Mariamman Temple and Capital Tower

The oldest Hindu temple in Singapore is Sri Mariamman Temple.

It was founded in 1827 by Naraina Pillai, eight years after the East India Company established a trading settlement in Singapore. Pillai was a government clerk from Penang who arrived in Singapore with Sir Stamford Raffles on his second visit to the island in May 1819. Raffles persuaded him to come along.

It used to look like this in 1901 – I’m not familiar with this architecture style (and it’s interesting that there are Chinese characters painted on the wall?).

Here are a bunch of flattering, recent-ish pictures of Mariamman Temple.

Lots of colors, lots of intricate, ornate details.

Inside the temple grounds

These are pictures meant to help you appreciate the beauty and splendor of the temple, which is nice.

But that’s not what I want to focus on. Rather, I want to focus on the modern context of the temple. The backdrop that the temple is in.

Before I get into that, it’s interesting to notice that if you do a Google Image Search for “Sri Mariamman Temple”, you’re not going to get any of the context that I’m going to present you. It’s an interesting demonstration of how photographs tend to isolate their subjects:

Now, for the contrast.

The nicest pictures that demonstrate this constrast that I’ve found – and they’re surprisingly hard to find – come from a photographer named Stuart Walmsley.

Capital Tower literally towers over Mariamman Temple, a mega-gopuram of glass and steel.

The title of his post is “Singapore – A soulless success”, so maybe the contrast was especially poignant to him, maybe it was something he was looking out for.

But it’s not just him – lots of other people have noticed it too:

I also found this interesting night view of Mariamman Temple and Capital Tower (seriously, that’s the name) from the Wikipedia post about Gopurams, by Schnobby (Hans Bernhard):

It looks almost dystopian. I mean, “CAPITAL TOWER”? Literally? If I were to write a dystopian novel about capitalism towering over the old religions, you’d think “Capital Tower” was too on the nose. But here we are.

Here’s another one, for good measure:

And here’s a picture of Mariamman Temple with Republic Plaza:

What’s the point of all of this? I’m thinking about a quote…

“If you want to understand what’s most important to a society, don’t examine its art or literature, simply look at its biggest buildings.” – Joseph Campbell

Russell Brand elaborated on it:

“In medieval societies, the biggest buildings were its churches and palaces; using Campbell’s method, we can assume these were feudal cultures that revered their leaders and worshipped God. In modern Western cities, the biggest buildings are the banks—bloody great towers that dominate the docklands—and the shopping centers, which architecturally ape the cathedrals they’ve replaced: domes, spires, eerie celestial calm, fountains for fonts, food courts for pews.”  – Russell Brand

Now I’m not here to make some “woe is humanity” type comment. I think it’s just interesting to observe, examine, and be honest with ourselves about who we are and where we’re at.

I’ve written an essay before about my personal experience with religion, as well as a rambling vomit about Forgotten Gods. It’s simply a fact of life that we have old gods, and we have new ones. And the old ones have become quaint little playthings in comparison. I felt this even as a child – religion (as it was practiced by my parents, and by society around me) simply didn’t make sense to me. I remember going to the temple as a child, and thinking, “those adults are just playing with toys and dolls, like I do, and my toys and dolls have much better graphics.”

I have an essay in the backburner of my mind about Sanjay’s Super Team – the father praying to the old gods, the son to the new.

It’s very tempting and easy to see this as something to be upset about – people have been doing this sort of thing for centuries.

Rather, I think it would be more interesting to try and appreciate what’s going on, and to ask ourselves what our ritual needs are, our social and interpersonal ones. I think that good TV is a legitimate form of church – something to be studied and examined and discussed with other humans, a sort of worship in itself.

Returning to first principles – I think it’s clear that humans have a need for awe:

We have grown and transcended, but we have not yet updated our mythology to account for it. Not much, anyway. Or if we have, I haven’t noticed it.

Ever noticed how many religions have rituals involving fire? It makes sense if you think about what life was like 2,000 years ago. Imagine what a Hindu temple looked like in a small village – vast, epic, powerful. Inspiring. But today it’s quaint and small and cute.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what a modern-day religion would look like. It would replace fire with electricity, or maybe go a step further – maybe it would be software. God was first a mother or a tree, the womb of life, the root of life. Animalistic. Then men settled into civilization, and his gods did too. God became a sculptor. A shepherd. The metaphors we use to understand the infinite… change over time. God went from being nature, in the sun, the lightning, the rivers and the trees – to being a patriarch. THE patriarch, King of Kings. And then man got tired of being ruled, and started having revolutions – dethroning kings, and yes, Gods.

It’s all very interesting to me. Who are the Gods now? It’s not who they used to be. What do we worship now? Is it money? Is it Facebook? Is it software? Is it corporations? I think it’s an interesting question, if you don’t mind the irreverent blasphemy. I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer. But I bet it’s interesting. If we figure it out, we could be a little more deliberate and artful about it, and perhaps have more “authentic” experiences.

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