Thursday, September 3, 2015

Khmer at the Mouth of the Mekong

                                                    by Jim Goodman

Chùa Chim, a Khmer temple in Trà Vinh
       For most of its history the Mekong Delta was the most underdeveloped, least populated part of what is today Vietnam.  When the first Vietnamese, and to a lesser extent Chinese, began moving here in the late 17th century they discovered a land dominated by water, subject to the flooding of the main branches of the Mekong River, as well as its many tributaries.  In between these lay swamps and bogs and scattered patches of higher land, mostly covered with thick forests. 
       The indigenous population then was nearly all Khmer.  Some lived in the slightly higher plains that now border contemporary Cambodia.  But the bulk of them lived near the mouth of the Mekong, on lands straddling the Hu River branch, what now consists of Trà Vinh and Sóc Trăng provinces.  Even today 70% of Vietnam’s Khmer minority lives in these two provinces.  Vietnamese migrants didn’t try to expel them or take over their lands.  They simply moved next door, cleared swamps, constructed canals and made new farms.  Khmer communities remained in place, governed by their own chieftains.
Angkor Era relic at Chùa Phướng
7th-8th century Lokeswar from Trà Vinh
       That autonomy lasted until Minh Mng’s administrative reforms in the 1830s.  Vietnamese became a majority in both provinces by the 20th century.  But Khmer culture and traditions have persisted nevertheless.  The Khmer still comprise about 30% of the population in both provinces, mainly village people, with active temples and a strong ethnic consciousness.
Ao Bà Om
       No records exist of when the Khmer first settled here, but it was perhaps not long after the collapse of the Funan state in the 6th century, if not earlier.  A beautiful stone carving of the Mahayana Buddhist deity Lokeswar, found in Trà Vinh province and dated 7th-8th centuries, in the classic Khmer style, is equal to anything produced in the Cambodian heartland at that time.  It is on display in the History Museum in H Chí Minh City, along with a pair of exquisite stone, life-sized devis (unfortunately missing their heads and lower arms) from the 11th century, also from Trà Vinh.  Obviously, the Khmer cultural connection between Trà Vinh and central Cambodia goes back a long way.
Khmer devotees at Chùa Hang
       Other evidence exists of Trà Vinh’s ties with the ancient Angkor Empire.  The artificial pond Ao Bà Om, a few km from Trà Vinh city, dates its construction to over a thousand years ago and many of the temples standing today replaced earlier ones that, during Angkor times, honored Hindu or Mahayana Buddhist deities.  Chùa Phướng, on the outskirts of town, kept the ruins of one of the ancient buildings in its courtyard.  The stone staircase features railings with the original Buddhist heads in a style familiar to anyone who has visited Angkor.
       In religious matters, Khmer culture in Trà Vinh shifted to Theravada Buddhism around the same time as in the Cambodia heartland.  The first Theravada Buddhist temple in the province went up around 1450, about twenty years after the first Theravada temple in Cambodia, at Phnom Penh.  Khmer cultural development in Trà Vinh and Sọc Trăng ran parallel to that in central Cambodia, but political and administrative ties are less certain.
classical dance masks in the Khmer Cultural Museum
The two provinces are as far downriver from Angkor, or subsequent Cambodian capitals like Udong or Phnom Penh, as one can go.  Very few settlements existed between them and eastern Cambodia.  There were no big urban centers and the economy was simple, self-sufficient agriculture.  The area was not so heavily populated to be of any crucial economic importance to Cambodian governments.  It is difficult to imagine Angkor or subsequent regimes sending tax collectors or military recruiters that far away from the capital.  The Khmer at the mouth of the Mekong enjoyed virtual autonomy from the time of their first settlement until their absorption into the Vietnamese state.  Yet this political integration and the occasional assimilation campaigns in the past have not diminished the Khmer attachment to their religion, language and culture.
       Though Trà Vinh’s growth as an urban center only commenced with the early 18th century immigration of outsiders, the city today still exudes a strong Khmer atmosphere.  A large percentage of the schoolchildren are Khmer, as are many of the merchants in the covered market or on the street beside the river, easy to recognize by their darker skin complexion.  The town has several attractive Khmer temples and small groups of saffron-robed monks on a stroll through the city are a common sight in Trà Vinh.   
riverside market, Trà Vinh
       The Vietnamese form the majority of the city’s roughly 75.000 residents and several Mahayana Buddhist temples cater to them.  Trà Vinh also has a church for its Catholics and two temples for adherents of the Cao Dài faith.  The small but active Ông Pagoda, founded by Chinese immigrants from Fujian in the town’s commercial center in the 16th century, serves the local Chinese business community, while a relatively new temple on the northern side of the city to the Goddess of the Sea attracts those in the fishing trade.  
       Most of the town, including its temples, hotels and commercial center, lies along the west bank of the Long Bình River, a small, moderately busy tributary of the Mekong, into which it flows several km north of Trà Vinh.  Most streets in the residential neighborhoods are lined with tall, shady trees, unusual for a Mekong Delta town, which keep the temperatures bearable even on hot, sunny days.   Trà Vinh doesn’t offer much in the line of entertainment:  no discos or bars.  But there are a few places where one can enjoy cold beer and grilled seafood like scallops, oysters, sea snails and the tasty Delta specialty called ‘finger snail,’ a kind of elongated clam, baked with spices in its finger-length shell.   
'finger snail'
       While it’s a pleasant, uncongested place to stroll around, the main attractions in the town, and the province as a whole, are its Khmer temples.  Architecturally, they are noticeably different from the Mahayana temples of the Vietnamese and Chinese, as well as the Catholic and Cao Đài churches, resembling instead the Theravada temples in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, featuring tall, angled roofs that immediately mark their Khmer identity.
       No two are exactly alike, but they do share a number of common characteristics, both in structure and in decorative elements.  Except for a couple of smaller temples in the city center, Khmer temple compounds are walled, with fancy entrance gates, enclosing a spacious area with several buildings and groves of big shade trees.  The religious buildings rest on raised plinths, the main hall rectangular, with sloping, tiered roofs, supported either by the buildings’ exterior walls or a row of pillars.   Angled support struts, carved with images of mythical beings, half-woman, half-bird, are lined along the lower roof edges on both sides of the building, connected to either the walls or the pillars. 
unusual relief carving 
       The interior will feature a large seated Buddha, often with distinctly Khmer features, as well as a number of smaller, standing or seated Buddhas.  The walls inside will likely be covered with frescoes of Buddhist mythology and scenes of everyday life. 
       Variations in this basic design are legion.  It could be a single roof or double.  The walls on each of the longer sides of the building could be solid or scalloped with open areas.  The pillars could be plain or covered with painted patterns.  The buildings could be white, yellow or something else.   In the garden behind the main hall, or to the side or even in front there may be life-sized sculptures depicting famous scenes from the life of the Buddha, such as his first seven steps after birth, the Temptation of Mara, the first Sermon, etc.  There may be columns surmounted by a four-faced Bodhisattva, derived from the famous image at the Bayon in Angkor Thom.  There may be odd relief sculptures on walls inside the compound, like deities riding pigs, or statues of Khmer historical heroes.
Chùa Âng
       Certain temples in the immediate area boast of unique features.  Chùa Phướng, on the southern edge of the town, has its preserved Angkor-era relics.  Chùa Chím, in a wooded area on the western outskirts, features a miniature replica of Angkor Wat and the Bayon in the garden behind the main hall.  Chùa Âng, five km southwest of Trà Vinh and the most venerable in the province, lies beside the ancient pond Ao Bằ Om and is opposite a Khmer Cultural Museum.
        According to local legend, the creation of the pond originated with a dispute a thousand years ago over who had to pay for wedding expenses—the groom’s side or the bride’s.  So they decided on a contest to resolve the issue.  The women would build a square pond, the men an oval one, and whoever was nearest completion by daybreak would be exempt from wedding expenses. The women won by a trick.  Before dawn they lit lanterns to brighten the sky and fool the men into thinking the night was over.  They laid down their tools but the women continued.  When daybreak really did arrive it showed that they had won.  The oval pond no longer exists, but the women’s pond Ao Bà Om today is a popular retreat for city folks.  Tall trees surround the pond, many of their roots rising above the ground in weird and grotesque shapes.  The Àng Temple next door was originally a Hindu temple in the Angkor era and a Theravada temple replaced it in the late 15th century.  It has since been restored a number of times, including fairly recently.
       The museum across from Chùa Âng has a nice display of items relevant to the religious and material life of Khmer people.  Among the exhibits are all the traditional tools and devices used in agriculture, baskets of sundry kinds, wooden containers, mortars and boxes, hunting and fishing gear, musical instruments, temple decorations and dance masks.  On one wall are the founding dates, locations and photographs of all the major temples in the province.
decorative carving, Chùa Âng
purification rite, Chùa Âng
       Most of these lie south and southeast of the city, where nearly all the villages are Khmer, their locations marked by entry gates on the main roads with very Angkor-like images.  A turn down one of these roads takes one past rice fields backed by sugar palms and eventually reaches the temple compound, walled and forested, that lies at the edge of the residential area.
       Village houses generally sit on both sides of a canal or stream that bisects the settlement.  Trees and bushes obscure the banks and hide the water except at the several bridge crossings.  While they may do some fishing from the bridges, villagers don’t use boats to get around.  The unpaved roads through the village are barely wide enough for a car, but local vehicular traffic is all by bicycle or motorbike, anyway.  Small shops and refreshment stalls stand at major junctions, like the ones that turn back towards the main provincial roads. 
Khmer houses of split palm leaf, Trà Vinh province
       Throughout the residential area groves of sugar palms and other trees occupy every space not used for a house or a garden.  The houses, generally one story and resting directly on the ground, are not clustered but stand alone or in groups of two to four related families and are from twenty to fifty meters apart from the nearest neighbors.  Some of the wealthier villagers have houses of brick or cement, but most houses are simple structures employing split palm leaf for the walls and roofs. 
       Villagers’ lives revolve around the labor demands of an agricultural economy and the obligations of their religion.  Neither is very strenuous, for the work is only heavy at the time of planting or harvesting, when they do it collectively.  And while pious villagers make voluntary contributions to their local monastery, gifts that have sustained maintenance of the religious buildings, because monasteries are required to grow their own food, they do not have to get out in the morning to fill monks’ begging bowls. 
miniature Angkor Wat and the Bayon at Chùa Chim
       The principal characteristics defining Khmer culture and identity are language and religion, both of which appear to have good future prospects.  Instruction in the Khmer language was formerly only available to boys who enrolled temporarily in the monasteries. Nowadays Khmer is one of the three minority languages in Vietnam (the   others are Giarai in the Central Highlands and Hmông in the north) authorized for bi-lingual education at government-sponsored schools, abetting the language’s preservation and development
       As for Khmer Buddhism, the continuing active role of the monasteries in socio-cultural life, respect accorded to monks and the popularity of regular rituals and festivals indicates its persistent, deeply ingrained strength.  This religion has sustained the Trà Vinh Khmers throughout the vicissitudes of the past several centuries.  Neither it, nor the culture behind it, is likely to fade away anytime soon.

Khmer monks in Trà Vinh city

                                                                                 * * *                                                                          
              Trà Vinh is one of the stops on our cultural-historical tour of Vietnam.  For details see                                                                 

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