Sunday, August 08, 2004

A Sparkling Gem of Indian Delights

Check out my photo blog for more pics.

Located along Serangoon road is a sparkling little gem of Indian delights, a wonderful cacophony of sights, smells and sounds. Through this vibrant albeit small window of crafts, food and fashion, G and I caught a curious glimpse into the Indian culture.

Our first stop was at a vegetarian restaurant that was air-conditioned and looked pretty decent. Other than roti prata, I hardly knew of other Indian food names. So it was to the impatience of other customers queuing behind me that I enquired, pointed and gesticulated to get my order across the counter as best I could.

Finally, I ordered rava masala, channa batura, and mango lassi (a cold yogurt drink). The piping hot food seemed so delicious, I immediately dived in and forgot to take a shot of it first!

Thankfully the restaurant provided plastic utensils, so I managed to circumvent the truly authentic Indian food experience of eating with my hands.

A Short History Lesson

Under Raffles' administration, commerce flourished and thousands of immigrants from all over Asia flocked to Singapore, among them many Indians. In fact, the very first Indian to reach Singapore had been one Narayana Pillai, who had accompanied Raffles on his first-time visit to the island. The first Indian settlers in Singapore resided mainly in the area near Chulia Street in Chinatown which Raffles originally designated for the Indian community. Pillai, quite a shrewd businessman himself, soon built Singapore's first brick kiln - in the area of today's "Little India". Chinese immigrants, for their part, drained the swampy marshland of Serangoon and established fruit, vegetable and betel gardens. The availability of water and grass in that area made cattle trading possible.

Indians began to move to Serangoon Road after Rochor Canal was completed in 1836 and they used the area to graze cattle; thus you still find a Buffalo Road in "Little India", as well as a Kerbau Road, kerbau being Malay for buffalo. The completion of the Race Course in the 1840s meant more jobs were available. The number of immigrants from India grew steadily, supplemented by numerous Indian convicts, unceremoniously shipped over by the British. In the 1850's, the first Hindu temples were built (partly using convict labour), rows of shophouses were to follow. By the 1880s, new Indian immigrants flocked here and this area became a flourishing commercial centre for the Indian community. Today, the Serangoon Road area is known as Little India.

After our satisfying lunch of spicy, oily Indian cuisine, we began G's quest for the elusive lassi powder. It didn't help that the grocers didn't know how lassi was made, so instead G had to seek advice from an Indian housewife who helpfully explained how lassi is really made. In the end, G gave up her lassi illusions.

Other than exploring the row of shophouses along Serangoon road, we visited two main buildings: Little India Arcade, a tourist-designated bazaar with obviously marked up prices, and Zhujiao Center, that consists of Tekka Market, a wet market selling fresh and cheap produce, and an entire floor selling ornate Indian traditional costumes and other cheap wares. Cheap is really the keyword here at Zhujiao Center.

Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple
Built by Bengali labourers in 1881, this temple dedicated to Goddess Kali is one of the oldest Hindu temples in Singapore. She is known as the Goddess of Power and the name "Veeramakaliamman" means "Kali the Courageous".

For once, I wished I had an Indian friend as a tour guide. Without understanding the motivation and traditions behind every single thing, there was only so much I could gain from this tour.

"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."

For someone who has never explored this area, Little India actually felt uncharacteristically Singapore and instead more like Penang, with its quaint mix of shops selling textiles, jewellery, food, brassware, groceries, music etc.

From colourful flower garlands to the refreshing aroma of jasmine and cheap and fresh produce to bopping bhangra beats, there is so much to see and experience. All you need is an open mind. Now, before you lament how boring our sunny island is, ask yourself if you've seen everything in Singapore.

As we went round a corner, we couldn't help but be enthralled by the variety of Tandoori meats being displayed.

I would say the most authentic Indian experience was G's brief session of eyebrow threading. For just $5, all you ladies can get a quick and painless way to tame your eyebrows. And interestingly, G's eyebrows didn't stay angry and inflamed for more than 10 minutes.

Our afternoon walking tour finally ended with a visit to the sweets and confectionary outlet of Komala Villas. It took us a while before G and I recovered from being dumbstruck by the foreign spread of Indian deserts and tidbits. Once again, we could only point and gesture to procure $5 worth of sweets which we gleefully toted home.

We didn't get to explore the whole of Little India and since my trusty little camera ain't that great, I've added some pics I found over the Web to get a truer sense of the variety of sights.

Interesting Links

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