Marian grottos have evolved into unique sites of cultural hybridity and artistic expression in the city-state
A Marian grotto on the premises of Singapore's St Ignatius Church. (Photo supplied)
On Aug. 15, millions of Christians celebrate the Feast of the Assumption, commemorating the ascension of Mary, mother of God, to heaven. However, in Singapore, Mary holds a distinct position as a religious figure who reflects the ethnic and religious diversity of the city-state.
The little red dot, on the strait between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, is a highly multicultural nation with people coming from all around Asia. While English dominates the public sphere, the constitution recognizes four official languages: English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil.
Ten religions are legally recognized and public holidays honor each of them in Singapore, considered a melting pot of Asian cultures and a city-state where Western culture fuses with Eastern systems. From its food courts through its urban landscape, Singapore stands as a crossroad of cultures.
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But this rich diversity is not simply a juxtaposition of traditions. As we can see with discourses and practices surrounding Mary, some religious figures and cultural practices transcend ethnic, linguistic, and economic boundaries.
In Singapore, Mary encapsulates the multicultural reality of the city-state. She is venerated by numerous Christians and non-Christians alike, standing at the center of a remarkable tapestry of cultural and religious traditions.
In Catholic churches across Singapore, for instance, Mary is prominently represented within grottos situated outside the sanctuary, near the street, and accessible to all. While grottos featuring Mary are common in Catholicism worldwide, in Singapore, they have evolved into unique sites of cultural hybridity and artistic expression.
"The multicultural features of Mary in Singapore extend beyond artistic expression and resonate in the hearts of devotees"
These grottos exhibit a sophisticated design, incorporating harmonious piles of rocks, flowing water, and lush vegetation. They often feature a statue of Mary inspired by the French school of spirituality, surrounded by a miniature living landscape influenced by East Asian traditions and adorned with plants and fishes native to Southeast Asia. Through this synthesis of cultural diversity, artistic impulses, and religious sensibilities, these grottos embody the spirit of Singapore.
Some of these grottos are true masterpieces that deserve attention. Notable examples can be found at the Church of St Michael in Toa Payoh and at Saint Ignatius Church in Holland Village.
However, the multicultural features of Mary in Singapore extend beyond artistic expression and resonate in the hearts of devotees. At Novena Church, for instance, a significant number of visitors do not identify as Catholics but rather as Buddhists, Hindus, or Taoists. These non-Christian devotees do not seek to convert or change their religious beliefs; instead, they offer prayers according to their own traditions, paying respect to Mary as a benevolent mother.
Similar to the Marian shrines of Velankanni, India, and Sona, Indonesia, Novena Church attracts Hindus and Muslims who are moved within their own religious traditions to seek solace and assistance from Mother Mary. All kinds of devotees approach her.
Even among Catholics, Mary serves also as a unifying force, reconciling differences. Those who turn to her for guidance come from diverse age groups, spiritual sensibilities, and social backgrounds. Some do not attend Mass regularly but prefer to seek comfort in Mary when they face challenges or concerns.
Remarkably, Mary's presence is not confined to Christian sites of worship in Singapore. For instance, at the Origin of the Self, a new Taoist movement founded by Professor Zhang Bu Sheng in Geylang, Mary is venerated alongside numerous deities from Taoist and Buddhist traditions. Professor Zhang organizes rituals with distinctly Chinese features to make offerings to Mary, emphasizing her role as the mother of Jesus who achieved a higher state of being through meditation.
"Mary reconciles social and religious differences, embodying a unifying force that reflects the city's diversity"
Beyond institutional sites of worship, Mary is very often found within interfaith families as a figure of unity in diversity. In the many households in which multiple religious affiliations coexist, she is the Christian figure that is the most commonly found next to Guanyin (the Goddess of mercy in East Asian Buddhist tradition) and other non-Christian symbols. When family members do not share the same faith, the benevolent mother is a factor of religious harmony.
Similarly, Mary is often the religious marker that Catholics select for their workplace. Statues or discreet images of the Virgin can be found in Singaporean shops, offices, or businesses. These commercial spaces are not religious sites per se. But Mary helps to cross the modern divide between secular and religious spheres.
This illustrates how, in Singapore, Mary reconciles social and religious differences, embodying a unifying force that reflects the city's diversity. Either within the domestic sphere or within more established religions, Mary transcends boundaries. The diverse range of emotions and motivations people bring to Mary, as well as the socio-religious paths they forge around her, provide insights into the multifaceted nature of Singaporean society.
While Aug. 15 marks the assumption of Mary to heaven, a renewed interest in Marian studies offers a deeper understanding of the people who venerate her. Research on Mary among Asian devotees organized at the National University of Singapore reveals her unique role as a witness to the ongoing socio-religious transformations in Singapore and other Asian societies.
By appreciating the numerous practices surrounding Mary, the most universal religious figure of Asia, we gain valuable insights into the cultural encounters and religious dynamics that shape a society. Mary's story serves as a bridge, connecting people from various faith traditions and backgrounds, and offering a glimpse into the rich tapestry of a country like Singapore.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
The Church in Asia needs objective and independent journalism to speak the truth about the Church and the state. With a network of professionally qualified journalists and editors across Asia, UCA News is all about this mission.
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