Generous donors made it possible for a 160-year-old temple on Serangoon Road to get its grandest facelift yet.
The Sri Veeramakaliamman temple has undergone repairs and renovations three times since it was built in 1855, but its latest $7-million, two-year effort has transformed the old temple into a glittering attraction, replete with real gold and silver accents.
All the money came from donations, says temple secretary R. Selvakumar, 59.
"Even the gold foil we used for the entrance, the domes and the doorways to the deities' sanctums were all donated.
"A woman from Bangkok, who had visited once, insisted on giving us 100,000 pieces of gold foil - which would cost around $100,000 here - and a local lift mechanic donated nearly 20,000 pieces," he says.
These have given the temple its grander appearance, he adds.
The temple, which reopened this week, was also gazetted for conservation earlier this month by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) under its Master Plan. The building in its current form was built in 1987 for $2.2 million.
While parts of the temple are still covered by scaffolding, the vibrancy of the colours used to repaint the fine details of the deity statues and decorative cement fixtures on the temple's ceiling and facade is not dimmed.
Some of these paints - specific shades of green and orange - had to be brought in specially from India, adds Mr Selvakumar. "These are important colours in the saris of some of the deities and these particular bright shades are not available here," he says.
The temple brought in 12 artists from India to restore and paint the 640 statues and structures, as well as five silversmiths - also from India - to create intricate arches to frame the entrance to several deities' sanctums, many of which were also plated with gold.
The artists' expertise was sorely needed - since the temple's last restoration in 2000, many colours had faded due to Singapore's extreme and fluctuating weather, says Mr Selvakumar.
He adds that crows also often contributed to the wear and tear of many of the temple's ornate statues and structures. "Crows normally break off many of the statues' fingers. And they are quite heavy, so when they sit on the statues, they crack," he says.
From afar, the most striking change is in the temple's height: As part of its facelift, a six-storey building - incorporated into the temple compound - has replaced an older, three-storey one. This has doubled the floor area to around 1,300 sq m.
Almost $5 million of the project's cost went into this new building's construction, says Mr Selvakumar, adding that it was necessary because the temple's congregation was growing and its facilities were being stretched to the limit.
More than 5,000 devotees visit the temple on Sundays while its consecration ceremony last Sunday drew more than 50,000 worshippers. The new building has a refreshment area on the ground floor, a hall for events taking up the second and third floors, administrative offices on the fourth floor, priests' quarters on the fifth floor and a meditation room on the top floor.
Part of the challenge of designing the new building was trying to integrate the modern building as seamlessly as possible with the existing temple, says Mr N. Selvanayagan, principal architect of Space Design Architects, which handled the project.
"We played around with the colour scheme and made it mostly red to blend in with the temple. We also added a temple motif to the windows," he says.
He adds that the building also has groove lines along its sides so it does not look too flat or modern.
The architects were also instructed by the URA not to touch an existing wall that goes around the side of the temple as it is part of the temple that should be conserved. "We couldn't set the building flush against the boundary wall, so we had to offset it by 600mm," says Mr Selvanayagan.
With its renovation, Sri Veeramakaliamman temple is the first Hindu temple in Singapore to have an air-conditioned prayer area and the first to have extensive facilities for devotees in wheelchairs.
Each level of the building has washrooms specially designed for physically handicapped worshippers, while a special mechanical platform - costing $45,000 and imported from Switzerland - has been installed to help devotees in wheelchairs get from the temple's main sanctum to the new building's lift lobby.
The temple also installed anti-slip granite tiles along its uncovered pathways to prevent devotees from slipping.
A spokesman for the URA says the temple's architecture and design has made it "an iconic and familiar sight to many". "Its elaborate and impressive four-tier 'Gopuram' (entrance tower) and striking compound wall in a traditional red and white decorative scheme stand out along Serangoon Road. Intricate and rich carvings, sculptures and paintings adorn the temple throughout," he says.
"Interestingly, the temple has a silver flagpost which symbolises a cosmic flagpost to reach heaven.
"It is one of its kind in Singapore."
This article was first published on June 28, 2014.
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