Growing up in Singapore, I never had any urgency or impulse to really explore Singapore like a tourist would. After all, I have all the time in the world to. It’s a place I’ve known for as long as I can remember, but one that I’ve spent the least time researching, exploring, and wandering the attractions and streets of.
Lately though, I started thinking about how I travel. I spend hours googling up places to visit outside of Singapore; I look long and hard all over the internet for beautiful places to experience. I buy a plane ticket. I spend hours and hours flying over clouds, islands, countries and air spaces to reach a foreign land where my senses are suddenly heightened and I am intrigued by every thing from the people to the buildings. But… why?
Why is it that in Singapore I walk past faces and places with little interest to take it all in right here, right now and yet I look forward to one week away to do exactly that.
There’s an apt travel quote by Dagobert D. Runes that sums up this realisation I had.
People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.
It hit me that I take my time in Singapore for granted.
So I decided to rediscover the place I was born and raised in with a new pair of eyes. Why not be a #localtourist. I shouldn’t be leading a life where I wait for holidays to go on an adventure. I can take one any time. All I need to do is learn how to put on a different set of lenses.
To start off my new found interest in all things Singapore, I thought why not visit one of the most colourful parts of Singapore, Little India.
DISCOVER: DEEPAVALI FESTIVAL VILLAGE
Hastings Road is closed off for the Deepavali Festival Village
Last weekend was the last one before Deepavali, or the Festival of Lights, on 10 November 2015. Along with my best friends, Clara and Hemma, I decided to check out the Deepavali Festival Village at Hastings Road in Little India.
The Deepavali Festival Village is a three-week bazaar held annually in anticipation of the Deepavali celebrations. Leading up to the celebrations, people visit the bazaar looking to pick up traditional and modern ready-to-wear Indianwear, festive goodies like murrukku and cookies, jewellery, handicrafts and decorations. This year, the bazaar is opened daily from 10am to 11pm, 19 September till 9 November 2015.
Crowd starts filing into the narrow walkways between stalls from noon onwards
Deepavali (also referred to as Diwali) is not, as it is commonly mistaken, the “Indian New Year”. It is in fact, an ancient festival practised by Hindus to celebrate the triumph of light over dark and good over evil. Oil lamps and candles (or Diya) are lit up, homes are dressed up with a plenitude of decorations, new household appliances are items are bought, sweets and snacks are made for consumption during the festivities and of course the best or new clothes are worn to celebrate this victory.
Hemma warned me before hand that if we were to go, we would need to go as early as possible because at just four days before Deepavali, the bazaar would likely be extremely busy and packed with people hoping to do some last minute shopping. So we made our way down at about eleven in the morning and crossed our fingers that we’d be able to mill through the aisles of stores without much trouble and jostling.
Decorations for Deepavali
The Indian community visit the Festival Market to pick up essentials in preparation of Deepavali
Thankfully, being that little bit early paid off and we had some time to admire the multitude of hanging decorations and adornments as they dangled overhead.
The makeshift stalls of the Festival Market were packed fully with Deepavali wares waiting to be bought. There were beautiful strung floral leis, all colourful and fragrant. Elephants and birds being cultural symbols of good luck in India can be found in all forms, be it in beaded good luck charms or in little decorative items.
Deepavali Good Luck Charms
Beaded decorations hand overhead give the market an almost ethereal ethnic feel
Just walking through the market, being in the midst of so much activity and colour bursting from every direction, is an experience that I thoroughly enjoyed. Of course by the time noon rolled around, the crowds started filing in and it was getting difficult to calmly wander and stop from stall to stall without the occasional elbow jab or being shoved a little.
While it is indeed hectic, it is something I’d highly recommend to visit at least once every few years to just soak in the buzz of pre-Deepavali madness. It’s pretty much like shopping at Mustafa Centre (24 hour shopping mall at Little India known for its ridiculous shoulder-to-shoulder human traffic), just much prettier thanks to the gorgeous decorations on sale.
Kolams or Rangoli
As I looked around, I noticed these adorable patterned fabric/plastic pieces on sale and I asked Hemma what they were.
She shared that these are the modern-day kolams or rangoli, a kind of Indian folk art that are drawn onto the ground using coloured rice, sand or dry rice flour, meant as sacred welcoming areas for Hindu deities. In the past, these were hand-drawn by women as not just decoration but also to bring good fortune. The intricate designs used to be unique to different families, handed down as part of tradition from generation to generation.
The bejeweled kolams I spotted at the stalls of the Festival Market were ready-made for convenience.
Sweets and snacks on sale at the bazaar
Another major attraction at the Deepavali bazaar every year is the array of delightful Indian snacks and sweets available. What festival would be complete without traditional celebratory bites?
It is customary for every Indian meal to end with a sweet treat and Indian sweets are found in abundance year round at Little India. The sweets are made of sugar, milk, khoya (dairy powder) and ghee (butter) and are for those with a real penchant for all things sweet. Of course, with the celebrations just a few days away during my visit to the Deepavali Festival Market, I was in the mood for some.
Equally yummy are the savoury spiced snacks like muruku and omapodi which are packed with flavour from spices like cumin and carom.
While many Indian families in Singapore still make their own snacks and sweets, business still looks pretty brisk for these snack stalls.
EXPERIENCE: WEARING INDIAN TRADITIONAL WEAR
Wandering Little India in a Punjabi Suit
I think it was a refreshing experience to visit the Deepavali Festival Market and Little India so close to the festival AND be dressed in Indian traditional wear.
Hemma had very kindly loaned me one of her Punjabi suits from her wonderful collection. I had initially suggested that I try on a sari for this visit, but she convinced me that it would be much better (and make me a lot more mobile) if I wore a Punjabi suit instead. The sari which is made up of a long draped cloth is wrapped around the body and would seriously restrict my motion making it unsuitable for a hot day out at the crowded market, especially by someone who has never worn it before!
Punjabi suits, originating from the Punjab region of India, are traditionally made of light cotton and consists of a long sleeved tunic that reaches up to the thighs or knees and a pair of loose fitting pants. These days the Punjabi suits can be pretty fanciful with many embellishments and even modern touches. The suit I had on is one that Hemma had made on her previous visit to India. It had a simple but elegant and timeless design that was suitable for most occasions with only a little hint of gold trim.
As a single woman, I wore a black bindi
Hemma also shared with me that most Hindu ladies wore the bindi (which is a coloured dot placed in between the brows on the forehead) these days only when they are decked out in their traditional garb. It serves both decorative and symbolic purposes. I understand that married women are required to wear the red bindi to signify their devotion to their husbands – a commitment to their husband’s well-being and longevity. The black bindi, on the other hand, is worn by unmarried women.
I noticed as I explored Little India that many women were wearing elaborate bindi designs in a multitude of colour. After some research, I found out that over the years, this ancient practice is no longer so strongly tied to its original religious and cultural roots and bindis in colours matching different outfits are now the norm.
Punjabi suits can be bought easily in Little India. There are plenty of ready-to-wear pieces in easy day-to-day classic designs in lightweight, breathable cotton and also delicate and intricately beaded silk pieces for more formal events and occasions. A set can be as affordable as under $10 or a few hundred for a tailored piece.
EAT: INDIAN CUISINE AT BANANA LEAF APOLO
Servings of complimentary crisp Papadum
We were done with our little cultural expedition to the Deepavali Festival Market by about 1pm and decided to have a hearty lunch at Banana Leaf Apolo (which many would consider an institution and landmark in Little India).
Indian cuisine is rich and flavourful thanks to the generous use of spices and seasoning. Everything is pushed to the extreme. Extremely savoury and decadent, so spicy it brings on perspiration and intensely sweet to the point of being saccharine. It’s truly an indulgent experience to dig into creamy curries that pack a load of heat with fragrant and fluffy naans (a kind of Indian flatbread).
My favourite kind of bread – Naan!
Flavoursome Chicken Tikka
Banana Leaf Apolo is one of the best (and most popular) places to enjoy a plethora of Indian cuisine served in the most traditional way possible, and as its namesake suggests, on large banana leaves. Utensils are rarely used, other than spoons for scooping “soupy” food like curries and vegetables or to dish out food during communal dining, and using of the fingertips to eat is a form of etiquette in South Indian culture.
It’s important to note though that as India is such a large country with many different regions and states, all with their own unique history, cuisine and cultural practices, what is the norm or preference in one area may not be so in another.
Stir-Fried Chinese-Indian fusion dish, Gobi Manchurian
We ordered the standard few Indian dishes we loved, but I discovered a new dish this time: Gobi Manchurian.
The Indian-Chinese fusion cauliflower dish of course is more Indian than Chinese; It is an adaptation of Chinese cooking styles and methods but with spices and seasoning to suit the Indian palate.
Cauliflower is coated in flour and deep fried before it is stir-fried in a (very delicious) dry sauce that is spicy, savoury and sweet all at the same time. While it sounds like an overload of flavours, this was actually pretty good!
We also ordered two other awesome Indian dishes, the North Indian Palak Paneer and Tandoori Chicken.
For the uninitiated, the Palak Paneer is basically cubes of cottage cheese in a spiced and garlic seasoned, pureed spinach gravy. Sounds foreign and a little difficult to imagine, but the taste is out of this world and oh so creamy and rich.
Tandoori Chicken, with its bright orange-red appearance, is probably one of the most iconic and universally recognised Indian dishes! Marinated chicken is roasted in a clay oven (or tandoori) in extremely high heat and the result is tender chicken pieces but with extremely crisp skin. What gives Tandoori Chicken its amazing taste is the combination of spices and ingredients to form the overnight marinade. It is made of a yoghurt base and combined with onions, garlic, ginger, garam masala and cayenne peppers for its spicy kick. The rendition of this dish from Banana Leaf Apolo was served with a tangy mint yoghurt chutney.
Our final bill came up to around $60 for four of us which was great value-for-money considering we had about six servings of naan (garlic and butter versions) and a serving of Chicken Tikka, Tandoori Chicken, Palak Paneer and Gobi Manchurian each, plus at least a round of soft drinks or tea for all of us. May I add that we left feeling extremely satisfied, satiated and on the verge of a major food coma. Totally worth the calories and mid-day snooze after.
Banana Leaf Apolo (Little India)
Little India Arcade, 48 Serangoon Road, #01-32, Singapore 217959
Open daily from 7:00am to 10:30am.
So that was my extremely eventful exploration of the Deepavali Festival Market last weekend. I do think I’ve barely scratched the surface of Little India! I’m sure another photowalk and visit is due.
I’m not Indian and my apologies if I may have missed (or worse, misunderstood) the cultural or religious aspects of some of the things and events I experienced in this post. I’m very keen to learn more about Indian culture and if there is anything you’d like to add or share with me, please do comment. I’m ready to be educated! Cheers!