Blasts from the past

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Though many know Vietnam's past only through a half-century of scattered war relics, two millennia of artifacts are hidden throughout the country. 

A group of personal seals found in a Mekong Delta river. The stone and jade stamps represent Oc Eo culture, which flourished in the delta in the 1st-6th centuries.

Vietnam's thousands of years of recorded history are virtually invisible on the country's modern-day cultural landscape.

Many historic artifacts and artistic relics of the distant Vietnamese past are going ignored and some are even deteriorating as the country leaps into the future at breakneck speed. But anyone who chooses to look can find hidden historical treasure troves throughout the land - some located in local homes, some in pagodas and others in museums.

Ancient toads

The gongs, lithophones and drums played by the hill tribes of the Central Highlands have all gained recognition of one kind or another, and some of these instruments are even famous overseas.

But not many people have heard of the Tuy An toad-shaped wind instruments, made out of single slabs of partially hollowed-out stone sometime in the 5th-7th centuries AD.

A man plays one of the ancient Tuy An toads. The wind instruments were made in the 5th-7th centuries by Cham artisans who fashioned them by partially hollowing out heavy stones.

The instruments, most-likely crafted by artisans from the Cham ethnic minority, now belong to the Phu Yen Museum in the eponymous central province.

Only those with training and extra strong lungs can play the stones, which weigh 75 kilograms and 34.5 kilograms each, according to musician Ngoc Quang, chairman of the Phu Yen Literature and Arts Society.

The stones are kept at a warehouse in the provincial capital town of Tuy Hoa, waiting to be displayed at the provincial museum's new exhibition room, which is currently under construction and set for completion next year.

The pair, the heavier of which is known as the "female," sound beautiful when played properly.

"Forceful melodies with original tones from the Tuy An instruments are second to none in the world," Quang said.

Quang and the artists from Sao Bien folk music group have played the instruments several times at local and international performances.

"The 'female' sound always resonates better than the 'male' one, but when they are played together, the combination is very beautiful," he said.

Royal relics

The Champa civilization is most remembered for its Hindu and Buddhist towers and sculptures scattered throughout Vietnam's south central provinces such as Binh Thuan, Ninh Thuan and Khanh Hoa.

But not too far from some of these famous sites is the home of Nguyen Thi Dao, who inherited a one-of-a-kind collection of 50 Cham artifacts.

Cham culture expert Bo Xuan Ho said Dao's was the only collection of royal Cham artifacts in the world.

Other experts have said that the collection first contained hundreds of items, many of which were lost through the war years. They were originally collected and kept by Nguyen Thi Them, the last descendant of the last Champa royal ruler, Poklong Mohnai. Them's niece Dao now keeps the items on display at her house.

Among the items is Mohnai's crown, adorned with two makaras, mythical Hindu creatures with a fish's body and an elephant's head. Several robes and even a queen's hair bun among others can also be found in the collection.

Special items in Them's original collection were recognized by the government as National Arts and Historical Heritages in 1993, but still not many have heard of or seen them. When she died in 1995, Them left the rest of her relics and artifacts to her niece Nguyen Thi Dao.

Dao since then has kept them at her house with the support from the government. She occasionally opens the house, some 60 kilometers from the Binh Thuan Province town of Phan Thiet, to visitors curious about the items from the past.

The house also hosts ceremonies and rituals at which the local Cham community pays tribute every ninth month of the Lunar calendar before their traditional spring festival begins.

'Buried for years'

Cao Thi Xuan Dao and her husband Ta Man from the Mekong Delta City of Can Tho are known for the considerable collection of items from the Oc Eo culture, which flourished in the delta from the 1st-6th centuries under the ancient Funan Kingdom.

Dao said the couple had spent more than 20 years collecting the items, including a variety of statues, jewelry and coins made from wood, clay, and gold.

A jade seal used by a king in the Oc Eo era. Private collectors now own the stamp.

However, they retired a year ago after finding what they said was the crown jewel in their Oc Eo collection, 27 stone stamps sculpted into different sacred objects and carved with Sanskrit.

The seals - 26 of which are highly-metallic stone and one of which is jade - weigh between 300 grams and seven kilograms each.

As Oc Eo was a major trading port with Asia and the west, several vestiges of the Roman Empire, dating back as early as the 2nd century AD have been found there.

Dao and Man's collection contains a sculpture of Pan, the Greek god of the shepherds. They also have a carved Garuda bird from Hindu and Buddhist mythology.

Dao said the seals' sizes and shapes revealed the position of their owners on the ancient royal dynasty's hierarchy.

For instance, the seven-kilogram seal, the only one made of jade, is shaped as a dragon and represents the king, while the 6kg phoenix belonged to the queen, she said.

The couple said they bought the seals from a family in An Giang Province's Tri Ton District more than one year ago. The family said their ancestors had found the stamps in a local river.

"If any museum wants the seals and is able to preserve them, we'll consider giving them away," Dao said.

"However, in the near future we'll open a coffee shop in Can Tho to put them on display so that people can see the masterpieces of a prominent culture buried for years."

Pagoda secrets

Despite being one of the youngest pagodas in the central city of Hue, Truc Lam Pagoda (built in 1903) is home to several invaluable relics of old Buddhist culture and history.

Venerable Thich Tri Nang, member of Thua Thien - Hue Province Buddhism Society's Cultural Committee, said one of the pagoda's most valuable possessions was a silk embroidered Diamond Sutra, an ancient Buddhist text teaching moderation in all things.

A 200-year-old silk embroidered diamond sutra, an ancient Buddhist text is housed at Truc Lam Pagoda in Hue

The 4.47-meter text contains nearly 7,000 Chinese characters and is the longest embroidered text in Vietnam.

According to a note on the Sutra, the work was crafted by Dieu Tam, head of Sai Son Pagoda - now Thay Pagoda in Hanoi's Quoc Oai District, in 1800 as an offering to the deceased Marquis Nguyen Gia Ngo (1714-1757), an employee of the Trinh Lords (1545-1788), who ruled the country's southern region in the name of the weakening Le Dynasty.

One year later the Nguyen army, which was at war with the Trinh, attacked the pagoda and confiscated the text, keeping it at one of the pagodas in the royal palace in Hue for decades to come, according to Venerable Thich Tri Nang.

However, more than 100 years later a nun from Hong An Pagoda in Hue bought the sutra, which was later handed over to the Tay Thien Pagoda in Hue before it was given to Truc Lam for preservation, he said.

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