This page explores the different ritualistic practices, festivals, and ritualistic items that can be found at the vernacular shrines. Devotees paying respect to the deities at these vernacular shrines come from different occupational, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. They are often either residents or workers who live or work in the vicinity where the shrine is located.
We examine how these festivals and rituals are being organized which reflect the religious co-existence in Singapore, based on several key ideas, such as their physical features, common practices, and key ceremonies.
Many of the vernacular shrines are simply decorated. Over time, however, various types of ritualistic items are donated by the devotees, which can result in these shrines displaying a rich collection of these items.
Devotees usually pay respect to vernacular shrines on the first and fifteenth day of the lunar month. For vernacular shrines with pluralistic features, prayers may be made according to the types of deities housed at the shrine, rather than any fixed schedule.
Vernacular shrines may commemorate several key ceremonies over the course of a year, with great diversity in approach and practice to each. Offerings, rituals, and the number of worshippers already differ across these sites, and this variety manifests during the observance of ceremonies as well.
"It used to be only a small shrine, but it was run-down... someone suggested restoration, and funding from the community helped to develop it.
- Interviewee at a shrine near Redhill
Incense sticks, burning papers, and flowers are among the other common items also left at the shrine by passers-by and devotees who came to pray to these deities. It is also not unusual to find an eclectic variety of deities at these shrines and to have rituals dedicated to each one.
Some of these vernacular shrines have even developed semi-permanent features such as built canopies or even electrical lights, weaving into the physical landscape of Singapore. These items constitute some of the more prominent physical features at these shrines apart from the statues of deities themselves. Such features thus indicate the inclusive, diverse nature of Singaporean society to coexist at the same physical sites, despite the variation in practice, offering, and beliefs.
Devotees may pray not only to the deities of their own religious faith but also to the gods that belonged to other religious faith that were placed on the same altar. Offerings are then made that reflect the deities present, on top of items such as incense sticks.
For example, if a vernacular shrine houses Ganesha as its main deity, the devotees may use Hindu-styled incense and adorn the deity with marigold or jasmine flower garlands.
That devotees pray to and accept the presence of deities and gods of different religious faith indicates the degree of religious acceptance and religious co-existence in Singapore society. These common practices across the multitude of vernacular shrines also suggest how these sites play a role as informal nodes of social cohesion that help bind communities on the island.
"We don't invite a master to conduct rites.
One of the bus uncles who goes to the temple knows some rituals and he performs them."
- Interviewee on a retiree at a shrine near West Coast
For the shrines that are located in non-communal areas such as by roadsides or under trees, the organization of the festival is usually done on an ad-hoc basis and based on individual initiatives and/or by a small temporary committee that was made up of individuals within the neighborhood to manage the festival.
For the shrines with pluralized features, food, and incense offerings will be offered to both the Chinese, Hindu, and other faith deities and spirits. The celebration of key ceremonies like the Hungry Ghost Festival thus cuts across religious and ethnic boundaries at vernacular shrines, indicating the nuanced and vibrant cultural diversity in Singapore.