Naraina Pillai

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Naraina Pillai
Known as one of the first Tamil men to set foot in Singapore, Naraina Pillai made his mark in history withthe construction of the Sri Mariamman Temple that still stands today.

EARLY YEARS

Before Naraina Pillai arrived on our shores, he was working as a government clerk in British-ruledPenang. It was then that he crossed paths with Stamford Raffles, who was a senior official at the BritishEast India Company. Today, we recognise Raffles as the founding father of modern Singapore.

In 1819, Pillai was attracted by Raffles’ ideals of Singapore as a new settlement. Thus, when Rafflesembarked on his second visit to Singapore, Pillai went along with him. They travelled on the Indiana,where the only other Indians aboard the ship were soldiers.

Upon arriving in Singapore, Pillai quickly realised that life had to begin from scratch. He got a jobas a chief clerk in the colonial treasury, or shroff, but left when the Resident’s shroff from Melakaarrived.

THE BIRTH OF A TRADESMAN

Observing the rapid rate of houses being built on a new and developing settlement, Pillai saw abusiness opportunity. He set up a brick kiln by Mount Erskine (now Tanjong Pagar), and wrote to hisfriends in Penang for bricklayers, carpenters, and cloth merchants. This made him the first recordedIndian brick business owner and first Indian contractor in Singapore.

Pillai’s entrepreneurship ventures did not stop there. He also entered the cotton goods trade, sellingtextile at Cross Street. His business quickly became the largest and best known in town, as the arrivalof British merchants helped it flourish.

Unfortunately, his bazaar was burnt to the ground in 1822. This landed him onto a great amount of debtwith the British merchants, who gave him five years to repay what he owed them.

Pillai sought help from the man he had first arrived in Singapore with – Raffles. Raffles gave him asection of prime land in Commercial Square (now Raffles Place), he erected new warehouses and rebuilt hisbusinesses from scratch. He managed to repay his debts in time.

LEADER OF THE COMMUNITY

Besides his business ventures, Pillai also harboured a vision to serve the growing Hindu communityhere. Once business had stabilised, he decided to focus on building a Hindu temple.

However, he encountered some difficulties while searching for a suitable site for the temple. Thefirst two plots of land were rejected due to fresh water or administrative issues. But third time’s acharm for Pillai, who finally managed to find one at South Bridge Road in 1823. By 1827, the SriMariamman Temple was built.

Old Sri Mariamman Temple
The Sri Mariamman Temple in 1905. Photo from the Lim Kheng Chye Collection, courtesy of NationalArchives of Singapore.

Apart from building a temple, Pillai also wanted to open a Hindu institute to educate young boys.Unfortunately, this vision did not materialise. Nevertheless, his efforts had gained him recognitionamongst the Tamils, leading the British to appoint him as chief of Indians from Cholamandalaman. Beingchief gave him the authority to settle disputes within the Indian community.

REMEMBERING A PIONEER

As one of the Indian pioneers of Singapore, Naraina Pillai’s name cannot be forgotten. Today, hiscontributions are commemorated in a number of places.

Sri Mariamman Temple today
Sri Mariamman Temple today

The Sri MariammanTemple still stands proudly in its original location today and has been gazetted as a NationalMonument. In 1843, the temple was enlarged when Indian landowner Seshalam Pillai gave some of his land. Anew sheltered walkway between the entrance tower and main building also replaced the former attap-coveredwalkway.

Today, the Sri Mariamman Temple is not just a place of worship. It also served as a refuge and shelterfor Indian immigrants before they found accommodation and started work. Traditional Hindu weddings alsocontinue to take place there.

In 1957, Pillai Road was officially named to commemorate Naraina Pillai as the first Indian to setfoot in Singapore.

Pillai’s story is now also commemorated at the Indian Heritage Centre and can be found on otherhistorical articles and resources.