Fabulous lions of little relevance

A hard-to-explain ‘whitewashed’ warrior noted by Nguyen Ngoc. Photo: Do Doan Hoang

Vietnam Heritage, September-October 2011 -- I  heard professor of history Phan Huy Le’s story about his feeling of shame when he acted as a guide for friends from abroad on a visit to the pagoda of Tay Phuong. He intended to show the exquisite statues of the 18 Bodhisattvas. When they came to the famous sculptures in wood, all of them had been repainted with ‘Nippon paint, beautiful wherever you apply’.
In fact, every time we plan a visit to a shrine or a pagoda nowadays, reluctance comes in. We are reluctant to meet with restored items. Recently, a group of old friends of mine from school days called one another for a visit to the renowned cultural area of Kinh Bac, across the Red River. We visited the pagoda of Bút Tháp (Penbrush Stupa), the pagoda of Man Nương the goddess Buddha, the pagoda of Dâu (Catalpa Tree) and the shrine of Đô (Capital).
Bút Tháp is still beautiful, as are Man Nương and Dâu pagodas. According to my information, an important (and grief-giving) reason is that those sites have not – or not yet? – been restored during recent years. I have been to this area many times and I can’t help being surprised by these statues, each time with further amazement about the face of Man Nương, Buddhahly but still worldly, very human but infinitely Vietnamese; about the stunningly realistic quality of the portrait-sculptures of Bút Tháp pagoda, over half a milliennium old but still excruciatingly suffering the pain of princes and princesses with their destinies between private happiness and ephemeral power.
I am informed that those pagodas are kept intact partly due to the help of an artist. He is infatuated with and deeply versed in the history and culture of his area. His devotion is so whole- hearted that he has abandoned his home and gone to live right in the pagoda and people around trust him and respectfully call him ‘master’. On one occasion, a wealthy person made an offering of two Fiangsu vases of Chinese porcelain, human height. In all other places, these precious vases would be exhibited on both sides of the Buddha altars and that would appear outlandish and preposterous, turning a Vietnamese pagoda into a Chinese one, but it would be irresistible. Our artist cleverly put those nouveau-riche vases temporarily on the verandah, seemingly in keeping for somebody. Then, on my next visit, they were nowhere to be seen. Such is culture, exquisite and discriminating – a bottle indelicacy may break a thousand-year-old treasure and start off a continuing and ceaseless destruction, but a culture may be kept under daily watch.
The Đô shrine is delicated to the cult of the eight kings of the Ly Dynasty. It was restored for the celebration of the first millennium anniversary of Hanoi in October 2010. Right at the gate of the shrine two Chinese lion statues were placed, familiar to every tourist to China. The same huge lions in front of all hotels of that country we cannot say are not pretty, but surely they have nothing connected to our pagodas. So, what did they intend to do here, the people of restoration? A puzzle to everybody. The two lions were eventually removed.
In the ante-room, we come face to face with two human figures . . of what kind? Are they primitive Vietnamese: naked with whitewashed bodies like porcelain, with red head scarves and red loincloths? They unavoidably remind us of Tễu, the eye-pleasing clown of water puppetry. In the main hall with the altars of the eight kings of the Ly Dynasty, all the statues are painted vermilion and gilded gorgeously and brand new. Turning our heads upward: throughout the compartments, resplendent giant western chandeliers are scintillating exactly as in luxurious hotels such as the Continental or Rex in Saigon. It was unbearable, and I turned and left. Can it be that the cultural level of our society has been degraded to such a degree? Will there ever be and end to enumeraring the sites that have been restored beyond rescue?

By Nguyen Ngoc
Following the tunes (“Spring comes to Muong Hum hamlet high up the mountains with heart-rocking distant singing…” ) of talented composer Nguyen Tai ...
In the heart of the darkness of Saigon's backpacker land,ambling along down raucous Bui Vien Street and wishing I had not come out without my ear ...
How do you like our website?
Khách sạn giá tốt