Singapore is a cosmopolitan city. Go downtown and you’ll know hear several languages spoken before you can walk a block.But if you want more visible examples of cultural diversity then head Chinatown. There, along South Bridge road, are temples of three different religions, all in one street and just a short distance from each other.
With a very limited time, I tried to see as much as I can of these three temples, the biggest and grandest of which is the Buddha Tooth and Relic Temple and Museum. There are several levels you can visit, unfortunately I was only able to go around the first floor.
Related: Chinatown in 3 hours
The temple got its name from a relic of the Buddha that is housed in it. The relic was found in a stupa in Myanmar.
The temple’s architectural style is Tang dynasty style. Utmost care was given to the accuracy and authenticity of the temple's design. Construction started in 2005 and was finished 2 year later to the tune of S$62 million.
One of the things you will immediately notice are the couple of gate guardians on both sides of the mountain gate. These are called “Dvarapala” and are usually in human-demonic form or a fierce-looking creature, and are meant to protect the holy place and relics inside. They come in pairs or may be in a group depending on the how "rich" the temple is.
Visitors can burn incense sticks and offer a short prayer before entering the main hall.
Maitreya Hall/Hundred Dragons Hall
Nothing you've read about how grand the temple is can ever prepare you as you enter the main hall. The richness of details and intricacies are quite difficult to describe. I froze for a couple of minutes trying to take in everything I see before me.
Nothing was left undecorated - from the walls to the ceilings. On both sides of the hall are the statue of the 100 Buddhas. At the center is the Buddha Maitreya Trinity: Buddha Maitreya is flanked by Bodhisattva Dharma Garden Grove on the left and the Bodhisattva Great Wondrous Appearance on the right. A Tang period statue at Fo Gong Si at Mount Wutai, Shanxi, China was used as model for Buddha Maitreya.
Behind the Maitreya Trinity is the Maitreya Five Dragons Embroidery. It consist of five swirling dragons, five bats, and five golden carp.
The main theme of this massive embroidered backdrop is the classic chinese fable of dragons metamorphosing from their previous incarnations as carp. The five adult dragons are five-clawed creatures with ferocious countenance. They bar their fangs amidst flowing long whiskers and antlers with thick pointed eyebrows and pointed vertebral scales. Their scaled bodies are golden with white bellies. They seem to fly effortlessly amongst thick billowing clouds and streaks of fire. - www.btrts.org.sg
High above the Maitreya Trinity is the Maitreya Canopy depicting a golden dragon.
These symbols can be divided into several categories, for example: lotuses (padma), thunderbolt scepters (vajra), bells (ghanta), wheels (chakra), weapons (ayudha), pots (kalasa), maces (gada), ritual accessories and instruments. The depiction of Buddhas is generally based on the list of thirty two major signs and eighty minor indications of a ‘Great Being’ as outlined in the Lakkhana Sutta, the Brahmayu Sutta and the Agamas of the Chinese Buddhist canon. A so-called ‘Great Being’ refers to either a Buddha (such as Buddha Shakyamuni) or Chakravatin kings .- www.btrts.org.sg
Scented candles and fresh flowers are seen near the entrance of the hall. Devotees buy and offer these during the ceremonies.
Universal Wisdom Hall
Just beyond the Hundred Dragons Hall is the Universal Wisdom Hall. I was fortunate to see a Buddhist ceremony during the visit.
The Universal Hall features a beautifully hand carved Tang period Bodhisattva Cintamanicakra Avalokitesvara sitting atop an elaborate lotus throne. The Heart Sutra is embroidered on the rear wall, along with the embroidered lotuses waving in the breeze. Along the sides are the 8 Zodiac Protectors, surrounded by smaller Bodhisattva Cintamanicakra Avalokitesvara statues,all together creating a peaceful and calm atmosphere to reflect and pray for compassion. - www.btrts.org.sg
Too many to see, too little time
Just a couple of reminders when you are there:
- Guests are expected to dress properly, no shorts or short skirts for the ladies. But the temple provides some sarong for cover-up
- Be respectful and avoid talking loudy
- Make sure to turn off your flash
- Photography is prohibited in the sacred relic chamber