Little India provides a glimpse into the lives of early Indian settlers in Singapore, of the previously bustling mercantile area that traded in livestock, clothing, glittering gold accessories, pungent spices and aromatic perfumes.
Fragments of the original ethnic area still remain today. If you wander into Little India, especially in the heart of Serangoon Road, you'll be greeted by a hearty welcome for your visual, olfactory and audio senses.
Bright colours abound in garment shops along the stretch of Serangoon Road, selling bolts of cloth in every hue imaginable, most with elaborate gold trimming around its edges. You can opt to make a sari (traditional Indian dress comprising of three elements: a blouse, and a long bolt of cloth wrapped around the waist and then draped around the shoulder) as an unusual keepsake to bring back, or choose from a brilliant display of scarves and shawls. Alternatively, you can purchase some of these fabulous textiles at Tekka Centre, adjacent to Little India station.
Another item that you'll find in Little India that brings a shot of colour would be the jasmine garlands that are usually quickly snapped up by Hindu devotees heading to the Sri Veerakaliamman Temple. In fact, the demand for them is so great that new ones have to be made by the late afternoon to cater for late-night customers. These shops usually also sell de-husked coconuts, which represent a challenge that the devotees want to overcome. These coconuts are lit up and then smashed to the ground, a symbol of overcoming the challenge. Another religious essential are clay oil lamps, which are lighted up before the devotees pray.
The air is filled with the smell of jasmine, flowers, incense and spices, creating an indescribable combination of scents that your nose will probably take some time to get used to.
Marvel at the elegantly dressed Indian women take to the streets, adorned with flowers, jewellery and ubiquitous pottus (or dots which showcase their marital status - black for unmarried and red for married) on their foreheads.
Another unique element of Little India are the five-foot ways which are a prevalent sight on Buffalo Road. These five-foot ways are 5 feet wide, a town planning feature that is left over from the colonial town planners.
Head over to shophouses on Kerbau Road to see the Little India Arts Belt, chock full of theatre and arts companies on the street. Admire the painstaking detail of the shophouses and check out the carved swing doors of the purple house of Tan Ten Niah and then walk over to Race Course Road for more Art Deco shophouses that have the signature pastel coloured glass that was imported from Venice in the 1920s.
Some of the olden trades still exist in Little India. Fortune tellers with brightly coloured parrots still have stalls, all clambering to tell you your fortune for a fee. Other sellers of roasted peanuts (kacang puteh) and newspaper vendors ply the roads. Check out the goldsmiths as well for an array of dazzlingly glittery jewellery.
Visit the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, on 141 Serangoon Road, built by Bengal labourers who worshipped the goddess Kali. It's Singapore's oldest temple, completed in 1881. It was built in homage to their goddess Veeramakaliamman, or Kali for short, who destroys evil and protects her devotees. A wooden Temple eventually replaced the shrine at the end of the 19th century, and a statue of the goddess was shipped in from South India in 1908. Thirty years later, other deities including Lord Murugan and Lord Ganesha were added to the Temple and a chariot was purchased. Renovations and additions were made and a 'Koburam' (Gateway) was erected at the temple in 1987.
Sample some of the classic South Indian fare at well-established restaurants like Banana Leaf Apollo and Muthu's curry or try Singaporean favourites like roti prata (a thin flat dough) or thosai (Indian-style pancakes) at Tekka Market and Food Centre. A truly Singaporean dish to try would be fish head curry, which might be off-putting to some (especially because the fish head is actually left in the curry). Don't eat the head, just poke around the inside to get the meat. Get an extra dish to place all the bones on it. In Little India, you can find this dish on or near Race Course Road, serving up the spicy Indian version of this dish.
Mustafa Centre, a 24-hour mall, offers up a huge collection of products, including clothes, household stuff, electronics and more. In recent years, Mustafa has received mixed views from visitors, some rave about it while others had to pay a much higher price. Circumvent possibly getting cheated by purchasing only inexpensive things like makeup or beauty products. Make sure that the items have not expired yet before purchasing. Some of the aisles are narrow though, as everything is squeezed into four levels or departments, so claustrophobes should try to go either in the earlier morning or in the late night so that you'd have space to manoeuvre around.
The best times to visit Little India are during the festivals of Thaipusam and Deepavali to get a small taste of Indian cultures and traditions. Watch the area brightly lit during Deepavali to celebrate the festival of light with tons of colourful fairy lights or watch in barely concealed horror as the Thaipusam devotees walk down the street with hooks and spikes poking into their bodies.