Extracts of a travel notebook

By Nold Egenter

Urbanistic Preface

The extremely fast development of Asian cities, their explosion into metropoles adapting to Western standards - and skylines - is one of the most impressive experiences of all those in the West who got to know Asia in the second half of the 20th century.

However, in view of these fast developments, no greater contrast can be imagined in regard to what will be discussed in the following. An urban behaviour is outlined which - as such - may be thousands of years old, even millions in the wider framework of human (and pre-human) building behaviour. Surprisingly it is still practised today and enjoys the highest ontological values in the eyes of those who adhere to it.

An extremely shocking contrast of continuity and change, indeed! Within a fast-growing human settlement it could be a reminder to urban planners (or urban anthropologists) that man is not only one-sided, pursuing progress into an unknown future. There is an equally strong conservatism in regard to proven continuities often found among phenomena which we - erroneously - exclusively relate to what we call religion.

Evidently, urban planners should become more aware of such factors of continuity within changing patterns of architecture and urbanism. They should get to know more about the toposemantic forces still vital in modern cities. They should try to understand the strong identification that "territorial cults" may exert on the local population. Maybe modern chaotic megalopolitan developments can be "centred" with the revival of behavioural continuities deeply rooted in the local past, balancing through sociopsychological identification an otherwise amorphous growth. <1>

Religio-anthropological introduction

Many temples in India show a remarkable characteristic. A dominantly freestanding symbolic pillar is erected in front of a particular main or secondary temple. Often of considerable height (4-8 m) and made of metal such as copper, bronze or silver, it usually has a decorative texture and stands axially related to a corresponding temple and the figure of a particular deity. There are also smaller temples, related to villages or hamlets, where similar symbolic pillars are set up as an initial part of cultic festivals. But usually these pillars are of perishable materials. Mostly they consist of artificially treated poles using high-growing trees or other plants.

Such poles and cult pillars are widespread in southern India in the states of Andra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu (Madras/Chennai), Kerala, and Karnataka. In Northern India the phenomenon seems to be less important. In other countries, which had been under South-Indian influence for extended periods, there are similar cults related to pillars (Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia). They are either found explicitly in Hindu temples as a traditional survival of times of Indian influence, or they appear as a mixture with other non-Indian cult traditions. <2>

Evidently the traditions we are going to describe below (as found in some Hindu temples of Singapore) are clearly related to this type of cultural diffusion. The Hindu temples of Singapore are clearly related to the migration of Indians to this city in the last two centuries. The oldest Hindu temple was erected in 1827.

But there is another striking aspect related to these Hindu temples in Singapore and the cult pillars found there. This aspect was initially the main point relating to these pillars: very similar toposemantic structures exist also in Japan. Evidently there is no direct diffusionistic relation between Indian Hinduism and Japanese Shinto in regard to these particular cult traditions. How can we explain this striking similarity? (Fig. 15)

This is probably the most fascinating aspect of this survey: the pillars of Singapore seem to offer an explanation on the spot. In addition to the permanent metal and wooden types of pillars initially found in Singapore, a further type was discovered in which the wooden structure is merely a physical support of an evidently more primary type. One temple shows a fibroconstructive type of pillar. This type clearly produces the formal codes which are transformed into durable form in the permanent types. The symbol on the top, always directed towards the sacred, towards the deities, reveals a system of three vertical categorically polar grass bundles intermingled with three horizontal categorically polar bundles of sacred terpey grass. This arrangement can be read very clearly. In the sense of 'pars pro toto', it indicates that the ontological top of this world in its multiplicity (9; 3 x 3) consists of vertical polarities intermingled with horizontal polarities, altogether forming a balanced harmony in regard to contrasting categories. <3>

The whole is mounted on a structure which indicates the "milieu" in which this fundamental anthropo-aesthetic truth originated, a column consisting essentially of grass. Evidently this material hints to times when the world was not yet densely populated by humans. It hints to early conditions of human settlement. Let us in the following look at these cult pillars more closely.

The cult pillars of some Hindu temples in Singapore

On the 9th of September 1977 while doing some sightseeing in Singapore the author passed the Sri Mariamman temple, the oldest temple of the city, and discovered a fairly surprising thing. As is often found in Hindu temples in general, there was a cult column set up in front of one of the sanctuaries (Fig. 1-5). It was made of copper, about 8 m high, and was erected in the central axis of a secondary sanctuary adjacent to the main sanctuary in the open part of the precinct. From the bottom up to about the middle it was covered with grasses. The stalks were fixed by ropes wound spirally around the grasses and the column. There was a grass bundle at the top of the column with its loose upper part protruding into the air. Together with some twigs, it was fixed there with a textile band.

The arrangement was surprisingly similar to cult markers the author had studied in Japan (Fig. 15) . Informants explained that this decoration with grasses was only a temporary one and was fixed to the column for the annual main festival of the temple. This stimulated the author to check other Hindu temples in Singapore which, according to the informant, the priest of Sri Mariamman temple, showed similar rites. In 1977 two other temples, three in all, were located and visited. In later years the survey was extended. 15 Hindu temples were found in Singapore, although some of them were rather small and insignificant. Four temples had pillars in their precincts or halls.

Temples with pillars

The following temples were found to have pillars in their temple compounds.
1) Sri Mariamman temple, 242 South Bridge Road, most ancient Hindu temple of the city of Singapore. It was built in the years 1827-43. It displayed a high pillar of copper covered with grass as described above (Fig. 1-5)
2) Sri Sinivasa Perumal temple, 397 Serangoon Road, near Lavender Street. Contains temple buildings of recent date. On the occasion of early visits it had a pillar of wood, which was later, in 1979, torn down and replaced by a copper type of pillar. (Fig. 6,7)
3) Sri Senbaga vinayagar temple, 19 Ceylon Road. This temple is situated outside the city centre in the east. It had a permanent pillar of silver placed within the main hall. (Fig. 8)
4) Sri Vadapathira Kaliamman temple, 555 Serangoon Road, Beatty Road. (Fig. 9-14) This temple had a wooden pillar which was set up within the temple hall in front of the deities. It was covered with grass.

Columns and festival calendar

All four temples showed materially permanent pillars. All are decorated once a year partially or wholly with a grass coating for the main festival performed once a year. In the following are some remarks regarding these statements:

In the case of (1) the pillar is made of copper and is actually related to the deity named Droppadai. The pillar is fixed to the ground and stands in the open air. Characteristic for this type are three plates fixed horizontally below the top. Their outlines are dynamically curved. They are pierced by the copper column in such a way that the larger part of the plates cantilevers towards the front and is directed towards the sanctuary. At the lower surface of the plates close to the tip, directed towards the temple, a small bell is fixed. The festival starts on the 15th of August and lasts about 3 months.

Temple (2) shows a similar pillar as in the case of temple (1). Until 1979 it consisted of wood. At the time of the visit it had been renewed, i.e. replaced by a copper type, and could not be observed in regard to its cultic decoration. What is discussed in regard to this case rests on declarations of the informant. The pillar is attributed to the deity Mahavishnu. The festival begins on March 14th and lasts 10 days.

Temple (3) was discovered in a later survey. It is situated outside of the city centre in the Northeast. Its pillar is made of silver. Bells now are mostly situated on the uppermost symbol plates (Fig. 8) . How the pillar is decorated and when, could not be clarified reliably. The statement that it is annually decorated was obtained from the informants.

In the temple (4) a very crude wooden pillar is used. In the lower part it is square in section, and octagonal in the upper part. On its top it shows a wooden grid fixed asymmetrically to the wooden pole (Fig. 13, 3a). In contrast to the column in temple 1, this pillar is not fixed to the ground. Throughout the year it is preserved in some particular annex space of the temple. Before the festival it is brought in front of the temple and mounted on a mobile pedestal. The whole arrangement is placed in front of the open prayer hall (Fig. 11) set up axially in front of the sanctuary of the deity Kali (Fig. 9, 10) . The festival starts on August 14th and ends on September 17th.

Regarding the content of the festival and
regarding the grass decoration of the columns

A common feature of all the festivals at temples 1 to 3 is that before their opening, the columns concerned are partly or wholly clothed with grasses. In all three cases the grass decoration is removed after the end of the festival. Exception: bundles and twigs at the top of the column in the case of temple (1) were still found later at the occasion of a visit on the 18th January 1978. In all cases the same type of grass is used: terpey-grass (terpey-pul). This type of grass is widespread in India but only grows sparsely and only at particular places in Singapore. The informant indicated that this grass is not only widespread in India but has a ritual meaning in Hinduism <4>

Due to the dates of the festivals, the forms of clothing could only be recorded in the cases (1) and (2). Characteristic for both of these examples is the symbolic use of grass bundles in the upper part of the columns. Similarly the bindings with grass-straw ropes were symbolically emphasised and decorated with flower garlands and white and red textile bands with Mango branches inserted.

All three temples perform various ceremonies during festival time.

Temple (1) for instance performs a fire festival on 31st of October which is related to fire-walking.

An important part of all festivals are processions with statues of the deities in mobile form visiting adjacent settlements or parts of neighbouring settlements. For instance at the temple (2) on August 14th the procession goes to upper Sengar, and on the 15th to another district of Singapore.

In temple (2) the whole column is called ,codi stebem'. Codi means flag, stebem (pronunciation stombom) is for ,tree'.

In both cases (1 and 2) the tops of the columns carried a flag with the emblem of the deity. It was Hanuman, the monkey God, in temple (1) and a lion in case of temple (2). In temple (2) the white cloth was twisted from the lower part of the flag and was wound in spiral form around the column. In the middle which was characterised by a bow of cloth, a bundle of grass was inserted into these windings. Evidently this arrangement indicates that the flag and the picture it shows are closely associated with the column.


Four points are important in this survey, partly in regard to art and architecture, partly in view of religion.

Thus, the rites related to grass, that is to the originally primary and most important fibroconstructive markers, have a framing function in the cyclic cult which now includes also more evolved types. We can therefore assume that on the one hand these pillars evolved physically from the fibroconstructive type , on the other hand, more in the sense of religion, the fibrous demarcators and their harmonious categorical expression must have corresponded to the ancient teachings cyclically preserved into later times. The world is composed of an endless multitude of vertical and horizontal polarities is a gigantic truth which we can only start to understand with modern anthropological methods. <6> In addition, these symbols were the precursors of the domestic types of temples as well as of the anthropomorphous types of deities.

The cultic element suggests an enormously conservative dimension. Indian settlers have brought this Hindu tradition down to Singapore and it is kept strictly according to the traditions observed in the homeland. Cult induces temporal depths: is the grass a survival of times when there was no copper yet, no refined metal tools to chisel wood? Is it thus also a REMINDER of some existential truth which had been important and therefore was handed down?

Some important questions

What we have found in some Hindu temples in Singapore poses some serious questions related primarily to art and architecture. In a very dense milieu of some Hindu communities we have found various types of sacred pillars made of entirely different materials: Durable and highly refined, brilliant metal pillars, others made of wood, refined ones and rather crudely cut types, then, finally indicators of a quite different type, fibroconstructive pillars, that is, tectonic structures made of bundled grasses. All three types seem to indicate an evolutionary line in which the primary fibroconstructive type is the genetic prototype which creates the tradition, also the cyclic structure of the festival through its need to be periodically renewed. The wooden type is rather a support in this case in view of a higher verticalised form, which takes its significance only if it is covered with a coat of grass which gives it its important texture. In the case of the metal forms, vertical stability is represented by the stability of the material, the texture of its original condition becomes 'ornament', 'decoration', but since the material is durable now, the cyclic element theoretically gets lost. Surprisingly, it remains as a temporary cultic tradition. At the beginning of the cyclic festivals, the original type of natural grass is collected, the metal pillar is 'decorated' with it.

It is very clear that with these three expressions of the theme 'cult pillar' we have touched on a very fundamental context of what is called 'decoration', 'ornament', 'plant-ornament' etc. in the history of art and architecture. What is vaguely considered usually as a general behaviour of man appears in a very clear and plausible cultic sequence in the present case.

In a wider sense these pillars also question the entire setting of Hindu temples. Are they the prototypes of the whole larger temple arrangements. Were they the initial place makers before there were Hindu temples, before there were anthropomorphous deities? Are the poles prototypes of the historical deities which had become anthropomorphous, zoomorphous, etc.? But this question definitely transcends our basic questions related to art, human space organisation and architecture. It definitely tends towards religion. It seems that we find more positive answers to these questions with a survey we did much later in India, our study of the Holi poles in the Konkan region of Maharashtra.

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