Religious melting pot in Waterloo St

It is after midday on a Friday and the Sri Krishnan Temple in the Bugis area is closed for the afternoon. But this does not stop a constant stream of Chinese devotees from stopping in front of it, murmuring silent prayers.

Tendrils of incense rise from joss sticks in an urn with the inscription "Waterloo Chicken Rice" in front of the entrance to the Hindu temple, two doors from the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple known to many as the Simalu Guanyin Temple.

Waterloo Street, where the two venerable places of worship meet, is arguably the best showcase of Singapore's religious melting pot. The main deity at one temple is Guanyin or the Goddess of Mercy, while Krishnan, a god known to destroy evil and spread love, watches over the other.

But devotees of one temple spill over to the other; the area overflows with fortune tellers, sellers of fresh chrysanthemum and lotus flowers, and cheerful refrains of "Miss, do you want to buy flowers?"

"The area in Waterloo Street epitomises the multi-religious aspect of Singapore," said local urban historian Lai Chee Kien.

He said Hinduism and Buddhism have multiple deities and many similarities, and it is not unusual for some devotees to practise rituals across both religions.

Close proximity of religious buildings can also encourage cross-worshipping, he added.

"There is that symbiotic relationship," he said.

Benefiting from the popularity of Waterloo Street as a religious destination is Madam Catherine Teo, 60, who inherited the flower business started by her grandmother. Her earnings have enabled her to put her five children through university, she said.

She sells chrysanthemums, lotus flowers and orchids to Taoists and Buddhists, and plastic jasmine flowers to Hindus.

She is there rain or shine. "When it rains, my shop stays open, and I use my umbrella to keep my flowers from getting ruined."

The future looks sunny for both temples.

The 144-year-old Sri Krishnan Temple was recognised for its social significance and gazetted for conservation in June.

It started as a shrine built by a wealthy merchant for the deity Krishnan at the foot of a banyan tree in Waterloo Street in 1870.

Now, it has an ornate tower and a five-storey ancillary block with a multi-purpose hall.

As for the 130-year-old Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple, it has been receiving more young people and professionals, said Dr Tan Choon Kim, 74, chairman of its board of trustees.

"More and more people are coming to pray," he said, adding that they include a small number of Caucasians.

Many visit the temples on the first and 15th day of each month in the Tamil and Lunar calendars as they mark the new and full moon. The dates often coincide.

Mr Joseph Lim, 39, a project manager with three children, aged 11 months to eight years, usually visits at around 5am on the first and 15th of every month.

"I used to go with my whole family, but now I just go with my dad. It is like a tradition for us," said Mr Lim, who has been visiting the temple since he was six.

However the moon waxes or wanes, both places have no lack of daily visitors. The Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple is almost always packed; Sri Krishnan Temple too gets regular Hindu devotees and passers-by.

"We have devotees who have been coming here for 60 to 70 years. But, in general these days, worship has become all about convenience," said Mr Sivaraman Pakirisamy, 65, chairman of the board of trustees, who has been in charge since the death of his father V. Pakirisamy Pillai in 1984.

"We have our regulars who pass by on their way to work and we have a good spot with several arts schools in the area." Around 250 to 300 people visit the temple on weekdays and 500 to 1,000 people on weekends.

Mr Dileepprasannan Thoppil visits the temple every Sunday as his daughter, eight, attends classes at Stamford Arts Centre nearby. He goes with his wife and three-year-old son.

The 38-year-old lead systems analyst said: "We have been going pretty regularly and the priests there know us by name. I go to the temple to meditate, be refreshed and feel at peace."

While he does not pray next door, he said: "I think it is good that people go to both temples, as long as they get peace of mind." Retired businessman Chua Hak Heng, 68, who visits the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple once a week, usually prays at the Sri Krishnan Temple too.

He said: "I pay my respects to Guanyin first and then to the Hindu deities. I make donations to both temples too. Since I am in the area, why not?"


When it rains, my shop stays open and I use my umbrella to keep my flowers from getting ruined. - Madam Catherine Teo, who inherited the family flower business started by her grandmother

This article was first published on Aug 15, 2014.
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