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Tony Boey johorkaki@gmail 🇸🇬 Singapore active senior food, travel & lifestyle diary

History of the Oldest Mosques of Singapore River


Some of us may have noticed and wondered about the four old grand mosques around Singapore River, especially as there is no sizeable Muslim community living near to the mosques today.

Image credit: Wikipedia
Why four mosques near to Singapore River? The main reason was the Jackson Plan (Raffles' vision of Singapore) published in 1822 (3 years after he first stepped foot at Singapore River in 1819). In the plan, the Chuliah Campong or Tamil Muslim enclave was just north of the Chinese Campong (Chinese enclave) west of Singapore River. Other Muslims were also attracted to settle there.

Boat Quay 1903. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
When Raffles opened the trading port at Singapore River's Boat Quay in 1819, he needed lightermen to operate small boats to transfer goods between ocean going ships and Boat Quay. For this, Raffles called upon Tamil Chulia lightermen from British India.

Image credit: Wikipedia
Chulia lightermen are Tamil Muslims who descended from Arab seafaring traders who married local women on India's Coromandel Coast (southeast India). They were famed seafarers respected for their boat handling and navigation skills. They were already working in the British ports of Madras and Penang when Raffles opened the port of Singapore.

Image credit: Wikipedia
The Chulia lightermen operated the large tongkang. Only Chulia lightermen had the skills to operate such large boats in the narrow confines of Singapore River.

By the mid-1800s, there were 2,000 Chulia lightermen operating 500 tongkang in Singapore River. (Besides being lightermen, the Chulia community also worked as traders and money changers.)

Kampung Malacca 1933. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka on Keng Cheow Street established in 1820 is the oldest mosque in Singapore (a year after Stamford Raffles first stepped foot on Singapore in 1819). 

Singapore’s first British Resident, William Farquhar was transferred from Malacca where he had been the British Resident of Malacca (1813 - 1818). He encouraged Malacca traders to move to Chuliah Campong and hence the site became known as Kampong Melaka. 

Masjid Omar 1970. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka was founded by Syed Omar bin Ali Aljunied, a wealthy Arab merchant from Palembang, south Sumatra, Indonesia.

Image credit: Wikipedia
The wood and attap roof mosque was replaced by a brick building in 1855 by his son Syed Abdullah bin Omar Aljunied. The present mosque building was built in 1982 (and renovated in 2009).

Map of Singapore 1954. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
The other three mosques (marked > ) are Nagore Dargah and Masjid Al-Abrar at Telok Ayer Street, and Masjid Jamae (Chulia) at South Bridge Road. They are all within 10 minutes walk from each other.

Image credit: Wikipedia
Masjid Al-Abrar was established 1827 on Telok Ayer Street. It was known as Kuchu Palli which means "thatched hut" in Tamil reflecting its modest beginning and its Tamil Muslim roots. It was also known as Masjid Chulia which means Chulia Mosque.

Image credit: Wikipedia
Also along Telok Ayer Street, Nagore Dargah was established between 1828 and 1830. It was built to commemorate the visit of a Chulia Muslim holy man from the Coromandel Coast of India (southeast seacoast of India).

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
A brick building was built to replace the thatched hut of Kuchu Palli in 1855. The minarets of both Masjid Al-Abrar and Nagore Dargah are marked < in this painting by Percy Carpenter in 1856. They flanked Thian Hock Keng, the Hokkien Chinese sea goddess temple.

Image credit: Wikipedia
Masjid Jamae (Chulia) on South Bridge Road was established in 1826. It is known as Periya Palli or "Big Mosque" in Tamil.

Image credit: Wikipedia
The current structure was built in 1835 and remained largely unchanged through the centuries.

Image credit: Wikipedia
The architecture of the 3 Chulia mosques were influenced by the Nagore Dargah of Nagore in Tamil Naidu (India's Coromandel Coast). Nagore Dargah was built over the tomb of Sufi saint Shahul Hameed who died in 1579.

The two Chulia mosques flanked the Hokkien Thian Hock Keng temple.

When you visit Thian Hock Keng temple, you will see these Chulia figures at the entrance door arch acknowledging the contributions of Tamil Muslim Chulia towards building the temple.

Tanjong Pagar Dock 1909. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
The Chulia tongkang was the main workhorse of Singapore River. Shippers of bulky and precious cargo relied on Chulia tongkang to handle their goods. However, with the advent of steamboats and opening of Tanjong Pagar Docks in 1864, the heydays of tongkang began to wane. Now ships can dock wharfside and transfer their cargo directly between ship and wharf.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
By the turn of the 20th century, the large tongkang no longer plied Singapore River. The smaller Chinese operated twakow took over the vacuum left by tongkang and served till Boat Quay closed in 1986. It was the twakow's turn to be made obsolete, this time by container ships.

After losing their role in Singapore River, Chulia lightermen moved out of Chulia Campong by the river and moved to Serangoon Road (Little India).


Today, the four historic mosques serve Muslims working in the Central Business District and Chinatown.

Masjid Moulana Mohd Ali M C is a relatively younger mosque founded in the 1950s to cater to expanding needs of the Muslim community working in the central business district. Now at the basement of UOB Plaza One, it was originally located in two shop lots at Market Street.

Market Street 1975. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
The Market Street shop lots where Masjid Moulana Mohd Ali was located were acquired by United Overseas Bank (UOB) in 1982.

In a mutual agreement, Masjid Moulana Mohd Ali re-opened in 1995 at its present location in the basement of UOB Plaza One. 

Masjid Moulana Mohd Ali has a capacity of 800 worshippers. It is the only mosque in Singapore located below ground.

Date: 31 Jul 2020

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