The Sights and Scents of Singapore’s Little India

By Angela Shen

Singapore is a melting pot. Once dubbed by a friend as “culturally confused,” it’s an island with a population of over 5 million people, almost half of which are foreign nationals, thus allowing numerous cultures to thrive together in one city-state. Despite having very little land area in comparison to other countries (I was told by a local that Malaysia to the north is sometimes referred to as “elder brother” because of its size), Singapore has four official languages—Mandarin Chinese, English, Malay, and Tamil. While the majority of the population is Chinese Singaporean, there are significant Malay and Indian communities. Walking into different areas of the city, a person is immersed in one culture after another, with places like Little India being a significant tourist attraction.

Photo is author’s own

Little India has its origins in the 1800’s; it started out as an area to raise cattle and was thusly the place where Europeans (mostly) would gather. Soon, after an Indian population emerged, various religious landmarks (such as Hindu temples and mosques), as well as businesses, started to appear. Today, Little India is a vibrant area with various influences that excite the senses. Visitors have several options for lodging, including hostels and hotels. Most choices are very cheap, but there’s a “you get what you pay for” mentality, meaning that the hotels in the area aren’t of the highest quality. Even if travelers stay somewhere else, this neighborhood is still worth visiting.

One of the first things I noticed when stepping out of the Little India subway station was the scent from numerous roadside markets selling fruits, vegetables, and temple flowers. There were even bees attracted to the wreaths of temple flowers, indicating they were freshly picked. Vendors sell their products side by side, with little sense of competition. The sellers are friendly with each other, with some Chinese and Indian vendors doing business together. These salespeople often eye passersby, hoping the next person will become a customer. There are plenty of places to go shopping for souvenirs. Clothing, jewelry, textiles, and house decorations are easily found. Some shops include imported goods, such as saris imported from around South Asia to as far as Turkey. Besides plenty of shopping options, food is definitely a highlight in Little India. There are numerous options for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians, and the cuisine also includes some Pakistani and Bangladeshi choices. Many eateries have classic staples like naan (bread), tandoori chicken, tikka masala, and drinks such as lassi, just to name a few.

There are several places of worship for Hindus and Muslims. I came across a mosque (it was Ramadan during the time) and saw people preparing for festivities. Volunteers were also making lots of free porridge for worshippers to have after evening prayers. The extremely colorful and intricate Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple is one of Singapore’s oldest Hindu temples, and throughout history, people have taken refuge there. For example, during World War II, worshippers would go and pray to Kali, a goddess and destroyer of evil. Interestingly enough, even through all the destruction, this temple never suffered any bombings.

Because there are people of so many different backgrounds in Singapore, I never felt out of place, even though it was my first time going. It’s easy to make generalizations about a certain area, but there are variations within every country, state, and even city.  I’ve found that the best way to quickly get accustomed to a place is to set assumptions aside and see the culture for oneself.  The more open someone is, the easier it is accept new surroundings, and in turn, locals will be accepting too.

Little India may be considered one culture out of many on the island of Singapore, but even within the community, there are traces from other cultures as well. The cuisine, cultural attractions, and shops have elements of influence from all over Asia. Little India is definitely a gem on the exciting, diverse island of Singapore; travelers shouldn’t overlook experiencing it.

Featured image by Ted McGrath on Flickr

Angela is a junior from Albuquerque, New Mexico, majoring in communication with a minor in business. She’s always open to adventure and loves meeting new people and trying new things. She has a passion for traveling and learning about different cultures. Angela enjoys dance, food, watching movies, and yoga.