Chinatown,Singapore – Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, Sri Mariamman Temple

Singapore’s Chinatown may be small, but there’s so much to see and do that one day barely covers everything. For those looking to stroll at a more leisurely place, I suggest two days to fully explore the heritage buildings and landmarks within the area. Best, get an experienced local tour guide to bring you around, lest you miss the secret nooks and crannies – all of which are waiting for their stories to be told.

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Colonial buildings in Chinatown are well preserved. Some have been turned into hipster cafes/eateries, tourist centers and whatnot, but there are also many small businesses that have been running for generations.

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We stopped at the URA City Gallery to use the washroom facilities and enjoy the air conditioning after the sweltering heat outside. xD While waiting for the rest, checked out this replica of Singapore – complete with miniature buildings done to scale. Some of the easily recognisable structures are the Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Sands building. After looking at it, I realised that dayum. Singapore is really small. But it’s also super compact and organized.

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Just nearby is Amoy Street Food Center, a food court that serves hawker-stall dishes at affordable prices. We had another place in mind for lunch, but visitors can check out the famous Michelin-bib Singapore ramen noodles inside.

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Chinatown used to be a centre for clan guilds and trade associations, which acted as important social and cultural hubs. They helped out poor clansmen, stood up for rights of different groups, and acted as ‘protectors’ – providing money for infrastructure, schools, etc. Some were also fronts for the kongsi, or the Chinese triads.

Today, only a few of these guilds remain, as modern society no longer has a need for them anymore. The ones remaining are also struggling to survive as rent is high, since the area is a popular tourist place. :c

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We stopped by at one of these guilds, which are open to the public to visit for free. Inside, pictures of prominent members line the walls, along with black and white group photos, important announcements and art pieces. A long table sits in the middle, with rows of old Chinese-style wooden chairs at each side. Decorative lanterns hang from the walls. Also on display were old radios, electronics and musical instruments. The whole place exuded an old-world charm.

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Passing by a Chinese medicine shop, I gasped at the sight of my worst nightmare. Lizards. I hate lizards of any kind, and these were flayed and dried with their heads and limbs still intact. ._.

Purportedly good for strengthening lungs and kidneys. Not going to find out, ever. XD

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Sea dragons/pipefish. There’s a saying in Chinese – if it has its back to the sky, we eat it.

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Within Chinatown is a Hindu temple called the Sri Mariamman, dedicated to the goddess of the same name. Built in 1827, it is Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple and is done in the Dravidian style. Its location proves that even long ago, the different communities on the island co-existed with each other peacefully and practiced racial and religious tolerance. The original structure was built of wood and attap. Currently, the temple arch entrance sports an elaborately carved gopuram (entrance tower) depicting deities and scenes from the Hindu religion.

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Visitors who wish to take photos of the interior must pay a 3SGD fee. Inside, the main shrine houses Mariamman, the main Tamil mother-goddess (very much like Mother Mary for Catholics). She is flanked by the deities Rama and Murugan (the Hindu god of war). Surrounding the main prayer hall are smaller shrines which house other deities like Durga, Shiva and Ganesha. On special days, there is a firewalking ceremony held at the temple, where devotees walk over hot coals.

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Just a few minutes away is the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, which was completed in 2007. The design is Tang-style Chinese, with curving roofs and a predominantly red colour scheme.Inside, visitors can get a glimpse of the Buddha Tooth relic, said to be from the Buddha himself, encased within a golden shrine of over 300kgs of gold. No photos of the relic hall are allowed though.

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The main hall on the ground floor is surrounded by elaborate gold dragons lining the top of the chamber, forming a swirling ring around the Maitreya Hall. In Chinese culture, dragons are one of the most noble creatures (similar to how lions are viewed in Western mythology) and are considered powerful protectors; brave and sacred. Since they are associated with the watery realm, they are often depicted with clouds or waves, as are these dragons.

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The hall houses the Maitreya Trinity – that of Maitreya Buddha flanked by two bodhisattvas, the Bodhisattva Dharma Garden Grove, and Bodhisattva Great Wondrous Appearance.

When we refer to the ‘Buddha’, we are often talking about Shakyamuni Buddha, or Gautama Buddha, who was the first to achieve enlightenment and ascend to Buddha-hood. Maitreya, on the other hand, is a Bodhisattva whom devotees believe will be coming in the near future as a successor to Gautama and teach the pure dharma. Therefore, like a king returning to his rightful throne, the Maitreya is depicted as majestic and royal. Notice how he sits on a throne with each foot on a lotus flower, compared to the usual Buddha that sits on a single lotus flower?

The making of the statue was no easy feat. Carved from a single log, it was painstakingly hand painted using grounded natural stones and dyes.

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Behind the trinity is an elaborate tapestry featuring more dragons and waves.

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Lining the entire hall are 100 small statues of Buddha, each with different mudras (hand signs) and holding different implements or accessories that symbolize their virtues and powers. Lotuses, scepters, bells and wheels are just some of the items.

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Behind the main hall is the Universal Wisdom Hall, with a beautifully hand carved Tang period Bodhisattva Cintamanicakra Avalokitesvara sitting atop a lotus throne. There are eight smaller zodiac protectors surrounding the hall, and still more tiny bodhisattva figures.

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As mentioned, the Buddha tooth relic is upstairs and the chamber holding it is high security so no photos are allowed. It was very impressive though: the brilliance of the gold shrine, surrounded by four Asoka pillars. The space also has elevated wooden platforms on each side for quiet meditation, for both monks and devotees.

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Exiting the temple is the Chinatown Complex area, where many old timers hang out to play chess and chat under the shade.

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Roaming around the commercial area of Chinatown. Be sure to look out for the beautiful architecture here!

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One of the buildings, Lai Chun Yuen, used to be one of the most popular Chinese opera theatres in Singapore. Built in 1887, it now houses a hotel –  but much of its architecture remains intact. The reception area, for example, rises up into the rafters for good acoustics, and is surrounded on the sides by balconies where people could look down on to the stage below.

 

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Loads of restos where people can eat and chill with a beer.

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An iPad for 3.50?

Those are actually paper offerings that the Chinese burn for their dead. Back then it used to be things like servants, paper money and even cars, but I guess one has to keep up with technology, even beyond the grave. One wonders if they have good Internet reception down there though.

Singapore is known as a first-world country with all the modern comforts you can imagine, but if you’re looking for some culture, history and heritage in this metropolis, then don’t forget to visit Chinatown.

The Holy Springs of Tirta Empul, Bali

Here’s the next part of my Bali trip! After it started raining on the Kintamani Highlands, we had to drive back down for another hour. We stopped by the Tirta Empul temple springs on the way. Built in 962 AD, which makes this place over a thousand years old, it was built to honour the Hindu god of water, Vishnu, and is also famous for it’s clear spring waters flowing from the mountains, which the local Balinese Hindus use for purification. Entrance is free, but they accept donations.

Before entering the main shrine, there is a smaller shrine of black granite stones and carvings, solely for devotees – so tourists aren’t allowed inside this area.

I’m guessing this is some form of Balinese. It doesn’t look like regular Indonesian and I can only recognise a few words. Pura is temple, and I’m guessing “tata titi” = tatatertib (rules to follow), penguning = pengunjung (visitor) and such. Very different from the formal Bahasa Indonesia. But just like how the Chinese people have different dialects like Canto, Mandarin, Hakka, I’m sure Indonesians have different ones too. Especially since their islands are so vast and scattered.

A devotee offering up prayers at the mini shrine. The boxes on the altar are prayer boxes woven out of leaves and filled with flowers, incense and sweets.

A common sight in Balinese temples is the Balinese umbrellas, which are often colourful and hung with pretty tassels. Known as ‘tedung’ in the local dialect, it gives the meaning ‘to guard’. Used in ceremonial parades, they are positioned in alignment with shrines oriented towards the sacred Balinese mountain, Gunung Agung (Majestic Mountain).

It is said that the origin of the umbrellas came from a 13th century Chinese princess visiting Java on a merchant ship. She brought an umbrella to protect her skin from the sun. This was then used and incorporated into the then Majapahit Hindu kingdom, which used to span most of Indonesia, including Bali. After Islam spread to the islands, Bali remained a sacred sanctuary for this ancient religion, and is still the predominant religion on the island today. 

The main hall, which was huge. Most Balinese temples are coloured in orange, grey and black. The previous Pura Puseh in Batuan had a similar colour scheme. 

Beautiful detailing at an altar. I was so frustrated with my phone camera because it couldn’t take good pictures in bright sunlight – kept turning up overexposed.

But anyway, look at the details. Must have been super difficult creating this with the tools back then. I think the top carving is the mythical Hindu bird, the Garuda, while the bottom is the Barong, a mythical Balinese Hindu lion which represents the forces of good.

A very pretty box with unknown contents. I am continually amazed at how creative these craftsmen are. 

We finally came to the springs. The waters were a pristine, dark turqoise. Lily pads floated on the surface, while fish swam in the pond. Garuda carvings spewed water out of their mouths. Devotees dipped their heads in the water, which is supposed to have curative properties and is meant for purification. I hadn’t brought a change of clothes because our guide Toto didn’t mention anything about water. Would’ve liked to take a dip.

Everyone had to wear a sarong before entering the temple, to show respect and make sure you’re properly covered. 

Stacks of prayer boxes offered up during prayer time.

Local devotees in traditional Balinese wear. Men wore shorter sarongs around themselves, much like our Malaysian Baju Melayu. The women wore longer ones tightly wrapped around their waists. The men also had clean white shirts and caps.

Prayer session in progress. A priest leads at the front.

We also came across a huge pond full of carp. They looked really well fed.


On our way out, we had to pass by a MAZE of souvenir shops. It was like a labyrinth.

If you think the sales people at your place are aggressive, they are nothing like the Balinese sales girls manning these souvenir shops. They literally shove items in your face and won’t stop pestering you til you buy something from them. We found it difficult to say no and ended up buying a tonne of souvenirs we didn’t need.

There were also a lot of penises. Idk what the obsession over penises is in Bali. I’ve seen these wooden ones all over the place. There are also the colourful, painted ones that come in red, blue, gold, and the ones with patterns over them. There are big penises and small penises, bottle opener penises, keychain penises.

I mean, I could get one for fun, but then it’d be hard trying to explain it at customs. Heh.

We’re almost at an end of our Bali trip. Next post is gonna be a revisit to the famous Kuta beach. I finally got a Hard Rock Cafe Bali pic. Yay

 

Gorgeous Architecture @ Pura Puseh Batuan Temple, Bali

Here’s the next part of my Bali trip!  After our morning Barong dance show, we moved on to Pura Puseh Batuan Temple,  which is close to the Ngurah Rai International Airport. This 11th century temple is a perfect example of ancient Balinese architecture, with lots of beautiful, elaborate carvings. While obviously not as popular as the famed Tanah Lot, it is a great place of visit located near the city centre.

The exterior of the temple. Most of the temple is decorated with intricate stone carvings and little shrines with statues dedicated to different deities. Orange is a recurrent colour on the walls of the temple.

Once a visitor enters, they are greeted by a spacious square courtyard, with a ten-foot tall facade facing the entrance. Lots of smaller shrines and stone carvings line the perimeter. Smaller gates lead into the inner courtyards, which contain separate small shrines and platforms. Apparently it is the Balinese tradition to have their temples/homes this way. While our houses basically have everything under one roof, Balinese homes have separate smaller ‘houses’ in their courtyard for different chambers in a home.  This means that a toilet is a stand alone building, a kitchen is in another building, the bedrooms are all separate, etc.

Anyway. Picture time!

A shrine, with wordings in Indonesian and Indic.Indic is an ancient subcontinental Indian language, since Bali is heavily influenced by the Hindu religion.

Moss has grown over most of the statues, giving it a very ancient-like charm. Otherwise, it’s very well-kept by the residents of Batuan village.

Gold, red, orange and blue motifs add splashes of colour to the grey stone granite. You don’t need to be a genius to know that Bali is an island of very skilled craftsmen

These Balinese prayer boxes are a common sight around the island – outside house shrines, at temples, even at the side of the streets. The woven leaf trays often contain colourful flowers, candy, dry biscuits and incense. Forgot to ask Toto about it ( I don’t think he would know it in depth anyway coz he’s actually Javanese Muslim), but the prayers are supposed to be part of the balance between good and evil, as the Gods receive them on the family shrines, while demons receive theirs on the ground. As mentioned in my previous post, the Balinese pray three times a day, and this is an everyday act of devotion.

The process of Balinese prayer is sacred and full of meaning, so it’s hard to summarize everything here. A good reference would be this article here.

A raised platform with traditional gamelan instruments for tourists to play with. They are kind of like an ancient xylophone. It’s very soothing to hear the steady, high tinkling of the bell-drums.

As a form of respect, visitors will have to wear a sarong covering over the waist if you’re wearing shorts.

If you’re looking for a dose of culture and a taste of this island’s rich history/religious background, then the Pura Puseh Batuan Temple is a good place to go that’s not too far from the city. The architecture is beautiful and if you come at the right time, you’ll get to see the daily rituals performed at the temple too.