One of the biggest contributors to Singapore’s society was Naraina Pillai, who arrived in Singapore with Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. He quickly established Singapore’s first brick company, and became the first building contractor. He also ventured into cotton, and quickly owned the biggest shop in the bazaar selling cotton goods.
However, in a drastic turn of events, Pillai’s cotton business burnt down in a fire in 1822. Despite the challenges that ensued, Pillai’s resolve was unshaken, and he went on to build the Sri Mariamman Temple. It served not only as a place of worship, but also as a shelter for new Indian immigrants. Over time, it became a meeting place for members of the Indian community; a place where individuals went to network and even match-make their children.
In one account, Naraina Pillai (or Narayana Pillay) was described as “short and fat, and had a round face, which was usually beaming with pleasure, while his white teeth showed in a cheerful smile. He looked rather like a soft rubber ball. He was like one in other ways too. He was to have many troubles, but, just as a ball bounces when thrown to the ground, he too would always bounce up again, smiling”.
Pillai first came to Singapore in June 1819, aboard The Indiana, with Stamford Raffles. He came from Penang, convinced by Raffles’ ideals of Singapore. When he arrived here, he found he would have to start from scratch.
Pillai initially worked as the chief clerk at the treasury. After he was discharged from his role, he was depressed and considered going back to Penang. However, he refused to return as a failure. The enterprising Pillai found a market with an ever-growing demand: construction. He noticed how quickly houses were being built in Singapore, and decided to capitalise on this. He built a brick kiln by Mount Erskine (present day Tanjong Pagar), and started Singapore’s first brick company.
Image: A typical brick kiln [pictured, top right hand corner]. (Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore)
Pillai also started a cotton business, selling his goods at Cross Street. He acquired his cotton from British merchants, who allowed him to hold large quantities of cloth on credit, which he would then sell for a profit. His shop grew to become the biggest in the bazaar. However, in 1822, it burnt to the ground in a fire.
He persuaded British merchants to allow him to pay off his debt in five years. Almost all the merchants agreed to Pillai’s repayment scheme. He also sought help from Raffles, who allocated him a section of prime land in Commercial Square (present day Raffles Place), so he could start his business afresh.
Image: One of Singapore’s early bazaars. (Lee Kip Lin Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore)
Despite his personal struggles to stay afloat and succeed, Pillai wanted to help the growing Hindu community here. He set out to build a Hindu temple. The first two plots of land he was allocated – at Telok Ayer Street and a spot by Stamford Canal – were found to be unsuitable because they did not have a supply of fresh water needed for religious rituals. In 1823, he found the temple’s current plot of land, and by 1827, Sri Mariamman Temple was built. The temple became a meeting place for many members of the Indian community – a safe space where early settlers could go for shelter, to find jobs or even find matchmaking services.
Today, the temple still serves as a refuge for Indian immigrants, before they find accommodation and start work. It is also as a popular spot for traditional Hindu weddings.
Image: Sri Mariamman Temple at South Bridge Road. (Lim Kheng Chye Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore)