Heaven, Hell, and The Here & Now

Dad and I visited Chinatown a few days ago, where one of the first things we saw was his given name — Bliss — repeated over and over just above our heads:IMG_9622

Chinatown was one of the first areas designated as a specific ethnic neighborhood when the British settled Singapore and told everyone where to live. At that time, the Indian community was assigned a spot right next door. So Chinatown plays host to a number of buildings that are distinctly not Chinese, including Sri Mariamman Temple, now the oldest Hindu temple in the country. It is known for its impressive gopura, the tower that sits over every significant South Indian temple. And the cows are freshly painted!


Inside the temple, they were clearly preparing for some sort of a festival …40318336914_5351ffdd1a_o (1).jpg

… complete with strings of marigolds.


They have also either just finished with or are getting ready — or just don’t have enough indoor storage — for some sort of parade:


There is so much iconography in Hindu temples that it is impossible for me to understand it all. I do recognize some gods. There’s Vishnu — he’s blue…


… and Ganesha — he’s an elephant (also notice the mouse, the vehicle that he rides, to his right):

IMG_9639But then there are the mysteries that I don’t recognize at all, like this stabbing figure …



… this guy, who appears to be some sort of guardian …


… and this breasted goat-woman (accompanying someone I assume to be either Kartikeya or Saraswati, given the peacock):


I just like taking it all in.


Wandering around Chinatown leads you by lots of Chinese medicine shops, where you can buy a wide arrangement of natural remedies. We’re not really sure what the lizards-on-a-stick might cure.


We also visited the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, which is only ten years old. IMG_9649.jpg

Like most Chinese temples in Singapore, this one is very shiny:


And there’s not just one Buddha inside — there are thousands.

IMG_9661.jpgThe temple was less crowded than it’s been on my past visits, which gave me time to look more closely at the many decorations. We found scrolls detailing the ten levels of hell, which included terrifying depictions and great translations:



Note the guy wearing green in the scroll above. He’s in charge of meting out people’s penalties and determining whether they’ve completed their punishments such that they can move onto the next level of hell or get out entirely (Dad call’s him the head of hell’s HR department).

I liked the threat of “throw as food for the snakes” …


… and the many green demons:IMG_9654

The temple also has designated a Buddha (or one of the buddhist guardians) for each of the signs in the Chinese zodiac. I have no idea whether there’s any tradition behind this idea of attaching buddhas to the zodiac, or whether the temple has invented this concept for the benefit of the tourists, but it’s amusing. The year of the rat, for example, is associated with Avalokiteshvara, the thousand-armed Buddha…


… and the year of the rooster has been assigned Acala, a protector and “wisdom king”:


Each of these major protectors has a little guardian with the relevant zodiacal sign on its helmet and belt. Here are the rat guardian …


… and the dog guy (he’s my year):


We also went up to the fourth floor, where they have the actual Buddha’s tooth! It’s his left canine, purportedly recovered from his funeral pyre. The tooth sits in a giant gold stupa and looks to be really large, far bigger than I would expect a tooth to be. Unfortunately, it’s in the middle of a giant no-photo zone, so I can’t share it here.

I also made my first visit to the temple’s fifth-floor roof garden:


They have a giant prayer wheel that you can turn (the largest cloisonne prayer wheel in the world, which seems a fairly narrow if interesting claim to fame):


Prescott joined us for a visit to the Chinatown Heritage Centre, which is my favorite museum in Singapore.

Here, they have recreated a shophouse from the 1950s and decorated the rooms to show you how different groups of people (hawkers, trishaw pullers, tailors, Samsui women) would have lived in cramped quarters. It’s a great way to learn what life would have been like for new Chinese immigrants trying to get ahead in a rough place (Singapore was once called “The Chicago of the East”). And we had fun at their photo center at the end:


For dinner, we ate at the amazingly good Si Wei Mao Cai, a Szechuan restaurant where they cover everything in chili peppers and Szechuan peppercorns. You can barely feel your tongue at the end, but it’s delicious!

One response to “Heaven, Hell, and The Here & Now

  1. Pingback: Singapore by MRT: The Blue Line, Chinatown to Bukit Panjang | Traveler Tina·

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