Of all the ethnic enclaves in Singapore, Little India is the city at its most liveliest and colourful. With narrow little lanes and a bustling community, things can get a little messy here – quite unlike the rest of orderly Singapore. Keep your cameras ready for unexpected sights, and come with an empty stomach to eat all the good food around here. Here’s our guide to the top 10 things you should do in Little India.
Beautiful temples, world-class shopping and divine food – it doesn’t get much better than Singapore’s Little India.
One of the oldest Hindu temples in Singapore, the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple is dedicated to its namesake, better known as the Goddess and destroyer of evil Kali. This temple was built by early Indian immigrants and settlers in 19th century Singapore – it was known then as Soonambu Kambam Kovil, Tamil for ‘temple at the lime village’, a reference to the many lime kilns in the area at that time. Despite the air raids of World War Two, the temple escaped unscathed and has been renovated several times since, definitely a sight worth checking out if you’re visiting Little India.
The Sri Srinivasa Perumal temple along Serangoon Road is a Hindu temple built in the late 1800s, dedicated to Sri Srinivasa Perumal or Lord Vishnu, the preserver and protector of the universe. Once known as Narasinga Perumal Kovil, this temple in Little India is known for its five-tiered gopuram or gatehouse tower covered with the many avatars of Vishnu and other Hindu deities. The temple is the starting point for Kavadi carriers during the annual Thaipusam celebrations.
The Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple is also called the Temple of a Thousand Lights, due to the 15-metre-tall, 300-ton statue surrounded by what seems to be thousands of little lights housed within its walls. This Buddhist temple in Singapore’s Little India is an eclectic mix of Chinese, Thai and Indian styles dating back to 1927. First constructed by Thai monk Venerable Vutthisasara as a simple zinc roof shed, it was later built in to its current form through donations by Aw Boon Har and Aw Boon Par – the entrepreneurial brothers who created the medicinal ointment Tiger Balm and Haw Par Villa.
The House of Tan Teng Niah stands out in Little India with its bright rainbow hues, but also because it is one of the last surviving Chinese villas in a largely Indian enclave. Its former owner Tan Teng Niah was a businessman who owned several sweet-making factories along Serangoon Road along with a rubber smokehouse, and it was said that he built this house for his wife. The house was originally white and green, its kaleidoscopic colours only added in more recent times, and today the building houses several commercial offices.
Insomniacs love Mustafa Centre as it is open 24 hours a day and stocked with just about everything under the sun – with over 300,000 items stocked over four floors and at cheaper prices to boot. It’s not uncommon to find people getting their shopping done in the wee hours of the night in this Little India treasure. First started in 1971 as a garment shop in nearby Campbell Lane, Mustafa Centre now encompasses visa services, travel agencies, jewellery, catering and even a hotel.
Tekka Centre is home to a hawker centre with a wide variety of good low-priced street food – the Indian food is particularly good at this historically popular wet market renowned for fresh produce. It is also home to a host of little sundry stalls selling everything covering household goods, religious paraphernalia and even tailoring services. The name Tekka comes from Teh Kia Kah or Tek Kah, a Hokkien name meaning ‘foot of the bamboos’, a reference to the many bamboo plants growing along Rochor Canal. Visit our article on the best restaurants in Little India, Singapore.
This shiny modern building inspired by the Indian baoli (or stepwell) sticks out amidst the narrow streets and old shophouses found in Little India. This four-storey building houses a significant collection of artefacts promoting the diverse Indian diaspora and heritage, including a permanent exhibition of the history of the Indian community in Singapore. It’s educational, never too jam-packed with people, and a great spot to chill out and soak in some heritage on a hot afternoon.
The Little India Arcade is a collection of shophouses that date back to the 1920s, with narrow alleyways selling all sorts of sundry and novelties alongside street food stalls and other eateries. It is a tourist favourite to pick up all sorts of Indian souvenirs, whether it’s fresh floral garlands or intricate textiles, or even a traditional henna tattoo if you so desire. The building has been preserved to retain some of that nostalgic flavour from its early Colonial days.
Restaurant, Indian, $$$
One of the best places for a good hearty meal in Little India is the Banana Leaf Apolo, famed for its traditional Indian practise of serving food on freshly cut banana leaves, giving the food some additional natural flavours. With over 40 years of experience and several outlets around the island serving both north and south Indian cuisine, the fish head curry is the star dish for your foray into Indian food, but don’t miss out on mutton mysore, chicken masala and briyanis.
Komala Vilas is an institution in the Little India dining scene, a family-run restaurant especially famous for its southern Indian vegetarian cuisine – come here for delicious dosai. The masala dosai, a rice and lentil pancake topped with mashed potato is a crowd-pleaser, especially combined with its lentil-based vegetable stew Sambar, and capped off with a good cup of South Indian coffee. There are several branches within the Little India area, but this one at Serangoon Road is the original outlet opened in 1947.