The statues of a Dharmapala (Protector of the Law) part of Nguyen Thanh Tuyen's collection of ceramic folk deities
It is unusual, more so in Vietnam than elsewhere, that a four-story residence has a lift.
But Nguyen Thanh Tuyen is not taking any chances with his collection of 100 ceramic folk deities from the southern part of the country.
"I love these ceramic artifacts too much to let them break when they are being taken up and down, " says Tuyen, who used to teach at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Water Resources.
Tuyen's house on Le Hong Phong Street in HCMC's District 10, is piled up with hundreds of antiques from Chinese artifacts to custom made Vietnamese porcelain dating back to the Le Trinh period (1533-1788).
But the highlights among the treasures are the idols made for worship by potters in the southern part of Vietnam. They already occupy the whole space on the 1st and 4th floors.
"Among antique collectors, few are interested in these artifacts, because they are not considered as precious as others as they are only about 100 years old," said Tuyen, a member of the Ho Chi Minh City Antiques Association.
Tuyen became smitten with the ceramic statues of folk saints and Taoist, Buddhist and Hindu deities after he saw and bought a beautiful statue of a Dharmapala (Protector of the Law, under Vajrayana, Tantric Buddhism or the Diamond way) at the antique market on Le Cong Kieu Street in District 1.
The statue, a meter tall, caught his eye because it was beautifully made but "abandoned" in a corner of the market.
"Why shouldn't I collect such beautiful thing," Tuyen told himself. "If I don't, it might become derelict and end up being destroyed," he argued, convincingly.
Tuyen's Dharmapala was soon united with his brothers and sisters as he set out to gather and purchase them from local pagodas and temples which were about to be dismantled or moved to other places, as also from other collectors.
Some pagodas wanted to exchange their statues for others that Tuyen had and others sold him their idols to raise funds for restoration.
His collection includes statues of Li Tieguai, one of eight immortals, Mazu (goddess of the sea), Maitreya, Bodhisattva, Heaven Ruler, as well as those of mandarins from the North and the South.
Early Mekong Delta cultivation
According to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, located at 65 Ly Tu Trong Street in District 1, where statues of southern deities are sometimes presented to the public, the artifacts in Tuyen's collection were made during the days when people moved from the north to cultivate the Mekong River Delta in the 17th and 18th centuries.
In those days, the deities were the spiritual fulcrum for the migrants, helping them overcome difficulties and survive. To express their gratitude and worship these deities, many temples and pagodas were built and many types of statues were made.
"This reflects the intergration in the cultural and spiritual life of Vietnamese, through their activities, and thoughts of the different periods to form a specific a native, folk religion system in the South. Artistic technique and the materials bring unique aspect to the folk statues in this area," the museum says in a document posted on its website.
According to culture researchers, the statues can be classified into two broad types for two different purposes: (1) dragons, kylins and cranes were symbolic protectors of temples, pagodas and other public places; and (2) statues of Buddhist and Taoist deities were made for worship.
Typically, the statues were made by mixing clay with husk and glazed with five colors: light blue, dark green, milky, yellow, and dark brown.
"All the parts of these statues were separately made and then glued. Because the artisans had no mould, each of their works were shaped by hand and look rough and clumsy, yet have a liveliness and uniqueness that cannot be imitated. The statues' clothes are also colorful and varied in design as a mix of different cultures," said Tuyen, who is a native of the northern province of Nam Dinh.
Prof. Phan An of the Southern Institute of Social Sciences also highlights other unique and creative features of the southern statues made for worship.
"Statues were indispensable for their worshipping practices either at home or in temples, or in communal houses. Thanks to cultural exchanges and the diversity of ethnic groups, idols in the south are characterized by many special features," said An.
He said that the southerners, with their open-minded, generous nature, not only worshipped Vietnamese deities, but also ones from other cultures and countries. They transformed and simplified these characters to fit the native culture, so the scary face of Guan Yu, a general serving the Chinese warlord Liu Bei in the late Eastern Han Dynasty (206 BC220 AD) becomes softer in the hands of Vietnamese potters in the south, and his costume is less colorful and simple.
He also pointed out that the smile on the Earth God's face found in the south is contrary to the serious countenance depicted elsewhere in the country
The idols of deities in the south also depict them in the daily activities of the common man and not the so-called nobility. While the Kitchen God in the Tay Phuong Pagoda in the north of Vietnam and in the renowned Shaolin Monastery, Henan province, China are serious imposing figures, wearing the regal costumes of a mandarin and a general, their copies in the south of Vietnam look like happy, bare-chested farmers after finishing a hard day's work.
"I am from the north, but I am mesmerized by the culture and lifestyle of southerners. Unlike idols in the north which are made of stone, bronze and wood, the southern ones are mostly made of ceramic. The colors of the glaze enchant me, and the idols convey profound messages that help us communicate with the artisans," said Tuyen.