Pongal in the Village of Lime

16 01 2012

An area in Singapore I find myself from time to time wandering in is the area that is referred to as Little India today. It is an area full of life and awash with colour, one that over time, has be successful in retaining its ethnic flavour in a way that the other ethnic districts on the island have not be able to. The area is one that has developed from its early days as a southern Indian settlement that had been established along Serangoon Road. It was an area referred to as “Soonambu Kambam” or “The Village of Lime”, an area that during my childhood drew many from all over Singapore. The old market, Tekka, had been the main draw with the hard-to-find range of spices and exotic ingredients, as well as a fine collection of mutton butchers that were available. It was in accompanying my mother to Tekka that provided me with an introduction to the area which developed into a fascination for it. That would have been more than four decades ago, when Singapore had been a very different place. Time has since made its mark on the area – that old Tekka market set has since been pulled down with the market moving right across Serangoon Road. It is not this incarnation of the old that now draws visitors to the area, but perhaps a new market that now pulls the crowds in. The new comes in the form of Mustafa – a departmental store whose reputation has spread far and wide attracting many in search of a bargain crowding its narrow passageways.

A reflection off a discarded mirror in a back lane. A walk through the Village of Lime does allow for reflection through the windows it provides to the past.

The former Tekka market (with the red roof tiles) was a big draw for many in Singapore (the former Kandang Kerbau Police Station can be seen across Serangoon Road from the old Tekka market) (photo source: National Archives of Singapore).

It is not the old nor the new market that I seek when I visit the area, but it is for the area as it still is today. Despite the encroachment of non traditional businesses – the rag-and-bone trade, budget lodgings, non traditional cafes and watering holes, the soul of the area as it was has still very much been left intact, becoming very much a focal point for many more – the new immigrants and transient workers, who seek the comfort it offers them of a home away from home.

I am drawn to the area by what it still is today.

The Village of Lime is today one that exhibits many moods, moods that are influenced by the time of day, the day of the week, and also the time of the year. The brightest moods are ones seen during the many Hindu festivals – celebrated maybe less boisterously than in the days of old, but one that still adds a flavour that only the area can have. The festivals bring much colour and activity, whether it is the lights and crowds that the lead up to the festival of lights, Deepavali, brings; the noisy street procession during which an extreme act of faith and devotion – the carrying of a Kavadi during Thaipusam is seen; or the four day harvest festival, Pongal, celebrated at this time of the year. Sundays also bring with it a somewhat festive mood, when crowds of transient workers on their precious days off throng the streets and open spaces to escape from the monotony that the long work hours and the stifling confines of their crowded and far-away dormitories bring, creating a new buzz on the streets in the area.

Floral garlands at this year's Pongal bazaar - festivals bring much colour and buzz to the streets of today's Little India.

The Pongal bazaar along Campbell Lane.

Wandering around over the weekend had the added bonus of the Pongal bazaar at Campbell Lane in the lead up to this year’s Pongal celebrations. It is during the lead up and during the four day celebrations that Campbell Lane bursts to life, being where the main festivities are held. This attracts many to the stalls at the bazaar where much of what is needed is to be found – colourful floral garlands, clay and steel pots, and stalks of purple sugarcane and more. The hub for the festivities is a marquee a corner of which an enclosure has been set up to hold cows and goats – a rare sight in urban Singapore, to be honoured during the festival. To get the best feel of the festivities and to soak the atmosphere up, it is best that Campbell Lane is visited during the evenings, when the streets are also lighted up for to celebrate Pongal.

Stalks of purple sugarcane during Pongal.

Cows are honoured during the harvest festival.

A cow is milked at the Pongal celebrations.

Clay pots, decorated with painted mango leaves on sale - new clay pots are used to cook pongal - sweetened rice cooked in milk, as offerings for Pongal.

Steel pots on sale.

Ginger on sale.

Even in the absence of a festival which does change the mood of the place, much of the area’s charm can still be discovered. Best seen on foot, the streets around are littered with colourful double storey pre-war shophouses and is awash in colour. Even when, as I did, one wanders in the relative calm of the morning, there is no shortage of colour on the streets. Sundry shops found around the Dunlop Street area with their displays of fruits and vegetables are ones that immediately catch one’s attention and are ones that shouldn’t be missed.

Having a cup of tea on a five-foot-way outside a cafe.

Onions and potatoes on sale at a sundry shop - essential ingredients in southern Indian cooking.

Gourds on sale.

Wandering around the area and getting lost in the maze of colour is certainly not without reward. There is an astonishing number of places in which the appetite worked up walking around can easily be satisfied (not that anyone needs that excuse for that). And even when satisfying one’s food cravings isn’t on the agenda, it must really be difficult to resist the calling from that nice heartwarming cup of Masala Tea …

A lady dressed in the traditional sari, shops along Dunlop Street.

A lady carrying a young child at a sundry shop.

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