Exploring Singapore’s Tamil connections and heritage

The first recorded arrival of a Tamilian in Singapore was Naraina Pillai, a native of the Coromandel Coast, back in May 1819. 

A contemporary of Sir Stamford Raffles, Pillai accompanied the British East Indian administrator on his second trip to Singapore. On this island, he established himself as a successful entrepreneur and community leader, and is credited for founding the Sri Mariamman Temple, today a well-loved national monument. 

It is common knowledge that the Tamil community has been present in Singapore for 200 years now. But Tamil connections with the island go back long before the arrival of Pillai, having existed for over 600 years. 

Photo: Connected to India
Photo: Connected to India

A special exhibition by the Indian Heritage Centre (IHC) – From the Coromandel Coast to the Straits: Revisiting our Tamil Heritage – explores this lesser known narrative. 

Presenting fresh perspectives of the history and identity of the Tamil community in Singapore and the region, the exhibition features more than 230 objects from local and international collections. Through these, the stories of the journeys of the people from India’s Coromandel region to Southeast Asia are illustrated and told. 

Among these objects are rare artefacts from Singapore’s National Collection and other museums and institutions, precious family heirlooms from community lenders and donors, as well as 3D holographic showcases that harness technology to bring the past to life.

“Many in Singapore know about Tamil customs and traditions, enjoy Tamil cuisine, and are aware that Tamils have been in Singapore since 1819,” said exhibition curator Nalina Gopal. “Not many know that there is great diversity within the community itself, or that Tamil connections with Singapore date back to pre-modern times.”

In conjunction with the Singapore Biennale, IHC has also commissioned three artworks by artists who reconnected with their Tamil identities through textiles, paintings and sculpture. These are Traveller’s Tales by Lavanya Mani, Heart in Hand by Anurendra Jegadeva and Masala by Kumari Nahappan. 

A documentary film by award-winning director K Rajagopal, titled Odyssey of the Tamils, has also been commissioned and will be shown at IHC for the duration of the exhibition.