Pagoda Street’s pagoda was probably not the Sri Mariamman Temple’s gopuram

23 07 2021

One of the fascinating things about the streets of Singapore is the stories that are attached to how they were named, either colloquially or officially. One example is Pagoda Street, along which a pagoda — at least in the modern sense of the word — seems quite conspicuously absent.

While is certainly puzzling to Singapore’s visitors, we in Singapore have been schooled to hold the belief that the pagoda in question is the gopuram of the Sri Mariamman temple, Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple. Depending on how creatively this story is told, the temple’s prominent located gopuram at the corner of South Bridge Road and Pagoda Street, might have been mistaken by the common folk as a pagoda or for the want of a better description, identified as one. Whatever the story may have been, they all seem to have ignored the fact that the word “pagoda” in the context of the early 19th century when the street got its name, was one that was in use in the English language in making reference to both Hindu and Buddhist temples in India and in Southeast Asia.

The gopuram of the Sri Mariamman Temple

Historically, the use of the term “pagoda” is quite interesting. Its origins as many would have it is said to lie in the Persian word “butkada”, which is said to translate into “temple of idols”. There are also strong suggestions that it may instead have been derived from Chinese, or at least the Chinese dialects — some would argue, languages — that were in use in the past. The combination of Chinese words describing a “tower of bones of the dead” (白骨塔) or literally “white-bone tower”, is often cited as a possible source of the word, or even “octagonal tower” (八角塔) or literally “eight-cornered tower”. Both combinations, when said in one or several commonly spoken southern Chinese dialects, are similar sounding to the pronunciation of “pagoda” in the English language.

A Chinese-styled pagoda at Haw Par Villa (a personal photograph from November 1976). One suggestion is that the origin of the word “pagoda” is Chinese. The word “pagode” was however already in use in the 16th Century in Portuguese India to describe Hindu and Buddhist temples.

Interestingly, the Portuguese version of the word, “pagode”, was already in use as early as the early 16th century, during a time when Portugal established its presence in India after Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a hitherto elusive sea route from Europe to the subcontinent. The word was utilised to describe the Indian temple complexes, both Hindu and Buddhist, that fascinated the Portuguese and the Europeans that were to follow. One example of this use was in the descriptions of the rock-cut Buddhist temple complex on Salsette Island near Mumbai or as it would have been called by the Portuguese, Bom Bahia. The complex came to be known as “Pagode de Canarim” (also”Pagoda de Canarin”), which the British would later name “Canari Pagoda”. The word “pagode” in the English form would also come also to be widely used, as is evidenced through official accounts, literature and correspondence through the 17th to 19th centuries, to describe either a Hindu or Buddhist temple and in some cases, even a mosque. There is in fact a description of the Sri Mariamman Temple, on a 1846 sketch made by John Turnbull Thomson of the temple and the Jamae Chulia Mosque on South Bridge Road, that does refer to the Sri Mariamman Temple as a “Hindoo Pagoda”. The mosque is referred to in the same description as a “Kling Mosque”.

“View in Singapore town; Hindoo Pagoda; Kling Mosque”; 1846
Thomson, John Turnbull, ourheritage.ac.nz

Descriptions of Hindu temples as “Hindoo pagodas”, were in fact used rather widely in English accounts of explorations and travels of the 19th and early 20th century. It therefore is quite probable that Pagoda Street was named, not because of Sri Mariamman Temple’s gopruam having erroneously been looked upon as a pagoda, but the Sri Mariamman Temple in whole, was to the English speakers of the day a “Hindoo pagoda”.

The Sri Mariamman, which is Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple, seen here during the Navaratri festival in 2015, would probably have been thought of as a “Hindoo pagoda”. The term was used in 19th century English to describe Hindu temples.
Sri Mariamman Temple’s gopuram, seen above the rooftops of the streets of Chinatown.

Various illustrations of “pagodas” found in India in 19th century Portuguese and English literature

An illustration of a Hindu temple in the Damāo Pequeno north of Mumbai in “A India Portugueza” published in 1886.
Another illustration of an Indian temple complex, named “Pagode de Chandrenate” in “A India Portugueza”.
A Hindu temple described as a “Hindoo Pagoda” in an illustration found in “India, historical and descriptive: revised and enlarged from “Les Voyages Celebres” with an account of the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857-8, published in 1876.





A reflection of Niven Road

14 08 2013

One of my favourite roads to walk down in Singapore has to be Niven Road. A fairly quiet street found off a fairly busy Selegie Road and at the foot of Mount Sophia and Mount Emily, it is one dominated but a beautiful row of conservation two-storey pre-war shophouses, several of which are still with the once fashionable pintu pagar (swinging bar doors). The street is also one which is very much associated with the Sikhs – a Sikh temple, the three-storey Khalsa Dharmak Sabha is found at its southern end, having been built on land on which a two storey temple was constructed in 1936. The street is one named after the first superintendent of the Botanic Gardens, Lawrence Niven, who served from 1860 to 1875, having been the supervisor of a adjacent nutmeg plantation (Niven was the man responsible for giving us much of the garden’s layout which is still intact today). The street is one which also does connect me with a time forgotten – one of the business found on the street is K. Ratna Sports – a sporting goods shop which was located at Bencoolen Street up to the early 1980s. It was one I always looked out for from as I passed on the bus on the way to school at Bras Basah Road.

JeromeLim NovenRoad IMG_3838