Last summer I visited Singapore for the fifth or sixth time and, unsurprisingly, once again it wowed me with its diverse culture, delicious food and glorious warm climate. I wish I could return every year but so many places, so little time… Though it seems that these days being religiously affiliated/devoted (in any sense) is somewhat démodé, my personal experiences have always been diverse, inclusive and positive, and when planning a trip, one of the first things I look into is religious architecture. Singapore, with its diverse ethnology and secular society, was no exception and, being such a small country, evidence of its citizens beliefs in Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam and Christianity, not to mention Hinduism and Taoism, abound. There are also synagogues, which sadly I didn’t have time to visit.
In Chinatown, I visited the oldest Hindu temple – the Sri Mariamman Temple, which has been granted National Monument status due its significance within Singaporean society. I paid a small entrance fee plus an additional amount (in total less than £2) which permitted me to take photographs. Built in 1827, the temple served as place of community, something it maintains today. Newly-arrived immigrants sought refuge here, weddings were conducted here and people gathered to share experiences. Today, this continues with the fortunate addition of curious tourists being allow in.
The boldness of the colours and statues stands out, the welcoming nature of the employees and worshipers was just delightful and although I felt completely overwhelmed as people prayed, the priest led his congregation and tourists thronged in and out, I felt what I always feel in a place of worship: peace, happiness and an overwhelming sense that no matter what we believe, we can all be and do good.
Sri Mariamman Temple
244 South Bridge Road
Religion is always a touchy subject and I’m slightly hesitant to bring it up on the blog. Despite my hesitation, I simply have to share the ‘Hajj: Journey to the heart of Islam‘ exhibition with you. Firstly though, I must mention that this exhibition is sponsored by Saudi Arabia, who has been heavily criticised by international governments for the huge disparity between the quality of life of the nation and the ruling class, the lack of women’s rights and the severity at which ‘regular’ Saudis are treated should they dare speak up. There has been a lot of press about this and whilst I agree that Saudi Arabia needs to address these issues seriously, I feel we must separate the purpose of this exhibition from the politics.
Somehow, that isn’t so difficult. The exhibition seamlessly transcends the usual politics and propaganda one tends to associate with any form of organised religion and we get a first class education into what Hajj means to Muslims. The curator’s passion really comes through and we get a deep and unapologetic view into the fifth pillar of Islam. I won’t pretend to know much about the history of this age-old religion but what struck me most was the emotion. People connecting with the heart of their beliefs; the intimacy and symbolism of the pilgrimage is unparalleled, and the enthusiasm with which the British Museum presents this makes it arguably the best exhibition they’ve put on. So much so that I did the tour twice, spending almost 3 hours there. I’ve never seen anything like it. As I watched the hypnotic videos of the Hajjis walking around the Ka’bah, a deep sense of peace came over me. That overwhelming belief and connection not only to your faith but to fellow worshippers is awe-inspiring.
As a non-Muslim, I am not permitted to enter Mecca and given the political climate, I think my chances of going to the Middle East, in the way I would like, are sadly pretty slim. I left touched by the spirituality and with an even stronger view that we must take the politics and agenda out of religion and continue to educate ourselves. Religion should not, in my opinion, be about dictating the lives of others but forming and maintaining a spiritual connection with whoever/whatever we believe in.
I searched high and low to find a neutral video about Hajj and voilà, the Financial Times offers a brief but insightful breakdown. The exhibition also introduced me to the work of two amazing artists: Ahmed Mater, whose piece (featured above) titled ‘Magnetism’ is as beautiful as it is unique, and Idris Khan, the artist behind ‘You and Only You’. The exhibition continues until 15th April so if you have a chance to see it, do!
The British Museum
Great Russell Street
+44 (0) 20 7323 8299