For many years I have used Singapore as a hub for my travels to Asia. I spend a night and then move on. This time I decided to include Singapore in my holiday plans and dig a bit deeper. One of the first places I wanted to explore was Little India. I had been up and down the main street on the hop on hop off bus numerous times, but really had no idea what it had to offer. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.
As I walk through the streets the thought crosses my mind that I could be in Mumbai. Bollywood music blares, ladies stroll along the streets in beautiful, bright saris and gold wedding jewellery sparkles in the windows. There are restaurants everywhere and the smells are sublime.
How did it start?
Labourers were needed to develop the city. Some of the first settlers were sent as convict labour and after serving their sentences many of them choose to stay. During the 1880’s labourers came from India to meet the growing needs of the city. Many of them also remained after their contract was complete. Indian labourers and convicts laid Serangoon Road which was the original name of the area.
It’s also called Tekka
The Chinese who lived in the Kandang Kerbau area nicknamed Little India “Tek Kia Kah” which was shortened to Tek Kah which refers to the bamboo that grew along the Rochor Canal.
What to see in Little India
Tan Teng Niah House
This colourful building is one of the iconic sights in Little India. This is the last of the Chinese villas that remain in the area. Tan Teng Niah started building in 1900 for his wife, incorporating elements of both European and Southern Chinese architecture.
I was enthralled by the number of beautiful works that adorned the buildings in the area. What is interesting is that many of the works depict the origins of the area and cultural influences. They are vibrant and exciting to see. If you want a detailed guide to the art in the area this is the one I used when I planned my trip.
This work, depicting the surrounds, by Shah Rizza was definitely one of my favourites. It quirky and colourful and for me summed up the highlights of the area perfectly. The traffic moving along the road and the bicycles parked somehow also become part of the work which I thought was really clever.
You will also notice that there are some dotted lines. This is a work in progress that will be added to at some stage.
Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple
The temple dates from 1881 and is dedicated to Kali, the destroyer of Evil. I always wonder what prompted a dedication of a religious establishment. In this case, the deity Kali has always been popular in Bengal. The labourers who built the temple came there, so this dedication makes sense to me. The temple is constructed in a South Indian style like many of the Tamil temples rather than in the style of the Northeastern Indian Kali temples in Bengal.
Legend has it that during the Japanese aerial attacks in WWII the temple played a protective role to many, who were kept safe from the bombings.
Remember that this is a house of worship so be discreet when taking photographs.
Indian Heritage Centre
If it’s arts and cultural activities that you’re after then look no further than the Heritage centre. The building itself I found somewhat odd and wasn’t too crazy about it. Its facade is based on the baoli (or Indian stepwell). It is supposed to give the impression of a shining jewel in the day and a lantern at night, but you can judge for yourself.
Little India Arcade
On Serangoon Road, in the middle of the area, are a number of carefully restored shophouses that form the arcade. You will find saris, tableware, clothing, handcrafts and souvenirs all at bargain prices. You can also find incense and spices wafting on the breeze. I enjoyed wandering through the alleyways soaking up the atmosphere and admiring the selection of beautiful items on offer. I was tempted by a rather large carved elephant, but then I came to my senses which was just as well!
This is a great story about determination. The owner originally started renting a basement of around 40 000 sq ft. He slowly bought up buildings until he owned an entire row. This then became the 70 000 sq ft that it is today. It sells everything that you can imagine and is open 24 hours a day 365 days a year. They claim to have in excess of 75 000 items for sale. There is even a travel desk and a kiosk to exchange money.
I bought some gorgeous luggage wraps there at an excellent price. We also enjoyed a delicious snack at the restaurant outside the door, on the pavement. If you are a shopper then this is a paradise.
Note: There are now many mini-Mustafa outlets scattered along Serangoon Rd, but the original and by far the largest is the one facing Syed Alwi Rd. This a little bit beyond the main part of town.
Tekka Centre / Market
To be honest we discovered this by accident. We were looking for somewhere to eat along the main drag when we spotted hundreds of people coming and going into a door. Naturally, we went investigate and found the most amazing selection of food stalls imaginable. You could choose from Sri Lankan, South Indian, North Indian, Malaysian and Chinese cuisines to name but a few. The place was filled with happy people enjoying the food.
There is also a wet market and a fresh produce market in the Centre. Upstairs are souvenirs, clothes, fabric, flowers and beautiful scarves. This should be your number one stop, but I must add it’s not a fancy place so don’t expect glitz and glamour. It has a wonderfully authentic Indian feel to it.
Sim Lim Square
I mention this in passing as technically Sim Lim Square is not really in Little India but on its borders. This is my go-to spot for IT requirements. I always find something new, quirky and something that I never knew I needed to buy there. You will find hundreds of shops with extremely competitive prices for computers, accessories, phones and electronics. If you want the best deal in town head for the upper floors and ignore the more trendy lower floors. Sim Lim Tower also has a few shops if you don’t find what you are looking for, but this is highly unlikely.
I discovered that there is also a free walking tour of the area, but I just wandered around with my husband, taking in the sights. If you like Indian food and culture then Little India is a must visit on your Singaporean itinerary. You can easily lose yourself for a couple of hours as you immerse yourself in this dynamic neighbourhood.
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