About Nattukkottai Chettiars

Origin of Nattukkottai Chettiars
Nattukkottai Chettiars and their Trading Business 
Nattukkottai Chettiars' contribution to the Growing Commerce in Singapore
Displacement of Nattukkottai Chettiars 
Why Nattukkottai Chettiars build Murugan Temples wherever they settle?

Origin of Nattukkottai Chettiars

Sri Thendayuthapani Temple not only epitomizes the glory of Lord Muruga, but also that of the Chettiars, once a community of traders, merchant-bankers and moneylenders. 

They hail from the Sivagangai and Pudukottai districts of Tamil Nadu State in India. They settled down in 96 Villages in these two districts

They are often referred to as Nattukkottai Chettiars to distinguish them from other groups of Chettiars. The term "Nattukottai Chettiars" means "people with palatial houses in the countryside". 

They are also referred to as "Nagarathars" meaning city dwellers, as they lived in a city called Poompuhar on the east coast of Tamil Nadu, a part of which went under the sea.

It is not certain when the Nattukkottai Chettiars came to Singapore first. However, Tamil literature, especially Silapathikaram of the second century, speak of the many travels that the traders had made to this part of the world prior to the founding of modern Singapore by Stamford Raffles in 1819. 

In his book entitled, "The Rise of Malaya", P N M Muthu Palaniappa Chettiar writes that the Chettiars could have arrived in Singapore sometime before 1838. 

However, A. Ramanathan Chettiar who wrote the "History of the Nattukkottai Chettiars" says that the Chettiars had travelled in sailboats to Penang and Singapore in 1824.

It was during this same period, Nattukkottai Chettiars started migrating to other countries such as Myanmar (Burma), Srilanka (Ceylon) and Malayan Peninsula.

Nattukkottai Chettiars and their Trading Business

The first census in Singapore was held in 1824. The records show the presence of 756 Indians. "The Klings were numerous and respectable as traders. The Bengalees few, and only as menials." (Buckley quoting Mr. Crawford's letter of Jan 1824 from The first 150 years of Singapore by Donald &Joanna Moore). 

Some of these respectable traders could have been members of the Nattukkottai Chettiar community as word had gone to Penang and India that there were business opportunities in Raffles' trading post Singapore, and that there was a need for merchants and money-lenders to provide the much needed finance for the newly established shop-keepers and businessmen.

Nattukkottai Chettiars with their trading experience were delighted to be of service. They established their trading business across the Singapore River at Market Street. Their business houses were known as kittangis (warehouse shops). The kittangis were long buildings with no partitions. Each of the moneylenders occupied a space with a cabinet and a wooden cashier's box, which they kept inside the cabinet after the day's business. The Chettiars in addition to running the money lending business had invested heavily in properties. A lot of warehouses along the Singapore River near River Valley Road had belonged to them. 

A good number of Nattukkottai Chettiars had established themselves in that part of the city that some roads, Meyappa Chettiar Road, Arunasalam Chetty Road, Narayanan Chetty Road and Muthu Raman Chetty Road, were named after them.

  A Statue of Chettiar in Boat Quay

Nattukkottai Chettiars' contribution to the growing commerce in Singapore

The Nattukkottai Chettiars' contribution to the growing commerce cannot be under-estimated. Credit companies were unknown in those days. In addition to the banks, it was the Nattukkottai Chettiars and some members of the Sikh community who provided the money that was needed by the small businessmen.

".... The British - who provided government, law and order, in essence, security and immigrant groups, the Chinese and to a lesser extend but still notable extend, the Indians - who provided the sinews of commerce and colony building-were complementary, each indispensable to the other. The Chinese and Indians’ contribution to the development of Singapore was just as important, just as necessary as that of the British..." (The First 150 years of Singapore by Donald & Joanna Moore)

Chettiars' Chamber of Commerce Meeting 

Photograph taken during 1938

Having established several kittangis or business houses at Market Street, the Chettiars carried on a thriving businesses dealing in a variety of goods. Their kittangis were surrounded with spice and other sundry goods merchants with whom they had excellent business relationship. And almost after one hundred years of their arrival in Singapore, they established the Nattukkottai Chettiars Chamber of Commerce in 1928, seven years before the Indian Chamber of Commerce was founded. 

Some elders of the community remember the time when the Chamber issued daily bulletins on the rubber and tin prices in Malaya and Singapore. It contained more information and analysis than the bulletins issued by the Indian Chamber of Commerce. The Chettiars focused on rubber because they were among the first planters in Malaya. The proprietors of some of these plantations lived in Singapore.

Some members of the community ventured into the money-lending business as well. In time to come, this business attracted more members of the community and they established their kittangis at Clemenceau Avenue and at Cantonment Road. 

However, these kittangis were over period of time, acquired by the government. They also owned large pieces of land at Changi where they had coconut plantations and gardens. The flowers and young coconuts needed for the temple came from there until the government acquired these lands.

Displacement of Nattukkottai Chettiars

The kittangis at Market Street, where the Nattukkottai Chettiars had concentrated their trading and money lending business, were acquired for urban renewal in the 1970s and almost immediately the Chettiars found themselves displaced. It is indeed sad that the community, which helped Singapore to earn its reputation as a financial center, did not put up a landmark of its own in the area where it had its business for more than one and a half centuries. 

Being satisfied with the compensation they received, the Nattukkottai Chettiars began to concentrate themselves at the remaining few kittangis at Tank Road. At present members of the 800 odd Nattukkottai Chettiar families in Singapore can be found in Civil Service, Banking, Educational institutions, Information Technology, Construction, Law, Medical and other professions.

Kittangis at Market Street 

Photograph during 1970's

Inside view of a Kittangi at Market Street 

Photograph during 1960's

Kittangi at Tank Road

Photograph during 2010

Why Nattukkottai Chettiars build Murugan Temples wherever they settle?

It was a practice for the Nattukkottai chettiars to build Murugan temples wherever they settled outside India. This was the case in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Myanmar (Burma), Malaysia (Malaya), Singapore (Singapura), Vietnam and Indonesia. They had the advice of Sivachariars not to build any Sivan Temples as certain rituals had to be observed. As the Brahmin Sivachariars were prohibited from crossing the seas, they advised them to establish Thendaythapani Temples where non-Brahmin priests, the Pandarams could be employed. This does not mean that the Brahmin priests had not visited South East Asia before. Records show that there had been the priests at the Royal Courts of Thailand and Cambodia. The Hindu Traditional practice of reciting Thiruvempavai during the coronation of Thai kings bear testimony to this. No one is certain when and why the Sivachariars - the Tamil speaking Brahmin priests stopped coming to South East Asia.

By the third quarter of the 19th century things changed and the Brahmin priests in India, particularly Tamil Nadu became adventurous as the rest of the Indians and decided to seek their fortunes in Malaya and Singapore.

With this development, the chettiars decided to build a separate sanctum for Lord Sivan and His consort. They placed Sivan and Goddess Sakthi in that sanctum in 1878. However a consecration ceremony was only held eight years later, on 26th Jan 1886. Because the Nattukkottai Chettiars hailed from the Pandia district of Tamil Nadu,they refer to Lord Sivan as Chockalinga and Shakti as Meenakshi. The present temple has separate sanctums for Lord Sivan and His consort Meenakshi amman.

It is approximately estimated that Nattukkottai Chettiars build the below number of temples in these six countries outside India. Most of the temples are built for Lord Sri Thendayuthapani also called as Murugan.

  • Sri Lanka (Ceylon) - 25
  • Myanmar (Burma) - 59
  • Malaysia (Malaya) - 20
  • Singapore (Singapura) - 2
  • Vietnam - 1
  • Indonesia -1 

Sri Thendayuthapani Temple, Kyawechan Village in Myanmar (Burma)

Sri Kathiresan Temple, Matale Town in SriLanka (Ceylon)

Sri Thendayuthapani Temple, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam