The Many Places of Singapura – Part 1

It all began when someone posted an obscure 100-year-old newspaper article on the Singapore Heritage email list, about how a member of the Archaeological Society in England pointed out the origins of the name Singapore. Singhapura, or the city of the lion, was obviously one of Indic influence, and also a very powerful name at that

It all began when someone posted an obscure 100-year-old newspaper article on the Singapore Heritage email list, about how a member of the Archaeological Society in England pointed out the origins of the name Singapore. Singhapura, or the city of the lion, was obviously one of Indic influence, and also a very powerful name at that: considering lions are only found in the extreme west of India the symbol of the lion must have considerable strength to have travelled all the way to Southeast Asia. Throughout history, there have been more than one place claiming the name of the Lion City, said archaeologist Lim Chen Sian, including Sri Lanka and parts of India. In Southeast Asia, there have been “Singapores”, or more accurately Lion Cities in Vietnam and Indonesia.

Probably the first recorded mention -and thus the original – Lion City is Simhapura, in what is today Tra Kieu, Quang Nam province in Vietnam. Simhapura, or the Lion Citadel served as the first capital of the Champa from the 4th to the 9th centuries. The kingdom of Champa – in the sense that kingdom is a loose collective of smaller principalities. Nonetheless, Champa maintained an important role in the trade routes between China, the Malay archipelago and beyond, to India and Persia. Typical of many of the trading communities in Southeast Asia in the first millenium, religion in Champa was mainly Shaivist and later Buddhist.

In the 9th century, the new northern state of Dai Viet invaded Quang Nam and occupied it until the end of the 10th century. Not much of Simhapura remains today, save for bits of the wall, some stone banisters and rectangular ramparts. Today, the top of Tra Kieu hill is home to a Catholic Church, first built by the French during their occupation. One can still the ancient city’s outline from the mountain church.

Tra Kieu Mountain Church
The Mountain Church of Tra Kieu

The nearby My Son Sanctuary (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) stood as Champa’s intellectual and spiritual capital during the same period – fortunately, that has survived, despite recent bombing by the Americans during the US-Vietnam war.

So what other places in Southeast Asia might have claimed the name of Singapura/Singhapura/Simhapura? Part 2 should be out later in the week!

Related Books:
Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by I. Glover and P. S. Bellwood (Eds)
The Art of Champa by J. Hubert
Hindu-Buddhist Art Of Vietnam: Treasures From Champa by E. Guillon

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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