One of Singapore’s most popular attractions is the bustling area of Little India, which centres on the short stretch of Serangoon Road in the western side of the tiny island nation. Colourful, vibrant and exciting, Little India is one of Singapore’s finest examples of a historic district which has succeeded in being preserved, without losing any of its lively, authentic spirit.
Little India – an experience for ALL the senses
For the first time visitor, Serangoon Road is an all out assault on the senses. Unlike many of Singapore’s other attractions, Little India has a lively buzz to it, which is immediately noticeable. If you’re lucky enough to be there during one of the festivals, you can practically wring the energy out of the excitement-charged air. Right after the almost palpable energy, the next most obvious thing about area is the abundance of colours. Like most of Asia, Little India has a love affair with the paint brush, and a visitor accustomed to the more usual browns, beiges and tans of their buildings ‘back home’ may be shocked by the abundance of pink, purple and green buildings, usually standing next to each other without any colour coordination. Most of the stores boast bright billboards and signs in the beautiful, wiggly scripts of the Indian languages, adding another touch to the riot of colours.
Then there’s that certain smell to the air, which may hit with the strength of a nasal explosion. Visitors more used to the air-conditioned non-smell of the shopping malls can find Little India’s heady combination of incense, spices and perfume a little overwhelming. Little India also launches a full scale attack on the hearing, as the entire area reverberates to the sounds of the latest Bollywood tunes, quite often played at full blast. As you walk down the road, you learn to tune out or even enjoy the cacophony of melodies streaming out from the open doors of the shops and eventually, it becomes the soundtrack of your explorations along Serangoon Road.
What to do in Little India
The Little India area covers only a few blocks of Serangoon Road, so it’s easily explored on foot. Probably the best place to begin is at the Little India Arcade, where you can find handicrafts and other arts and craft items. If such merchandise doesn’t appeal to you, never mind — there are plenty of other stores further along! Just a bit of a walk down is Buffalo Road. If you’re interested, the name of the street refers to the time when the surrounding area was prime cattle-rearing land, populated by immigrants from Calcutta, Madras and Malaya, whose descendants would eventually form the enclave we see today. In this area, you can find shops selling traditional Indian merchandise, from saris to incense to the latest Bollywood flicks.
You can browse the spice stores lined along the road, with their colourful, aromatic wares piled high in barrels or stacked up to the ceiling in packets. If you happen to enjoy curries, you can ask one of the spice sellers to mix together your own little bag of curry powder — guaranteed to be far superior to the stuff that comes out of the grocery store curry packets! If you like gold jewellery then you’re in luck, as every second shop is a goldsmith’s store…well, ok — perhaps not every second store, but jewellery shops are abundant in Little India, and usually filled with a score of people haggling over the prices. Most of the jewellery is made to appeal to Indian tastes, which tends towards intricate floral patterns, so if that strikes your fancy, then shop away!
Moving further along Serangoon, you’ll pass by innumerable shops selling traditional Indian attire, as well as the more usual sundry shops and hardware stores. This is a good place to go if you’ve ever had a hankering to try out the beautiful saris. Be warned though — the sari is a notoriously cumbersome attire to put on, so you might need a helpful shop assistant to give you a hand.
A slight detour to Campbell Road brings you to still more traditional shops, where you can get such items as palm sugar, hand carved Hindu deities and flower garlands. A little further along is the North Indian styled Sri Lakshmi Narayan Temple. Like most places of worship, these temples are the focal points for the local communities, and are usually bustling filled with activity. The temples often host ornate Hindu weddings, and if you’re lucky enough to be there during the ceremony, most people won’t mind if you just come in to watch.
A stroll down Serangoon Road isn’t complete unless you’ve at least stopped for a bit at the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, with its towering façade adorned with the figures of countless deities. A prime example of typical South Indian temple architecture, Little India’s oldest temple dates back to 1881, just a little after the establishment of the enclave which would eventually become Little India. In its time, the temple would have seen the area around it transform from quiet plantations to a flourishing commercial centre for the Indian community. Despite its antiquity however, the temple has kept up with the times and is even modern enough to have a website!
There’s good eatin’ and shoppin’ in Little India
If you’re going to explore the roads shooting off from the main Serangoon Road stretch, then Kerbau Road is a good place to start (incidentally, ‘kerbau’ is the Malay word for buffalo and yes, Singapore has a thing for making historical references in its street names!). This is where you can have a look through the restaurants offering — you guessed it — Indian food. Restaurants such as Gandhi Eating House or Nur Jahan are popular with the locals for the quality of their offerings. The food is cheap, even by Singaporean standards, and even vegetarians will find something delicious to fill their stomachs here.
You can try something simple and light like samosa (pictured above) or go for a full meal. One culinary specialty you might like to try is Fish Head Curry, which is basically what it sounds like, and is eaten with rice and curried vegetables. There’s plenty of meat on the fish head and no, you’re not expected to eat the eyeballs, though some connoisseurs believe the connective tissue behind the eyeballs is the best bit of the whole dish. You can try this dish (or anything else, if you don’t feel particularly daring) at the well-known Apolo Banana Leaf Restaurant, though there are a few other establishments which offer their own take on the popular dish. Incidentally, Little India is one place where it’s assumed you’ll eat in the authentic Indian fashion, i.e., by hand. You can always request for cutlery, but many people think the food tastes better if you eat it by hand, so you might like to give it a go!
You can spend the whole day browsing through the little stores lining the road, but for some really fantastic bargains, you can also try Muhammad Mustafa’s, located at 145 Syed Alwi Road, near the Farrer Park MRT station. This superstore is practically an institution, and is best known for its rock bottom prices on everything from fresh mangoes to upmarket watches. The store not only offers floor after floor of unbelievable bargains, it also does so 24 hours a day; and if that’s not enough to tempt you, then at least the currency exchange counters at the front will give you the best rates you’re likely to get in the whole of Singapore, even for the most obscure currency you’d care to trade.
If electronics is more your thing, then give Sim Lim Square a quick run-through. Though not actually in Little India, being sited at 1 Rochor Canal Road makes it practically across the street, as it were. The hundreds of specialist stores offering computer and consumer electronics at some of the best prices in Asia just cry for some casual browsing. The best deals can be had on the upper floors and the less populated back corridors, though do keep an eye out for pricing tricks and possible cons.
The best time to visit Little India
The best time to explore Little India is early in the morning, before the crowds and the tropical heat make the sidewalks too much of an ordeal. If you can possibly avoid it, don’t go on Sunday evenings, as hundreds of workers employed at the construction sites around the city flock to the area on their day off and transform it into a living example of the perils of overcrowding.
If you’re lucky enough to be around during January or February(depending on the lunar calendar), then you can see Little India at its most exotic best, during the Thaipusam festival. In one of Hinduism’s most spectacular and unnerving celebrations, devotees pierce their cheeks with skewers or attach ornate shrines to their flesh with hooks, and walk in grand processions across the town in this day long event. Despite the gruesomely painful appearances, the devotees claim to feel no pain, and the spectacle of the event is well worth the inevitable crowds.
Another good time to visit is during Deepavali, the Hindu festival of light, usually held in October or November. More of a private celebration than the public show of Thaipusam, this festival still adds an extra air of excitement to Little India, as the roads are festooned with lights and decorations, and open-air markets spring up to sell Deepavali goodies.
Even if you can’t make it during the festivals however, Little India is an exciting place to be, whether you’re there for the sight-seeing, the food or the shopping!