Seventy-year-old man returns to his birthplace, the shrine renovated as a heritage centre
Retired teacher Shaik Kadir’s earliest childhood memories are tied to a former shrine that has been a familiar sight in Singapore’s Telok Ayer Street for close to 200 years.
He was born in the tiny caretaker’s room of the Nagore Dargah, built by early Indian Muslim settlers, and lived there until his father, who was caretaker, died when Kadir was seven.
“I remember he was lying there, on a mat in the main hall, when his friend, who was with me at the time, asked me if he had stopped breathing,” said Kadir. “I couldn’t stop crying afterwards.”
Shortly after his father’s death, Kadir moved out of the Indian Muslim religious monument to Geylang Serai with his mother and his younger sister.
Kadir, now 70, returns regularly to check on his place of birth.
About 50 years ago, when he was in his early 20s, he was disappointed when he visited the monument. “The whitewash had turned black from rainwater and street dust. I felt sad, feeling quite sure that the building would be demolished one day,” he said.
But his worries were unfounded.
The former Nagore Dargah, which sits at the junction of Telok Ayer and Boon Tat streets, has since been restored as a heritage centre detailing the history of the Chulia, or Indian Muslim, immigrants in Singapore.
It was built in 1830 as a replica of the original Nagore Dargah – a shrine in the town of Nagore in India - to honour the 13th century Muslim saint Shahul Hamid.
The original shrine in Nagore was built over the tomb of the pious Sufi holy man who is said to have performed many miracles and acts of healing.
Early Chulia immigrants would visit the shrine in Nagore to pray for a safe journey before they set sail for the Straits Settlements.
These immigrants, mostly merchants, were attracted by the British trading post in Singapore and entered the island from the seafront that used to face Telok Ayer.
While the bodily remains of the saint remained in Nagore, grateful Chulia immigrants erected a replica of the original Nagore Dargah to thank the saint for a safe journey.
The building subsequently became an important religious monument for the Chulias, alongside the Al-Abrar Mosque down the street, where many would gather for Friday worship.
The two were gazetted as national monuments in 1974. Three other national monuments – Thian Hock Keng Temple, the former Keng Teck Whay Building and Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church – line the same street.
Telok Ayer Street was then a colourful and bustling street, Kadir said, fondly remembering the Chinese storytellers, five-cent cowboy movies and fruit sellers on pushcarts in the area.
Amid the many places of worship on the street, Nagore Dargah stands out with its pointy minaret-like towers extending over its flat roof, and a horseshoe arch entrance, just two of its many elements of traditional Islamic architecture.
On closer inspection, the building reveals itself to be an eclectic mix of East and West.
Nagore Dargah’s facade and interior are framed by Corinthian and Doric columns, commonly seen in ancient Greek architecture. Large French-style windows with semi-circular fanlights also line the side facing Boon Tat Street.
In 2010, when Kadir found out that the building was going to be revived as a heritage centre for Indian Muslims, he donated a photo of himself as a boy on the rooftop and a birth certificate stating that he was born in 140 Telok Ayer Street, the address of Nagore Dargah.
The Nagore Dargah Indian Muslim Heritage Centre was officially opened in 2011 by the late President S R Nathan, who had supported the transformation of Nagore Dargah into a heritage centre.
Naseer Ghani, secretary of the centre’s management committee, said Nathan was very involved in the establishment of the heritage centre and gave advice on how it should develop.
“He also advised us about how we should educate young Singaporeans about the history and culture of our pioneers, including minority groups like the Indian Muslims,” he said.
While it may now be a heritage centre, Kadir said Nagore Dargah, which once towered over its neighbours, has remained largely unchanged. “The floors are nicely tiled now and they did some refurbishing, but everything, these columns, these doors, these cast-iron gates are all the same,” he said.
Standing of the rooftop of his former home, the grandfather of two said: “This is where I used to play with Ah Gow, my next-door neighbour and my classmate at Sepoy Lines. We would kick a rubber ball around here.”
Peering out of the roof at the building opposite, he said: “I remember I could actually look into Ah Gow’s room from here.”
While Kadir is heartened to see the former shrine enjoying a new lease of life, he knows some things will never be the same again. “Years ago, after I grew up, I came back here and tried to look for Ah Gow. But nobody around here seems to know about him any more. Perhaps they moved as well.”