Bounded by Serangoon Road, Sungei Road and Jalan Besar, the Little India Historic District continues to be the heart of Indian community life in Singapore, and still retains its distinct identity. Rich in architecture, culture and history, the area is a feast for the senses. Little India is also well-known for the celebrations of important festivals such as Deepavali and Pongal.
Little India’s main thoroughfare is Serangoon Road, first shown on Lt. Jackson’s 1828 plan of Singapore as “The Road Leading Across the Island”. The road saw rapid settlement along its length, with the cultivation of sireh (betel nut), padi, vegetables and sugar cane. The irrigation needs of the farmers necessitated the cutting off of Rochor Canal in 1836.
The early 1840s saw the completion of the Race Course at what is now Farrer Park. In 1843, the first biannual racing season was held at the Race Course, which became the focus of the European community. It drew some Europeans into establishing residences in the neighbourhood. Dunlop, Cuff, Dickson and Clive Streets all bear the names of the families for whom the streets once served as private access lanes.
Cattle trading had a significant social impact on Little India. As it developed into the main economic activity of the area, it brought about a concentration of Indians and provided opportunities for individuals to amass wealth. Mr I. R. Belilios, a cattle trader, and Mr Desker, who owned the largest slaughter house and butchery, had their names recorded for posterity in the respective street names. Buffalo Road and Kerbau Road (kerbau is Malay for ‘buffalo’), also serve as reminders of cattle trading in the area.
The growth of the Indian population at the beginning of the 20th century generated demand for retail and service activities that catered to their specific ethnic needs. The development of commercial life in newly constructed shophouses eventually led to the decline of the cattle trade. The cattle stables were converted into shophouses for residences and shops. By the 1940s, the area was a commercial-residential community of an ethnically mixed population with a high concentration of Indians.
During the 1960s and 1970s, many Indians living in the area moved out, which left Little India primarily as a commercial centre, catering to Indians island-wide. After the slums were cleared in the 1970s, the area was modernised with the completion of public housing projects in the 1980s such as Zhujiao Centre, Rowell Court and Kerbau Road.
The designs of the shophouses in Little India range from the Early (1840-1900), First Transitional, Late (1900-1940), Second Transitional to Art Deco (1930-1960) styles. Interspersed among them are several religious buildings: Abdul Gaffoor Mosque at Dunlop Street, which was gazetted as a national monument in 1979, Kampong Kapor Methodist Church at Kampong Kapor Road, Shree Lakshminarayan Temple at Chander Road and Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple at Serangoon Road.
The historical value of Little India lies not only in the rich variety of designs of the respective buildings, but also in the urban texture, the streetscapes, the grid of main streets, side roads, backlanes and open spaces. The historic fabric of the late 19th and early 20th century is thus still intact.
The two main streets that run in the north-east and south-west direction to the coastline are Serangoon Road and Jalan Besar. While most of the streets run perpendicular to the main streets, Little India is unique for streets which are skewed at an acute angle, probably because they were originally private roads leading to bungalows off Serangoon Road. This angular skew to the otherwise orthogonal grid is perhaps best exemplified by the tapering shophouse block at Dunlop Street which carves an otherwise rectangular block into two triangular sites. The follow-through to this angle can be seen in the lot demarcation at the site fronting Dickson Road and Clive Street.
The Legacy Little
India was first gazetted as a conservation area on 7 July 1989. To further enhance the heritage character of Little India, additional buildings around Desker Road, Syed Alwi Road and Jalan Besar were conserved on 25 October 1991, 21 January 2008 and 23 November 2010 respectively.
Today, Little India is popular not only with the Indian community, but with people from all walks of life as well as tourists. Traditional businesses such as goldsmiths, eating houses serving Indian delicacies, saree shops and stalls selling garlands and sweets continue to thrive alongside other establishments such as boutiques and souvenir shops. The streets throb with 24-hour activity from the clusters of night-time hangouts, backpacker hostels and late night eateries.
A row of 26 two-storey pre-war Art Deco style shophouses at 48 Serangoon Road were retained and sensitively restored. Their backlanes were transformed into open air passageways linking retail shops on the first storey, retaining the bazaar atmosphere prevalent in the old days. This project received the URA Architectural Heritage Award in 1996.
The once derelict two-storey shophouses of Transitional style at 127, 129 & 130 Serangoon Road were also carefully restored to their former glory, clinching a URA Architectural Heritage Award in 1997.
The Indian Heritage Centre at the junction of Campbell Lane and Clive Street will showcase the history of Singapore’s Indian community when completed.
Little India Historic District, URA
(Click on the above image to view the map in PDF format)
Previous page; Next page; Back to index page