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 

                                                                            * * *   
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 

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