entrance tower for the temple.

The temple is the starting point for kavadi bearers during Thaipusam and fire-walkers during Theemithi.

The temple is currently observing Purattasi, the month of the Tamil calendar when Lord Perumal's power is said to be at its greatest. It ends on Tuesday. A free vegetarian lunch will be distributed tomorrow and up to 10,000 devotees are expected to turn up, said the temple's chief priest V. Srinivasa, 47.

The temple, said to be the largest in Southeast Asia devoted to Lord Vishnu, attracts devotees from the region and people of other races as well, he added.

It is expecting crowds on Deepavali, as Lord Vishnu's ninth incarnation, Lord Krishna, is said to have destroyed Narakasura, a demon king, on this day. The temple will serve breakfast and special Indian sweets to devotees in the morning and deities will be brought around the temple on a chariot in the evenings.

On November 4, when the fire-walking ceremony takes place, devotees will walk from the Perumal temple to the Sri Mariamman Temple in South Bridge Road.

According to legend, Lord Krishna protects the honour of Drowpathai, the wife of the five Pandavas, when she is about to be stripped of her sari in the court of her enemies.

Krishna makes her sari infinitely long and her assailant becomes exhausted when pulling it and passes out.

Punetha S., in her 40s and a regular devotee at the temple, says: "My grandparents have been bringing me here as a child and I started coming here by myself when I could. After praying, I sit in my favourite spot and meditate, and I feel peaceful."

SRI MARIAMMAN TEMPLE

Where: 244 South Bridge Road

Main deity: The goddess Mariamman, known for her power to cure illness

Look for: A separate shrine, to the right of the main shrine, which houses a large statue of Sri Aravan's head (above). In the Indian epic poem Mahabharata, Aravan volunteers to be sacrificed to the goddess of time and change, Kali, before the battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas over the Hastinapur throne.

Open: 6am to noon, 5:30 to 9pm

The Sri Mariamman Temple was established in 1827 by Mr Naraina Pillai, a government clerk from Penang who accompanied Sir Stamford Raffles on his second visit to Singapore.

While many people are aware that this is the oldest temple in Singapore, not many know that devotees who have recovered from illnesses such as chickenpox and measles, come to offer thanks to the goddess here, said Shanthi R., a regular devotee at the temple. Married couples are also known to pray to Sri Mariamman, a village goddess widely worshipped in South India, for a long marriage.

Pregnant women also pray to Goddess Periyachi, whose statue is dressed in a black sari at the temple, for a safe delivery. On the 30th day after the child's birth, the parents will return with the baby to give thanks, added Shanthi, 50, an early childhood educator.

The temple, which is located in the heart of Chinatown, also acted as a Registry of Marriages for Hindus in colonial times. Back then, only the temple's priests were authorised to solemnise marriages. It is still a highly popular wedding venue and has a two-storey multi-purpose hall to accommodate bridal parties of up to 400 people.

The temple is also famous for the celebration of the 10-day Navarathiri festival, which starts on Monday. Classical Indian music and dance will be performed on temple grounds for nine nights.

The legend of Navarathiri recounts the story of how three goddesses, Durga, Lakshmi and Sarasvathi, combined their powers to destroy a demon called Mahishasura, which was indestructible by man. On the 10th day, known as Vijayadashami, thousands of devotees will turn up for a victory parade and the deity of Sri Mariamman will be carried on a raised platform around the temple precinct.

Sri Mariamman Temple is the only location in Singapore where the fire-walking ceremony of Theemithi is held. Only men are allowed to participate in the ritual, which is carried out as part of a religious vow: Devotees promise to walk on fire in exchange for a wish or blessing granted by the Goddess Drowpathai.

The ceremony will take place at 6.30pm on Nov 4 this year.

SRI VEERAMA KALIAMMAN TEMPLE

Where: 141 Serangoon Road

Main deity: Goddess Kali, a destroyer of evil

Look for: The flagstaff in the middle of the main shrine and the three facades of the three main sanctums, all of which are made of pure silver

Open: 5:30am to 12:15pm, 4 to 9pm

This Little India landmark had its beginnings as a humble shack in 1826 when a small community of South Indian workers who built roads and public utilities, and who lived nearby, started congregating together to pray to Kali.

By 1908, the community had acquired the temple grounds for $150 from Lord Norris, a British landlord. The current temple building was constructed in 1984 and consecrated in February 1987.

Today, the temple is still privately owned and managed by the fourth generation of the community. The temple consists of a rajagopuram, the main entrance tower; a main shrine, 12 sanctums for subsidiary deities and an ancillary, which is undergoing a S$6.8-million renovation taking it from three to six storeys. It is expected to be ready in the first quarter of 2014, said R. Selvakumar, 57, honorary secretary of the temple.

With the presiding deity a goddess, who is viewed as a motherly figure, food is aplenty - the temple dishes out free food to thousands on Sundays and receives donations of food every day, said Mr Selvakumar, who has served at the temple since he was 16. "During wartime, there was no food everywhere, but there was food inside the temple," he said.

A granite eight-handed Goddess Kali, which is more than 100 years old, sits in the main sanctum. More than 20 deities are venerated inside the temple and more than 600 sculptures adorn its facade.

Due to the renovations, there will not be performances for Navarathiri this year, but there will be ceremonies to watch. These include the Maha Chandi Yagam, a prayer where offerings to the Mother Goddess are burnt with fire, at 8 to 10:30am at the field near Farrer Park MRT station (accessible to the public) during this period.

On Vijayadashami on October 24, the deity will be placed on a silver horse and taken around the temple and to the field near Farrer Park MRT station, where the killing of the demon Mahishasura will be re-enacted. On the morning of Deepavali, more than 10,000 people are expected to pay their respects at the temple, starting at 6am. A free vegetarian meal will be distributed, said Selvakumar. On Sundays, about 3,400 people visit the temple. Even on weekdays, it is thronged with devotees who come as early as 5:30am to pray before going to work.

SRI THENDAYUTHAPANI (CHETTIARS') TEMPLE

Where: 15 Tank Road

Main deity: Lord Thendayuthapani, also known as Murugan

Look for: Eight evenings of concerts starting next Tuesday, 7pm onwards, to celebrate Navarathiri

Open: 6:30am to noon, 5:30 to 9pm

Info: www.sttemple.com

This Saivite temple is privately managed by the Nattukkottai Chettiar community, who were from South India and established a flourishing moneylending business when they arrived in Singapore in the 1800s.

A year before the temple's construction in 1859, the Chettiars offered prayers to a spear (known as the Holy Vel, a representation of Lord Murugan) that they installed under a pipal tree at the bank of a pond. That tree has been uprooted and the spot now forms part of the slip road leading to River Valley Road and Clemenceau Avenue.

The temple, which is 4,000 sq m in size, is said to be one of the biggest dedicated to Murugan in Southeast Asia.

According to the book Nagarathars In Singapore, written by Dr SP. Thinnappan and Mrs Soundara Nayaki Vairavan published in 2010, Navarathiri and Thaipusam are the two most important festivals celebrated in the temple.

Usually, Navarathiri features the goddesses Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswathi, who combine their powers to defeat a demon. But in this temple, Navarathiri is celebrated with Lord Thendayuthapani as the main hero.

Festivities start here next Tuesday with eight consecutive evenings of Indian classical music and dance. On the ninth day, the chief temple priest will shoot arrows around a banana tree, symbolising the killing of the demon. A statue of Lord Thendayuthapani will be placed on a silver horse and taken on a city procession.

On Thaipusam, which usually falls in January or February, devotees bear milk pots and kavadis (semi-circular structures made of wood or steel) on foot from Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road to this temple in Tank Road. You can observe the kavadi carriers from the roadside as they make their journey.

You can easily recognise the Nagarathar (another name for Chettiar) kavadi bearer because they do not practise the act of skewering their bodies, says Nagarathars In Singapore. You might see that a non-Nagarathar kavadi bearer has pierced silver pins through his cheek and tongue and has pricked his body with spear-like needles.

On the morning of Deepavali, a gift of sweet rice will be distributed to devotees.

SRI KRISHNAN TEMPLE

Where: 152 Waterloo Street

Main deities: Lord Krishna, the ninth incarnation of Vishnu, and his queen the Goddess Rukmini.

Look for: A statue of the Goddess Of Mercy, seated on the left hand side of the main shrine, plated in gold and adorned with crystals. Along the passageway around the back of the shrine are 30 marble slabs depicting the Thiruppavai, which are 30 hymns composed by Andal, believed to be an incarnation of one of the consorts of Vishnu.

Open: 6am to noon, 5:30 to 9pm

This may be an Indian temple, but it is a common sight to see Chinese devotees here and they account for up to 40 per cent of the worshippers. You can see them offering sticks of incense at the entrance and rubbing smoke from burnt incense all over their wallets, hair, hands and body, in the belief that it will bring them good luck.

Many come from the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple, which is a large Chinese temple dedicated to the Goddess Of Mercy and is just next door. Many of them also enter the temple to pray.

The Sri Krishnan Temple is the only South Indian temple in Singapore dedicated to Lord Krishna. The temple began 143 years ago as a humble makeshift shrine, with the statues of Venugopal, Hanuman and Krishna under a banyan tree.

As time went by and the congregation of worshippers became bigger, the tree was later fenced off and eventually, in 1933, a main shrine constructed by Madam Joognee Ammal was consecrated. In 1958, the late V. Pakirisamy Pillai expanded the temple buildings by constructing a concrete temple hall and a two-storey ancillary building.

Today, the temple is run by his son, P. Sivaraman, who is temple chairman. The temple used to be famous for weddings, as Krishna is often seen as the embodiment of passion and love, said Mr Sivaraman, who is in his 60s.

"But things have changed now. Since 2002, we have slowly but surely stopped performing wedding ceremonies on weekends. We cater to a worship crowd, some of whom can only make it on weekends," he said.

Some time in the early 1990s, a group of Chinese doctors suggested that a statue of the Goddess Of Mercy be installed at the temple and offered to pay for it. Indian craftsmen were commissioned to make the statue out of silver and plated it in gold. This was installed and consecrated in the temple in 1992.

The largest festival of this temple is the celebration of Lord Krishna's birthday, marked by 10 days of festivities and attended by 4,000 to 5,000 people on the main day. It was from September 8 to 19 this year.

 

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