The history of Tai Pucam is closely associated with the Thandayudhapani Temple, which was established by the Chettiars30 in 1859. To this day it is closely linked with the moneylender, merchant, banker, and trader community. According to Chettiar sources31 and referred by early historians of Singapore like C.M. Turnbull32 a small shrine was constructed by the bank of a tank formed by a waterfall on what is generally known as Tank Road. A vel, spear brought from India as early as mid-19th century was established under a peepal tree, which was uprooted for urban redevelopment in recent times. The foundation stone at the temple refers to its consecration on 4.4.1859. The land for the temple was acquired from Mr. Oxley, the first Surgeon General of Singapore.
The temple was modest, having an ālankara mandapa and ardhhmandapa. Jambu Vinayagar and Itumban shrines were placed on either sides of the main sanctum. Two separate shrines for Shiva and Meenakshi were consecrated in 1886, although they were constructed in 1878. A dining hall was also constructed called karttikai kattu where food was served during Tai Pucam and Karttikai.
Chettiars have built temples to Murukan wherever they settled in Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaya, Sri Lanka and Singapore. Here panhtarams could be employed who could perform rituals and filled the gap for Brahmin priests who were prohibited from travelling overseas.33 Here it should be noted that the role of the Chettiar and the other members of the Hindu society in Singapore open up an interesting parallel and co-existence of Hindu faith. The participation and dissociation from each other of different communities in one and the same festival poses different perspectives of viewing and sharing of the God, the faith and the blessings.
The earliest Hindu temples in Singapore were situated around the pockets of Indian villages around Tanjong Pagar area where most port workers lived and congregated and where the Malayan railway station was also situated. The railway connected Singapore to Kuala Lumpur and Penang. Mari Amman temple in South Bridge Road (established in 1862), Sivan temple on Orchard Road (established in 1850s) and the Chettair temple on Tank Road (established in 1859) are in close vicinity of Tanjong Pagar area.
By mid 19th century, there were seventeen Indian businessmen of standing in Singapore comprising Parsis, Tamils and North Indians. They were known as individuals and not as community leaders, except, of course, Narain Pillai who was instrumental in building some of the earliest temples. Most of the Indians were labourers, ferrymen or petty traders. Towards the end of the 19th century, there was an increase in the number of Indians who came as traders, shop assistant and clerks. Indians also worked as boatmen, dock coolies and bullock-cart drivers.34 Thus the population of Indians was very complex and it fitted very well into the social, economic, cultural and political matrix of Singapore.
In most places in Singapore and Malaysia, Tai Pucam is a three-day festival. In Singapore, it is jointly organised by the Hindu Endowments Board and the Thandayudhapani Temple on Tank Road managed by the Chettiars. It is promoted by the Singapore Tourism Board as one of the main attractions in the Post Christmas-Chinese New Year period.35 Many foreign visitors and Indians unfamiliar with this festival view this with amazement, doubt and skepticism. For avid Asian culture savvy photographers this is one golden chance to capture ethnic Indian practices without going to India. For those interested in documenting this festival, it is an experience of dichotomous existence of tradition and modernity in the lives of ethnic Indians, which is often debated by Indians themselves. We at ACM have conducted documentation of the festival since 1996, sometimes partially and sometimes at a stretch for three days in Singapore, Malacca and Penang.36
On the day prior to Tai Pucam, the utsava mūrti or bronze icon of Murukan is taken in a chariot, which is cleaned and decorated once a year for this occasion. It is dragged through the streets of Singapore and taken to the Vinayakar temple on Kiong Siak Road near the Mari Amman temple in South Bridge Road or Chinatown. In the evening the chariot returns back to Tank Road after meandering through the financial district stopping before Indian Bank, UCO Bank and other financial institutions. In the past the chariot used to pass through Market Street on which most Chettiar kittangis, workplace-cum-lodgings of the Chettiar community were located.
The Chettiar devotees used to offer plates with offerings of coconuts, flowers and betel leaves. There are some interesting oral accounts of how garlands were offered by puppet dolls or angels tied to ropes and slide down towards the chariot which were caught by the priest standing near the deity on the chariot.37 Many people follow the chariot either singing bhajans or simply walking as part of a personal vow. Most Chettiar devotees who have vowed to carry their kavatis follow the chariot. They prepare their kavatis in the Vinayakar temple at Kiong Siak Road in the morning and towards evening after performing ārati and preparing Vinayakar pongal, begin their journey towards Tank Road before the chariot rolls off. A pongal is also prepared before the kavati is taken followed by recitation of kavati cintu, in which women also participate.
The Chettiar kavatis are taken to the Mariamman temple on their way to the Thandayudhapani Temple on Tank Road. After reaching Tank Road before midnight, many devotees dance with their kavatis and the utsavar is made to rest on a platform in the mandapa inside the Thandayudhapani Temple. Early next morning, the kavatis are taken out again around the temple on the nearby River Valley Road and Killney Road when Chettiar ladies carrying pālkutams, milk pots, also join in. Finally brown sugar from the pots is mixed to form the pancāmritam and abhishekam is offered to the main idol (which is in the form of a vel) and prasādam is distributed.