Sunday, April 23, 2017

Mon to Monkeys: The Evolution of Lopburi

                                                             by Jim Goodman

the 12th century Khmer monument Prang Sam Yot
       The small town of Lopburi, about three hours north of Bangkok, began its existence around the 6th century as Lawo, part of the Mon state of Dvaravati that dominated central Thailand long before any Thais lived there.  At that time the sea levels were higher and reached further inland than today.  Lawo lies beside a river connected to the Menam Chao Phya, the main waterway through this part of the country, and it conducted trade with Indian merchants via the Gulf of Thailand.
        In the 8th century Lawo’s ruler, at the invitation of Mon missionary monks, dispatched his daughter Chamadevi to rule as Queen of the new city of Haripunchai, today’s Lamphun, in northern Thailand, three months journey by boat.  Lawo officials, merchants, artisans and five hundred Theravada monks accompanied her.  She subdued the local Lawa population and created a replica of the Lawo realm.  This was the furthest extension north of Mon civilization and it lasted until its conquest by King Mengrai of Lanna in the late 13th century.
Prang Khaek
       Lawo itself, and most of the Menam Chao Phya Valley, fell in the early 11th century to invading Khmer armies of the expanding Angkor Empire.  How much destruction Lawo suffered at this time is not recorded, but Lopburi’s relics today do not include any Mon structures.  The oldest relic in Lopburi is Prang Khaek, in the center of town.   
       The prang is a typical Khmer monument like an upright cylinder, tapered towards the top, with a blunt end.  It sort of resembles a bomb or a bullet, though such things didn’t exist in Angkor times.  It was usually, but not always, erected behind a viharn, or main assembly hall.  The prangs of Prang Khaek stand close together and are not very tall, with the remains of the viharn close by.  Though they have lost much of their exterior decorations, considering they have stood there over a thousand years, they’re in pretty good shape.
ancient Lopburi Buddha
       More impressive, and in better condition, are the three towers of Prang Sam Yot, dating from the 12th century, on a small mound near the railroad tracks at the eastern edge of town.  Connected by a building along their bases, standing a little apart from each other, the trio of prangs, originally intended as a display of Khmer power, has become the ionic image of contemporary Lopburi.
       At the time of Prang Sam Yot’s construction, Lawo was the most important western outpost of the Angkor Empire.  Suryavarman II, who commissioned the building of Angkor Wat, used Lawo as a base to control the former Mon states and try to extend Angkor’s frontiers.  But the last Mon state, Haripunchai in the north, successfully resisted three Khmer invasions.
chedis at Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat
       The first of these was not actually a battle, but rather a contest to see which side could excavate a reservoir faster.  Haripunchai won and the Khmer forces retreated.  Apparently this was not a once-and-for-all verdict, though, as Suryavarman II launched two more invasions.  They both failed and Haripunchai remained independent until Mengrai’s conquest.
       In the 13th century the mighty Angkor Empire began to decline and its hold over its most distant provinces weakened.  Taking advantage of this, the Siamese ruler of Sukhothai, in western central Thailand, renounced his allegiance in 1238, defeated a Khmer force sent from Lawo, and established an independent state.  
       For the time being, Lawo remained under Khmer control and it still enjoyed prestige among its neighbors.  In 1254 the teenaged Prince Ngammueang, of the small northern state of Phayao, went to Lawo for his studies.  There he met and befriended fellow student Prince Ramkamhaeng of Sukhothai. 
the 'watermelon chedi
Khmer and Ayutthaya style chedis
        Four years later Ngammueang became King of Phayao and in 1279 Ramkamhaeng ascended the throne at Sukhothai.  The two friends later formed an alliance with King Mengrai of Lanna, not against the Khmer, who were no longer a serious threat, but against the Mongols.  They also helped Mengrai design and lay out his new capital at Chiang Mai, founded in 1296.
sculptures on the central prang
Ayutthaya style chedi
       Ramkamhaeng greatly expanded Sukhothai’s territories, including the absorption of Lawo.  He was the kingdom’s last strong ruler, though, and after his death in 1300 Sukhothai went into decline.  By mid-14th century the new Kingdom of Siam, founded in Ayutthaya in 1350, began challenging its pre-eminence.   In 1438 Ayutthaya extinguished Sukhothai’s last vestiges of autonomy and annexed its territory.  
       Lawo became Lopburi and to restore its prestige the Ayutthaya Court sponsored the construction of Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat in the 14th-15th centuries.  Just opposite the train station today, it is a large compound containing numerous old monuments.  Khmer influence dominates the architecture, from the tall central prang behind the ruined viharn, to the many subsidiary prangs in the courtyard.
ruins of King Narai's palace
       The prang is not the only type of chedi here, however.  A few are in the Ayutthaya style, resembling an inverted bell, with the upper part tapering to a sharp point.  Another features a watermelon shape for its upper tier, without any crown surmounting it.  Sukhothai-style chedis, with a vertical rectangular block just below the crown, are absent.  But the existing sculptures, on the central prang and other chedis, reflect the Sukhothai style.  This is especially true of the occasional Walking Buddha, an image first created in Sukhothai.
       In the 17th century, under the reign of King Narai (1656-1688), Lopburi became the most important city in the country.  When Narai became king, Western powers were already locked in fierce competition over their commercial ambitions in the Far East.  Having supplanted the Portuguese as the dominant naval power in the region, the Dutch were the most aggressive.  When Auytthaya objected to the terms of the trade agreement the Dutch offered, which gave the latter monopoly on prime exports as well as extraterritoriality—the right of its citizens to be free from arrest for violations of local law, the Dutch blockaded the mouth of the Menam Chao Phya River. 
the reception  hall of King Narai's palace
       Without a navy of his own to expel the Dutch, Narai had to agree to the Dutch terms.  The event had two important effects.  It left Narai with the feeling that Ayutthaya, now a large city, was vulnerable to a naval attack.  So he moved to Lopburi, about 55 km northeast.  At first it was just a winter capital, but eventually Narai spent most of his time there.
       The other effect of the successful Dutch blockade was to convince Narai to seek an ally from the Western countries against the Dutch.  He didn’t trust the English, so he opted for an alliance with the French.  In 1862 he gave permission to French Jesuit priests to settle in Ayutthaya.  Their main goal was to convert the king to Catholicism.   Though Narai expressed an intellectual interest in Catholicism, as well as Islam, he never intended to abandon Theravada Buddhism, his own faith and that of his subjects.  Yet French hopes for his conversion persisted throughout his reign.
palace wall to King Mongkut's compound
       Some of the Jesuit missionaries were also architects and engineers and assisted Narai in turning Lopburi into a proper royal city.  For some time (the construction date is uncertain) a large reservoir had lain about eight km east of the city, catching and storing the runoff from the Prabat Hills.  French engineers constructed an underground aqueduct with lead pipes to convey water from the reservoir to the palace.  French architects designed the fortifications, as well as the palace and other secular buildings and the European influence is evident in the use of brick rather than wood as the basic building material, plus the wide windows and general look.  Lopburi became known as the Versailles of the East.
       In 1673 the French sent an ecclesiastical mission to Lopburi, with letters to King Narai from King Louis XIV and Pope Clement IX.  In 1680, still seeking an ally against the Dutch, Narai sent a diplomatic mission to France.  But it got lost at sea somewhere near Madagascar.  The French responded to the effort by dispatching a commercial mission to Lopburi two years later.
Phaulkon's house
Khmer Buddha in the palace compound
       King Narai’s closest advisor at this time was Constantine Phaulkon, the most remarkable of the scores of European adventurers who sought fame and fortune in the Far East that century.  A Greek islander by birth, Phaulkon arrived in Siam as an employee of the British East India Company n 1675.  In his late 20s, already a polyglot who also spoke English, Portuguese and French, Phaulkon learned to speak fluent Thai within a few years and served as a translator in the company’s dealings with the Siamese Court.
       Phaulkon’s talents eventually came to the attention of the Siamese Court and in 1681 he began working directly for King Narai, serving as interpreter during negotiations with the French mission of 1682.  Phaulkon rose quickly in Narai’s favor, received the title Phra Chao Wichayen and became Narai’s chief minister.  He had his own mansion in the diplomatic quarter and entertained lavishly.  He also converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism and shared the French priests’ ambition to turn Siam into a Catholic country.  
modern chedi at Wat Manee Choklakham
temple dancer in the Lopburi ruins
Diplomatic missions traveled back and forth between Siam and France the next few years, resulting in the alliance Narai had long sought.  Though he did not convert to Catholicism, Narai allowed the French to build forts and station troops in Bangkok.  Phaulkon helped achieve this, though in loyalty to his patron he insisted on terms that put the French garrison under Narai’s direct command.
       Nevertheless, the very idea of stationing foreign troops on Siam’s territory outraged conservative factions at the Court.  In 1688 Narai fell seriously ill.  The leader of the Court dissidents, Phra Petracha, staged a coup, arrested and executed both Phaulkon and Mom Pi, Narai’s adopted son and heir, whom Phaulkon had persuaded to become Catholic. 
       Narai died soon afterwards and Petracha assumed the throne, abandoned Lopburi and expelled the French.  Versailles of the East fell into ruins, though parts of the palace, its walls, gates and reception hall, as well as the houses built for Phaulkon and foreign ambassadors, still remain.  Only its shell stands today, yet Phaulkon’s house is the oldest extant private house in Thailand, mainly because it was built of brick and stucco and not more perishable wood.
stars of contemporary Lopburi
       Since Lopburi was no longer the seat of royal government, many of its residents returned to Ayutthaya and the once glorious city reverted to a small town.  It regained a little of its importance in the mid-19th century when King Mongkut (Rama IV 1851-1868) chose to make Lopburi one of his summer homes.  Rather than restore the ruins of Narai’s palace, he added a new walled compound to the rear of the original and erected his own quarters there, as well as other buildings, including one for his concubines, two-story white houses with balconies and sloping tiled roofs.
       Mongkut’s successor did not maintain the Lopburi residence and gave the new palace to Lopburi for use as its City Hall.  Another building became a museum.  Lopburi vanished from official thoughts until Marshal Pibul Songram, who ruled Thailand 1938-1947, decided to establish a military base in its eastern suburbs.
       The final phase in Lopburi’s development began in the last decades of the century in the role of tourist destination.  Naturally, its historic relics made it worth a visit, but it became more popularly known as the City of the Monkeys.  Great numbers of these creatures congregate around the railroad tracks on the eastern side of town.  Dozens of them hang out around Prang Sam Yot, though they don’t seem to enter the Si Rattana Mahathat compound. 
guesthouse in the monkey heartland
       They are the species called crab-eating macaque.  Lopburi doesn’t have enough crabs for so many monkeys, of course, so they feed on seeds, fruits, flowers, bird eggs and whatever else they can scavenge, including the sandwiches and noodles of unsuspecting tourists who dine too close to them.  Hotel staff guides and agencies warn visitors not to give food to the monkeys, or eat anything near them, and keep a firm grip on their cameras, cell phones and shoulder bags.
       Local mythology says that Hanuman, Rama’s Monkey General in the Hindu epic Ramayana, came here in ancient times and the monkeys today are his descendants.  Because of the religious connection, the city never tried to expel them.  Since 1989, thanks to the initiative of a local businessman, every November the city stages a Monkey Buffet Festival.  Residents lay out thousands of kilograms of fruits, seeds and other snacks for the monkeys to feast upon. 
       Intended to boost tourism, it did just that.  Now Lopburi is a popular excursion, especially as a day trip from Ayutthaya or Bangkok.  That’s actually sufficient time to see the historical sights, all of them within walking distance of the town center.  As for the unique presence of over 3000 monkeys, that will be a bonus for every traveler, and for those who’ve never been in an environment dominated by so many ‘creatures of the wild,’ perhaps a reason to stay longer.

Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat
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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Last Restorations of Classic Chiang Mai

                                                     by Jim Goodman

Sriphum Corner, 1989

Sriphum Corner today
       In 1996 Chiang Mai celebrated its 700th anniversary.  In preparation for this event the city renovated the five gates around its old town, added sections of the former walls that were demolished, along with the city gates, during the Japanese occupation in World War II, and improved the condition of the four original bastions, which had not been torn down, that stood at each corner of the city.  It also renovated a few of its most famous temples for the occasion.
       However, this process did not extend to all of Old Chiang Mai’s notable temples.  Chiang Mai became the new capital of the independent Kingdom of Lanna in 1296 and retained that role until conquered by Burma in 1558.  While Burmese governors did sometimes sponsor temple construction in the city, thereby ingratiating themselves with the natives, the temples most important religiously and politically to the former regime were ignored and even abandoned. 
       In 1774 King Kawila of Lampang, allied with King Taksin of Siam, expelled the Burmese occupiers, but then removed the remaining population and abandoned the city.  After campaigns to drive the Burmese out of northern Thailand entirely and raids on northeast Burma to kidnap people and resettle them in Lanna, Kawila began reconstructing Chiang Mai and officially re-established the city in 1796, five hundred years after its original foundation. 
       Kawila oversaw the restoration of the most important Lanna temples, like Phra Singh, Chedi Luang and Wat Chiang Man, today’s most popular tourist attractions, but others were left in dilapidated condition or, except for the original chedi, left in ruins, their other buildings pilfered for construction elsewhere.  In some cases this situation remained even until after the 700th anniversary.
Wat Inthakin
       In the 21st century, in response to both the spurt in tourism, foreign and domestic, and increasing awareness and pride in its cultural heritage, city authorities began targeting the last long-neglected monuments for renovation.   Among these was Wat Inthakin, in the north central part of the old town, which was actually the first religious building erected in the city during its original construction in the 1290s.  It housed the City Pillar, its palladium, which, unlike other city pillars in Thailand, was a standing Buddha image.  (Kawila later removed it to a separate shrine in Wat Chedi Luang.)
       With its limited function, Wat Inthakin was not a monastery and consists only of its main worship hall (viharn), a couple of old chedis to its rear and another across the street.  The elegant, restored viharn has a two-tiered, nearly black roof, with gilded edges and gilded embellishments in the front, rendering it one of the most beautiful buildings in the city.
museum mural of daily life in the 15th century
       Next to Wat Inthakin is a museum dedicated to the life and times of King Tilokarat, who reigned 1441-1487, considered Lanna’s Golden Age.  Tilokarat expanded the kingdom’s territory in all directions, which is shown on a map inside, and was also a great promoter of Buddhism.  The museum exhibits include wall murals depicting scenes of the daily life of the commoners, like weaving, cooking, carrying water and dancing, as well as elephants going off to war.  Elsewhere there are statues of the king in his court, models of events in his reign, warriors with their weapons and famous monks of the times.  Altogether, the Inthakin Museum gives a well-rounded picture of everyday life in Lanna’s Golden Age, from daily chores to royal spectacles, and even the 15th century style of punishing criminals.
Chedi Plong
       This century’s renovations also included sites in the suburbs outside the old walled city.  Haiya, the neighborhood adjacent to the old town’s southern moat, was home to commoners, particularly crafts workers, who were not permitted to live within the city proper.  An earthen wall surrounded the area and residents had their own chedis and temples.  
       Suriyawong Road, directly south of Chiang Mai Gate, hosts a few of these, including a lone brick chedi in the Sukhothai style and a couple of temple compounds.  The further of these, Wat Yang Kuang, features a recently restored chedi.  Rising from an octagonal base, except for its gilded crown at the very top, it is all white, making it look almost like a modern creation.
       In contrast, the restored Chedi Plong at Wat Chiang Chom, north of the old town near Sri Wattana market, retains its original brick structure and unusual circular shape.  The adjoining temple compound is all newly rebuilt, and the Buddha image at the base of the chedi is recent, but the chedi itself is basically the original one, with a shape unique to the city and representative of the great variety of chedi styles erected in Old Chiang Mai.
the gutters and chedi at Wat Jedlin
       Within the old city, the most important renovation was that of Wat Jedlin, on Phrapokllao Road, south of the city center.  It was one of those temples abandoned during the Burmese occupation, not re-established by Kawila or anyone since, including the committee assigned to preparing Chiang Mai for its 700th anniversary.  It was originally the site for the coronation of King Kae Mu, the last monarch of independent Lanna.  Until 2004, all that remained of the wat was its chedi and a large Buddha head on a platform next to a pipal tree.  Behind it was a swamp.
       The renovation program began with enclosing the compound with a wall and erecting an elaborate brick and stucco entrance gate on Phrapokklao Road.  Unfortunately, appreciation of this is marred by the presence of a jumble of wires attached to a concrete pillar beside it.  Visitors usually go in through the wider vehicle entrance to its left.   The new, triple-roofed viharn is just behind the entrance gate. Inside in front of the altar are a few very realistic statues of the temple’s most famous monks, along with a Chinese Buddha in the front, a Burmese one in the middle and a large Lanna-style Buddha in the back.
antique Buddha head, Wat Jedlin
the praying skeleton
       The antique Buddha head in the courtyard next to the viharn has also been restored, with a concrete nose and left eye.  A small altar behind it features a mock skeleton dressed in a white suit.  When people drop a donation into the box beside it, the skeleton bows forward with hands folded and recites a prayer.
       Right behind the viharn is the original chedi, dating back to at least the 16th century.  On the lowest tier of the base sit a row of nine round stone balls.  Called luknimit in Thai, these stones are ordinarily buried in the ground to mark the boundary of the temple when it is first built or undergoes restoration.  If they are out in public it indicates a reconstruction or renovation is being planned though that may be a long way off yet.  Meanwhile devotees come to make merit by adorning the stones with wafers of gold leaf.  On the day of the luknimits’ ceremonial burial, people come to add to that burial objects that symbolize their desires in the same hole as the luknimits:  notebooks and pencils to improve their memories, needles to sharpen their brains and threads to represent a continuous line of progress in their lives.
symbolic animal, Wat Jedlin
       Wat Jedlin mean the Temple of the Seven Gutters, or Troughs, that have been mounted once again next to the chedi.  In classical times the king allegedly sat at the end of these gutters for a ceremonial cleansing bath.  Nowadays a Buddha image sits at the end of the gutters, bathed during major festivals.
       The swamp behind the chedi has been cleaned up and reduced to an attractive pond.  A rickety bamboo bridge spans it, with rest stops along the way, and ends at the monks’ quarters on the other side.  Visitors can enroll in a session of Monk Chat, also offered at other Chiang Mai temples, and converse with English-speaking monks about Buddhism, monastic life or anything else.
       The monks are from the immediate neighborhood, for the restoration of Wat Jedlin went beyond historical reconstruction to revival of an institution.  An example of its new neighborhood relevance is the contribution to the compound of a new symbolic sculpture of a strange black and white animal with four ears and five eyes, mounted next to the old Buddha head.  A poster next to it explains that the creature represents Buddhist precepts. The four ears represent the four virtues of loving kindness, compassion, empathy and equanimity.  The five eyes stand for the five taboos against killing, stealing, unlawful sex, harmful speech and using intoxicants.
pond in front of Wat Jedlin's monks' quarters
       The other major temple restoration, actually completed before that of Wat Jedlin, was of Wat Lokmolee, just outside the old city moat on its northwest side.  King Ku Na, the 6th monarch of the Mengrai Dynasty, who ruled 1367-1388, established the site as a residence for ten Burmese monks he invited to live in Lanna.  Its importance rose in 1527 with the construction of a viharn and the second tallest chedi in Chiang Mai, after the one at Wat Chedi Luang.  From then on it was known as Wat Lokmolee, the Topknot of the World.
       This was also the year Lanna’s Golden Age ended and the kingdom began its decline.  King Ket Chettharat, who had just come to power, was a weak ruler who alienated his court officials, who deposed him in 1538.  But his son proved an even worse ruler and these same officials deposed and executed him in 1543 and restored Ket Chettharat.  Two years later he also suffered assassination and his daughter Chiraprapha became Queen Regent. 
       Two weeks after her accession a major earthquake struck Chiang Mai and toppled the towering chedi at Wat Chedi Luang.  Shortly afterwards Ayutthaya invaded Lanna.  Unable to raise enough troops from the other parts of the country, perhaps because she was a woman, she had to agree to Ayutthaya’s terms.  When Ayutthaya attacked again the following year her forces defeated them.
the viharn's front entrance
the viharn's side entrance
       Then she abdicated in favor of her son Sethathirat, who ruled just one year and then moved to Luang Phabang to become king there, taking the Emerald Buddha of Chiang Mai with him.  Lanna’s misfortune continued as the country was without a king at all for three years.  Finally, Mae Ku mounted the throne, but wasted the country’s resources on inconclusive border wars.  In 1558 King Bayinnaung of Pegu captured the city after only token resistance. 
       Mae Ku served as a vassal ruler until deposed and exiled to Burma in 1564.  His wife succeeded him in the role as Queen Wisuttha Thewi until her death in 1578.  From then on the Burmese installed their own sovereigns.  Wat Lokmolee lost its royal patronage.  Its chedi housed the remains of the murdered Ket Chettharat, probably those of Chiraprapha and for certain those of Wisuttha Thewi.  But it was no longer an active temple.  Its neglected buildings, except for the chedi, which remained in place right down to the 21st century, fell into ruin and eventually people removed the bricks and timber. 
Phya Phom, the god with four heads
roof decorations on the viharn
       Reconstruction began in 2003 by walling off the compound, erecting a tall, ornate entrance gate and building a new viharn in the classic Lanna style with a triple roof of dark tiles.  Tall, carved staffs, with portraits of the twelve calendar animals, flank the front and side entrances.  Carved plaques depicting scenes from Buddhist mythology grace the interior walls and the space above the entrance.  The interior features a massive seated Buddha, decorated walls and a ceiling painted with floral and geometric designs and a scene from the Buddha’s life.
       Besides the monks’ quarters, the temple’s renovation included the addition of features not part of the original compound.  Now there are statues of Phra Phom, the four-headed Thai equivalent of the Hindu Creator God Brahma, a multi-armed bodhisattva Guan Yin, the Mahayana Buddhist goddess of compassion, and a reclining Ganesh, the elephant-headed son of Shiva.
       In front of the chedi is a rope pulley, for a bamboo tube attached to a gilded, dragon-headed bird.  Devotees fill the tube with water and then pull it on the rope high up on the chedi.  At the end it dumps the water to splash on one of the Buddha images on a tier of the chedi, an act of merit for Thai Buddhists.
statue of Queen Chiraprapha
devotional water tube at the chedi
       The most notable addition, though, is the shrine to Queen Chiraprapha just inside the compound.  The bronze sculpture dates its creation to 2003, the year of the temple’s reconstruction, and is the only reminder of her historical existence in the city.  She ruled Lanna only about a year and a half and the circumstances of her abdication, and what happened to her afterwards, remain undocumented and unclear.
       Yet the shrine has become popular among Chiang Mai women and fresh flowers and offerings mark the site every day.  After all, she was independent Lanna’s only queen, obviously installed after her father’s deposition because she was qualified, She abdicated after defeating and inflicting great losses on Ayutthaya’s second invasion, so one could say she retired in triumph.  All those factors make her, in the minds of Chiang Mai’s female devotees, worthy of veneration.
the restored Wat Lokmolee

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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
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                 All of these sites are part of the itinerary of Delta Tours Vietnam’s visit to the city.