Representations of the Sacred
This page explores the many representations of the divine that are the focus of worship within vernacular shrines and some ideas and trends they suggest. The following themes can be glimpsed by examining the astounding variety of statues found within vernacular shrines.
These representations also demonstrate how complicated and fluid religious worship in Singapore may be, and the various reflections of the communities of worship they suggest.
Often, a main deity or two is the primary focus of worship at a given vernacular shrine, although the site itself can play host to a multitude of other statues.
The deity/deities served as guardian god(s) of the region to protect the area from accidents as well as to control the wandering spirits. Other features of the shrines may also result from contributions by worshippers, which does account for the eclectic appearance of some of these sites.
Change & transition
It is not uncommon for statues of deities to be “left behind” or added to vernacular shrines for various reasons.
These developments may sometimes account for the numerous statues of different deities accumulated over time at some vernacular shrines. As such, these sites of practice may also represent various complicated changes and transitions occurring within the sections of a religious community that speak to the multi-faceted and intriguing stories the shrines may hold.
Vernacular shrines feature diverse representations of deities, often playing host to multiple statues that may span and intersect with varying religious beliefs and practices.
Some of these statues even spill out beyond the demarcations of these vernacular shrines, yet are also maintained and attended to by worshippers. The collection of these statues can thus reflect the unique composition of beliefs of the local community of which the shrine is a part.
The variety of deities at a vernacular shrine may tell a complex story of the community that utilizes it. While there is often a primary deity the shrine is based around, it is rare for them to be the singular object of worship, as these sites usually host a collection of other statues and figures within their structure.
The origins of each statue can be complicated, as some are even heirloom pieces handed down decades ago. The meanings each statue holds, and the multitude of them across the vernacular shrines on this island further underscores the complicated religious tapestry of contemporary Singapore.
Change & Transition
"Some statues are additions. Others just disappear -
or even stolen, because people see them as 'powerful'"
- Interviewee at a shrine near West Coast
The presence of the many statues at the vernacular shrines of Singapore gives a glimpse into the changes and shifts of certain beliefs across communities on the island, through the physical presence of the statutes. Some of these figures are left at shrines, or even stolen from the shrines.
Consequently, some shrines located where foot traffic is high - such as markets or bus interchanges - have taken efforts to ensure the constant presence of their statues, with features of steel bars, glass panels, and locks installed to prevent theft. Others are far more open affairs, with caretakers visiting on alternate days and visitors even able to include new statues of deities at some sites.
The inclusion and presence (or indeed, sudden absence) of particular deities thus gives a sense of not just the vernacular shrine being worshipped, but potentially of the complex social relations within a community that go far beyond mere appearances.
The degree of diversity at many vernacular shrines is impressive, considering the cultures and religions that may be represented at some of these sites.
Popular Chinese religious and Hindu deities such as the statues of Vishnu, Lakshmi, Shiva, Ganesha, or the Elephant-headed God can sometimes be found beside each other. Phra Phrom is another common deity that can be found in these shrines. Ethnic variations of the Datugong can also be found, on top of the wide variety of offerings made to them. These statues at vernacular shrines are thus further indicative of the significant ethnic coexistence and interaction within common spaces in Singapore's landscape.