Known as one of the first Tamil men to set foot in Singapore, Naraina Pillai made his mark in history with the construction of the Sri Mariamman Temple that still stands today.
Before Naraina Pillai arrived on our shores, he was working as a government clerk in British-ruled Penang. It was then that he crossed paths with Stamford Raffles, who was a senior official at the British East India Company. Today, we recognise Raffles as the founding father of modern Singapore.
In 1819, Pillai was attracted by Raffles' ideals of Singapore as a new settlement. Thus, when Raffles embarked on his second visit to Singapore, Pillai went along with him. They travelled on the Indiana, where the only other Indians aboard the ship were soldiers.
Upon arriving in Singapore, Pillai quickly realised that life had to begin from scratch. He got a job as a chief clerk in the colonial treasury, or shroff, but left when the Resident's shroff from Melaka arrived.
The Birth of a Tradesman
Observing the rapid rate of houses being built on a new and developing settlement, Pillai saw a business opportunity. He set up a brick kiln by Mount Erskine (now Tanjong Pagar), and wrote to his friends in Penang for bricklayers, carpenters, and cloth merchants. This made him the first recorded Indian brick business owner and first Indian contractor in Singapore.
Pillai's entrepreneurship ventures did not stop there. He also entered the cotton goods trade, selling textile at Cross Street. His business quickly became the largest and best known in town, as the arrival of British merchants helped it flourish.
Unfortunately, his bazaar was burnt to the ground in 1822. This landed him onto a great amount of debt with the British merchants, who gave him five years to repay what he owed them.
Pillai sought help from the man he had first arrived in Singapore with – Raffles. Raffles gave him a section of prime land in Commercial Square (now Raffles Place), he erected new warehouses and rebuilt his businesses from scratch. He managed to repay his debts in time.
Leader of the Community
Besides his business ventures, Pillai also harboured a vision to serve the growing Hindu community here. Once business had stabilised, he decided to focus on building a Hindu temple.
However, he encountered some difficulties while searching for a suitable site for the temple. The first two plots of land were rejected due to fresh water or administrative issues. But third time's a charm for Pillai, who finally managed to find one at South Bridge Road in 1823. By 1827, the Sri Mariamman Temple was built.
The Sri Mariamman Temple in 1905. Photo from the Lim Kheng Chye Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.
Apart from building a temple, Pillai also wanted to open a Hindu institute to educate young boys. Unfortunately, this vision did not materialise. Nevertheless, his efforts had gained him recognition amongst the Tamils, leading the British to appoint him as chief of Indians from Cholamandalaman. Being chief gave him the authority to settle disputes within the Indian community.
Remembering a Pioneer
As one of the Indian pioneers of Singapore, Naraina Pillai's name cannot be forgotten. Today, his contributions are commemorated in a number of places.
Sri Mariamman Temple today
The Sri Mariamman Temple still stands proudly in its original location today and has been gazetted as a National Monument. In 1843, the temple was enlarged when Indian landowner Seshalam Pillai gave some of his land. A new sheltered walkway between the entrance tower and main building also replaced the former attap-covered walkway.
Today, the Sri Mariamman Temple is not just a place of worship. It also served as a refuge and shelter for Indian immigrants before they found accommodation and started work. Traditional Hindu weddings also continue to take place there.
In 1957, Pillai Road was officially named to commemorate Naraina Pillai as the first Indian to set foot in Singapore.
Pillai's story is now also commemorated at the Indian Heritage Centre and can be found on other historical articles and resources.