Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Khmer Temples in Southeast Vietnam

                                                           by Jim Goodman

the main assembly hall at Chùa Dơi, the Bat Temple
       The Mekong Delta was the last part of Vietnam settled by Vietnamese and incorporated into the country.  Before the 17th century virtually no Vietnamese lived there.  Most of the Delta was uninhabited swamp, the main settled areas being the higher grounds near the mouth of the Mekong and the areas near the modern border with Cambodia.  The inhabitants were Khmer, with a few Chinese communities in the main river ports.  
       Vietnamese migration commenced in the late 17th century, but the pioneers did not displace the local Khmer.  They simply cleared land next to them and founded villages.  By 1900 the Vietnamese had become the majority of the population in all of the Delta provinces, but a sizable percentage were and still are Khmer and Chinese.
monks drying grain at Chùa Dơi
       Both communities have clung to their traditional culture in spite of the strong Vietnamese presence all around them.  For the Khmer, this primarily means the practice of Buddhism different from the Mahayana branch to which the Vietnamese and Chinese adhere.  The Khmer follow the Theravada variant, like that prevailing in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
       Today, in a land where swamps are few and far between and practically everything between the rivers has been cleared for cultivation and settlement, 70% of Vietnam’s Khmer population still lives in Trà Vinh and Sóc Trăng provinces at the mouth of the Mekong River.   Their ancestors first settled here over a thousand years ago.  Culturally they were part of the Khmer model emanating from Angkor and later Phnom Penh.  But politically, so far from either Khmer capital and separated by swamps and wilderness, they were virtually autonomous.
kinnara roof strut,  Chùa Dơi
four-faced chedi at Chùa Khleang
       My first exposure to Khmer culture in Vietnam came with a trip to Trà Vinh.  Several Theravada Buddhist temples lie within the city and short distances beyond, with their typical angled roofs and monks in orange robes, very different from the usual Vietnamese or Chinese Mahayana Buddhist temples.  Angkor-style ruins still stood in one of the temples and religious services were well attended.
nagas on the roof of Chùa Khleang
       My curiosity aroused, I headed for Sõc Trăng next, though had to take a roundabout route via Cn Thơ, 60 km northwest of Sóc Trăng, which is about 240 km south of Hồ Chí Minh City.  In both provinces the Khmer constitute about 30% of the population, mainly in rural villages.  The city is about the same size as Trà Vinh but appeared to have less of a Khmer presence in the markets and urban neighborhoods.  It does, however, have two outstanding Khmer temples and a fine museum exhibiting Khmer arts and crafts.
       Arriving late afternoon, I headed for the first of these, Chùa Dơi, the Bat Temple, in the southern suburbs, which gets more visitors then than in the morning.  It is named after the bats that live in the grove of tall trees surrounding a pond in the compound.  A fire destroyed part of the grove several years ago, so the bats are not as numerous as before.  But over a couple hundred still emerge around dusk, some with wingspans of 1.5 meters, flying off to raid fruit orchards in the countryside.  Afternoon visitors congregate at the pond to observe them, feeding the fish in the meanwhile.  Early risers may also come to watch them return to the compound at dawn.
the abbot at Chùa Khleang
the interior of the assembly hall, Chùa Khleang
       In Vietnam, Khmer temple compounds grow their own rice and vegetables.  On my visit the monks were just gathering up the grain they had laid out in the compound to dry.  The main assembly hall, the largest in the compound, is a bright and beautiful building, with classic angled roofs supported by struts with carved kinnaras--half-bird, half-human.  The roof is covered with tiles in diamond patterns of yellow, red, blue-green and white.  The walls of the platforms, roof edges and nagas on the upturned corners are all painted golden yellow.  Other compound buildings feature guardian lions very much in the Khmer style—almost grinning.
ceiling painting, Chùa Khleang
       Sóc Trăng’s other Khmer temple, Chùa Khleang, is in the eastern quarter, across the small river running through the city.  Originally built in 1540, the modern version today is a compound of classic style buildings dominated by the colors gold, red, yellow and ochre-pink.  The main assembly hall sits on a double platform with gilded roosters and Hanuman-like figures in front of the entrance.  The interior features gilded standing and seated Buddhas, golden columns with black designs and paintings of celestial beings on the ceilings.
       The compound also holds several chedis—bell-shaped reliquary mounds—containing the ashes of famous monks.  Often they have four faces around the base of the pinnacle on top, a characteristic Khmer artistic embellishment.  A few very big trees shade the area, but there is no grove (or bats) as at Chùa Dơi.  One of the two long buildings in the compound houses more than a hundred resident monks and novices, while the other serves as their school.  Besides religious precepts, they also learn to read and write in the Khmer language alphabet.
Angkor era bronze sculpture
inside the Clay Pagoda
       Across the street from the temple is the Khmer Culture Museum.  Exhibits include two stage sets for performances of the Ramakien drama, a ceremonial boat, models of material culture from rice farming to the production of tools, baskets and clothing, ornate boat ‘eyes’, palm-leaf manuscripts and musical instruments.  The most interesting objects are the exquisite small bronze statues of dancing figures wearing elaborate headdresses, similar to those as stone carvings on the walls of Angkor temples.
cargo boat in Sóc Trăng
       Unfortunately, no information was posted on their age.  But they are obviously in the classic Angkor style, demonstrating that in spite of their distance from the heartland, the Khmer of ancient Soc Trăng were very much part of mainstream Angkor culture.  On the other hand, the other exhibits are displays of contemporary Khmer life that is mostly different from that of their Vietnamese neighbors and replicates Khmer life in Cambodia.  In spite of historical and political developments over the last few centuries, the cultural connection between separated Khmer communities has not diminished.
basket shop in Sóc Trăng
       Further down the road from Chùa Khleang is the city’s other main tourist attraction—Chùa Đất Sét.  A small, Chinese-style, family-managed temple over 200 years old, it is more commonly called the Clay Pagoda.  Except for its metal roof, nearly everything is made of clay—walls, columns, altars and many sculptures of animals and mythological creatures like an elephant with six tusks.  A single monk was responsible for all the hand-made sculptures, created during a monastic career of over 40 years until his death in 1970.
assembly hall at Chùa Salôn
       The city has few tall buildings and no shopping malls.  The river divides it into halves and boats carrying bamboo, construction materials, dirt for landfills and other goods occasionally glide by.  Small restaurants serve the local specialty—bún nước lea, a vermicelli soup with pork, shrimp and coconut milk.  On the northeast side of town lies An Bình, Sóc Trăng’s main recreational park.  It consists of a picaresque pond with an island pavilion and cavorting dragons in the water and a separate large rectangular reservoir with a tree-lined walkway.
       Outside Sóc Trăng the scenery is mostly flat farmland, but along the highway just 12 km south is another impressive Khmer temple—Chùa Salôn.  The main assembly hall was originally wooden when first built about two hundred years ago.  The present concrete structure slowly replaced it from 1969-1985 as donations accumulated to pay for it.  Large, on a raised platform and mostly silver gray in color, it features ceramic tile patterns on the roof and a tall chedi protruding from the center of the roof.
market scene at Chùa Salôn
       Other buildings in the compound—shrines, staircase sculptures, Sanskrit language school, monks’ quarters and tombs, are colored gold, orange and white.  What makes the compound unique is the daily food market that takes place within it.  From early morning until mid-afternoon Khmer and Vietnamese run stalls selling fruits, vegetables, spices and snacks.
       Southwest of Chùa Salôn the road goes to Bạc Liâu province, where the Khmer are much fewer in number.  Bạc Liêu city is smaller than Sóc Trăng and doesn’t look very prosperous.  The main tourist attraction, the Hồ Đàm Reservoir, is not as attractive as the one in An Bình and the city has no other parks or interesting buildings.  Unlike Trà Vinh and Sóc Trăng provinces, the soil in Bạc Liêu province is very saline and unsuitable for rice cultivation.  People generally make a living by fishing, shrimp farming or oyster collection. 
heron in Sân Chim sanctuary
       However, the province is not completely devoid of attractions.  A bird sanctuary, a temple honoring whales and one more wonderful Khmer temple compound made the excursion worthwhile.  The Bạc Liêu Bird Sanctuary lies about six km south of the city.  A turn off the main road runs about two km to a large swamp forest.  Visitors can take boats along the canals or walk along the fringes of land in between. 
       The birds, mostly wild chickens, herons and other water birds, are visible behind a fence in front of a thick forest.  A natural lake lies next to it and large, open-air cages hold other swamp denizens like monkeys, crocodiles and pythons.  The sanctuary is one of the shrunken remnants of what, four centuries ago, was the landscape characteristic of most of today’s Mekong River provinces.
       South of the sanctuary a road runs about a few more km to the Khmer temple Chùa Xiêm Cán, near the sea.  But at the junction is a temple honoring whales.  It’s in a Chinese style, with portraits of whales on the exterior walls.  The cult of the whale was not a Khmer cultural trait, for they were never seafarers.  It came from the Chăm, who lived further north, for who maritime activity was an essential part of their culture, which was otherwise heavily Khmer-influenced.  When Vietnamese began migrating into former Chăm territory they assimilated some aspects of local culture and the Chăm custom of venerating whales was one of them.
Whale Temple in Bạc Liêu province
       The road continues a little ways past the temple to end at what is euphemistically called Bạc Liêu Beach.  It’s not a place to go swimming, though, for there’s no sand here, only slimy mud right to the water’s edge.  Local villagers come not for bathing, but to collect oysters in the tidal flats.
       Chùa Xiêm Cán is the largest Khmer temple compound in Bạc Liêu province and one of the biggest and most prestigious in southern Vietnam.  Constructed in 1887, it utilizes elements common to all Theravada temples, such as high, layered, sloping roofs supported by sculpted struts and the dominance of the colors yellow and orange.  It also incorporates architectural and sculptural motifs common to the classic buildings of Angkor, a feature that distinguishes Khmer temple compounds from those of other Theravada countries.
       This is evident right at the entrance gate, which is surmounted 
entrance gate of Chùa Xiêm Cán
by three Angkor-style prangs.  Covering the compound wall are low-relief sculptures of scenes from the Ramakien, warriors riding chariots, dancing girls copied from the walls of Angkor Wat and other Khmer scenes.  Within the compound other classic motifs are visible, like the four large faces, one in each direction, copied from Angkor Thom, the grinning guardian lions, the Hindu god Indra riding a three-headed elephant and the multi-headed nagas on the staircases.
       The main assembly hall has coral pink columns and walls, gray roof sand a chedi rising from its center.  The principal Buddha image inside sits on a tall throne, with lavish murals on the walls behind and the ceiling overhead.  The flanking walls are filled with paintings depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha or one of his previous incarnations.  The temple houses about 25 monks and novices.  In addition to their religious lessons, they study the Khmer language and Pali, the language used in the ancient Buddhist scriptures.
Angkor-style sculptures at Chùa Xiêm Cán
guardian lion, Chùa Xiêm Cán
       The best time to visit the Khmer-inhabited provinces in Vietnam is towards the end of the year, when the rainy season is over, the skies are clear, temperatures cooler and people busy with the rice harvest.  People are also in a celebratory mood then.  On the 15th day of the 10th lunar month (this year 11 November) they hold the Oóc Om Bóc festival.  Temples will sponsor elaborate rituals, but they do that every full moon day.  The festival predates Buddhism and honors the Moon Goddess, thanking her for a successful harvest and the return of fine weather.  The highlight of the program in Sóc Trăng will be teams of rowers, both male and female, racing long, narrow boats on the river.
       This is the greatest annual spectacle in the Khmer cultural calendar.  Ethnic pride is on display, the races are fun to watch and the cultural programs full of insight for outsiders.  Yet to appreciate the Khmer people, their culture, religion, art and architecture, one needn’t wait until a harvest festival.  Any time of year will do.
novice taking a break at Chùa Xiêm Cán 

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Sóc Trăng is one of the stops on Delta Tours Vietnam's cultural-historical journey through the country.  See the schedule at https://www.deltatoursvietnam.com/destinations 

Friday, March 8, 2019

Decoration and Edification: Chiang Mai Temple Murals

                                            by Jim Goodman

social life in a Lai Kham mural
       When travelers come to Chiang Mai they have usually prepared a list of attractions they wish to see and appreciate.  Besides the markets, daytime, nighttime and weekend, the riverside and the nearest mountains, their program will include an extensive exploration of the old city.  Surrounded by a moat, with picturesque wooden bridges crossing it, it features the ruins of the original ancient bastions at each corner, some restored wall fragments, five reconstructed city entry gates and many old temples.
       From its founding in 1296, Chiang Mai was a consciously Buddhist city.  Its first temple, Wat Chiangman, was built at the same time as the king’s palace and city walls.  Others soon followed and today dozens of temples lie within the boundaries of the old walled city.  Naturally then, a tour of Chiang Mai inevitably includes visits to several of the more famous ones.
Jataka Tales illustrated at Wat Buak Krok Luang
       These may be notable for their architecture, as outstanding examples of the classic style.  Wat Lokmolee, Wat Lai Kram in the Phra Singh compound and Wat Inthakin, with their dark sloping roofs, fit into this category.  Or it could be for their unusual chedis, the bell-shaped reliquaries behind the main viharn, or assembly hall, such as the gigantic ruined one at Wat Chedi Luang, and those with elephants around the base, like at Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chiangman.  And it could be for their rare and ancient Buddha images, like at Wat Chiangman. 
       For travelers experiencing their first exposure to Buddhist arts in situ, these sights can be appreciated only to a certain degree.  Not having been raised in a Buddhist environment, nor specializing in the religious arts, visitors find themselves admiring the basic aesthetic attractions of a building or a statue, without connecting to it any other way.
lai khram-style mural at Wat Chiangman
portrait of a farmer, Wat Chiangman
       But there is one Thai temple art that can go beyond aesthetics and draw them right into the culture—wall murals.  Not every temple has them and the quality varies in those that do.  They mainly depict religious subjects, such as well-known scenes from the life of the Buddha, plus incidents from the Jataka Tales, a compilation of stories of the Buddha’s previous incarnations.   They decorate the walls with imagery that enhances the spiritual atmosphere of the building.
religious and secular activities, Wat Chiangman mural
       In many cases the imagery, particularly involving scenes from the Buddha’s life, is rather ordinary, looking much like mass-produced Indian posters.  The painters did not see themselves as Renaissance-style individualist artists, but more like ordinary artisans producing imagery according to fixed prescriptions written down in books.  In Bangkok and the central provinces painters worked according to Court-directed styles and formulas.
       This was much less the case in the north, allowing for individual styles and an altogether livelier rendition, especially in the details.  Scenes from the Jataka Tales provided more scope for a painter’s own ideas, such as choosing which little everyday life vignettes to include.  It did not extend to portraits, for the faces of both men and women are all alike.  The overall general style also seems fixed.  There are no shadows, no shading, no sense of perspective and the size of individuals in the murals depends upon their importance.  Royalty, spiritual beings and Buddhas are larger than mere mortal commoners.
how the murals were made--exhibition at Lanna Folk Life Museum
       Besides decoration, temple murals also served as aids to preaching.  Temple murals originated centuries ago when literacy was mostly restricted to men and even those who could read did not spend much time reading religious texts.  Devotees did gather at temples to hear the monks preach.  And in their discourse the monks frequently referred to the paintings by way of illustrating their remarks.
       Religion was more closely integrated with everyday life back then.  In addition to religious motifs the murals also depict scenes from the daily life of the community, to make the worshipers feel the temple was just another part of domestic life.  These vignettes, especially in the older murals of Lai Kham Viharn in the Wat Phra Singh compound and Wat Buak Krok Luang, constitute a graphic illustration of Thai culture and history that can be appreciated by foreign visitors even if they knew virtually nothing about Thailand or Buddhism before they came here.
18th century soldier, with spear, City Pillar Shrine
detail from a mural inside the City Pillar Shrine
       Wall murals are of two main types.  The simpler one, called lai khram in Thai, consists of just two colors—gold or yellow figures on a red or red-brown background.  The best example of this is at the main viharn of Wat Chiangman, where the imagery comprises scenes of everyday life, set back centuries ago.  We see the clothing and hairstyles of the time, with the women in striped sarongs and wraparound breast cloths, hair tied in a bun, the men shirtless for the most part, and soldiers riding horses or elephants, the nobility in their palaces and the commoners in simple stilted huts.
Burmese delegates, Lai Kham mural
       The scenes include rituals in front of chedis that resemble Chedi Liam in the pre-Chiang Mai capital of Wiang Kum Kam, modeled on those in Haripunchai (ancient Lamphun).  There are also vignettes of farmers leading buffalo carts, carrying loads on balance poles, reaping rice, tying a buffalo to a stake for its slaughter and cooking over a log fire, all of them subjects that can still be witnessed in the countryside today.  Only the military scenes, and the Court vignette of scribes writing in palm-leaf manuscripts cannot be witnessed anymore, but are interesting insights into the life of times past.
everyday life vignette, Lai Kham mural
       The other, more common type of mural is full color.  Painters first outlined all the figures in the mural and then filled in the outlines with different colors.  Sometimes one artist did all the outlines and others, often his students, filled in the colors.  Unlike fresco painting, in which the pigments are applied to wet plaster, Thai temple painters applied the colors to dry plaster.  This made them more vulnerable to the effects of a climate that was very damp several months a year.  The paint flecked off, especially on the lower parts of the walls.  The usual solution was to simply remove the rest of the painting and make a new one. 
       Even when the intention was to recreate the original, mistakes could mar the result.  The City Pillar was originally kept in Wat Inthakin, but when Kawila re-established Chiang Mai at the end of the 18th century he moved it to a new shrine in the compound of Wat Chedi Luang.  The small shrine’s walls were covered with typical classic-style murals.  These decayed over time and early this century temple authorities decide to restore them. 
court scene, Lai Kham mural
daily life, Lai Khan mural
       The artists did a fine job recreating the original themes, but for some reason depicted the warriors next to the doors, while dressed in Kawila period style, carrying M-16 rifles or submachine guns.  After the grand re-opening, someone pointed out this anomaly and soon the modern guns were replaced with spears.
boys on buffaloes,Lai Kham mural
       Fortunately, in two of Chiang Mai’s temples the authorities opted for preserving the originals.  At Lai Kham Viharn in the Wat Phra Singh compound, the murals date from the early 19th century, the oldest extant in the province.  Lai Kham is one of the most beautiful examples of Buddhist architecture in the city.   After Kawila restored the Kingdom of Lanna, its interior walls became covered with murals of Jataka Tales and other subjects.
       Time and weather corroded the paintings, but fortunately, instead of painting new murals over the old ones, in this case the goal was restoration, beginning a couple of decades ago.  It was a long and painstaking process, but nowadays most sections of the murals have been restored to their original vivid colors.  Except for a few men with moustaches, the shape of the heads, faces and facial expressions of the humans in the murals are all very similar, though their clothing, while in the same general classic style, is very individualistic.  No two sarong patterns, for example, are exactly alike,
Jataka Tales at Wat Buak Krok Luang
       A few celestial beings appear on the walls, but the primary concentration is on secular themes.  We see traditional houses with their sloping, arched roofs, the sides open to reveal the people inside or on their balconies.  They could be preparing food, minding the children or just socializing.  Several vignettes depict courtship scenes and both young men and young women smoke cheroots while they chat.
       Other daily activities include carrying bowls of food or other things, market scenes, presenting offerings or just lounging around.  One cute picture depicts young boys riding buffaloes.  Another shows a contingent of Burmese men, wearing the most colorful garments of all.  Their lungyis reach to the knee, revealing some of the dark tattoos that used to cover the thighs of the males of those times, both in Burma and in Thailand.
=grieving scene,Wat Buak Krok Luang
The second oldest set of classic temple murals graces the interior of the viharn of Wat Buak Krok Luang, about two km west of the PIng River off the Sam Kamphaeng Road.  Though the temple dates its construction three centuries ago, the murals were added after renovation in the late 19th century.  They are the work of a Shan immigrant and not quite the same style as those at Lai Kham.  The subject matter may be similar, mainly several Jataka Tales, but the details can differ.
       Human figures have the same kind of bodies and largely expressionless faces, except for the smiles of courting couples.  But there are scenes of grief and very poignant weeping figures.  The elephants look realistic, but some of the horses have disproportionately longer bodies and spotted skin.  To illustrate a military episode the artist included a rank of Shan soldiers in red helmets and jackets.  And on the right rear wall is a picture of two demons torturing a sinner in Hell.
the torments of Hell,Wat Buak Krok Luang
       These murals cover more space than those at Lai Khan, but restoration has been slow.  Some are still in excellent condition, while others have a strange red hue over them and streaks and blotches where the pain has peeled off.  Nevertheless, they are valuable for the cultural and historical insights they offer, as well as appreciation of the art itself.  Inevitably, too, the visitor will spend much time lingering over fascinating details.
       The classic mural style of these two places did not prevail in later temple paintings, which affect a modern style of more or less realistic portraiture.  One of the buildings in Wat Bupharam, in the heart of the city, did adopt the style, but the subjects are not taken from the Buddha’s life or the Jataka Tales, but instead illustrate scenes from contemporary life. 
Thai kick-boxing, Wat Bupharam mural
       They are mostly crowd scenes or festival processions.  The women wear the traditional blouses and striped sarongs, but most of the men, and especially the children, dress in modern fashions.  It’s like what one sees at the festivals nowadays.  A few vignettes of domestic life are included, looking more like the classic at-home and flirting scenes of the old murals.  There’s also a unique portrayal of the modern Thai sport of kick-boxing.
       Contemporary secular life and religious stories characterize most temple murals.  But local history can provide other themes.  One such story is that of Queen Chamadevi, the first ruler of the Mon state of Haripunchai (ancient Lamphun).  She was a real historical person, but her life story has been augmented by legend.  Murals portraying the episodes of the city-state’s foundation cover the walls of the viharn of Wat Chamadevi and the ordination hall of Wat Prayeun in Lamphun.  They are also the subjects of murals in two of the buildings of Wat Doi Khan, a hilltop temple 11 km south of Chiang Mai.
the hermit Wasuthep raising young Chamadevi, Wat Doi Kham
       Doi Kham was the home of Pu Sae and Ya Sae, former cannibal ogres whom the Buddha converted and who were the parents of the hermit Wasuthep, who lived on the mountain later named after him--Doi Suthep.  When Chamadevi was born near Lamphun, a huge bird abducted the baby and flew to Doi Suthep.  There the hermit frightened it enough that it released the child, who fell into an instantly created lotus. 
       Wasuthep raised the girl himself and even taught her martial arts.  When she reached puberty he divined her future, learned she was destined to become a queen and sent her downriver to Lopburi and its royal Mon family.  When she matured, Wasuthep laid out the city of Haripunchai and she came up to rule over it.  These tales and the subsequent history of Haripunchai’s establishment are the subject of murals in one of the viharns and the separate shrine to Chamadevi.
       Whether the topics are religious, narrative or simply portraits of everyday activities, temple murals greatly enhance the experience of a visit.  The statues and furnishings may be of high artistic quality.  But only the murals will engage the eye for closer examination and relishing of surprise details and make a simultaneous appeal to the eye, mind and heart.

Shan soldiers on a mural in Wat Buak Krok Luang

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