Photographing Temples in Singapore

By Geok Hwa Kee Ventrice

Growing up with an illiterate mother, I had to get creative in order to get through the endless weekly math and science quizzes.  My grandmother who came from a long line of shamans suggested the following.  Sandwich between the front and back covers of my textbooks with fresh leaves plucked from an old hunching tree of a Taoist temple next to school.  I failed my quizzes ten out of ten times because being short and scrawny I was only able to collect leaves that had fallen on the ground most brittle and dried.

Temples are a common sight in ethnic enclaves in Southeast Asia.  I visited three temples in two ethnic enclaves while visiting relatives in Singapore.  Although each sits right at a major thoroughfare making it tricky to be captured in its entirety, each has a story [history] etched into its structure making its intricately adorned interior a great macro or close-up subject.         

Located in China Town and modeled after northern Chinese style architecture, the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum was built in 2007 to house the tooth relic of Buddha found in a collapsed stupa in Myanmar.  Photographers are allowed to photograph hand-held the numerous Buddha statues, big and small, on the first floor.  Artworks and artifacts displayed in the exhibit halls on the second to the fourth floors, however, are not open for photography.  On the first floor, I gazed in awe as I photographed the three 15-feet tall golden Buddha statues overlooking the lobby and hundreds of 6-inch tall Buddha statues adorning the vermillion walls behind the lobby.  

Built in 1881, the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple was known as the “Temple of the Lime village” where a goddess named the Destroyer of Evil was worshipped by Tamil Indians who worked in the lime kilns in the vicinity.  The temple survived Japanese air raids during the Second World War because of the goddess as it was told.  As the oldest living Hindu temple in the heart of Little India, the temple continues to perform religious rituals and hold cultural activities for the Indian community.  Outside the temple, I mounted a macro lens on a tripod.  In manual focus mode, I captured a myriad of mythological Hindu figures on its front tower, a hallmark of southern Indian style architecture.  Although flash and tripod were prohibited inside the temple, I was able to capture a marching musical troupe and countless ominous warriors with ambient light. 

Also located in China Town, the Thian Hock Keng Temple began as a prayer house in 1840.  The goddess Mazu was worshipped by immigrants who traveled from Fujian Province, China, across the treacherous South China Sea in search of a better life in Singapore.  As the prayer house grew into a temple, wood carvers and stone masons were brought from China to ensure it stayed faithful to traditional southern Chinese style architecture. 

I was drawn to the door panels at the entrance hall vividly painted with historic figures that had metamorphosed into door gods.  I could hear the countless prayers twirling above the bronze incense burner in the central courtyard.  I was told not a single nail was used to assemble the lacquered wood crisscrossing the ceiling at the main hall when it was first built. 

Follow the photography guidelines of the temples you visit.  Look up and down while you are inside the temples.  You will be amazed by what you see beyond the eye level.  Set your camera in aperture priority mode and capture your subject of interest. 

One thought on “Photographing Temples in Singapore”

  1. Great article Gigi! I would love to be able to see these firsthand and am thrilled you can take me there photographically.

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