The Indian Heritage Centre is the first museum in Southeast Asia that focuses on the culture, heritage and history of the Indian community in Singapore and Malaysia, writes Alan Teh Leam Seng
‘WE close at 4pm on Sundays. There is not much time left and it is better to come again on Tuesday.’
Then, as if to read my mind, the ticketing clerk continues: ‘The Indian Heritage Centre closes on Mondays as well.’
As my flight back is scheduled for early Tuesday morning, I decide to go ahead and try to cover as much ground as possible in half an hour.
‘To help you keep track of time, listen out for the visitor advisory announcement which comes on five minutes before closing time. Start with the permanent gallery on the two upper floors and quickly work your way down,’ adds the helpful ticketing clerk.
She also hands over a guide map and suggests: ‘Once you are done here, why not spend some time to explore the rest of Little India. The map’s two hour walking route is most ideal as it features many of the prominent landmarks and only takes half as long compared to the other listed option.’
Strategically located at the junction of Campbell Lane and Clive Street, the Indian Heritage Centre is the first museum in Southeast Asia that focuses on the diverse culture, heritage and history of the Indian community in Singapore as well as Malaysia.
The design of this iconic four-storey building, which is inspired by the Baoli or Indian stepwell, seamlessly blends both traditional Indian as well as modern architectural elements.
Considered the best place to visit for a comprehensive introduction to Singapore’s Little India precinct, the Indian Heritage Centre’s permanent gallery storyline revolves around five themes arranged chronologically to span the time period of more than two millennia.
The displays include more than 440 rare and historically important artifacts, some of which have either been donated or put on loan by generous collectors from all over the world.
THE INDIAN HERITAGE CENTRE
The first themed section, aptly called First Contact, starts on the top most floor. It presents the long history of interactions between South and Southeast Asia as well as the experiences of South Asians when they arrived in Southeast Asia. The artifacts such as religious statues, as well as interesting interactive displays, illustrate how the two regions’ cultures influenced each other as the waves of human migration took place.
The second section, Roots and Routes: Origins and Migrations, traces the traditions that were brought over from India by the migrants as well as tell stories about the arduous journey they undertook to reach Malaya and Singapore.
The diversity and multi-faceted nature of Indian culture is perfectly captured by a display featuring a pile of neatly stacked metal trunks filled with clothes and personal effects. Through them, visitors get agood idea about how people travelled during the early 19th century.
The following section is located on the third floor which can be easily accessed by taking thestairway located right beside the fourth floor balcony.
The displays at the Pioneers: Early Indians in Singapore cast a spotlight on the community in the 19th and early 20th century, especially those who made their mark in both trade and skilled occupations.
Featured most prominently in this section are mannequins dressed in different period uniforms and work wear. Close to each one ofthese are display cabinets that showcase their corresponding tools of the trade.
I also like the role-playing games and interactive touch screen displays that offer little nuggets of information highlighting various success stories ofIndian pioneers.
Among the many heart-warming rags to riches tales is one that pays tribute to South Indian businessman, P.Govindasamy Pillai who came to Singapore in the early 1900s.
He worked at a provision store at 50 Serangoon Road where he was only given food and accommodation instead of wages.
When the store owner passed away, Pillai borrowed S$2,000 from the Chettiars or Indian moneylenders and took over the business. Pillai eventually established a chain of department stores throughout Malaya.
Another interesting tale is about Parsi pioneer, Navroji Mistri who arrived at the shores of Singapore in 1912. Mistri made his fortune selling soda water. In 1952, he donated $1 million, a princely sum for that time, to build Singapore General Hospital’s paediatric ward.
The use of augmented reality in the permanent gallery goes a long way in helping me fully appreciate the exhibits. I have the option of either using my own mobile phone or one of the centre’s many handheld devices to listen to a virtual guide. This, in my opinion, brings the experience to a more personal level.
The fourth part of the permanent gallery highlights the growing nationalist movement in India led by giant figures from history such as the Father of India, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
The exhibits in this Social and Political Awakening of Indians in Singapore and Malaya section recounts how the wave of nationalism spilled over to the Indian diaspora and made its way to Southeast Asia in the middle of the 20th century.
The visitor advisory announcement comes on just as I am about to start with the displays at the final section of Indian Heritage Centre’s permanent gallery. ‘This can be done in less than five minutes if you try hard enough,’ I tell myself with unwavering conviction.
This penultimate section, aptly named Making of the Nation: Contributions of Indians in Singapore, focuses on the numerous contributions made by the Indian community in Singapore. Among the prominent artifacts on display here are those that were donated by luminaries such as S. Rajaratnam.
Despite not having enough time to see the Indian Heritage Centre’s special exhibition entitled Chetti Melaka of the Straits: Rediscovering Peranakan Indian Communities, I remain unperturbed as this nonpermanent display will be on show until May next year. There will surely be ample opportunities for me to make a return trip here in the near future.
As for now, I am perfectly contented to use the guide map and continue exploring the other nearby attractions to further appreciate the long and rich history of the Indian community in Singapore.
My walk starts at the Clive Street which is home to a series of stunning art installations.
Managed by the Little India Shopkeepers & Heritage Association (LISHA) and the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), these murals help to bring to life the walls of the surrounding pre-war shop houses.
A large painting of a girl in a dupatta (a traditional Indian headdress) lends identity to this traditional enclave. It highlights Little India’s uncanny ability to withstand the test of time in a city with an ever-changing landscape.
The artist, Safaruddin Abdul Hamid, purposely gave the scarf a camouflage print to represent both the new and old aspects of the neighbourhood.
Safaruddin’s artwork is further accentuated by a number of colourful sculptures of patterned cows in the adjacent open public space. This artistic depiction acts as a reminder that cattle used to be the driving force of Little India’s economy until the middle of the 20th century and once co-existed in harmony with the people who called this place home.
A nearby information board highlights that prior to becoming a thriving trade and community hub for migrant Indians, this precinct has its early roots as a favoured residential area for Europeans who were drawn to the place for the elite sport of horse racing.
This interesting fact prompts me to make a short detour towards Race Course Road, which forms Little India’s northern most border, in an attempt to locate remnants of the Serangoon Road Race Course that was built in 1842.
Despite the futility of my endeavour, the route eventually leads me to the former residence of Tan Teng Niah, considered as one of the most colourful and celebrated heritage buildings in the vicinity.
Built in 1900, the expansive standalone double storey building is the last surviving Chinese villa in Little India. Its presence serves as a timely reminder of an often overlooked story when small Chinese industries used to operate alongside Indian owned cattle and rattan businesses.
Tan used to own several sweet-making factories along Serangoon Road that used sugarcane to produce sweets. The rear section of the house had a rubber smokehouse which used sugarcane residue as fuel for its furnace.
The extensive restoration of Tan Teng Niah’s former residence in the 1980s won it the Singapore Institute of Architects Honourable Mention award in 1991.
After enjoying a quick snack of Indian sweets and desserts at Dunlop Street, I end my visit to Little India at Masjid Abdul Gaffoor which is just a little further down the road. The mosque was named after its founder Shaik Abdul Gaffoor Shaik Hyder. It was built in 1910 to replace the former Masjid Al-Abrar that had stood on the same site. In 1979, it was gazetted as a national monument.
Restoration work to the tune of S$5.5 million commenced in 2000. During that time, the foundations were strengthened and the basement was completely renovated.
Four minarets with mini-domes that had been part of the mosque’s original blueprints but had disappeared over time were reinstated at the four corners of the mosque’s flat roof. The mosque was reopened five years ago and now accommodates up to 4,000 worshippers.
Through the many interesting places visited, Little India has shown me the best of Singapore’s Indian community, one that boasts of an extremely vibrant culture and an incredibly warm hospitality.
Pictures by Alan Teh Leam Seng
THE INDIAN HERITAGE CENTRE
5 Campbell Lane,
TEL (+65) 6291 1601
HOURS 10am-7pm (Tuesdays to Thursdays), 10am-8pm (Fridays to Saturdays), 10 am- 8pm (Sundays/Public Holidays).
Closed on Mondays.