Sunday, December 24, 2017

Getting to Know Bắc Hà

                                                                  by Jim Goodman

Hmông handicrafts stalls in Bắc Hà, 2000
       Around the turn of the century, when Sapa had already established itself for several years as the leading destination in the mountains of northern Vietnam, Bc Hà was basically a sideshow.  Tour company posters advertised it as a ‘non-touristic destination’.  They basically touted it not as a separate area worth exploration, but as a particular event—the colorful Sunday market.  Buses packed with tourists left Sapa early Sunday morning for the 100-km ride and arrived just as the market was getting into full swing.  They left mid-afternoon for Lào Cai and an overnight train ride back to Hanoi.
Bắc Hà in 2000
       Having spent several days in Sapa on my first trip to Vietnam December 1999, on the next journey a couple months later, entering the country from China at Lào Cai, I made Bc Hà my first destination. .  Nestled in an 800-meter high valley, with modest mountains on all horizons, it is not as spectacularly sited as Sapa.  Nor does it have near as many guesthouses and restaurants.  No park exists in town, but the hilltop behind the market provides good views of the surrounding scenery. 
       The town then was rather small and quiet.  Most residents were ethnic Vietnamese (Kình), but the Hmông Hoa, who comprise 65% of the district’s population, live in the suburbs and nearby villages.  Villages of the Tày and Phù Lá minorities are within hiking distance, while the Dao live further away.  The ’downtown’ area, such as it was, featured buildings in the Franco-Vietnamese style, with a small Buddhist temple roughly in the center, opposite a colonial-era clock tower.
Hmông girls in Bắc Hà
Hmông girl in the Sunday market, 2000
       I arrived on an early bus from Lào Cai over an hour before the first tourists from Sapa.  Folks were already setting up stalls on the streets and mountain dwellers were arriving from several directions, mostly Hmông, but also some members of the Dao, Tày and Phù Lá ethnic minorities.  Just from their apparel, this was a very different scene than Sapa’s Saturday market.  The Hmông and the Dao also dominate Sapa, but their female counterparts in Bc Hà belong to different sub-groups and women  dress in completely different outfits. 
a busy Bắc Hà lane on market day, 2000
The Black Hmông of Sapa are called thus because the dominant color of their clothing components—jacket, cap, shirt, leggings and shorts—is black.  The women of the Flowery Hmông  (as it translates) don bulky, ankle-length, patterned blue skirts, lavishly embroidered and appliquéd, bright jackets, belts, leggings and aprons.  They embellish their outfits with heavy silver neck rings, chunky finger rings and necklaces and big round earrings.
       The Red Dao women around Sapa wear highly embroidered trousers and long-tailed jackets with bright red caps or turbans on the heads.  The Dao of Bc Hà are also a Red Dao sub-group, but wear outfits dominated by plain black, with no embroidery, with a wide vertical band of silver studs on the front of the jacket, colorful tassels attached at the bottom, and a round, mostly red-striped turban on the head.
young Red Dao woman
Red Dao women in Bắc Hà
       The Tày women dress in long black jackets and trousers, while the Phù Lá women wear a light or dark blue, side-fastened jacket, occasionally with a heavily embroidered bib over the front.  They are relatively few in the crowd, which is dominated by Hmông women as soon as they start to arrive.  Older women lead heavily laden ponies.  Young women carry woven pack baskets of split bamboo.  Some lead dogs on leashes.  Others bear pigs wrapped in a split bamboo harness and carried in the pack basket.  These they sell in the square at the end of the market street, while others set up stalls all along the way. 
group gardening in Bản Phố village
       By the time the tourist groups show up the streets are packed.  In 2000, though, the other notable difference from the Sapa market scene was the interaction between foreigners and locals.  Sapa’s Hmông and Dao women and girls were already the most aggressive souvenir and handicraft sellers one could encounter in Vietnam.  Bc Hà’s Hmông all but ignored the foreigners.  The handicraft and jewelry stalls they set up were for other Hmông and nobody pestered a foreigner to buy anything at all.  They just smiled for the photographs.
Hoàng A Tưởng Palace
       As for the tourists, they rarely initiated any interaction with the locals, except maybe to ask if it was OK to take a picture.  They stayed in their groups and all departed around 3, just as the market was winding down.  Only two other visitors stayed the night and we hiked together to the nearest hill for a view of the valley and the sunset.  But they left early next morning and for that day I was the only stranger in town.
       The nearest minority settlement is the Hmông village of Phố, 4 km up the mountain behind Bắc Hà. Not all the Hmông of Bác Hà live in big villages.  The path passes by hamlets of a handful of houses and occasionally a lone household off by itself next to newly cleared land.  The houses are sturdy, roomy, wooden structures of usually one story, with roofs of thatch or wood tiles.  Besides rice, corn and vegetables, they also raise ponies for transport and pigs and dogs for the market.
Hmông weaver at Hoàng A Tưỡng Palace 
       In the 90s the Hmômg began cultivating plums and other fruits in hillside orchards.  This brought them prosperity not yet experienced in Sapa, despite the tourist income there.  Bc Hà plums are now highly prized and locally eaten with salt, black pepper and chili.  The Bc Hà Hmông then lived in better houses, looked healthier and cleaner and their women had several sets of clothes.  They smiled politely when I passed by, invited me for tea when I stopped to photograph collective gardening and no one offered me anything for sale.
       I pressed on to other destinations next day and as years passed my research took me elsewhere in Vietnam.  But I kept hearing about changes in both Sapa and Bc Hà from friends in the motorcycle touring business.  The biggest change in Bc Hà came in 2006 with the opening of the renovated Hoàng A Tưởng Palace.  Now the town had a distinct historical relic of its own.
Tày woman and child
Tày woman, Bản Liền
       The palace sits on a mound one kilometer from the town center and dates its construction to 1914-1921.  The French colonialists appointed a local Tày chieftain, Hoàng Yến Chao, as ruler of the area and conscripted French and Chinese architects to design his palace.  The result was a very baroque combination of French and Oriental styles, occupying 4000 square meters, two stories high, mostly yellow walls, arched entries and a railed balcony, offering a view of the town and surroundings. 
painted rafters of a Tày house in Bản Liền
       The palace compound comprises the former residential palace, occupying 420 square meters, and subsidiary buildings on its wings.  These used to house a military detachment, but now the ground floor rooms are used to display local art works and Hmông handicrafts.  The upper floor rooms, of both the wings and the main house, were for private use and today hold furniture and old photographs.
       The palace was one of three the French commissioned for their allies in the northern hills.  The others were near Đồng Văn, Hà Giang, for the Hmông chieftain, and Mường Lay, Lai Châu, for the Thái chieftain.  So long as they kept the frontiers peaceful, these chieftains could rule without interference.  And in the case of Hoàng Yến Chao and his son and successor Hoàng A Tưởng, this meant unchecked exploitation of the people under their rule, as well as economic monopolies on all essentials of trade.
Tày stilted house in Trung Đô
       When the Việt Minh began seizing control of the northern mountains, Hoàng A Tưởng fled and subsequently disappeared from the history books.  The palace fell into disuse and disrepair until its 2006 restoration.  Now it is the most popular attraction in town after the Sunday market.  And there is no admission charge.
       By 2017, on my return to Bắc Hà, the nature of the Sunday market had come to resemble that in Sapa in the past.  Tourism has grown exponentially this century and nowadays foreigners may even outnumber locals in Bắc Hà on Sundays.  A much larger part of the market consists of souvenir handicrafts stalls, usually run by Vietnamese rather than Hmông, while the latter badger tourists in the lanes to buy whatever they are carrying.  In return, the tourists are more inclined to very intrusive photography, zeroing in for repeated close-ups of every lady with a wrinkled face and lots of silver jewelry.
       But they don’t all leave afterwards.  The district’s additional attractions, its ethnic mix and other market days, have recently inspired more travelers to schedule a longer stay.  The number of hotels is still small, but it’s still a very laid back town, without the plethora of handicraft shops and sellers that characterizes Sapa.  Visitors can take treks of two to four days in the mountains and see and stay in villages of the Hmông, Dao and Tày.  They can also opt for a home-stay visit to a single Hmông, Tày or Dao village.

planting rice in Trung Đô
One such Tày village is Bản Liền, 23 km southeast of Bắc Hà, lying in a valley backed by forested hills.  The Tày are Vietnam’s largest ethnic minority.  They are not colorful dressers, preferring plain black jackets and trousers, with a bit of blue trim on the jacket lapel and a blue belt for the women.  Yet they are still very traditional.  All Bản Liền families live in stilted wooden houses with angled roofs of thatch or tiles.  The rooms are spacious but sparsely furnished.  The rafters supporting the roof interior often feature painted designs of flowers, birds, butterflies, arabesques and other symbols.  They follow a kind of Buddhism mixed with animist practices, such as making caps for their babies with special protective medallions.
       Another popular Tày village is Trung Đô, about 15 km south of Bắc Hà, entered via a tree-lined road until the rice fields before the village.  A little larger than Bản Liền, with only about half the houses traditional stilted ones, it also features a fine old village temple and the remnants of the former chieftain’s residence.  Trung Đô lies close to the Chày River, where boats take passengers upriver to the market villages of Bảo Nhai and Cốc Ly.
buffalo market in Cốc Ly
       Bảo Nhai holds its weekly affair on Thursdays, in and around the covered market in the center.  Mainly Hmông, Tày and Vietnamese Kình attend, and once in a while a foreigner.  It’s rather small and caters strictly to locals, so free of the tourist-oriented products and stalls that dominate market days in Bắc Hà and, to a lesser extent, Cốc Ly.  It’s also an early riser market, which starts winding down by noon
       Market day at Cốc Ly, on the Chày River 20 km southwest of Bắc Hà, falls on Tuesdays.  The venue has two sections.  The stalls hawking the usual market goods sit on a mound on the east side of the road and the livestock market, mostly buffaloes, is in a shallow on the west side of the road.  The market stalls on the mound are mostly run by Hmông and Hmông are most of the shoppers as well. 
Hmông herbal medicine stall in Cốc Ly
       Because it’s just two days after the Bẵc Hà market day, some foreigners extend their stay to include witnessing this event--but a few dozen at most, not several hundred.  As a result, though, the market includes many stalls selling the kind of tourist souvenir handicrafts seen in Bẵc Hà now and Sapa, yet without the hard sell, pestering manners common to the other two places.  Still, other layouts are of more traditional Hmông products, from vegetables to medicinal herbs to homemade maize liquor.
       The maize liquor sold there could very well be from Bãn Phố, above Bắc Hà, which has a district-wide reputation for it.  One of their production centers is a short walk outside town, where visitors are given a tour of the processing methods and facilities and a sample of the liquor.
       North of Bắc Hà, Cán Cấu, a 20 km-ride through beautiful hills, has market day on Saturdays, drawing mostly Flowery Hmông, some Tày and hardly any foreigners.  Lùng Phìn, just 10 km north of Bắc Hà, holds its market day on Sundays, attracting Hmông and Phù Lá.  Other than the Lùng Phìn area, the easiest place to visit the Phù Lá is Chỉu Cái, a few km south of Bắc Hà.  Most houses have converted to modern style, but the females still wear the side-fastened traditional jacket, in pastel colors for the younger ones and darker shades for the older women.
Phù Lá woman in Bắc Hà, 2000 
Phù Lá woman, Chìu Cái, 2017
       In 2000 Bắc Hà’s reputation rested on the town’s market day.  The authenticity of that has eroded since then, but the result has been to find that authenticity elsewhere in the district, in far-flung market venues and remote ethnic minority villages.  For anyone looking for genuine traditional life styles, the district is worth an extended stay.
Hmông girls on the northern rim of Bắc Hà district
                                                                           * * *     
       Bắc Hà is one of the stops on Delta Tours Vietnam’s journey through the northern mountains.                 See the itinerary at

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Thanh Hóa’s Famous Families

                                        by Jim Goodman

villager passing by the walls of the Hồ Citadel
       Thanh Hóa is Vietnam’s fifth largest province, situated between Ngh An, the country’s largest, to its south, the plains and rivers of the Red River Delta to its north and bound by the mountains of Laos on its western side.  The provincial capital, also called Thanh Hóa, lies 153 km south of Hanoi on National Highway 1A and 15 km from the beach at Sm Sơn.  While the scenery in the province is pleasant, it doesn’t boast of anything spectacular and foreign travelers generally pass it by, making it one of the least known places to foreigners in Vietnam.
typical Thanh Hóa landscape
       For the Vietnamese, however, Thanh Hóa is part of the ancient heartland of their culture, where the bronze drum originated and where human habitation began over 6000 years ago.  Unlike the Red River Delta, prehistoric Thanh Hóa’s plains were not swamps that had to be cleared, for only two rivers, the Mã and the Chu, run through them.  Hills are moderate in the eastern half of the province and higher in the west, where the valleys are also home to Thái and Mường minorities.  Thanh Hóa’s Vietnamese have a reputation for cultural conservatism, thrift and fondness for traditional folk music and dance.
flooded rice fields near Vĩnh Lộc
       The province is also important for its role in Vietnam’s history.  It was part of the Hùng Kings’ realm from the 19th to 3rd century BCE at the dawn of the Bronze Age.  Under the thousand years of Chinese domination it was part of the administrative unit of Cưu Chan, which included present-day Nghẹ An and Hà Tĩnh.  It suffered and repelled Chăm invasions in the 3rd and 5th centuries and after Vietnam regained its independence it later became the birthplace of four famous families—the Hồ, Lê, Trịnh and Nguyễn—that played important roles in the nation’s history.

southern entrance of the citadel's south gate
      The most direct route to Thanh Hóa city from Hanoi is via Highway 1A.  Even with the heavy traffic it takes only three hours or less.  Aside from Sầm Sơn beach, Thanh Hóa province’s main attraction is the Hồ Dynasty Citadel in Vĩnh Lộc district, two hours drive northwest of Thanh Hóa city.  But a better way to reach this historical vestige, and to appreciate the landscape of the province, is by beginning at Xuân Mai, 35 km southwest of Hanoi, one of the starting points of the Hồ Chí Minh Trail during the Vietnam War.
       Largely a footpath through thick jungle back then, Đường Hồ Chí Minh is now a paved road in good condition with very little traffic, rolling through forested hills with gradients at a maximum of 10%.  Skirting around Cúc Phương National Park as it enters Thanh Hóa province, the scenery is especially delightful.  Villages lie far apart from each other, but many restaurants and petrol stations punctuate the route.   
triple arches of the Hồ Citadel south gate
       At the Cẩm Thủy junction, the Trail turns southwest and then south, eventually passing near Lam Kinh, Lê Lợi’s birthplace, where a modest shrine marks the spot.  The other road turns southeast, along the Mã River, to Vĩnh Lộc and the Hồ Citadel, which lies a few kilometers outside the town, in what is now a rural agricultural area.  The gates and portions of the walls are basically all that’s left of the citadel, but that was enough, along with its historical significance, to earn it the award of World Heritage Site.   
citadel wall
       The site is large, nearly square, measuring 870.5 meters north-south by 88ê.5 meters east-west.  The triple-arched south gate, the ceremonial entry point, stands 9.5 meters high and over 15 meters wide.  The other gates have a single arch, the east and west gates rounded.  Local stone provided the construction material, quarried from nearby hills, with their sometimes sheer cliffs often striated, as if to give the masons guidelines where to cut the stone.  Thanh Hóa stone has a national reputation for high quality and in the early 20th century was used to build the cathedral and subsidiary churches at Phát Diệm in Ninh Bình province.
interlocking stone blocks of the citadel walls
       The stone blocks used in building the Hồ Citadel average 2 meters by 1 meter by .7 meter.  Some are almost perfect cubes, while others are longer.  Usually the masons simply stacked them on top of each other.   But occasionally they cut out sections of the corners to make the blocks fit together more snugly.  Thick earthen mounds backed up the walls and wooden watchtowers stood above the gates and at intervals along the walls.
       The man responsible for the construction of this citadel, Hồ Quý Ly, was a Thanh Hóa native from a nearby village.  Born in 1336, he first entered the service of the Trần Dynasty court in Thăng Long (today’s Hanoi) in 1371, after the Chăm, under a charismatic leader Chế Bồng Nga, had sacked the capital.  The Trần Dynasty, which defeated three massive Mongol invasions the previous century, was now in decline.  The Chăm continued to menace the Vietnamese for nearly two more decades, sacking Thăng Long again in 1378. 
Nguyễn Hoàng departs for Thuận Hoá
the founder of the Lê Dynasty
      In 1388 the Chăm annihilated a Vietnamese counterattack on their capital Vijaya, near today’s Quy Nhơn, and prepared another march on Thăng Long.  Trần Nghệ Tông, the King Father since his retirement in 1372 after two years as King, and still the power behind the throne, appointed Hồ Quý Ly as commander of its forces, but his attempt to deflect the Chăm advance failed.   Thăng Long was spared another sacking only because a Chăm defector revealed to Vietnamese gunners Chế Bồng Nga’s precise location.  After the death of their king the Chăm returned to Vijaya.
Trịnh Lords Palace in Đông Kinh (today's Hanoi)
       Trần Nghệ Tông died in 1394, leaving Hồ Quỹ Ly de facto ruler.  Three years later he ordered the construction of the citadel in Thanh Hốa.  Not merely a fortress, its walls contained a complete city, which was named Tây Đô--the Western Capital.  He forced the Trần Court’s removal to his new capital and renamed Thăng Long Đông Đô---the Eastern Capital.  Then he set about systematically assassinating 370 members of the Trần family and in 1400 deposed the nominal king, usurped the throne and founded the Hồ Dynasty. 
       His blood-soaked usurpation condemns him in the opinion of Vietnamese historians, yet he was also a progressive reformer.  He introduced paper currency and the use of nóm, the Vietnamese version of Chinese characters, in official documents, expanded traditional Confucian education to include mathematics and agriculture, and instituted land reform, limiting holdings to ten acres (four hectares).  Following a Trần tradition, he abdicated in favor of his son Hồ Hán Thương in 1402.but continued to manage state affairs behind the scenes.
local farmer outside the eastern gate
       However, two Trần princes escaped to China, where they called on the Ming Dynasty Emperor Yong Le to restore them.  The Chinese dispatched a huge army of 400,000 in 1407, chased the Hồ family all the way to Tây Đô and captured them there.  The Chinese sent their prisoners to serve as common foot soldiers in China and their ultimate fate has not been recorded.  Instead of installing a Trần ruler, the Chinese annexed Vietnam and stayed to loot and exploit the country to the greatest extent possible.
planting rice inside the citadel
       Serious resistance to the Chinese occupation began in Thanh Hóa in 1417.  Organized by Lê Lợi and known as the Lam Sơn Insurrection, after the name of the town hosting the first conclave, it won the support of two other influential Thanh Hóa families—the Trịnh and the Nguyễn.  Using guerilla tactics that were adopted by the Việt Minh centuries later, Lê Lợi’s forces first survived, then expanded, and after ten years captured the capital and expelled the Chinese.  In 1428 Lê Lợi founded the Lê Dynasty to govern the liberated country.
       Unfortunately, Lê Lựi died in 1433 and for nearly three decades palace intrigues, purges of lê Lợi’s lieutenants and periodic fights with the Chăm dominated the Court scene.  In 1460 the last two surviving Lam Sơn generals intervened to install Lê Thánh Tông as Emperor, the one truly successful Lê monarch after the founder Lê Lợi.  He conquered Vijaya and annexed the Chăm state’s territory, promulgated a new law code and reigned over a stable and prosperous Vietnam until 1497.
two hundred year-old house outside the citadel
       His son Lê jiiến Tông governed competently for six years, but upon his death in 1504 the country plunged into protracted political chaos, with five successive teenaged kings, who either died young or were murdered for their embarrassing debauchery.  Finally, in 1527 the security chief Mc Đăng Dung seized the throne and proclaimed a new dynasty. 
       Supported by the Trnh and Nguyn families, the remnants of the Lê royal family fled to Thanh Hóa and then to Laos.  There they waited until several years later, when an anti-Mc revolt broke out in Thanh Hóa.  Under the leadership of Nguyn Kim, the Lê loyalists returned to Vietnam to engage the Mac armies and in 1443 captured Tây Đô.  Re-occupying and rebuilding the former H citadel, the loyalists proclaimed it their capital and the residence of Lê Trang Tông, the teenaged descendant of Lê Thánh Tông whom they recognized as their sovereign. 
carved brackets of the old house
       Tây Đô remained the capital of the restored Lê Dynasty until the final ouster of the Mc family from power in 1592.  In 1545 a Mc follower assassinated Nguyn Kim and command of the Lê forces went to his son-in-law Trnh Kiểm, who was intensely suspicious of the Nguyn family.  Nguyn Kim’s eldest son soon died in mysterious circumstances and his other son Nguyn Hoàng laid low for years and eventually in 1558 secured appointment as governor of Thun Hoá, today’s Thừa Thiên and Quảng Trị provinces.
Sầm Sơn boat on the sea
       He did such a good job that in 1570 the Lê Court added Quảng Nam to his jurisdiction.  In 1593 Nguyễn Hoàng returned to the north to help mop up remnant Mạc forces, but fearing the intentions of Trịnh Tùng, in charge since 1570, Nguyễn Hoàng returned to Thuận Hoá and turned it into his personal fief.  When he died at the age of 87 in 1613, Vietnam was essentially split into two realms:  the north rued by the Trịnh Lords and the south ruled by the Nguyễn Lords, both recognizing the same Lê Emperor, who was basically a puppet of the Trịnh Lords.
       Hostilities broke out between the two sides later that century, but periodic Trịnh invasions all failed and one Nguyễn invasion of the north only got as far as Thanh Hóa before it had to turn back.  The two sides made a truce in 1674, dividing their realms at the Gianh River in Quảng Binh.  Peace between them lasted a century and then the Tây Sơn Revolt destroyed both regimes in the late 18th century.  Another protracted war ensued until eventually the resurgent Nguyễn defeated the Tây Sơn and in 1802 established the last pre-colonial imperial dynasty.
morning market on Sầm Sơn beach
       Tây Đô was abandoned during the Trịnh-Nguyễn conflict and today no trace of its former palaces or watchtowers exist. Most of the area has been turned into rice fields.  Only a pair of headless stone dragons in the center remains within the walls as evidence of its former splendor. But another kind of relic—a two hundred year-old house—stands in the village outside the eastern gate.  One story, wide, with a tiled roof, it features nicely carved embellishments on its beams, brackets and furniture and has been home to the same family for seven generations.
       No other vestiges of Thanh Hoá’s famous families exist in the province.  From Vĩnh Lộc, it’s two hours drive to Thanh Hoá city, which is almost entirely new, reconstructed after heavy bombing in the Vietnam War.  But Sầm Sơn Beach is a short distance away and very popular with Vietnamese tourists.  It’s also a major fishing center.  From dawn the fishermen go out in small skiffs of woven split bamboo, covered with pitch, with an engine at the rear, a wooden rudder and a triangular cloth sail, usually blue or brown.
hauling a boat up to higher ground
       At most, half a dozen people can fit into these vessels, but usually it’s just two or three.  They return from 9:00-10:00 and park their boats temporarily at the edge of the water.  Customers from the city and its vicinity, and even from as far away as Hanoi, then come to the boat to purchase the morning’s catch of fresh fish, squids, crabs, shrimps and other crustaceans.  When the crowd of buyers has dispersed, usually before noon, the fishermen move the boat to a higher spot on the beach, beyond the tide line, by mounting it on a frame with wheels and rolling it up the slope.
     The province has a few other scenic attractions.  But besides the Hồ Citadel and Lê Lợi’s birthplace, it does not have much tangible evidence of its historic importance.  The main legacy of its famous families does not lie in buildings.  It is the spread of Vietnamese cultural and political institutions across the entire territory of the Vietnam we know today. No other province can make such a boast.

sunset over the Thanh Hóa plain
                                                                             * * *    
 For the full story of Thanh Hóa's families, see my book Delta to Delta:  The Vietnamese Move South

Monday, November 27, 2017

Strange Creatures in Thai Temples

                                  by Jim Goodman

mom images at Wat Umong Mahatherachan
       At some point in ancient India, certain individuals had the leisure time and intellectual curiosity to wonder about the nature of the world around them. They began speculating on the elements of the universe, both on what could be seen and what could not.  No record exists as to what kind of debate ensued over the interpretation, but eventually a consensus emerged.  The self-styled philosophers of that era came up with a description that would underline all the myths of the Hindu religion as well as, centuries later, Buddhism, both in India and in Southeast Asia.
       They were living in the Gangetic Plain, a broad swath of the heart of India, bounded on the north by the Himalaya Mountains, the earth’s tallest.  It’s doubtful whether any of these mythographers explored these mountains, but they were always visible from the northern edge of the plains.  They reckoned the center of the universe was Mt. Meru, the highest of the 84,000 peaks that made up the northern mountain range.  The sun, moon and planets all revolved around Mt. Meru.
naga at the foot of Wat Doi Suthep stairway
nagas at Chedi Luang
       Thousands of years later, when Buddhism gained ascendancy in northern India its adherents also subscribed to this world-view.  The Buddhist heavens were supposed to be just above Mt. Meru, while all around the mountain’s base lay the Himmapan Forest, home to a wide assortment of ethereal creatures.  Some were totally fanciful, others based on real animals, still others hybrid varieties.  Some preyed on others in the forest, but in general, Himmapan residents, experiencing no suffering and therefore no aging, were eternally youthful.
dragon-headed lion at Lamphun's Wat Haripunchai
Lion Capitals of Ashoka, Wat Bupharam
       Thai people converted to Buddhism, via Sinhalese missionaries, long after the religion died out in India, when it was already heavily influenced by Hindu concepts.  As a result, the imagery associated with Thai Buddhist temple compounds includes that of Indian Hinduism and Buddhism, along with the weird denizens of Himmapan.  Some of these creatures represent protectors and guardians of the sacred space and buildings of the compound.  Others are decorative sculptures enhancing the walls or standing freely in the courtyard.
       The most striking of the guardian animals are the serpentine nagas.  A pair of them flanks the staircases to the main temple buildings.  They were originally modeled on the king cobra, but have heads and fangs more suggestive of a dragon.  Thai versions have anywhere between one and seven heads.  According to Buddhist mythology, after his Enlightenment the Buddha was seated in meditation one day when a violent rainstorm broke out.  The king cobra Mucalinda rose up behind him and spread the hoods of his seven heads to shield him from the rain. 
elephant-headed lion, Wat Lamchang
elephant-headed horse, Wat Muensan
       The naga image evolved from the Mucalinda tale, became associated with the protection of Buddhism, and thus guards the entrances to the assembly hall (viharn), ordination hall (ubosot) and, at Chiang Mai’s Chedi Luang, the staircases climbing up the sides of the ruined chedi. The naga’s color varies from all white to mostly yellow to a variety of colors on one sculpture, such as the ones at Wat Doi Suthep.  The fangs are always bared and a crest rises upward from the top of its head.
       The lion is another guardian animal, usually seated at the compound entrance or beside a chedi.  As the King of the Beasts it represents power and strength, ready to repel any spirit attack.  But it doesn’t always play that role.  At the entrance to Wat Bupharam four lions stand back to back on the columns on either side.  They are replicas of the famous Lion Capital of Ashoka, originally created in the 3rd century BCE, named after Emperor Ashoka of Maurya, who promoted the spread of Buddhism all over the Indian sub-continent.
elephant-headed nagas, Wat Chiang Yeun
elephant-headed bird, Lamphun lamp post
       In this case, the four lions symbolize the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism:  suffering exists, craving causes it, the end of suffering comes with the end of craving, and the way to achieve that is to follow the rules of the Eightfold Path.  The other distinction of the Lion Capital of Ashoka is how closely they resemble real lions.  The animal was quite common in India back then, so one can safely assume the sculptor’s rendition was based on observation in the wild.
       Nowadays lions have vanished from all over India except for one preserved area in the Gir Forest of the western province of Gujarat.  They were never in Southeast Asia, though, so the usual Thai or Burmese rendition of a lion is quite different.  The body shape is close, but the head is much fiercer, more like that of a dragon.  Like the naga, the guardian lion has to look properly frightening to deter evil spirits.
bird with elephant and naga heads, Wat Srisupoan
thep norasri, Wat Saen Muang Ma Luang          
       An animal closer to home, that also plays a protective role in Thai temples, is the elephant.  Quite reduced in numbers now, elephants were abundant in past centuries.  Artists didn’t even have to go out to the jungles to see what they looked like, for kings rode them in processions and armies had stables of war-elephants. Consequently, their sculptures of elephants are generally realistic, even when they are just the front half, like the ones around the chedis of Wat Chiang Man and Chedi Luang.           
mermaid at Wat Saen Muang Ma Luang
       Admired for its strength, majesty, intelligence and good nature, the elephant is also associated with Buddhism through another ancient story.  Accordingly, the Buddha was out walking in the countryside one day when an elephant approached him.  While the Buddha stood in the path, the elephant sank to its knees and bowed its head and trunk to the ground to pay respect and obeisance, acknowledging the Enlightened One.
       A Chiang Mai temple specifically honors the elephant.  Called Wat Lamchang, Temple of the Tethered Elephants, it stands on the spot where King Mengrai temporarily kept his stable of royal elephants while he oversaw the construction of Chiang Mai in 1292.  Elephant statues flank the stairways of the buildings, surround the chedi and stand in the gardens.  They can be white, black, brown or terracotta red, from near life size down to the size of a flowerpot.  They can be very realistic, with trunks raised, or small, smiling, almost cartoon-like.  They can also be half-elephant, like the pair of elephant-headed lions that stand before the rear building in the compound.
crocodile-headed flying horse, Wat Saen Muang Ma Luang
       These are called kochasri and are creatures from the Himmapan Forest, where nothing dwelling there is visible to mortal eyes.  So their depictions are up to the imagination of the artist.  At Wat Lamchang they are standing sculptures, while at Wat Meunsan they are gilded low relief images on a gate panel and at Wat Phra Singh carved in stone on the base of the library.
       Elephant-related Himmapan hybrids include the sinta pakuchorn--a green, elephant-headed horse, the kunchun uneu—front half elephant and back half fish, the nok hussadee—an elephant-headed bird, and the karinpuksa—an elephant body with the wings and tail of a bird.  Bigger than an ordinary elephant, it can soar, fly and hover in the air. 
      Elephant-headed nagas are the main motif decorating the shrine in front of the chedi at Wat Chiang Yeun.  Embellishing the roof corners of the Silver Temple at Wat Srisuphan are sculptures of a large bird with two heads—the lower one elephant, the upper one naga.  And the creatures on the roof corners of the ubosot at Wat Chedi Liam have an elephant head on the breast of a bird, with what looks like a serpent’s tail rising high up behind and over the head.
flying horse on the base of the library at Wat Phra Singh
       A final example of the elephant head theme is that of Ganesh, the Hindu god with a human body and an elephant head.   Some Ganesh sculptures have three heads, like the god Indra’s elephant mount Erawan.  The other Hindu deity adopted by Thai Buddhism is Brahma, the creator god, whom the Thai know as Phra Prom and who has four heads, one in each direction.   
       The mythical menagerie of the West has nothing like an elephant-headed naga.  It has dragons, but very different from those in the East.  But a couple of the Himmapan creatures look familiar.  One is the mermaid.  Except for the facial features it is just like the famous statue in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Another type of Himmapan mermaid, though, has wings, unlike any Occidental mermaid.  An equally familiar being is the flying horse, no different from the Pegasus of Greek myth.
       Western myths have other hybrid creatures, such as the half-man, half-bull Minotaur, but nowhere near as many as Himmapan.  The forest is also home to the unique Naruphon tree.  Its fruits produce female, human-like beings called makaleepon, though if the fruits are not plucked within seven days they die.  Not all the animals are hybrids, either, for two kinds of lion live there, one red, one black, both herbivores.
aquatic hybrids from Himmapan Forest
       Other kinds of lions and part lions dwell in Hammapan.  The ghilen is a lion with deer antlers and scaly skin.  It lives a thousand years, represents virtue and punishes the wicked.  The to is a lion with two horns, while the loto is a lion with a flaring head and eagle claws on its feet.  Lion bodies with the head of a dragon, a bird, the head and tail of a naga and one with the upper torso and feet of a monkey also roam around Himmapan and appear in decorative temple sculptures.
       Horses are also part of temple imagery, particularly at Wat Kun Kha Ma, the ‘Value of Horses Temple’.  In the early centuries of Lanna’s history, this site was a horse farm, providing the nobles with their favorite transportation vehicle and military officers with their mounts.   Then one day a disease swept through the herd and killed most of the horses.  The distraught owner, wanting to commemorate his beloved animals, had a temple constructed here in the early 16th century.  Its most outstanding feature is the row of golden horse sculptures, 64 altogether, that line the walls of the compound.
winged anthropomorphic Himmapan creature
       These figures are modeled on real horses, but some horse hybrids, besides the winged one and the elephant-headed type, exist in Himmapan, too.  The durong kraisorn is a horse with a dragon’s head.  The hemara ussadorn has a bird’s head.  And the ussadorn hayra is half-horse, half-crocodile.
       Always a scary animal, the crocodile is also the inspiration for the body of the mom, though the head is more dragon-like.  Quite common and usually in pairs, they flank the stairways of subsidiary buildings in the compound, sloping downwards, the head at the lower end, raised and baring its fangs.  The mom is also associated with rain and when the monsoons are tardy, farmers take mom images to the fields and implore them to make the rains come.
       Yet more oddities populate Himmapan.  The mungkorn vihak has a dragon’s head, cow’s body and bird wings and tail.  The sintu puksee has a bird’s body and a fish’s fins and tail.  The upper part of the greenish colored panom masuek is a monkey, while the lower part is a deer.  The sagoon hayra is a bird with the head of a crocodile, sometimes with deer antlers.
sphinx-like man-lion, Wat Mahan
kinnara playing a drum, Wat Mahan
       A special Himmapan category comprises those creatures that, like the elephant-headed Ganesh, are part human and part animal.  Garuda, the mount of the god Vishnu, is one example.  It has an eagle’s head, beak, wings and talons and the body and limbs of a man.  Garuda is considered the King of the Birds, is a sworn enemy of snakes and has the license to devour bad men (except the ones who are Brahmins).
       On other anthropomorphic beings the human part is the upper portion.  The lower half of an upsom sriha is a deer or a lion.  The thep norasri stands on deer’s legs and has a lion’s tail.  Other creatures resemble a sphinx or a centaur.  The most popular in this category is the half-human, half-swan creature called the kinnara, especially its female counterpart the kinnaree. 
kinnaree--half-woman, half-swan
       One type has human legs as well as the swan’s wings and tails.  The more common rendition has a human upper torso, with arms, and a swan’s legs, wings and tail.  The female form—kinnaree—is particularly graceful and has a reputation as a wonderful singer and dancer.  The kinnaras, like the ones on the viharn exterior of Wat Mahan on Tha Pae Road, are often depicted playing musical instruments like the drum, lute, horn, viol and flute.
       The rules for making Buddha images, as well as those for the Hindu pantheon in India, follow standards set centuries ago.  In depicting Himmapan creatures the artists have more leeway, which is why one sees so many different kinds of lions, nagas, kinnarees and other beings.  They have the precedents of previous generations, but can embellish them with personal touches.  And since the creatures of Himmapan are invisible and myriad, they can even come up with new hybrid combinations if they choose.  From Himmapan, anything is possible and everything is plausible.
hybrid Himmapan creatures on a roof at Wat Chedi Liam
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