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HERITAGE SPOTLIGHT

146-year-old Sri Krishnan Temple evolved from makeshift shrine to temple compound

Parts of the Sri Krishnan Temple, built in a classical Southern Indian style, started out in 1870 as a shrine under a banyan tree

At the junction where Waterloo Street meets Bencoolen Link sits the 146-year-old Sri Krishnan Temple.

Said to be the only Hindu temple in Singapore wholly dedicated to the deity Lord Krishna, it began in 1870 as little more than a humble makeshift shrine under a banyan tree at the end of Waterloo Street, where Indian migrants gathered for prayers and fellowship.

It evolved slowly - it had a concrete roof only from 1959 onwards - and underwent successive renovations over the years as the temple management changed hands several times.

Today, the compound is about 1,008 sq m and comprises a 220 sq m prayer hall and a 788 sq m four-storey annexe with a basement of multi-purpose rooms.

Because of its age and architectural and social significance, part of the temple - its gopuram (main entrance tower), main prayer hall and surrounding boundary walls - was gazetted for conservation in June 2014.

The temple is built in a classic, Southern Indian style, in accordance with temple literature, says Ms Ang Li Shian, a planner in the Urban Redevelopment Authority's conservation department.

The temple literature, known as the Agama Sastra, prescribes the rules for temple building, including the direction it faces and its proportions and building materials.

The temple has an impressive main entrance, which features vividly painted statues depicting the 10 incarnations of Hindu deity Vishnu, a wedding scene and Garuda, the winged steed of Vishnu in Hindu mythology.

Part of the Southern Indian style also includes having an ornate, prominent gopuram.

The Sri Krishnan Temple's gopuram is double-sided and all statues on both sides are studded with semi-precious stones.

The tallest point of the temple is the dome, which was constructed in 1933 and is about 8m tall. It is adorned with deities.

For its most recent round of renovations in 2002, intricate design work on copper and gold plating was added to the dome. It is located above the main shrine, which was constructed in 1933.

Thanks to a skylight, devotees standing in the temple hall facing the main shrine can look up and see the dome through the glass.

The main shrine is made of manually ground Chinese pebbles and granite. It has multiple cornices and pilasters, which further contribute to its sturdy look.

According to temple trustee Pakirisamy Sivaraman, 70, the shrine survived a fire in the 1970s in the area, which destroyed all the attap houses surrounding the temple.

"It's really solidly built. It was not damaged by the blaze," says the man who has been in charge of managing the temple's matters since the death of his father V. Pakirisamy Pillai in 1984. His father was the previous temple trustee.

Apart from looking into finances, temple activities and development plans, Mr Sivaraman's job scope also entails going to India to pick out semi-precious stones to adorn the deities. "It's fun. I get to imagine how I want the deities to be dressed," he says.

He points to some of the newer sculptures within the temple, which show Lord Krishna dancing with maidens, to illustrate what he means.

Unlike those at the main entrance and gopuram, these are painted in more muted, earthy tones, which help the semi-precious stones to stand out. The use of goldleaf on the maidens' headgear, arms and garments helps to further highlight the placement of the stones.

Mr Sivaraman says that while this is a more modern form of temple sculpture work, it is also a pragmatic solution. He explains that when the time comes to touch up the paintwork for the multi-coloured statues, it is hard for the painters to get back the same colours that were used years before. The earthy tones, however, are easier to replicate.

• This is a monthly column on heritage buildings.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2016, with the headline 'Makeshift shrine now ornate temple'. Print Edition | Subscribe