Temples of Singapore

by Helen Conway, Sep 29, 2001 | Destinations: Singapore

Western visitors to Asia will recognise the feeling: you go into a Chinese temple, you "wow" at the incredible decorations, you "ooh" at the goldenness of the deities, and you "aah" at the heady incense. But sometimes, it isn't easy to know which deity you are admiring.

On a recent trip to Singapore, I visited several temples and tried to unravel some of the stories behind them. When the immigrants stepped off the boats from China, their first port of call was to give thanks for a safe sea voyage. And so one of the first joss houses was established on Telok Ayer Street as far back as 1821. At the time, the street was on the sea front; now, roofs stretch away in every direction. It was way back in 1897 that land reclamation began and Telok Ayer bid farewell to the sea.

Thian Hock Keng Temple

The Thian Hock Keng Temple, or Temple of Heavenly Happiness, still stands on the original site, dedicated to Ma Cho Po, Mother of Heavenly Sages and the goddess of safe sea travel.

It is one of the most striking temples in Singapore and should not be missed, although every tourist is of the same opinion and visitors far outnumber worshippers. It must be said that camera flashes going off can hardly be conducive to praying: the temptation to take photographs should be resisted, as these are places of worship.

Some temples prefer you to remove your shoes before you enter although you will know this, as there will usually be footwear lying outside. Steps, or a wooden bar, are often at the entrance to a temple. These serve the double purpose of keeping out wandering spirits and also making those who enter the temple look down, thus bowing the head in humility.

The Thian Hock Keng Temple was built between 1839 and 1842, using imported materials from China (although the tiles on the façade are from Holland and the railings from Glasgow).

Astonishingly, not one nail was used during the construction. A glance up at the roof shows a traditional beam-and-bracket system and wonderful carved men squat at the cornices, holding the roof on their shoulders.

The statue of Ma Cho Po was brought from China in 1840 and carried through the streets in an elaborate procession before being installed in the temple.

Ma Cho Po was born Lin Mo in 960 AD. Legend has it that she did not cry during her first month and was given the name "Mo," which means, "keeping silent". She was extremely intelligent and she became a Buddhist at the age of ten, dedicating her life to helping others.

She grew up on Meizhou Island, a busy seaport in the Fu Jian province and she was renowned for being able to accurately predict the weather, thus becoming invaluable to the seamen. She also helped out in many sea rescues. Lin Mo died at the young age of 27, since when sailors and fishermen have come to pray to her for safe sea voyages.

Stone lions guard the entrance to the temple: the male on one side has a ball in his mouth, which symbolises strength. It is good luck to twirl the ball round before you step into the temple. The female lion on the other side holds a cup, representing fertility.

Once inside, the courtyard is heavy with the scent of burning incense, said to remind followers of virtue. The main deities are enclosed behind glass. Ma Cho Po sits in the middle, red and yellow silk adorning the statue (Lin Mo is reputed to have always worn red during her life). On either side of her sit the Protector of Life and the God of War.

Offerings are placed on the tables before the gods- here are neatly arranged bowls of apples, oranges and bananas. This artistic scene appears more for the benefit of the tourists than the gods.

Yueh Hai Ching Temple

Ma Cho Po fares better on the food front further up the road at the Yueh Hai Ching Temple (literally, the "Temple of the Calm Sea built by the Guanzhou people"). The offerings here include bowls of rice, fried mushrooms and bok choy, as well as sweets and pastries. Bottles of oil stand next to the burners and, just in case you should doubt the quality of your purchase, a large label informs you that you have purchased "Lucky Oil". As opposed to the other sort, presumably.

This temple on Phillip Street also once fronted the water. Now, the single-storey building and paved courtyard are shadowed by the gleaming skyscrapers of the financial district, which is gradually encroaching on Chinatown.

The original temple was built here in 1826, making it the oldest Teochew (the second largest of the Chinese dialect groups) temple in Singapore.

Across the courtyard are festooned burning incense coils, inside of which hang pieces of paper. On these, people write their name and wish. The smell of the incense alerts and appeases the gods and the wish will be granted.

The temple is unusual in that it has two entrances: the right wing altar is dedicated to Yuan Tian Shang Di, the Heavenly Emperor, and the left wing altar to Ma Cho Po. There is also a statue of Confucius, to whom parents can bring their children to pray as this is thought to bring filial piety and good grades at school.

To one side within the temple is a statue of Gambler Brother. He is worshipped to bring good luck and riches and around his neck hangs a string of coins. Opium used to be smeared on his lips once upon a time; presumably this kept him happy. Now, however, poor Gambler Brother has to be content with a (legal) herbal paste, koyo.

This temple is also unusual in that it has many three-dimensional scenes from Chinese operas, depicting scenes of courageous deeds of the gods and ancient heroes of Chinese legends. They are displayed on the roof to render vigilance and bestow blessings. This quiet little temple is a far cry from the Kuan Yin Temple, which dominates the pedestrianised Waterloo Street. It is not merely the imposing entrance that catches the eye but also the fortune-tellers lining the street and the flower-sellers enticing you to buy your offerings from them.

Kuan Yin Temple

This is one of the most popular temples in Singapore, both with devotees and tourists. The aroma from the incense wafts all the way down the street. A security guard sits at the entrance and warns visitors not to take photographs. Inside, another security guard patrols round and monitors the CCTV.

Streams of people wander in and out all day, praying to Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. It is said that whatever you wish for within the walls of the temple will come true, so small wonder it is busy.

Kuan Yin is often shown on a lotus pod, holding a child.

Sometimes the depiction is of a man with very feminine features and many arms to show the extent of his mercy, although his sex varies. He is also the god to whom childless women turn for help.

Inside the temple is a swirl of activity. The high ceiling reverberates the chanting of the priests as they stand at the front of the hall, ringing the bell and beating the drum.

Worshippers (and there are many) kneel on a large square of red carpet in the centre of the room. They rattle canisters full of what resemble chopsticks and the incessant clattering adds to the din. These are fortune-telling sticks and they shake the canister until one falls out. This is then taken to the interpretation box where they receive the inscription's meaning.

Chairs are set against the walls where people sit and talk, a far cry from the hushed tones of the Protestant churches I am used to. Flowers, signifying the impermanence of life, are brought and offered to Kuan Yin, who sits in all her golden glory behind glass.

Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple

One of the most touristy temples would have to be the Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple, more commonly known as Temple of 1000 Lights. Indeed, as I arrived, a coachload of Japanese tourists was just leaving. The temple was founded by a Thai monk, Vutthisasara, and the Thai influences are obvious. The building stands taller than many Chinese temples and there is no pagoda roof. However, Chinese influences are present in the bright colour schemes. Inside is an incredible 15-metre high, 300-ton statue of Buddha, painted in a yellow robe. When a donation is made, the 1000 lights are illuminated. Fortunately, no one made any offering while I was there and I was spared being witness to this tacky event.

Around the statue's base are friezes depicting the Buddha's life. Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in the world and was founded in Northern India by Siddharta Gautama. He was born in 563 BC in Lumbini, which is in modern-day Nepal. At the age of 27, he set off on the road as an ascetic. It was while meditating under the bodhi tree that he reached enlightenment, assumed the title Buddha (one who has awakened) and spread the word. He died in 483 BC.

In a cabinet is a piece of bark from the actual bodhi tree in India, as well as a 2-metre replica of the Buddha's footprint, inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

In one corner is the Maitreya, or "laughing Buddha" and at the back of the hall is the "sleeping Buddha" to whom you can also pray.

The temple has an eclectic range of influences, including a statue of the Hindu god, Ganesh, (placed there at the request of the worshippers) and a wax image of Gandhi, but it all feels quite soulless. The very high ceiling and many windows make the inside very light and airy, quite unlike the dark, aromatic temples previously visited.

Leong San See Temple

Across the road is the much more attractive Leong San See Temple, or "Dragon Mountain Temple". Once again, it is dedicated to Kuan Yin.

It was built in 1917 and is infinitely more beautiful, with people actually praying there. Inside is dark, and the walls are black and red with gold carvings. You are supposed to walk around the temple in a clockwise direction for good feng shui. Around the back of the deities is the ancestral hall. Here are countless tablets for the deceased, quite literally glittering in gold and those tablets with red on them signify souls who are still alive. Two ochre-robed monks bang a drum, and hit bells, accompanied by two frail-looking elderly women, shrouded in black. Added to this musical accompaniment is the noise of several tables of people eating and talking. It is such a different experience to visiting churches!

Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Temple

Quite away from all the tourists and well worth the effort to get to is Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Temple. It is the largest complex of temples in Singapore and amongst one of the largest in South-East Asia. Spread over nineteen acres are temples, pagodas, pavilions, a Buddhist library and a vast crematorium.

Saffron roofs, adorned with dragons and birds, compete with fire-engine-red doors to arrest the attention. Columns are covered with ornate carvings of lions, and swastikas loom over doorways, although these are the anti-clockwise version, an ancient symbol of good luck and protection.

The largest building here is the spectacular Chinese-style hall of Great Compassion, and there is also an octagonal Hall of Great Virtue and a nine-metre high statue of Kuan Yin.

Chinese religion can take a while to fathom but, as I discovered, those without an in-depth knowledge can still appreciate it. There are many temples in Singapore, each with a character as individual as the god for whom it was built.

Non-Buddhists are privileged to be able to see inside these incredible places of worship, as long as we all remember that that is exactly what they are.

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