One of the few unique cultural enclaves in Singapore, Little India is also one of the most vibrant and colourful districts in Singapore.
Indeed, Little India is the heart of Singapore’s 353,000-strong Indian community, which makes up 9.2 percent of our population, according to the Singapore Department of Statistics.
Exploring Little India via the five-foot-way passages presents a spectacle for the senses. Smells of spices fill the air and colourful floral garlands will catch your eyes. Fragrant spices, Indian groceries, jasmine garlands, wood cravings, beautiful saris, and exotic gold jewellery are abundantly found in the stretches of shophouses along Serangoon Road. There are also magazine stalls selling Bollywood tabloids and women’s magazines from India.
This month, the entire stretch of Little India and Serangoon Road are lit to celebrate Deepavali, also known as the ‘Festival of Lights’. Colourful decors based on the various myths from Indian culture line the streets. The dynamic and dazzling night view of Little India during Deepavali festivities will certainly be a memorable experience not to be missed!
The Indian forefathers arrived since the colornal era. One of the Singapore’s first Indian fore founders was Narayana Pillai, who arrived in 1819 along with Sir Stamford Rafﬂes.
By the early 1900s, an Indian community had formed along Serangoon Road, and Cattle traders from India settled in the area in the 1940s. Little India has since continued to attract many of Singapore’s Indian immigrants.
Many streets in Little India bear the names of the famous individuals who once lived in the area. Dunlop Street and Clive Street were named after the European families who once stayed there in the 1840s. Belilios Lane and Belilios Road were named after the Calcuttaborn I.R. Belilios, a famous cattle-trader of the 1840s.
Famous shopping centres in Little India
Tekka Centre is located at 665 Buffalo Road, a road that was named as such because the area was once famous for its cattle slaughterhouses.
Previously known as Kandang Kerbau, Tekka Centre is a famous landmark in Little India. Tekka Centre is a food centre, wet market, and shopping mall rolled in one.
Tekka Centre’s basement holds a wet market that mostly sells fresh-produce. The first level houses the Tekka Centre Food Centre, where you can find stalls selling Indian, Malay, and Chinese food. You can savour Mutton briyani at Yakader Nasi Briyani (#01-259), and try a variety of vegetables, poultry and seafood dough fritters at Haji Johan Temasek India Rojak (#01-254).
On the 2nd level at Tekka Centre, you can find stores selling inexpensive traditional Indian clothes such as lehengas (a combination of a blouse, skirt and a long scarf), priced below $20. You can even find a few Tamil-speaking Chinese stall owners there.
Another of Little India’s most popular shopping centres is Mustafa Centre. Well-known to Singaporeans and tourists, Mustafa Centre is a 24-hour shopping complex located at 145 Syed Alwi Road.
At Mustafa, you can purchase practically everything and anything at near-bargain prices, including luggage bags, electronics, kitchen wares, watches, jewellery, traditional Indian apparel, cosmetics, toys, food and groceries, and souvenirs. Mustafa also provides other services such as VISA processing, and travel booking, and money changers.
Restaurants in Little India
Indian restaurants in Little India cater a variety of rich and flavourful cuisines from North to South Indian. One of the best places to indulge in authentic North and South Indian cuisine is the Banana Leaf Apolo, located at 56/58 Race Course Road.
Some of its signature dishes are fish head curry, chicken tikka masala (Chicken marinated in yogurt and spices), prawn pakora and biryanis served on traditional banana leaves, and you can finish your hearty meal with a refreshing cup of mango lassi (an Indian yogurt-based drink).
If its vegetarian cuisine you are looking for, the Ananda Bhavan Restaurant located at 58 Serangoon Road is one of the most famous Indian vegetarian restaurants in Singapore. Try some light Indian vegetarian dishes like appam (pancake made with rice batter and coconut milk), thosai (crepe made from rice batter and black lentils), naan (oven-baked flatbread), chapati (flat bread made with wheat flour) and puris (deep-fried Indian bread). These Tiffin dishes are served with aromatic gravy and various types of sambar (vegetarian curry).
One of the most interesting restaurants in Little India is the Jungle Tandoor Restaurant situated at 102 Serangoon Road, with its jungle and safari concept. Elephant, birds and giraffe status hang on the restaurant’s exterior, and its interior glows with neon lights, while the ceiling and the walls are decorated with leaves, tree branches, animals, and even Tarzan. The restaurant serves standard North Indian cuisines, including tandoori malasa, tandoori promfert, mutton kebab, Afghanistan chicken, as well as garlic naan and butter naan. The price of a meal starts from $20.
Komala Vilas Sweets and Savouries, located at 82 Serangoon Road, is the shop to visit for Indian sweet treats. The shop sells traditional Indian sweets such as gulab gamun (deep fried, spongy milky balls soaked in rose scented syrup), rava laddu (a sweet ball prepared with rava/semolina, sugar, milk and nuts) and barfi (sweet confectionery made with condensed milk and sugar).
Shopping in Little India
There are many sari shops offering exotic and colourful sari fabric in Little India, such as Haniffa Textiles, situated at 60 Serangoon Road. (Epoch Times Staff)
The sari, or saree, is the traditional dress of women in India. It is a strip of unstitched cloth that is draped over the body in various styles.
Buying new clothes for Indian festivals has always been a tradition, especially for Deepavali. Indian woman traditionally try to dress as beautifully as they can in their saris on Deepavali. Being a festival of light and colours, the saris chosen are typically brightly coloured as well, to celebrate the spirit of the festival, and they are commonly decorated with sequins, beads, and gold and silver threads.
There are many sari shops offering exotic and colourful sari fabric in Little India, such as Haniffa Textiles, situated at 60 Serangoon Road. The shop was crowded with shoppers choosing sari fabrics for the upcoming Deepavali festival when this reporter visited it.
According to one of the shop’s assistants, business at the shop is always extremely good during the festive season.
Sangam Textiles at 140 Dunlop St and Sri Ghanesh Textiles at 100 Serangoon Road offer a wide variety of richly-coloured saris from Japan and India. These textile shops usually provide customised tailoring work as well. A piece of sari can cost anywhere from below $20 up to a few thousands.
Indians love gold, and typically wear them during wedding and traditional festivals.
Indian goldsmiths came to Singapore from the late 1940s, and designed and hand-crafted pieces of gold jewellery that were sold in shophouses around Little India.
One of the more famous jewellery shops in Little India is the Abiraame Jeweller located at 69 Serangoon Road. The shop is a household brand name, and carries all type of gemstones, gold pieces and diamonds. It offers fashionable and traditional Indian jewellery.
GMT Jewellers at 72 Serangoon Road, and Meena Jewellers at 80 Serangoon Road are two well-known jewellery shops in Little India that sell intricate jewellery. Meena Jewellers was founded in 1968, and sells exquisite pieces including necklaces from Kolkata and semi-precious craft from Jaipur. It also supplies temple jewellery that is made to be worn during temple weddings.
Colourful bangles made of metal or plastic can also be found in Little India, for as little as a few dollars. Indians choose bangles to match the colour of their saris. Gold-plated bangles, glass bangles and wedding bangles, as well as chokers, earrings, wedding sets and temple jewellery are put on sale at MKM Costume Jewellery, situated at 165 Dunlop Street.
Though the shop opened just two years ago, business there is good, according to the shop’s supervisor, Rajesh, who is from India. He now has three shop staff working under him. Most of his customers are immigrants from India, but he sees many local Indian customers as well.
Business Then and Now in Little India
Many of the shops in Little India have been around for 2 – 60 years. Most of them are family businesses, passed down from their parents or grandparents who came from India and settled down in Singapore to open businesses.
However, since the opening of Mustafa Shopping Centre, some of these small shops have found it tough to carry on doing business in Little India.
Thandapani Co. Pte Ltd, situated at 124 Dunlop Street, has been in business for 60 years. The shop is a wholesaler and retailer of Indian groceries and spices, and its first owner came from India in 1917.
When asked how Mustafa had affected their business. Mrs Yana, the shop’s owner, said, “No, shopping centres are for those who are into modern culture. Those who want to go there, we cannot stop them. It is for those younger generations. The younger generations want to go to Mustafa because of the air-con there. For traditional shops like ours, we do not change anything.”
Anacaona Private Limited, located at 128 Dunlop Street, has been in business since 1962. The shop purveys a wider range of products such as medicinal products, health and beauty items, prayer items, handicrafts, Indian cosmetics, brass and aluminium utensils, electrical goods, jewellery, flowers for prayer purposes, and wedding decorations.
The shop’s owner, V. Damodharan Pillai, (who says he is better known as Arasu) is a 68-year-old who began helping at the shop when he was just 14. The business was handed down to him from his father, who came from India.
“Now, there are many shops and many competitors. Last time, I was very busy, but now, not very busy. Now customers compare prices because there are many shops. Mustafa is very big business. Yes, it affects my business,” said the congenial businessman.
For Pillai, his business depends mainly on his regular customers. “Some of the customers are tourists, some of the customers are from other areas like Sembawang, Yishun, Jurong, Changi areas,” he said.
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