Singapore Travelog #4 – The Peranakans


Hope all of you are enjoying the series on Singapore. Priya Raju’s entertaining posts have definitely enlivened the proceedings – Here is her previous post. Thanks Priya.

All along the trip, we kept hearing the term “Peranakans” and it piqued our curiosity. Therefore, we decided to explore the Peranakan Museum, which is a wing of the Asian Civilizations Museum. We signed up for the tour of the museum and were fortunate to have a guide who was passionate about Peranakan Culture. Throughout the tour,  she would ask us to guess why Peranakans did something a certain way.  Given my current preoccupation with Symbology, I was able to crack many of them. The guide quipped that I must have been a Peranakan in my prior birth!

Who are the Peranakans?

Peranakan means “Local Born” – the people that were born in Singapore. Though the term usually means Peranakan Chinese, it also includes Chitty Melaka Peranakan – Indian Hindu + Local Malay mixture and the Jawi Peranakan. – Indian muslim + Local Malay. Chitty Melaka speak Malay with quite a few Tamil words.

Peranakan Religion

They follow a syncretic religion that has a mix of beliefs from Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, which they brought from Southern China. Over time they developed their own customs.

Previously in the tour, we had seen the temple of the Goddess of the Sea – Ma Cho Po. It was built by Tan Tock Seng, an  early Peranakan Chinese leader. We could see gods from all the constituent parts of the religion. The temple in Kusu Island that Priya Raju mentioned is also from the same syncretic religion.

The Peranakan fathers were Chinese Traders and hence they didn’t have scholars amongst them. Interestingly, that meant that, they didn’t have all the details of their religion accurately. For instance, the 8 immortals were key gods of the religion but are represented incorrectly as 6 or 7  in the Peranakan art, cutlery, furniture and other symbols.  One could say this is how ideas get distorted when they travel long distances.

Peranakan Customs

It is this part that is the most fascinating for an Indian Tourist. Being a male dominated culture there were so many customs that sounded eerily familiar to our own.

The daughters were trained to cook, clean, sew etc, so that they can be excellent housewives.  They were called Nonyas. Arranged marriage to well-employed men, called Babas, with an elaborate 12-day wedding (yes, 12 days) was the norm.

The elderly women went scouting for daughters-in-law. The bride to be had to prepare and serve  Sireh. Sireh had Betel leaf lightly smeared with lime paste as well as betel nut slivers (Seeval) like Tamil Vethala Pakku. The Nonyas had to know how to make the Sireh well. If she folds the Sireh in the correct way then she is  thought to be well-trained. If the bride to be was not acceptable for any reason, the elder will simply not accept the Sireh indirectly saying “No” to the Nonya.

The 12 day wedding was very interesting. On the wee hours of Day 1 the bride and groom have to go through what they call as the “Hair Combing” ceremony in their own homes. It is supposed to be symbolic of the coming of age.

Later on day 1, the First Meal Ceremony happens when the bride and groom share a meal for the first time. They also feed one another some portions.  Most likely this the first time they meet each other. Sounds familiar, eh!

Then a procession of the bride and groom happens. Both of them have an attendant holding a  large umbrella to give them shade (the umbrellas looked somewhat like the ones we carry during processions of Hindu Gods in Southern India).

Aunts of the bride & groom follow them behind like in our Hindu Brahmin weddings.  But the Peranakan twist is that these guests will have to be specifically invited based on whether their horoscopes were matching with the bride and groom. Widows were never invited. If the lady had many sons, she was much preferred!

On Day 3, the Tea Ceremony with in-laws happens. Traditionally, this is when the in-laws give their wedding gifts to the bride and groom.

Like in our arranged marriages, a lot of gifts – furniture, vessels etc are given by the bride’s family to the newly weds. Interestingly, the Peranakans never use any nails in the furniture because of its association with coffins.

On the 12th day, the white kerchief placed on the bed for the first night is checked for virginity and if not the marriage could be canceled!

Peranakan Mourning

They also had elaborate rituals for their ancestors. Every home had an altar that has a cupboard which contains the ancestral tablets – one for each ancestor.

When the man of the house dies, the women go into mourning for 3 years. She has to wear a dress made of sackcloth for a period of time after which it is burnt. As time passes, the color of the dress changes to specific colors that indicate the elapsed time of mourning. It is only after 3 years that she can wear normal clothes. Of course, there are no such rules for men!

Overall, the brief tour of the Peranakan culture indicated how conservative cultures think alike across the world.


Questions for the readers. When did Hinduism go to South East Asia? Was it with the Chola conquests in South East Asia?

Click here for the next post on Singapore.


  1. Quote

    Interesting post Sukumar. and quite an insight offered into the Peranakan religion and customs

    //Both of them have an attendant holding a large umbrella to give them shade

    Sounds very much like our Kasi Yatra but the purpose i presume was different!! 😉

    And about the question in the end, i dont think the cholas were the first to introduce Hinduism in south east asia. According to the little i know, i think originally the Champa (??) kingdom of Vietnam was the first Hindu dynasties, after which came the Srivijayan kingdom (instrumental in promoting Hinduism) in Indonesia which was later overthrown by the Cholas.
    I could be totally wrong and off the mark but this is what i read somewhere that the Cholas were not the first to spread Hinduism in South east Asia.

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    Very Interesting Sukumar,

    Analogies make perfect sense .Really nice to see that this culture has taken a mix of 2 cultures Indian Chinese.
    //For instance, the 8 immortals were key gods of the religion but are represented incorrectly as 6 or 7 in the Peranakan art, cutlery, furniture and other symbols.//

    This is an interesting observation Sukumar.I mean Chinese civilization they have 8 immortals(people familiar with Gung fu movies will be able identify as the eight styles),but in India we have the seven immortals.So its very logical to have this confusion as over period of time both these civilizations have had their influence on Peranakan.

    //Every home had an altar that has a cupboard which contains the ancestral tablets – one for each ancestor//
    This looks very much like Pindam which is kept on Hindu Mouring rituals.

    I find Indian Influence being more prominent than the Chinese Influence ,but the tea cermony is very much chinese .
    But may be if look at the other cermonies we can find the chinese in it .

    But to your question on when Hinduism reached SE Asia,that could be seperate study by itself.Under Cholas (10 th century) we know that Buddhism was the dominiant relgion of Srivijaya as the King of Sriviajaya had built a Budhist Vihara called Chudamani Vihara in Nagapatinam (supported by the earlied Cholas).
    Hinduism could have spread during any period post 1st century AD to 12 th Century.

    The Pandya’s who had sent an embassy to Rome as early as 4th century would not have missed out in SE Asia? So they could be a source.
    Pallavas were Sea farers they could have spread the relegion in 8 th century (considering the Angor Wat is Vaishnava temple ,i find this theory possible as the early Pallavas were Vaishnaivites)
    Ofcourse the famous theory of Kambhoja;s migrating to Ceylon and establishing a Kingdome there ….they could have done it too.If that had happened then it would be in the 3rd century..
    But I am confident of one thing that it was definetly not the later Cholas , as when they conquered SE Asis it was a Buddhist Kigndom,they could have revitalised a relgion which was dormant but not establish it as a new religion.
    I dont agree with Champa theory of Revs as Funan (in Indo China) existed as Hindu empire even before the Champa empire…..

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    I just made a long post i dont know if it went for a moderation 🙁

  4. Quote

    Nice post. I really wonder how you manage to get time to write these long posts. 🙂

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    Peranakan culture seems really inviting 🙂 especially for guys ! Too bad they decided to keep everything strictly to ‘local borns’. High time they gave ‘equal status’ to immigrants 🙂

    Nice to know about the similarities in marriage ceremonies. Lot of them seem to have a real loose resemblance. But do we really have 12 day long marriages in India ?

  6. Quote

    Excellent capture. I have some questions though, Did you take notes while guide explained to you? then you must be knowing shorthand, or you used a voice recorder to record all? then what is the voice recorder memory? or stroed all in brain then teach us how to keep brain this sharp.

    As soon as i reading about Peranakan, i think about Amish in US. Amish is a very conservative group, but living in middle of progressively developed culture. I think Singapore and Malayasia should not treat them as Chinese, they should be given a choice to perserve their culture. I think their custom seems to familiar to us because they following Buddhism??


  7. Quote

    Sukumar – You’ve brought out the essence of the Peranakan culture well.

    I don’t think Hinduism would have traveled to the Far East because of the Cholas – their invasion was in the 11the century AD, so that’s a little late.

    The Champas prospered from the 7th Century AD – Hinduism came later, thru association with Funan. Things get a bit murky now. I read that Indianization started happening in Funan from the 1st century BC or AD – though there is scant evidence for such an early date. Or is there any evidence?

  8. Quote

    Excellent post Sukumar.

    Interestingly, the Peranakans never use any nails in the furniture because of its association with coffins.

    Do they use bamboo furniture instead?

    Sukumar, since it is a single land mass connected, is it possible for Hinduism to be there well ahead of these kings conquests as normal human migration waves? If your question is about vedic hindusim…then I am not sure.

    Also did you find any interesting IVC artifacts in any museums/places you visited in Singapore?

  9. Quote

    IVC artifacts, if you had found would have been the big bang article with enough teasers all the way from first part of this travelogue 🙂 I dont think you had a chance to encounter any.. Just in my enthu I wrote that comment above. Pl ignore.

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    Karthik – Thanks, I’ve read about Kaundinya & Vyadhapura from other websites, such as – I’ve found it to be a very useful site to get the gist of a topic.

    What I meant in my comment is, there is no proof for the story. Its mentioned in the Chinese Records, but looks like a legend: A prince/priest lands in a strange country, meets the local princess, strikes his javelin (sic) on the ground & claims it his own & marries the girl.

    That too, Kaundinya was a Brahmin. I think that’s symbolic – its an attempt to bring legitimacy to the version of Hinduism practiced in Funan & its adherents.

    This is what I think: When we consider that the Westernmost part of Funan is close to India, it seems reasonable to assume that – as Vamsi says – the faith & its adherents would have gradually migrated from India. But, people want a specific starting point – which could have triggered the story about Kaundinya.

    There might really have been a Kaundinya who went to Funan – but there’s no evidence to show that he was the fore-father of Hindu Funan.

    Anyway, that’s what I think. I may be wrong.

  12. Quote

    I totally agree on the legend part Priya,but Roman coins dated back to 1st to 4 th century AD have been located there .The link had references to those coins and hence added it .

    My logic is that the Pandya who had sent an embassy to the Roman Emperor Julian ,could not have possible ignored a civlization that was closer,So I think is likely that Pandya,s could have baptised the Funan Kingdom to Hinduism.

  13. Quote

    Karthik – Yes, they must have had a flourishing culture by 4th century AD.

    I also wonder what went first – aspects of Hinduism or Buddhism. It seems reasonable to assume that Vedic Hinduism trickled into Myanmar before Buddhism.

  14. Quote


    I am aghast that the marriage could be cancelled on the 12th day and that too due to a kerchief. Wonder what happens to the girl? Can she ever get married again?

    I am wondering if there is vetting of the groom similar to “mappilai azhappu” in South India? Probably not, given the MCPist culture you have described.

    In South India, ‘mappillai azhappu’ (translated euphemistically as “inviting the groom’) happens the night before the marriage and the groom is taken in a procession around the town. I guess the purpose is for folks in the town to raise an alert if the groom is already married. Not surprisingly, the practice is still carried out in South Indian marriages, of course at the expense of the bride’s parents.


  15. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 26, 2008, 5:52 pm:

    Thanks everyone for the comments. Sorry for the delayed responses. Blame it on my hectic travel schedule.

    Revs, thanks. Yes it does remind one of the Kaasi Yatra but then in that only the Groom does that one. As Ganesh has commented below, it reminded me of the “mapillai azhaippu”.

    You are right Hinduism spread long before the Cholas. I need to do some research on when exactly it travelled to south east asia. I think the empires you are referring to fall in the 6th-10th century AD period and i think Hinduism spread even before that.

  16. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 26, 2008, 6:05 pm:

    Thanks. Your derivations on history are excellent. I think you maybe right. I don’t know the answer to the questions myself. I will need to research. If everyone is interested, i can do a post.

    I didn’t know India had 7 immortals? Who are those? Indian influence is more seen in the Sireh etc and even that i am not sure came from India per se, although it is the most likely source.

  17. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 26, 2008, 6:06 pm:

    thanks. When you are passionate about something, you find the time for it.

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    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 26, 2008, 6:13 pm:

    Thanks. After some comments from Subba and others, I have been thinking about the status of minorities. Here is what i think – in general, no country that we have visited other than the USA, has truly well-intentioned policies towards minorities and even there, you can find faults in some areas. In Singapore, the government’s policies directly do not work against the minorities. However, from what i am beginning to understand, there is a tendency for the majority to discriminate against the minority. I am not one to condone discrimination of any kind no matter who perpetrates it. However, please don’t tell me that is somehow a unique phenomenon? For example, India has far more discrimination against minorities – all kinds of minorities and in India’s case also except for some still-archaic laws, the Government doesn’t have policies that actively discriminates.

    What gives?

    BTW, i have heard that in India marriages in my grandfather’s time were for 7 days. Even now Tambram weddings are for 3 days. So 12 days is not that big of a stretch.

  19. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 26, 2008, 6:17 pm:

    thanks for your kind words. I did take some notes but it is mostly mental notes from both myself and Priya Raju.

    About the Amish. We have visited them. I don’t think you can compare Peranakan with Amish. Amish eschew all modern technology. Peranakans simply have a conservative culture. If you took some conservative group from India (like the Tam brams) and chronicled their culture, it will look very similar to Peranakans.

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    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 26, 2008, 6:18 pm:

    Thanks. I think PK Karthik has some good pointers for research with respect to the Pandyan kingdom. Need to do some research on this topic. I don’t know the answer myself.

  21. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 26, 2008, 6:21 pm:

    Thanks. I don’t know how exactly they made the furniture without nails. Need to research that.

    We didn’t find any IVC artefacts definitely. As you said, i would have made a major deal of it, for sure.

    Interesting theory on human migration waves. As I said, i don’t have an answer. i will research it.

    Priya and Karthik, thanks for the discussion on Funan. I didn’t know about that either.

  22. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 26, 2008, 6:26 pm:

    Thanks. I didn’t want to explain the full significance of the white kerchief. The idea is this – if the kerchief doesn’t have blood on it after the first night, it means that the bride is not a virgin and hence the cancellation of the marriage.

    Yes it seems to have been a MCPist culture, not very different from the Tam Bram culture in Tamilnadu. I have heard several stories of Tam Brahm marriages getting cancelled in the marriage hall because some big shot from the groom’s side was not attended to with proper etiquette.

    Good point about Mapillai Azahippu. I think the procession of the bride and groom that i described seems similar to Mapillai Azhaippu. Not sure it had the same purpose, though.

  23. Quote

    Thanks Sukumar,

    The Indian Immortals generally accepted as per puranas are Hanuman,Markendaya,Aswathama,Kripa,Vibhishana,Mahabali and Parasurama.

  24. Quote

    Just a question on Peranakans,

    Where you able to find any stories and myths associated with Peranakas(similar to Puranas),

    I feel that can give some insight into that is practised…

  25. Quote

    Thanks Karthik. I vaguely remember the 7 immortals (chiranjeevi) from my grandma’s stories. You may have hit the bulls eye there. One of the 8 immortals is a monkey!

    Interestinglyn, he guide mentioned that the Peranakans had a set of books called the Chrit – derived from Sanskrit – Charita which contained their stories (or history?). We didn’t get time to delve into that. Maybe those are the equivalent of Puranas. Why do you ask?

  26. Quote

    This is really interesing Sukumar.

    The immortal could also be Suk Wukong one of a legenandary Chinese hero’s.He is the protaganist of s Chinese epic called Journey to the West.He is very much similar to our dear old Hanuman.He was super strong and had a underataken a journey to India

    We also a had long discussion in Archana’s symbology blog in CH1.
    Reason for me asking about the myths is that,it may give us a better insight into the orgin of religion as well as the customs.,(Similar to Indra Vizha that you had explained to me when we last met)

  27. Quote


    I understood the significance of the ‘white’ kerchief. Just that I am aghast at the technique used!! Did you see any vetting of the groom?

    The tendency to discriminate against the minorities – is that overt? How much does the government enable or disable such attitude? Are there specific reservation policies biased against the minorities?


  28. Quote

    Thanks. I don’t know much about Chinese culture. The epic that you talk about sounds very interesting. You are right, if we understood some more about Peranakan myths we can understand some more about their religion.

  29. Quote

    Thanks Ganesh. Yeah the kerchief business is shocking indeed.

    We didn’t see overt signs of discrimination.However, our trip was too short to form well-researched opinions. Need to read some more about the things Subba, Kumaran et als pointed out.

  30. Quote

    I think discrimination was there all the places under the sun. What we are worrying is human rights violations, as you can see all over the world U.S.A got criticism for their Guantanamo bay detention center, even we are very care about terrorists, what is the big mistake tamils did in singapore to punish them very harsh, like whiplashes. Discrimination was there at our day by day activities, but who care, if they are not giving apartment based on my skin, there are 1000 people waiting outside to give me the same.


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    In TN too, we used to make furniture without nails. We used wooden jammers instead of nails. I remember all the furniture in our house used to have the wooden jammers, including doors.

    Do they bury their dead or cremate them? Don’t use nails because of coffins – could it be more practical – wood has been there prior to iron nails and so everyone was using wooden studs as nails.

  32. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said January 2, 2009, 7:22 pm:

    Not sure i understand your point. The laws in Singapore are quite harsh – lashes for spitting etc. But why do you say only Tamils are subjected to that? Do you have any evidence that they selectively target the minorities for harsh punishments?

    Thanks. Interesting. You maybe right. Sometimes a practical solution later acquires some symbolic meaning. That maybe the case here also.

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