Saturday, April 1, 2017

Religion in Old Saigon

                                         by Jim Goodman

Chùa Giác Lâm, the city's oldest Buddhist temple'
       Now the biggest metropolis in the country, H Chí Minh City was just a village when Vietnamese first saw it in the late 17th century.  It was called Prey Nokor, largely inhabited by Khmer peasants, but also home to a community of Chinese merchants who had migrated from Udong, the Cambodian capital at the time.  They controlled what little trade existed between the Cambodian heartland and the much more numerous Khmer communities at the mouth of the Mekong Delta—today’s Trà Vinh and Sóc Trăng provinces.
       Vietnam was divided then between two autonomous parts.  The Trnh Lords controlled the north and the Nguyn Lords ruled the south.  Both recognized the figurehead Lê Emperor as sovereign, but the Nguyn Lords would not recognize the Trính Lords’ government and the Trnh Lords considered that insubordination that had to brought to heel.  So the two sides fought a protracted war from 1627-1675 until finally the grandsons of those who started it signed a truce, dividing jurisdiction at the Gianh River in today’s Qung Bình province.
strange image inside Giác Lâm Pagoda
tower in the Giác Lâm compound
       Thereafter, serious Vietnamese migration into the Mekong Delta commenced.  Most of the Delta was a vast swamp, virtually uninhabited, requiring intensive labor to drain areas and reshape then into farmlands.  Vietnamese did not drive out the Khmer and take over their lands.  They simply moved in next door and made their own farms.  
       Politically, two factors enabled Vietnamese immigration.  Though culturally Khmer, the Mekong Delta provinces were so far from the Cambodian heartland that they were practically autonomous from their foundations.  And from the late 17th century, and throughout most of the next one, rival princes in the Cambodian Court fought constant succession wars.  As no contender was strong enough on his own to win, he sought allies from the Siamese or the Vietnamese side.  When Vietnamese-backed princes emerged triumphant, they rewarded their allies with cessions of provinces the Cambodian prince had no control over, anyway.
devotees at a sermon
monk at prayer, Chùa Giác Lâm
       By 1698 the Nguyn Lords had administrative control of Prey Nokor.  Its governor began organizing immigration to open new rice farms north of what the Vietnamese began to call Saigon.  Many of these immigrants were Christians fleeing periodic waves of persecution carried out further north.  The first religious buildings erected in the early 18th century in the city were Catholic churches.  Khmer raiders destroyed them in 1731 when an anti-Vietnamese prince seized the throne in Udong and tried to drive out all settlers.  They were later rebuilt but have not survived.
the classic style of Chùa Giác Viân
       The earliest Buddhist temples fared better, with the original buildings still intact and in good condition.  The first was Chùa Giác Lâm, in the southern part of Tân Bình district, built in 1744.  It is a wide, single-story, rectangular structure, with a gently sloping tiled roof and plain exterior walls of yellow and light orange color.  Among the interior features are rows of mandarin statues, some brandishing swords, wooden plaques of low-relief figures on horseback and a strange statue of a monk opening his robe to reveal his other head just below his chest.
       The compound has several gardens, tall trees at the gate and on the grounds.  Other buildings have been added since Chùa Giác Lâm’s foundation.  These include quarters for the resident monks, an assembly hall for devotees to listen to sermons and an eleven-tiered tower, with a stairway to the top level for an overhead view.  The temple is still popular with the city’s Buddhists and fills with visitors on religious holy days.
monks' tombs in the Giác Viên compound
       A generation after the temple’s foundation the Nguyn Regime began falling apart.  In 1771 three brothers from Tây Sơn village in Bình Đnh province raised the banner of revolt.  While the Nguyn army fought the Tây Sơn rebels the Trính regime in the north broke the truce, invaded and captured Phủ Xuân, the Nguyễn capital near modern Huế.  They didn’t remain very long and after their return north the Tây Sơn forces replaced therm.
       The Nguyễb royal family fled to Saigon, but in 1777 Tây Sơn soldiers pursued and captured them west of Saigon and executed all but one member. The sole survivor was the teenaged Prince Nguyễn Ánh, who escaped the roundup and spent the next 25 years assembling allies against the Tây Sơn rebels, suffering many reverses on the way, but finally emerging triumphant in 1802. 
incense coils for the Sea Goddess Thiên Hậu
       From 1786 Nguyn Ánh made Saigon his base.  And when he was in a religious mood he visited the second of the city’s old Buddhist temples—Chùa Giác Viên.  It lies in a neighborhood of twisting lanes in the western part of the city, north of the Chinese–dominated areas.
       Originally built in 1789, renovated and expanded a century later, it is set in a quiet garden compound dominated by a statue of Quan Âm, the Buddhist goddess of compassion.  The buildings are similar to the main worship hall of Chùa Giác Lâm, with wide yellow walls and sloping brown tiled roofs.  The altar inside the main hall holds several different Buddha images, while many small, seated Buddha images sit on a kind of tree rack to the side. 
decorations at Hội Quan Tuệ Thành
       Chùa Giác Viên does not draw as many devotees as Chùa Giác Lâm, probably due to its rather remote location.  But it is an active monastery, with monks’ quarters to the side, featuring old hand-carved wooden window screens.  Visitors enjoy a fine example of classical southern Vietnamese architecture and an atmosphere of tranquility much welcome after going through the congestion of the city’s traffic to get there.
       The Chinese community in Saigon at the time was a growing one, even after suffering a horrific massacre by Tây Sơn forces in 1782.  Around this time they built a temple on Nguyễn Trãi Street at the eastern edge of Chợ Lợn, the Chinese quarter, called Hội Quán Tụê Thành.  Dedicated to the Sea Goddess Thiên Hậu, it was expanded in the early 19th century. Three statues of her of different sizes, dressed in red silk, stand behind the main altar, with great incense coils hanging from the ceiling.  The temple is lavishly decorated with friezes of porcelain and wooden figurines depicting vignettes of daily life.  The exterior roof has one of these, plus animals, flowers, birds and a pair of writhing dragons on top looking at the moon.   
Taoist temple to the Jade Emperor
       The Chinese did not confine the building of temples to the Chợ Lợn district.  One of their most important, the Taoist temple to the Jade Emperor, lies northeast of Chợ Lợn, not far from the city’s business center, and is today still quite active.  Built in 1909, the temple’s dark pink exterior walls stand in stark contrast to the towering skyscrapers just beyond the compound.  Turtles, symbolic of long life, swim in the courtyard pool and sculpted lions stand on each side of the entrance.
       Inside, the main image of the bearded Jade Emperor sits flanked by one of his earthly manifestations as Ông Bác Đe on the left, his sword upright, and 18-armed goddess Pht Mâu Chuan Đe on the right.  Another room has the Judgment Day theme, with portraits of the Ten Kings of Hell.  Sculptors paid great attention to costume details and facial expressions.
Jade Emperor image
portrait of Lê Văn Duyệt
       A few blocks north of this compound lies one of the city’s most unusual temples, dedicated not to a Buddhist or Taoist deity, but to Lê Văn Duyệt, a general in Nguyn Ánh’s army.  Formerly the Nguyn Court eunuch in charge of the royal household, as Nguyn Ánh built up his forces Lê Văn Duyt turned out to have an innate grasp of military strategy and tactics.  He rose to become Nguyn Ánh’s favorite commander and was instrumental in breaking through the Tây Sơn defenses in the final assault on Phủ Xuân.
Notre Dame Cathedral
       After Nguyễn Ánh established a new dynasty in 1802 and changed his name to Emperor Gia Long, he put Lê Văn Duyệt in charge of Gia Đinh, the provinces of the Mekong Delta.  He was a popular Viceroy, fond of cockfighting and Chinese opera, running Gia Định autonomously, but loyal to Gia Long’s principles and tolerant of French missionaries, Vietnamese Catholics and the Chinese community, all of whom were Gia Long’s allies in the struggle against the Tây Sơn regime.
       After Gia Long died in 1820, this put him at odds with the successor Minh Mạng, who wanted to expel foreign missionaries, restrict conversion and put controls on the Chinese businesses.  Lê Văn Duyệt remained in power until his own death in 1835.  Minh Mạnh then abolished the post of Viceroy in favor of direct rule from Huế, staged a posthumous trial and punishment of Lê Văn Duyệt, desecrated his grave and provoked a revolt led by Lâ’s adopted son that took three years to quell.
       Minh Mạng’s successor Thiệu Trị rehabilitated Lê Vân Duyệt and restored the tomb and allowed the construction of a temple next to the site. It was renovated and enlarged in 1937 in a rather modern style, with a two-tiered roof of orange tiles. Its interior features a sculpture of the southern hero, some of his possessions and a painting of him on the wall. And on the 30th day of the 7th lunar month, the day of his death, pilgrims throng the compound to pay respects.
Cha Tam Catholic Church in Chợ Lợn
St. Francis Xavier, Cha Tam Church
       The French took control of Saigon and adjacent provinces in 1862 and the rest of Vietnam two decades later.  Christian missionaries returned and new churches joined the numbers of religious buildings in the city.  The most notable was the Notre Dame Cathedral, in neo-Romanesque style, pale orange color, with forty-meter twin towers topped by white iron spires.  Built 1877-1883 in the center of the administrative district, it is one of the city’s most recognizable and iconic buildings, on every tourist’s must-see list.
Mariamman Hindu Temple
       While the French missionaries made no headway among the Theravada Buddhist Khmer in the Delta, they had some success among the Chinese community.  The Cha Tam Church, built around 1900 at the end of Trần Hưng Đạo Street in the heart of Chợ Lợn, is the most outstanding evidence.  It’s famous in modern times for being the last refuge of Ngô Đình Diêm and his brother Ngô Đình Nhu during the coup against them in November 1963.   A pale yellow structure with a single, three-story tower and steeple, it is dedicated to St. Francis Xavier and features statues of him in the tower and on the front façade.
       With the French in firm control of Vietnam, non-Vietnamese communities from abroad also migrated to Saigon seeking economic opportunities, and not necessarily from other French colonies.  Among then were Tamils from southern India, a British colony, who are the major Hindu nationality that does not believe crossing the ocean means a loss of one’s caste.  Indeed, in ancient times, under their Chola Dynasty, the Tamils had an empire in the area, established by their navy, unique to the sub-continent.
the Central Mosque
       One of the demographic legacies of imperialism is the presence of Tamil communities throughout Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia and Singapore.  Far fewer Tamils came to Vietnam, but they were numerous enough to erect their own temple, dedicated to the goddess Mariamman, in central Saigon in the 1880s.  In typical Tamil style, it features a tall, sloping, rectangular tower, embellished with high-relief carvings of numerous deities, animals and mythological figures.
       The last religion to establish itself in colonial Saigon was Islam, with the Central Mosque constructed in 1937 in the heart of the administrative quarter.  The community it served was primarily Chăm Muslims brought in from the French colony of Cambodia.  Their forefathers had fled there after the Vietnamese conquest of the Chăm kingdoms of Vijaya in 1470 and Kauthara in 1653.  A small group of resident Malay traders was also part of the congregation.
       After the North Vietnamese Army marched into Saigon in 1975 and renamed it Hồ Chí Minh City, the new authorities destroyed, closed or turned over to secular use many of the city’s churches and temples.  But this policy only prevailed until the late 80s, when in the wake of the reforms, attitudes towards religion relaxed.  Temples, churches and mosques are all active again, even as modernization has reduced the influence of religion on everyday life.  They are part of the identity of 21st century Vietnam and have even become popular tourist attractions. 
the courtyard of Giạc Viên Pagoda
                                                                              * * *                 
                 All of these sites are part of the itinerary of Delta Tours Vietnam’s visit to the city.


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