In the heart of Chinatown, a fortress of celestial custodians stand guard, silently keeping watch. Built in 1827, the Sri Mariamman temple lends a pop of technicolour, flamboyance and culture to the otherwise staid modern skyline. In contrast to the attention-grabbing monument is Mr S. Nallathamby, the practical and unassuming chairman of the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore. Besides heading the temple’s management committee, Mr Nallathamby is also head of the business unit in property management and is highly involved in grassroots work. Here, he shares with us his beginnings and myriad experiences serving at the Sri Mariamman temple.
Mr Nallathamby’s first memories of the Sri Mariamman temple are a sharp contrast to the eye-popping monument it is now.
The Sri Mariamman temple on South Bridge Road in Chinatown, circa 2016. Photo courtesy of Mr Nallathamby
“I used to live very near the temple. I remember the name of the road was Scotts Green Road – it’s now the container port at the Port Authority of Singapore (PSA) – and that was within walking distance from the temple,” he said.
“As a kid, my parents used to bring me to the temple every week. Then as I started going to school, a friend of mine and I used to go to the temple on Fridays in the evenings. It was like a buddy system – we would sit around and pray for a while before going back home. At that time, the temple was not as developed as it is now, and the place was full of sand, so you had kids playing with the sand. There were no elaborate structures – it was a simple temple. That remains very vivid in my mind.”
Mr Nallathamby, 59, only became actively involved in the temple after his university days.
“I only entered the temple scene was because of my wife,” he laughed. “After I got married and was working in the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), my routine was [going to] work, going home, watching television and then sleeping. My wife got annoyed, called a friend of mine, who used to be my university mate and an active community leader, and told him ‘Hey, your buddy is just wasting his time away – can you find something for him to do?’ So that’s when this friend of mine introduced me to the temple management committee. I went there and understudied what the management secretary did – that was in 1990.”
Mr Nallathamby was appointed as secretary of the management committee in 1992 and became secretary of the Hindu Endowments Board two years later. The latter was looking for a civil servant to take on the secretarial role as the previous secretary had passed away. At that point in time, Mr Nallathamby happened to be one of the few available civil servants.
“I continued to be the secretary for a good five years. From then on, somehow or rather, I’ve been connected to the temple,” he said. “After I stepped down from the [Hindu Endowments Board], I became [the temple’s] vice-chairman, and over the last four years, I’ve been serving as the chairman of the temple.”
Mr S. Nallathamby connecting with devotees, circa 2016. Photo courtesy of Mr Nallathamby
Mr Nallathamby’s passion in serving people is evident through his hands-on efforts in working with volunteers to organise community programmes and events. He forms strategic partnerships to support beneficiaries and approaches community work with diplomatic grace, guided by his inherent understanding that it is ultimately people who drive the projects. He is constantly looking out for ways that he can better serve the people.
“I always treat feedback as a gift,” he said. “People tend to take feedback as a complaint. Take feedback as a gift,” he advised.
He spoke readily and honestly about his challenges as temple chairman. When he first joined the temple, the various volunteer groups were not cohesive, held different perspectives and tended to do things on their own without consulting the committee, undermining its leadership. In a bid to revive the spirit of service and bridge communication gaps, Mr Nallathamby first had to galvanise his 15-member committee to make the effort to reach out and win the trust and respect of the volunteers. Over the years, the chasm between them has narrowed.
“When we first went in, we were met with restrictions and objections from some of the volunteer groups, but slowly we managed to win them over,” he related. “And today, I’m proud to say that all the volunteer groups are working with us.”
When asked about the changes in the demographic of devotees over the years, Mr Nallathamby was thoughtful, if not somewhat disappointed at the dwindling number of young devotees and volunteers.
“25 years ago, the congregation was not that big because we had just opened, today it has increased mainly because of migrant workers. The locals are not visiting the temples as much as they used to do. The younger generation today doesn’t believe in going to temples – I’m not sure why,” he said. “Maybe they’re preoccupied with their jobs and studies and they don’t have the time to visit the temple.”
Even with fewer young people volunteering at the temple, Mr Nallathamby remains hopeful.
“When you do such community service, you find a lot of tremendous joy in what you’re doing. The younger generation should do that. Weekends are when you can spend your time doing community service,” he enthused.
Set like a crown jewel between the aptly named Pagoda Street and Temple Street in Chinatown, the Sri Mariamman temple can host up to 500 tourists on normal days. The number of visitors increases during events such as fire-walking and Navarathri (meaning nine nights in Sanskrit) – an impassioned nine-day Hindu festival replete with song and dance in celebration of the Divine Feminine.
What gives Mr Nallathamby immense pride is the admiration tourists express for the temple’s immaculate maintenance. The gem-like brilliance of intricately sculpted deities and equally stunning interiors are a remarkable testament to collective voluntary efforts to preserve the temple. Gazetted as a National Monument in 1973, the temple owes its splendour to the frequent painting by volunteers.
“Typically, a Hindu temple undergoes a re-consecration every 12 years. Every 12 years is when they start painting. However, we do a painting every year. Of course, we can’t climb up the statues and paint – that’s for specialists – but the normal walls and all that, we paint them every year,” he said.
Mr Nallathamby is more than happy to welcome tourists to the temple. He explained, “When I’m a tourist in another country, I always like to visit their monuments, their churches, their mosques. When anyone goes to Turkey, the first thing they’d do is to visit the Blue Mosque, right?”
The temple’s iconic gopuram (entrance tower) back in the 60s. Photo courtesy of Mr Nallathamby
Perhaps most remarkable about the temple’s legacy is not the multitude of elaborate ceremonies or celebrations held there, but rather the quiet moments that occur every day.
“I go to the temple every Friday morning and I always see this young Chinese lady who stands there praying for a good 15 to 20 minutes. I’m impressed and amazed,” he said.
The picture of a Chinese woman praying at a Hindu temple nestled in Chinatown is a testament to the universalism of the human spirit. Quite incredibly, this is not an isolated occurrence and reveals the spirit of the community. Mr Nallathamby recounted a similar story.
“When I was a secretary, many years back, there was a Chinese gentleman who provided lemons for our fire-walking festival – easily about 20,000 to 25,000 lemons. That was 25 years back. Today, his daughter continues to supply all the lemons free of charge,” he said. “She brings them in baskets. It’s a two-week event, so if on the third day we run out of lemons, she would bring another basket of them. She brings the lemons without fail. And I’m so amazed. This is the kind of link that family has.”
It takes a village to keep the temple and its events going. Mr Nallathamby’s leadership is driven by his undeniable faith in the power of community and the recognition of its collective potential. He sees his role purely as administrative, without any religious clout. And it is his practical sensibility that has laid the groundwork for large-scale efficacy. As for spiritual direction, he quipped, “We stand guided by the priests.”
Mr Nallathamby sees his contributions as eventually coming full circle and hopes that building up an involved community would in turn create a sustainable support network that the community can then tap into when needed.
Mr S. Nallathamby during the interview. Photo by Karl Chan
“For instance, for the past three years we have had held an annual Lunar New Year lunch for senior citizens. I find it a very meaningful event; we bring in about 120 seniors and we have lo hei, [and] lion dance. I find joy in doing such community work – you see the smiles on the faces of the people attending,” he said. “And I think, one day I’m going to be like that and I’ll be invited for the Lunar New Year function where I’ll probably be joining my friends and recollecting how when I was younger I was able to organise it. And I’ll probably be enjoying what the younger ones are trying to organise for me.”
He paused when asked about his proudest moment. Then, he wistfully hearkened back to his experience back in 1992, when he organised his first fire-walking festival. “To see over 3,000 participants walking on the fire,” he said, “it felt like the biggest achievement in my life. And that is something that lingers in my mind after all this while.”
As our interview closed, Mr Nallathamby gave us a warm smile as he left for his next appointment, not knowing the indelible imprint on our hearts his infectious enthusiasm for community service had made.
Written by: LY Kang
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign