Vietnam stretches over 1600km along the eastern coast of Indo-China Peninsula. The country's land area is 326,797sq. km. This makes it slightly larger than Italy and a bit smaller than Japan. Vietnam has 3451km of coastline and 3818km of land borders: 1555km with Laos, 1281km with China and 982km with Cambodia. Three-quarters of the country consist of mountains and hills, the highest of which is 3143m high Fansipan in the Hoang Lien Mountains in the far north-west. The Truong Son Mountains, which form the Central Highlands, run almost the full length of Vietnam along its border with Laos and Cambodia. The largest metropolis is Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) followed by Hanoi (capital) Haiphong and Danang.
Vietnam has a remarkable diverse climate because of its wide range of latitudes and altitude. Although the entire country lies in the tropics and subtropics, local conditions vary from frosty winter in the far northern hills to year-round, sub-equatorial warmth in the Mekong Delta. In Ho Chi Minh City, the average annual temperature is 27oC. In April, daily highs are usually in the low 30s. In January, the daily lows average 21oC. Average humidity is 80% and annual rainfall averages 1979mm.
In 1997, Vietnam's population reached 76.5 million, making it the 13th populous country in the world. Eight-four percent of the population is ethnic-Vietnamese, 2% is ethnic-Chinese and the rest is made up of over 50 ethno-linguistic groups.
Evidences indicate that in Saigon (presently Ho Chi Minh City) the Indian population, mainly from South India was of a significant number in the past. Almost all of South Vietnam's Indian population, most of whose roots were in southern India, left 1975 after reunification. The remaining community in Ho Chi Minh City worships at the Mariamman Hindu Temple and the Central Mosque. (Within the last few years, the many Indians are coming back for business purposes).
Vietnam population is very well educated. Vietnam's literacy rate was estimated at 82%, although official figures put it even higher at 95%. Four great philosophies and religions have shaped the spiritual life of the Vietnamese people: Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Christianity.
A tiny and almost forgotten minority group are the Tamils, whose ancestors came from tiny French enclaves like Pondicherry and Karikal along the south coast of India. Their small community in Ho Chi Minh City, now only a few thousand. In the late 19th century the Tamil immigrants from the French colonies of South India erected the Mariamman Temple in Saigon.
Like small ethnic groups anywhere in the world, the minority peoples of Vietnam continue to struggle against absorption into mainstream society. Meager economic opportunities in the countryside have drawn many minority people to urban areas where they must adopt to the ways of the late 20th century. But, another force is also at work. Since the early 1960s, the communist regime in Hanoi has endeavoured to integrate minority groups into the dominant Viet population. However, parents continue to teach native minority traditions at home as many of Vietnam’s ethnic groups reach the verge of extinction.
Vietnamese ancestor worship based on the belief that the soul lives on after death and becomes the protector of its descendants. Because of the influence of the spirits of one's ancestors exert on the living, it is not only shameful for them to be upset or restless, but downright dangerous. A soul with no descendants is doomed to eternal wandering because it will not receive homage.
Traditionally, the Vietnamese venerate and honour the spirits of their ancestors regularly, especially on the anniversary of the death, when sacrifices offered to both the god of the household and the spirit of the ancestors. To request intercession for success in business or on behalf of a sick child, sacrifices and prayers are offered to the ancestor spirits. The ancestors are informed on occasions of family joy or sorrow, such as weddings, success of examination or death.
Three major religious festivals are celebrated to remember the dead. The first is the Holiday of the Dead (Thanh Minh). This falls in the fifth day of the third moon. In this day, people pay solemn visits to graves of deceased relatives, specially tidied up a few days before, and makes offerings of food, flowers, joss sticks and votive papers. The second is the Summer Solstice Day (Doan Ngu). This falls on the fifth day of the fifth moon. On this day, offerings are made to spirits, ghosts and the God of Death's ward off epidemics. Human effigies are burned to satisfy the requirements of the God of Death for souls to staff his army. The third festival is the Wandering Souls Day (Trung Nguyen). This falls on the fifteenth day of the seventh moon. This is the second largest Vietnamese festival of the year. Offerings of food and gifts are made in homes and pagodas for the wandering souls of the forgotten dead.
From the 1st to 6th centuries AD, Vietnam was part of the Indianised kingdom of Funan, which produced notably refined art and architecture. The Funanese constructed an elaborate system of canals which were used for both transportation and the irrigation of wet rice agriculture. In mid-6thcentury, Funan was attacked by the pre-Angkorian Kingdom of Chenla, which gradually absorbed the territory of Funana into its own.
The Hindu kingdom of Champa appeared around present-day Danang in the late 2nd century. Like Funan, it became Indianised by lively commercial relations with India and through the immigration of Indian literati and priests. Brilliant examples of Cham sculpture can be seen in the Cham Museum in Danang.
During the Chinese rule from 200 BC to 938 AD, Vietnam was a key port of call on the sea route between China and India. The Vietnamese were introduced to Confucianism and Taoism by Chinese scholars who came to Vietnam as administrators and refugees. Indians sailing eastward brought Theravada (Hiayana) Buddhism to the Red River Delta while, Chinese travellers introduced Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhist monks carried with them the scientific and medical knowledge of the civilisations of India and China; as a result, Vietnamese Buddhists soon counted among their own great doctors, botanists and scholars.
The kingdom of Champa flourished from the 2nd to the 15th centuries. It first appeared around present-day Danang and later by 8th century spread south to what is now Nha Trang and Phan Rang. The Cham adopted Hinduism, employed Sanskrit as a sacred language and borrowed heavily from Indian art. One of the most stunning sights in Hoi An area is My Son, Vietnam's most important Cham site. During the centuries when Tra Kieu (then known as Simhapura) served as the political capital of Champa. Dong Dong (then known as Indrapura) served as the Cham's religious centre.
My Son was the site of the most important Cham intellectual and religious centre, and also may have served as a burial place for Cham monarchs. My Son is considered to be Champa's counterpart to the grand cities of south-east Asia's other Indian-influenced civilsations: Agkor(Cambodia), Bagan (Myanmar), Aythaya (Thailand) and Borobudur (Java).
My Son became a religious centre under King Bhadravarman in the late 4th century and was occupied until 13th century. Most temples were dedicated to Cham kings associated with divinities, especially Shiva, who was regarded as the founder and protector of Champa's dynasties. The main sanctuary was dedicated to Bhadresvara, which is a contraction of the name of King Bhadravarman, who built the first temple at My Son, combined with '-esvara', which means Siva.
The linga inside was discovered during excavations in 1985. The 8th century was used to worship Shiva portrayed in human form rather than in the form of linga. Inside is an altar where a statue of Shiva, now in the Cham Museum in Danang used to stand. In the Museum, the objects displayed include a large panel of Shiva dancing on a platform above the bull Nandi. To Shiva's left is his son Skanda (under a tree), his wife Umaand a worshipper. To Shiva's right is a dancing saint and two musicians under a tree, one with two drums, the other with a flute. The display also include a finely carved lion - symbol of the power of the king (the lion was believed to be an incarnation of Vishnu and the protector of kings).
Champa was profoundly influenced by Hinduism and many of the Cham towers, built as Hindu sanctuaries, containing lingas that are still worshipped by ethnic-Vietnamese and ethnic-Chinese alike. After the fall of Champa in the 15th century, most Chams who remained in Vietnam became Muslims, but continued to practice various Brahmic rituals and customs.
Cham Museum is founded in 1915 by the Ecole Francaise d'Esreme Orient. It has the open-air collection of Cham sculptures in the finest in the world. Many of the sandstone carvings (altars, lingas, garudas, ganeshas, saraswathy, sea monster makara, elephant-lion Gajasimha, and images of Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu) and altar ornaments are breathtaking; making this a place you can visit again and again.
The four scenes carved around the base of the 7th century Tra Kieu Altar tell part of the Ramayana epic and are influenced by the Amaravati style of South India:
Scene A (16 characters) tells the story of Prince Rama, who broke the sacred bow (Rudra) at the citadel of Videha thus winning the right to wed King Janaka's daughter, Princess Sita.
Scene B (16 characters) shows the ambassadors sent by King Janaka to Prince Rama's father, King Dasaratha, at Ayodhya. The emissaries inform King Dasaratha of the exploits of his sons, present him with gifts and invite to Videha to celebrate his son's wedding.
Scene C (18 characters) shows the royal wedding ceremony (including three Prince Rama's brothers, who are marrying Princess Sita's cousins).
In Scene D, 11 apsaras (heavenly maidens) dance and present flowers to the newlyweds under the guidance of the two gandhara musicians who appear to the beginning of Scene A.
Phan Rang-Thao Cham's famous landmark is Po Klong Garai, also known as Po Klong Girai (girai means dragon). The four brick towers, constructed at the end of the 13th century during the reign of Cham monarch Jaya Simhabarman III, were bult as Hindu temples and stand on a brick platform at the top of Cho''k Hala, a crumbling granite hill covered with some of the most ornery cacti this side of the Rio Grande.
Over the entrance to the largest tower (the kalan, or sanctuary) is a carving of a dancing Shiva with six arms. This bas-relief is known locally as Po Klaun Tri - The Guardian of the Temple-Tower - and is famous for its beauty. Inside the vestibule is a statue of the bull Nandi (also known as KapilOx), symbol of the agricultural productivity of the countryside. Under the main tower is a mukhu-linga, a linga with a painted human face on it. A wooden pyramid has been constructed above the mukha-linga. On the nearby hill is a rock with an inscription from the year 1050 commemorating the erection of a linga by a Cham prince.
The Kate New Year is celebrated at the towers in the seventh month of the Cham calender (around October). The festival commemorates ancestors, Cham national heros and Gods such as goddess Po Ino Nagar who assisted the Chams with their farming. On the eve of the festival, a procession guarded by the mountain people of Tay Nguyen carries King Po Kloong Garai's clothing to accompaniment of traditional music. The procession lasts until mid-night. The following morning the garments are carried to the tower., once again accompanied by music along with banners, flags, singing and dancing,. Notables, dignitaries and village elders follow behind. This colourful ceremony continues into the afternoon. The Cham's New Year celebrations then carry on for the rest of the month as they attend parties and visit friend and relatives. The Cham also use this time to pray for good fortune.
The Cham towers of Po Nagar, also known as Thap Ba (the Lady of the City), were built between the 7th and 12th centuries. The site was used for Hindu worship as early as 2nd century AD. Today, both ethnic-Chinese and ethnic-Buddhists come to Po Nagar to pray and make offering according to their respective traditions.
There are many stone slabs found throughout the complexes, most of which relate history or religion proving great insight into the spiritual life and social structure of the Chams. Originally the complex covered an area of 500 sq. m. and there were seven or eight towers, four of which remain. All the temples face east, as did the original entrance to the complex, which is to the right as you ascend the hillock. In centuries past, a person coming to pray passed through the pillared mandapa (meditation hall), 10 pillars of which can still be seen, before proceeding up the staircase to the towers.
The 23m high North Tower (Thap Chinh), with its terraced pyramidal roof, vaulted interior masonry and vestibule, is a superb example of Cham architecture. One of the tallest Cham towers, it was built in 817 AD by Pangra, a minister of King Harivarman I, after the original temples here were sacked and burned. the raiders also carried off a linga made of precious metal. In 918 AD King Indravaraman III placed a gold mukha-lingain the North Tower, but it too was taken, this time by the Khmers. This attern of statues being destroyed or stolen and then replaced continued for some time until 965 AD when King Jaya Indravarman I replaced the gold mukha-linga with a stone figure of Uma - a shakti, or feminine manifestation of Shiva - which remains to this day.
Above the entrance to the North Tower, two musicians flak a dancing four-armed Shiva, one of whose feet on the head of the bull Nandi. The sandstone door-posts covered with inscriptions, are parts of the walls of the vestibule. A gong and a drum stand under the pyramid-shaped ceiling of the antechamber. In the 28m high pyramidal main chamber there is a black stone statue of the goddess Uma (in the shape of Bhagavati) with ten arms; two of which are hidden under her vest. She is seated leaning back against some sort of monstrous animal.
The Central Tower (Thap Nam) was built partly of recycled bricks in the 12th century on the site of a structure dating the 7th century. It is less finely constructed than the other towers and has little ornamentation; the pyramidal roof lacks terracing or pilasters. The interior altars were once covered with silver. There is a linga inside the main chamber.
The South Tower (Mieu Dong Nam), at one time dedicated to Shiva, still shelters a linga. The richly ornamented North-West Tower (Thap Tay Bac) was originally dedicated to Ganesha. The pyramid-shaped summit of the roof of the North-West Tower has disappeared. The West Tower, of which almost nothing remains, was constructed by King Vikrantavarman during the first half of the 9th century.
There are small groups of Muslims and Hindus in Vietnam. Most of them are Chams, one of the country’s largest ethnic groups, who are almost equally divided between the two. The vast majority of Chams live along the coastal plain between Nha Trang and Phan Thiet or in Ho Chi Minh City which has both a mosque and three Hindu temples. Cham Hindus call themselves Balamons, a sect that traces it roots back to the ancient Kingdom of Champa which drew cultural and religious inspiration from Khmers Hindus who began the construction of Angkok Wat.
Muslims and Hindus Chams live in separate villages within the same communes; they rarely intermarry and they celebrate separate festivals. One of the emblems of their religious harmony is the fact that they produce "forbidden food" for one another; te Muslims do not eat pork but raise pigs for the Hindus, whilst the Hindus do not eat beef but they raise cattle for the Muslims!
By 1867, the French had captured the southern third of Vietnam, carving a colony called Chochinchina and establishing a capital at the river port of Saigon. The French developed the foundation for modern infrastructure with the construction of highways, railroads, port facilities, telegraph networks, post offices and banks. In late 19th century, the French brought the Tamils from the tiny French enclaves like Pondicherry and Karikal along the south coast of India. They were engaged in the development of Vietnam. Later the Tamils from the Chettiar community (Nagartar) came to Vietnam especially for money lending business
Apart from conducting business, Nagartars were religious and build Hindu temples for their religious practices. In the late 19th and early 20thcenturies, Nagartars spread Hinduism in South-East Asia. Initially some temples were built for their exclusive use but later they were opened to the public. Their interests in the field of education and maintenance of temples are well documented.
The Hindu temples in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) are over 100 years. In the late 19th century, the Tamils came from Pondicherry constructed the Mariammam Temple with a raja goopuram. Similarly, in mid 20th century Nagartars built two Hindu temples, namely Sri Thendayutthapani Temple and Sunbramaniar Temple, using Indian craftsmen, builders and sculptors. Similar to the ancient temples in India, these temples followed the principles of temple building. All three temples have large sized halls (mandapams) and inner and outer circumferences. All three temples are in close proximity in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
During the Vietnam war, the unfavourable economic and political situations in South Vietnam caused the exodus of Nagartars. Some of them had Vietnamese wifes. Their offsprings have pure tamil names but they are unable to speak or write in Tamil.
In April 1975, after the reunification, the socialist government of Vietnam shut the places of worship, including the Hindu temples. Some temples premises were used as factories. I was told that the flat-roof of one Hindu temple was used to dry fish for export. The temples lost all its valuable jewelleries. Around 1993, the temples re-opened for worship as the result of the negotiations between India and Vietnam at the diplomatic level. In one temple, the flags of India and Vietnam are at the entrance, to reinforce the friendship between these two countries.
Caretakers, appointed by the Vietnamese authorities, manage the Hindu temples. The appointments are subject to annual renewal. There are no priests in these temples to conduct regular pujas in a proper manner. The caretakers or their assistants are acting as priests in chanting slokasand performing arathi. The devotees receive vibuthi and prasadam. It is against the temple regulations to accept money directly from the devotees. However, the devotees could make donation into the till box. Since there is no external financial support to the temples, all temple expenses are met from the till collection.
The Mariamman Temple is enjoying a healthy income. Many locals believe in the sacred power of Mariamman and regularly coming to this temple. Other two temples are struggling to meet the expenses due to poor attendance. Sometimes, the Indians expatriate community collects funds to meet the needs of these temples. In one temple, the flat roof leaks badly and the walls are damaged. With the gradual increase in the Indian expatriate population all three temples could expect more financial support in the future.
Tamil devotional songs are continuously played in cassettes in two temples, although Tamil was not understood by many devotees. The decorations of the deities and joss sticks used are similar to those in Chinese temples. The devotees offer flowers and fruits and burn joss sticks, both straight and spiral shaped. Devotees remove their shoes before entering the temples to maintain the purity of the temple.
One of the attractions in the temples is the presence of a number of colourfully painted vahanas for utsava murthis. They may be either made in Vietnam by the Indian craftsmen or brought in from India.
Subramaian Temple is located at 98, Nam Ky Khor Nglina Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. It is in the central business district of Ho Chi Minh City. No historical data available to indicate the year of construction of this temple but the installation of the Navagrahas was carried out in 1928.
The main deity is Lord Muruga with Valli and Deivayaani on his right and left sides, respectively. Lord Ganesh is located on the right side of Muruga. Rahu and Ketu are at the right and left sides of Lord Ganesh. Mouse is placed in-front of Lord Ganesh. Behind the mouse, a palli pedum(sacrificing platform) is situated. On the left side of Muruga, Lord Venkatesh is with Goddess Luxshmi and Andarl on His sides.
Vasantha Mandapam for Utsava Murthis is located at the right side of the entrance. Just outside the graphagraham, well-dressed guardian Idumpan (first person to perform Kavadi to Lord Muruga) shrine is located. Near the temple entrance, a picture of Bala Krishna is housed in a specially made colourful gopurm structure. Red painted horse vahanam is in the main hall of the temple.
The special feature of this temple is the presence of Navagrahas at the right hand side of temple in a tiled platform. Nine grahas are dressed with different coloured silk clothes. Flowers and joss sticks are kept in porcelain containers. Pictures of Shiva, Muruga, Luxshmi, Saraswathy and Krishna are also found in the temple.
Ramasaamy, the caretaker of this temple, was unable to speak in English or in Tamil. His son is Ramassayana. Ramassamy's father is a chettiar and his mother is a Vietnamese. His two sisters, Luxshmi and Sitha, are living in the central part of Vietnam. Ramasaamy had Swami Shivananda's book on Shiva Worship and his son told me that his father use this book for daily prayers. There are several devotional songs books in Tamil donated by the visiting devotees from Singapore and India.
The following description from a book on Vietnam provides some information on the Mariamman temple.
Mariamman Hindu Temple, the only (?) Hindu temple still in use in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is a little piece of southern India in the centre of Saigon. Though there are only 50 to 60 Hindus in Saigon - all of them Tamils - this temple, known in Vietnamese as Chua Ba Mariamman, is also considered sacred by many ethnic-Vietnamese and ethnic-Chinese. Indeed, it is reputed to have miraculous powers. The temple was built at the end of 19th century and dedicated to the Hindu Goddess Mariamman.
The lion (Simma Vahanam) to the left of the entrance used to be carried around Saigon in a street procession every autumn. In the shrine in the middle of the temple is Mariamman, flanked by her guardians - Maduraiveeran (to her left) and Pechiamman (to her right). In front of the figure of Mariamman are two lingas. Favourite offerings placed nearby often joss sticks, jasmine, lilies and gladioli. The wooden stairs, on the left as you enter the building, lead to the roof, where you'll find two colourful towers covered with innumerable figures of lions, goddesses and guardians.
After reunification in April 1975, the government took over the temple and turned part of it into a factory for joss sticks. Another section was occupied by a company producing seafood export - the seafood was dried in the sun on the roof. The whole temple is to be returned to the local Hindu community.
Mariamman Temple is only three blocks west of Ben Thanh Market, at 45 D Truong Dinh. It is open from 7 am to 7 pm daily. Take off your shoes before stepping onto the slightly raised platform.
The main deity of this temple is Goddess Mariamman, another aspect of Parvathy. As the mother of universe, Parvathy is amma and prayed as Amman. Utsapa amman is placed next to the main deity. During the festivals she is placed on the Simha vahana and taken on procession along the roads of Ho Chi Minh City.
In addition, my observations are as follows: At the outer hall, Goddess Amman’s (Parvathy) sons Ganesha and Muruga are on her right and left, respectively. The Rajagopuram of this temple is about 12m high with a number of statues. Colourful statues of Amman, Luxshmi, Ganesha, Muruga, angels and dancing girls decorate the entrance of the inner hall.
The attractive features of this temple are the beautifully sculptured Amman in her different forms as well as other deities. They are located permanently on the surround outer walls of the temple. They include Nadarajar, Param Sivam, Brahman, Mahavishnu, Kaliamma, Biramasakthi, Samundi, Thirumagal, Mageswari, Meenadchi, Valambigai, Andal, Kamadchiamman, Karumari-amman, Sivagami and Parvathy with Murugan in her lap.
Iyaaswamy Devar from Tamil Nadu is the caretaker of this temple. Devotees experienced the power of Mariamman for a number of years. Hence, this temple is most popular with the locals. This temple is now taking the necessary steps to bring a priest from India to conduct proper puja in a regular basis. I was told that with many others like Mr. Chidambaram from Tamil Nadu has shown significant interest in the temple affairs.
Sri Thendayutthapani temple is located at 66 Ton That Thiep, Quan 1 (District 1), Ho Chi Minh City. At the entrance of the temple, the writings on the name board indicate are as follows:
CHU AN GIAO
SRI THENDAY YUTTHAPANI TEMPLE
66 Ton That Thiep, Phuong Ben Nghe,
Quan 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Inside the temple, the regulations of the temple, both in Vietnamese and English, are displayed. The writings in English are as follows:
THANKS FOR YOUR COMPLIANCE WITH THE ABOVE REGULATIONS.
Beautiful gopurum is on the flat roof of the temple. The statues of several Hindu gods and goddesses are on all sides of the gopurum. The following main scene were well carved and painted at the bottom level of the gopurum:
On the top level of gopurum, the following carved figures can be seen:
In addition to these carvings, there are several other statues were present. Several peacocks, Idumpan and other guardian figures etc. The main deity of this temple is Thendayatthapani (another name for Lord Muruga) with spear (Vel) in his hand. In front of the arthimula deity, shrines for Lord Shiva and Lord Krishna are located on the left and right sides, respectively. On walls of the temple, very big framed pictures of Mahathma Ghandi, Swami Vivekanada, Rabindranath Tagr, Thiruvalluvar, Abdul Kalam Azad, Nehru, Mahavishu. Narayana on Garuda and Palani anadavar are found. Another attraction in this temple is the presence of four beautifully painted vahanas (vehicles) to take the deities on procession during festival days. They are yellow cow, swinging red horse, brown sheep and fiercely looking Idumpan. The pictures of four Saiva saints namely, Thirugnanasampathar, Thirunavukarasar, Sundarar and Manicavasagar are placed for the prayers. This temple has both inner and outer paths for the devotees to go around the deities.
Muthiah is the caretaker of the Sri Thendayutthapani temple. I spoke to his father, Mr. Palanivelu aged 78 yrs. He speaks fluent Tamil amd his parents are Subbiah Chettiyar and Umayarl. He is married to a Vietnamese and has three children, Muttiah, Subramanium and Arunachalam. The whole family is dedicated to the temple service. Mr. Palanivelu spoke to me in length about the difficulties his children faced in getting jobs and managing the temple.
It is an unforgettable experience for me to see three Hindu temples in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. These beautiful temples are the treasures of the Hindus. Since the Indian population is not large enough, these temples are struggling to meet the maintenance expenses. Most of the devotees visiting these temples are Vietnamese. There is no official financial support to these temples and there are no priests in these temples. It is the responsibility of the Hindu community in Vietnam to look after these temples. The political set-up in Vietnam is different to other countries and this has some effect on temple management.
With the Divine powers of Lord Muruga and Divine Mother Mariamma I have no doubt that these temples will flourish in the future. All Hindus must pay a visit to these temples in Vietnam whenever they get the opportunity to go to Vietnam. Vietnam is now welcoming foreigners for joint-venture projects.
This article is courtesy of Aum Muruga Journal