Your Introduction to Singapore’s Little India
The Indian Heritage Center (IHC), managed by the National Heritage Board in Singapore, is a wealth of information about Singapore’s Indian history. Organized as a museum, the center includes art, history, culture, and religion under one roof. Before exploring all that Little India has to offer, I stopped here to get a deeper understanding of the importance of the Indian community to Singapore’s past and present.
The exterior of the IHC as seen from Clive Street.
The IHC building is located at 5 Campbell Lane in Singapore’s Little India precinct. The building itself is iconic, blending both traditional and modern architecture into a single, sustainable concept. The building’s facade design is inspired by the Indian stepwall (baoli), but its sleek, glass exterior gives the IHC a modern feel.
The IHC consists of two permanent exhibits (5 galleries) on floors 3 and 4 and a rotating exhibit on floor 2. Check in at the Visitor Service Counter just inside the main entrance to purchase your ticket. I recommend that you start at the top floor and work your way back to ground level, because the galleries are arranged chronologically, and this route will ensure that you start at the beginning. The exhibitions include artifacts, works of art, and interactive exhibits to convey the history of the Indian community in Singapore and its interactions in South and Southeast Asia (primarily in Singapore and Malaya) through present-day.
The entry to the exhibitions housed within the IHC. It makes a great background for photos!
Guided tours are free and last 60 minutes. The availability of these tours depends on the language in which the tour is conducted. English tours are conducted daily: 12 pm on weekdays and 2 pm on weekends. Tamil tours are conducted on the first Saturday of the month at 3 pm, while Mandarin tours are conducted on the second Saturday of the month at 2:30 pm. Plan your visit accordingly! I chose not to take a tour because:
- I didn’t know they were available and arrived at the wrong time; and
- I’m not partial to guided tours. I like to take things at my own pace and focus on what interests me most rather than on what the tour guide finds most important.
With that being said, you should definitely take a tour if you’re interested in information beyond what the exhibits have to offer!
Early Contact: Interactions Between South and Southeast Asia
Level 4: 1st Century CE – 19th Century
This is the first gallery in the IHC, and it begins with a colorful wall just outside the elevator on the fourth floor. This gallery outlines the early interactions between South and Southeast Asian peoples. You can seen the various religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity) practiced by the people, as well as the outcome of trade interactions within the region. This gallery hosts a collection of religious statues, traditional clothing, artwork, and more.
Left: Statues of Hindu deities. Right: Traditional wayang (Malayan puppets).
As you first enter the gallery, you’ll see a multitude of religious statues, figurines and traditional artwork dating back to the 1st century CE. I’ve always had a strong interest in the history and mythology of Hinduism and Buddhism, so I really appreciated these exhibits. Some pieces, such as the traditional wayang (puppets, often made from wood or buffalo skin depending upon the region of origin), don’t relate directly to a religion, but demonstrate old art forms that are still practiced in southeast Asia today.
Roots and Routes: Origins and Migration
Level 4: 19th – 21st Centuries
This gallery is all about migration: Where did early Singaporeans come from and why did they choose to move? Was this migration voluntary or out of necessity? How did early migrants adapt and blend their traditions with those of local cultures? You’ll find answers to these questions and more in this gallery.
Left: Traditional Indian clothing. Right: One of the interactive exhibits in this gallery.
Traditional Indian clothing is included in this exhibit, as clothing is central to a region’s culture and its “roots.” You can see pieces from varying levels of prosperity and poverty and understand the importance of color and fabric choice in the clothing. There is an interactive exhibit here which allows you to try on traditional Indian headpieces. Don’t forget to take a selfie, like I did, as is suggested by the exhibit! Also included in the “roots” section of this gallery are rites of passage and traditions, religious customs, and language.
The second half of this gallery showcases the importance of “routes.” This section documents the journeys that early migrants had to take in order to reach the port of Singapore from the villages and cities of their homeland. The trip from India had to be done by sea, crossing the Bay of Bengal into the Malacca Strait, between the island of Sumatra and mainland Malaysia.
Pioneers: Early Indians in Singapore and Malaya
Level 3: 19th – Mid-20th Centuries
This gallery focuses on the trades and businesses of the early Singaporean pioneers. Learn about trades, especially those of the Indian community, practiced by people from all positions within that community. You can explore the lives of Indians from all walks of life, from professionals and skilled tradesman all the way down to prisoners.
Two of the several exhibits highlighting the various trades of the Indian community.
In addition to highlighting the people themselves, this gallery also explains the importance of early institutions in the pioneer days. Investigate Tamil schools, religious buildings, monuments, and community organizations in Singapore through the eyes of the Indian community. I most enjoyed the segments about artisans and artists!
Social and Political Awakening of Indians in Singapore and Malaya
Level 3: Mid-20th Century
Set in the mid-20th century, this gallery focuses on nationalist movements and anti-colonialism. Prominent figures, such as Mahatma Gandhi, are highlighted here. You can also learn about the impact of WWII on the Indian community in Singapore/Malaya, as well as the impact of social reform on Indian communities in those regions. Learn about important political figures from Singapore and beyond and how their contributions helped to shape a nation. This section was interesting to me because it highlighted important persons and events in history with which I was not necessarily familiar.
A bust of Gandhi housed in the fourth gallery.
Making of the Nation: Contributions of Indians in Singapore
Level 3: Late 1950s – Present
This gallery is the shortest and the smallest of all the galleries in the permanent exhibition at the IHC. This final section highlights the prominent figures in the shaping of current-day Singapore in a colorful wall of portraits. Cross-cultural efforts are showcased here, and these last exhibits explore how the Indian community continues to play an important role in the evolution of Singapore as a nation.
Special Exhibition: From the Coromandel Coast to the Straits
Level 2: Revisiting Our Tamil Heritage
The special exhibition in the second-floor gallery showcases the Tamil heritage of many in Singapore’s Indian community to honor the 200th anniversary of Tamils in Singapore. This exhibition features the narratives of many current-day Tamils in Singapore and showcases their experiences from the 11th century until present day.
The first part of the exhibit is a film titled The Odyssey of Tamils – watch as much or as little of the film as you’d like. Next, learn about Tamils in 19th-century Singapore through the art and artifacts on display. Explore the diverse Tamil communities in Singapore through the lens of trade; learn about laborers, financiers, merchants, militiamen, and more. This exhibition sheds light on the stories of Tamil families in Singapore that, until now, have remained largely untold.
As you pass further into the exhibit, you can choose to listen to the personal accounts of Singaporean Tamils scattered between the art pieces. Some recount personal stories, while others speak on behalf of friends and family. There are also several impressive art installations in this gallery, so be sure to take a moment to appreciate them. As an art lover, I felt that this was my favorite segment of the special exhibition.
Some of the art pieces on display in the special exhibit.
Once you’ve finished your journey through the exhibits, stop again downstairs and pick up a map of the Little India Heritage Trail so that you can get up close and personal with the religious sites, authentic food, and traditional shopping throughout Little India. I’ve included suggested routes through the precinct in the link below, but I chose to make my own path. Stay safe and happy learning!
Opening Hours (as of February 2020)
Tuesday – Thursday: 10am – 7pm
Friday – Saturday: 10am – 8pm
Sundays/Holidays: 10am – 4pm
Singaporean Residents: Free
Seniors (60 years and older): S$5
Students (with valid ID): S$5
Children (6 years and younger): Free
Getting Here and Away
Address: 5 Campbell Lane, Singapore 209924
Serangoon Road (Stop #07031): Buses 23, 64, 65, 66, 67, 131, 139, 147, 857
Sungei Road (Stop #07539): Buses 48, 56, 57, 131, 960, 980
Little India MRT Station (NE7): Choose Exit E and travel south on Bukit Timah Road to Serangoon Road
Rochor MRT Station (DT13): Choose Exit B and travel north on Bukit Timah Road to Serangoon Road
BY CAR/TAXI/PRIVATE VEHICLE
The closet drop-off point is on Clive Street. The closest parking is located at Tekka Market (basement parking garage) or Dickinson Road.