Little India

Singapore Infopedia


As its name suggests, Little India is the heart of Singapore’s Indian community. Bordered by Selegie Road and Lavender Street, Little India’s main stretch of commercial activity can be found along Serangoon Road, which was labelled “Road leading across the Island” on Philip Jackson’s map of Singapore town published in 1828.1 Several streets in Little India bear the names of personalities who once lived in the area. For instance, Dunlop Street and Clive Street were named after notable European families who stayed in the area during the early 1840s.2 The Calcutta-born I. R. Belilios, who became known for cattle trading from the 1840s onwards, gave his name to Belilios Lane and Belilios Road.3

Early beginnings
In the early 1840s, Little India thrived as a residential enclave for the Europeans following the completion of the race course, which became a focal point for this community.4 Since the first two-day race on 23 and 25 February 1843, Europeans began congregating at what is now Farrer Park.5 At the same time, cattle trading in Little India began to blossom due to its location along the Serangoon River. Belilios was among those whose cattle business flourished.6 Several road names in the district today, such as Buffalo Road and Kerbau Road (kerbau is Malay for “buffalo”), reflect the area’s history.7

The booming cattle trade also led to the emergence of related economic activities. Besides being sources of meat and milk, cattle were also used to pull bullock carts, a popular mode of transportation in Singapore during the early 19th century. Consequently, this led to the rise of activities such as wheat grinding and pineapple preservation.8

Cattle trading was a predominantly Indian trade, and many Indians at the time inhabited and worked in Little India. Bosses such as Belilios employed mostly Indian migrant workers.9 By the end of the 19th century, other Indian immigrants arrived in the district. Unlike their predecessors, they hoped to make their fortunes in other businesses besides cattle trading. As the Indian community continued to grow, a corresponding demand for goods and services that could cater to their specific needs rose.10

There was also a demand for places of worship.11 The Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple at 141 Serangoon Road was built in 1855.12 Also constructed that same year was the Narasinga Perumal Kovil (now known as the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple), located between Race Course Road and Serangoon Road.13 Adding to the diversity of the social and physical landscape is the Angullia Mosque, a landmark also along Serangoon Road, built in 1890. The mosque was constructed by the Angullia family from Rander, India, who made their wealth in trading and property investment.14

Another important development in Little India during the 19th century was the construction of administrative and service institutions in the area by the government. These included a government dispensary and the Kandang Kerbau Hospital, which was built at the junction of Bukit Timah Road and Serangoon Road in the Kandang Kerbau (Malay for “buffalo pen”) district in 1858. The present-day KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital originated from this hospital. A second hospital, the General Hospital, was also constructed in Kandang Kerbau in 1860. It was later relocated to Outram, and is known today as the Singapore General Hospital.15

Early 20th century
In the early 20th century, the cattle trade began to die out because swamps, which were essential to cattle rearing, had been drained to facilitate the building of roads and structures. The original Tekka Market (formerly known as the Kandang Kerbau Market) was constructed in 1915. It was originally located opposite the site of the current Tekka Market, which is now a landmark of Little India.16 

Japanese Occupation

The growth of Little India came to a halt when the Japanese invaded Singapore during World War II. Even in the weeks before the Japanese troops arrived in Singapore in February 1941, many women and children were sent back to India.17 Several businessmen also gave up their ventures here to return to their native lands before the Japanese invaded. During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–45), businesses were affected by the Japanese regulation of the economy, and materials needed for the various trades became scarce. Wartime looting were often exacerbated by the problem of scarcity. However, the hard times also offered windows of opportunities for some. Young Indian assistants who bought over their former bosses’ businesses and kept the firms afloat during the occupation, thrived after the war ended.18

The 1960s and ’70s saw many Indians moving out of Little India, as they found residence either in newly built public housing flats by the Housing and Development Board or in private estates.19 The outflow of residents was accelerated with the clearance of slums in the 1970s. Thereafter Little India became more of a commercial centre for Indians than a residential enclave for the community. In the 1980s, several public housing projects in the area were completed, including Zhujiao Centre (renamed Tekka Centre in 200020) and the Rowell Court public housing estate. On 7 July 1989, in recognition of its historical significance, Little India was gazetted as a conservation area.21

Recent developments
Since the advent of the 21st century, Little India, with its close proximity to the city, has once again become a popular residential area. Little India has been described as a “bohemian enclave”, with young people and artists choosing to live and work there.22

In early 2008, however, the outbreak of the Chikungunya virus in Little India threatened residents and shop owners, with the latter also experiencing a drastic decline in business during that period.23

Little India was the centre of Singapore’s first outbreak of the mosquito-borne disease, with the accumulation of rainwater in damaged or clogged gutters of shophouses, encouraging the breeding of Aedes mosquitoes. The battle against the virus was contained by the National Environment Agency within a month, with the implementation of measures such as ordering shop owners to remove their damaged or clogged gutters.24


Christopher Ong

1. Khong Swee Lin and Carl-Bernd Kaehlig, Sari, Sarong and Shorts: Singapore’s Kampong Glam & Little India (Singapore: SNP International Publishing, 2008), 13. (Call no. RSING 305.80095957 KAE)
2. Tommy Koh, et al., eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didiet Millet, 2006), 311. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
3. Sharon Siddique and Nirmala Puru Shotam, Singapore’s Little India: Past, Present and Future (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1982), 43–45. (Call no. RSING 305.89141105 SID)
4. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Little India: Historic District (Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1995), 155. (Call no. RSING 363.69095957 LIT)
5. Singapore Turf Club, Fifty Years at Bukit Timah: 1933–1983 (Singapore: Turf Club, 1983) (Call no. RSING 798.400655957 FIF); Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Historic District, 15.
6. Khong and Kaehlig, Sari, Sarong and Shorts, 13; Siddique and Puru Shotam, Singapore’s Little India, 10.
7. Khong and Kaehlig, Sari, Sarong and Shorts, 13.
8. Siddique and Puru Shotam, Singapore’s Little India, 17.
9. Siddique and Puru Shotam, Singapore’s Little India, 17; Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Historic District, 10.
10. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Historic District, 17; Robert Powell, Living Legacy: Singapore’s Architectural Heritage Renewed (Singapore: Singapore Heritage Society, 1994), 65 (Call no. RSING 363.69095957 POW); Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Historic District, 6.
11. Siddique and Puru Shotam, Singapore’s Little India, 68.
12. Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 311; Khong and Kaehlig, Sari, Sarong and Shorts, 13.
13. Khong and Kaehlig, Sari, Sarong and Shorts, 14; “Temple History,” Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple, accessed 17 January 2017.
14. Melody Zaccheus, “Angullia Mosque to Be Rebuilt to Double Capacity,” Straits Times, 14 November 2015, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Colin Cheong, ed., KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital: 150 Years of Caring 1858–2008 (Singapore: KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, 2008), 5–7 (Call no. RSING 362.19820095957 KK); Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Historic District, 17.
16. Siddique and Puru Shotam, Singapore’s Little India, 75, 150; Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 311; Khong and Kaehlig, Sari, Sarong and Shorts, 15; Curriculum Planning Division, Ministry of Education, National Heritage Tour: Little India (Singapore: Curriculum Planning Division, Ministry of Education, 1996), 7. (Call no. RSING q372.89 NAT)
17. Siddique and Puru Shotam, Singapore’s Little India, 78; Curriculum Planning Division, Ministry of Education, National Heritage Tour, 11.
18. Siddique and Puru Shotam, Singapore’s Little India, 77–79.
19. Siddique and Puru Shotam, Singapore’s Little India, 149; Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Historic District, 19; Curriculum Planning Division, Ministry of Education, National Heritage Tour, 7; Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore),  Historic Districts in the Central Area: A Manual for Little India Conservation Area (Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1988), 12. (Call no. RCLOS 307.3095957 HIS) 
20. Jack Hee, “It’s Tekka Once More, Just Like It Always Was,” Straits Times, 23 November 2000, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Historic District, 19, 21.
22. Bonnie Oeni, “Bohemian Enclave,” Straits Times, 14 September 2008, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Lee Hui Chieh, “340 Little India Shopowners Told to Remove Roof Gutters,” Straits Times, 6 February 2008, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Lee Hui Chieh, “Chikungunya Fighters Breathe Easy after Six Weeks,” Straits Times, 22 February 2008, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
Achikannoo Govindaraju and Shobi Torgersen, Changing Times: Serangoon Road, Channel NewsAsia, MediaCorp News, 2002, videocassette. (Call no. RSING 959.57 CHA-[HIS])

Sharon Hun, Hun, Timeline Singapore. Episode One, Serangoon Road, MediaCorp News Pte Ltd, 2006, videodisc. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TIM-[HIS])

Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Conservation Guidelines for Historic Districts: Our Heritage Is in Our Hands, vol. 1 (Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1995). (Call no. RSING q363.69095957 CON)

The information in this article is valid as of 2009 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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