The Forbidden Hill

20 12 2009

A walk around Fort Canning Hill with two of my schoolmates from SJI on a quiet Sunday evening brought back memories of the Fort Canning Hill of that many of us were fond of wandering around as schoolboys back when we attended SJI in the late 1970s. The hill for many of us then, was shrouded in much mystery, as it had been when it was once referred to as “Bukit Larangan” or Forbidden Hill by the locals at the time of the arrival of the British to Singapore. The locals believed the hill to be haunted, being the burial ground of the former kings of what was once Temasek. We sometimes also went to Fort Canning Hill for our Physical Education (P.E.) lessons – the shady tracks on the hill and the gentle slopes were ideal for cross country practice.

As schoolboys in SJI, we sometimes went to Fort Canning for a jog for P.E. (Physical Education)

The British perhaps made the hill a little less mysterious, with the hill being referred to as Government Hill with the establishment of Government House on the hill in 1822, the same year Sir Stamford Raffles built his residence on the southern slope of the hill.  Its current name, Fort Canning Hill, comes from the fort that was established at the site of Government House (which was demolished to make way for the fort), in 1859. The fort was named after Viscount Charles John Canning, the Governor-General of India at that time and its first Viceroy.

Much of the mystery that surrounded the hill for us schoolboys had to do with the stories we had heard of the spirits of the inhabitants of the cemeteries that had existed, haunting the hill. There was of course the Keramat Iskandar Shah, purportedly the tomb of Raja Iskandar Shah, the last king of Singapore who ruled in the 14th Century, located on the eastern slope, to add further mystery. It could have been due to an overactive imagination, but somehow we always felt like we were being watched whenever we walked passed the Keramat. The fascination we had for some of the strange structures and features we discovered on our trips around the hill also added to the mystery: walls with gravestones, a cluster of tombstones nestled in a corner, two Cupolas, a solitary Gate at the top of the hill …

The Keramat Iskandar Shah with a roof erected over it. Back then when we were schoolboys, the Keramat was not covered.

Starting our walk from the escalators beside the National Museum, we were reminded of the red bricked National Library building that once stood there next to the Museum building, and the little shed next to it which housed a Wonton noodle stall that many of would frequent for lunch when we were bored of the food at the Sarabat stalls along Waterloo Street, or at the coffee shop along Victoria Street close to the junction with Bras Basah Road we used to refer to as “Smokey”.

The view from Fort Canning Hill over the area where the National Library used to stand, over to what is now the SMU, which sits on what used to be the SJI school field ...

Next we came to the grounds of a former Christian cemetery, now the Fort Canning Green, with the cluster of tombstones standing in the northeast corner. Fort Canning Green, bounded by the Fort Canning Centre at the top of the slope, and the Gothic gates and walls on two sides on which had the tablets of the gravestones that once stood embedded into them, is these days a popular venue for open air concerts, looks very much as it did in the 1970s, except for the immaculately groomed lawn where there was once an unkempt field of overgrown grass. The Cupolas designed by George Coleman still stand proudly close to the southwest corner, as it did back then.

The reverse side of the Gothic Gate which served as the entrance to the Christian Cemetery

Tablets of gravestones embedded in the wall of Fort Canning Green

Gravestones that still stand in the northeast corner of Fort Canning Green

The immaculate lawn of Fort Canning Green today

Fort Canning Centre and George Coleman's Cupolas on Fort Canning Green

Fort Canning Centre, a magnificently grand building that served as a barracks for the British Army stands at the top of the slope of Fort Canning Green. The building is used as a dance centre housed squash courts where there are now dance studios, as a squash centre back in the days when squash was one of the most popular sports and when Singapore dominated the regional squash scene.

Fort Canning Centre was a Squash Centre in the late 1970s

Further up near the top of the hill, just by the summit where there is a covered reservoir, Fort Canning Gate with its two sets of heavy doors, stands as it did in the 1970s. The top of the gate is still accessible through an iron gate and a narrow flight of stairs as it was back then. It is of course much cleaner now, smelling a lot less foul than it did when we were scrambling around in the all whites of our school uniform. Where the clearing adjacent where the gate is, is now stands, there was a cemented skating rink where some of us would come with our skateboards. Skateboards were thought of as a public nuisance then and were banned from use in most public places then.

The clearing where there was once a skating rink

Fort Canning Gate

The heavy doors of Fort Canning Gate

The narrow stairway to the top of Fort Canning Gate

The walk around also took us to the area where maybe as schoolboys we frequented less – the western slope along Clemenceau Avenue, where we sometimes encountered schoolboys from a rival school, and the southern side, where Raffles had his residence and where the Fort Canning Lighthouse stands. This brought us back to the eastern slope, where the Spice Garden is located, as well as where the Archaeological Excavation Site from which artefacts from the 14th Century have been uncovered – not that we knew anything about it back when we were in school, near the area where the Keramat is, and back to Fort Canning Green.

Fort Canning Light - A lighthouse on Fort Canning Hill

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13 responses

7 02 2010
Erik

Next to the skating rink on the summit, there used to be a structure that seemed to be some kind of guardhouse commonly found in many old local army camps.

8 02 2010
The wondering wanderer

The “guardhouse” you mentioned must be the Old Married Soldier’s Quarters which is still there.

18 02 2010
25 02 2010
The far side of the hill « The Long and Winding Road

[...] far side of the hill 25 02 2010 The far side of Fort Canning Hill, as far as the schoolboys from SJI were concerned, was the area where the southern and western [...]

31 08 2010
Frankie

Liang Court Area used to be called “Wan Keh Sua Khar” – Foot of Government Hill.

31 08 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks for the info Frankie! :)

25 01 2011
Ayumiko

I thought the Forbidden Hill is once Sang Nila Utama’s Palace? Just asking. Cause I am doing so project work of this……… Sorry if I am wrong because I don’t know any of the Singapore History.

26 01 2011
The wondering wanderer

Yes you are right. It is thought that Sang Nila Utama built his palace on what became to be known as Bukit Larangan or Forbidden Hill, and that the hill was “forbidden” as it was the abode of the kings.

26 01 2011
Ayumiko

So I was not wrong? Haha thanks the wondering wanderer because I came from Japan I am going back there next month miss singapore.

3 02 2011
The wondering wanderer

Have you been in Singapore long? I am glad you like Singapore! Have a good trip home! :)

30 07 2011
courtney

i have seen many graveyards but yesterday i was in loch ness and we where going home from camping and we saw a graveyard and we stopt and whent in and we had a look and there was this wall with grave stones on it and wone of them somebody got there head chopped off and then there was skills on it and we did not now what that meant and there was a grave stone that hade 3 bolets in it from when a man on his hors hade bred and a little boy took wone and gave it to a dog and it tard it up and there was people at a fruniral and the man sot 3 butets up in the sky and it hut the grave for a reminder of that day

26 11 2011
Terence

Jerome,
Great photos and write-up. They certainly bring back memories. I attended Anglo-Chinese Pri and have fond recollections of Fort Canning Hill in its wilder, less pristine, days. We were brought there for PE (football on the slopes), science (to look at wind-dispersed fruits and seeds) and of course, social studies. I’ve written something that might interest you – a fantasy epic inspired by the legends surrounding Bukit Larangan. The book will be released in March next year, but do visit my FB site (http://www.facebook.com/forbiddenhill) in the meantime.
Cheers,
Terence

18 12 2011
Dee

Great photos, information etc.. Well done. Any idea where the keramat has gone to and when? Just curious.. Our keramats are slowly disappearing.
History gone.. :(

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