There is an oral tradition that states that the Singapore Nagore Dargah pre-dates the arrival of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles of the East India Company in 1819. While local historians have not investigated this claim in earnestness, it is plausible for many reasons.
The annals of history record that mercantile and missionary South Indians were present in Southeast Asia long before the British established themselves in the region. We will briefly mention 2 historic personalities whose Indo-Nusantara activities in trade and proselytising are recorded.
- Habib Muhammad Maraikayar (d. 1816) [ஹபீப் அரசர் Habib Arasar] of Kilakkarai in South India was a famous South Indian merchant of the 18th century who owned a large fleet of ships. He assisted the British in their war against the Dutch in the East Indies in the early 1800s. In recognition of his erstwhile contributions, the British gifted him a nondescript Island called Andhubar. Here he set up the infrastructure to provide bunkerage services for his own ships and others who called. He also built a mosque and established a religious school. In his doctoral thesis Dr. Tayka Shu’ayb identifies Andhubar as Pulau Brani, the island located off the Southern coast of Singapore.
- Umar b. Abdul Qadir al-Qahiri (d. 1801) [உமர் வலியுல்லாஹ் Umar Waliyullah] of Kayalpatnam in South India was a zealous proselytiser. After being anointed deputy [khalifa] of the celebrated Qadiri saint Sayyid Muhammad Husain Bukhari Tangal of Cannore (Kerala), he spent about 14 years in missionary activities in the Malay Archipelago. He travelled between Aceh and Malaya where he helped establish Pesantren and Pondok respectively. He came in contact with fellow Sufis, resulting in much mutual spiritual benefit. This was clearly evident when he returned back to his homeland where he began composing sublime mystical poetry which have stood the test of time.
The South Indian presence in the Malay Archipelago coupled with the then seashore location of the Singapore Nagore Dargah reinforces the possibility that the memorial was existent before Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles had set foot on the soil of Singapore, albeit as a much simpler structure.
The Official Story
As for the official story, we quote here from the National Library Board’s SingaporeInfopedia entry on the historic Nagore Durgha Shrine:
From the early 1820s, an Indian Muslim minority from south India known as the Chulias migrated to Singapore in large numbers. The original kampong site for the Chulias as laid out in Sir Stamford Raffles’ 1823 Town Plan was at another location along the Singapore River, but over time a significant community of Indian Muslims also worked and settled around Telok Ayer Street, which came to be an important business and residential area for the Chinese.
In 1827, a piece of land at the corner of Telok Ayer Street and Boon Tat Street was granted to a man named Kaderpillai, on condition that it not be used for a wood or attap building. Lease 325 (Survey No. 7453) was issued for 99 years from 1 October 1827. One of the earliest houses of worship in Singapore, the Nagore Durgha Shrine (also known as Nagore Dargah) was built of brick and plaster and completed in 1830. It is said that the shrine was built by brothers Mohammed and Haja Mohideen as a memorial to a holy man, Shahul Hamid (also Shahul Hameed) of Nagore in southern India.
On 15 June 1893, by a court order, the Nagore Durgha properties came under new trustees, namely Mana Mohamed, Vavena Hameed, Sayna Saiboo Ghanny, Kavena Mohamed Ismail and Tana Chinny Tamby. By 1910, these trustees had either died or left Singapore, and by a court order of 21 November 1910, new trustees were appointed to look after the mosque, namely K. Mohamed Eusope, E. Tambyappa Ravooter, S. Kanisah Maricayer, V. M. Kader Bux and J. Sultan Abdul Kader. These were also the trustees for the nearby Al Abrar Mosque at Telok Ayer Street, and the Jamae Mosque at South Bridge Road.
Nagore Durgha Shrine was gazetted as a national monument on 19 November 1974, and is now in the care of Majilis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS). Reflecting the religious and cultural mix of early Singapore, Nagore Durgha Shrine is located on the same street as Thian Hock Keng Temple, Singapore’s oldest Hokkien temple, and Al Abrar Mosque, both also national monuments.
Aside from minor repairs to correct structural defects in 1991, the shrine was boarded up in the 1990s and not accessible to the public due to concerns that its structure was weak.The monument underwent major restoration works in 2007, after which it remained closed to the public.
— Takahama, V and Tan, J. (2001). Nagore Durgha Shrine. Available: http://infopedia.nl.sg/articles/SIP_536_2004-12-27.html. Last accessed 1st Apr 2011.