Wealth of a nation

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They echo tales and legends from long, long ago that help define a nation’s history and culture.

A total of 37 antiques, many dating back to the Bronze Age, were recognized by the Vietnamese government as national treasures on December 30, 2013. (Late in 2012, 30 other items had been accorded the same status.)

Items from the Dong Son culture (2000BC-200AD), a Bronze Age period in the northern delta, include drums that symbolize government power at that time.

Oc Eo treasures, belonging to a Mekong Delta culture between the first and seventh centuries, are mostly holy statues including two Buddhas, one Goddess Durga, two Vishnu and one of Avalokiteśvara who is the bodhisattva that embodies the compassion of all Buddhas, portrayed as either male or female in different cultures but usually referred to as the Mercy Goddess among modern Vietnamese, and a set of gold decorations.

All of the treasures, including some paintings, are with museums, pagodas or heritage centers.

Royal remorse

One treasure that has intrigued researchers is a rock statue of a dragon (some people say it looks more like a snake) biting itself and sticking its claws into its own body at the temple of Le Van Thinh, the chancellor of the Ly Dynasty during late 11th century.

Thinh ranked first in the first imperial examination under the dynasty and was appointed tutor for Ly Nhan Tong (1066-1127), the fourth king of the Ly Dynasty, before taking up the important position.

The statue has been put together after two parts of it were unearthed 50 centimeters underground at the temple in 2010.

The parts were each 60 centimeters long, 35 centimeters high and 40 centimeters wide, with the feet intact.

Bac Ninh heritage management officials said the statue is yet to look quite like one piece after the later parts were added, which suggests that a large part of the body is still waiting to be discovered.

The province’s application for recognition of the statue as a national treasure said it was special as its head looks like a snake, but the position and the claws are of a dragon. “Such an image has never been seen in the history of Vietnamese fine arts or that of other Southeast Asian countries’,” the application said.

As the statue was first found in an area that used to be the house of chancellor Thinh, the statement said it could have symbolized his unjust exile by King Ly Nhan Tong. Thinh was exiled after he was accused of trying to kill the king.

Later, researchers said it was likely denoting an ideological conflict between Buddhism, which was then the national religion, and Confucianism, which Thinh was a master of.

Dr. Le Dinh Phung with the Institute of Archaeology at Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences said a dragon tearing its own body has been interpreted as the king’s regret for doubting his tutor. The statue has one normal ear and the other closed, which could be the king choosing to close his ears to bad rumors about Thinh.

Researchers have also debated when the statue was made.

The application said the statue was from the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225), but Phung said a temple worshipping the chancellor could not have been built during the reign of the dynasty that exiled him.

He said it could have been built by his descendants in the Later Le Dynasty (1428-1788). “The injustice done to him could only be sympathized with by people of later generations.”

Twin relics

A lampstand and a censer from the Mac Dynasty (1527-1592) are two treasures from the Nam Dinh Province Museum, also outside Hanoi.

Nguyen Van Thu, director of the museum, said the two ceramic items have been treated as a set as they were found near each other – the lampstand at a temple and the censer at a nearby pagoda.

Characters on the items said they were made on the same day - August 20, 1590.

The lampstand carries dragon and phoenix decorations as well as Buddhism symbols including a Chinese character for “Buddha,” Bodhi leaf and lotus petals.

The censer is decorated with images of a dragon, lion, horse with wings, and tiger. It has many lines of Chinese words saying it was made by Do Xuan Vi in the famous ceramics village of Bat Trang in Hanoi. It also lists the names of Buddhists that offered the censer to the pagoda.

Researchers said the items are exclusive and the most well preserved of a large number of relics from the Mac Dynasty. They represent most of the ceramics styles of the period and thus set the standard to identify the age of other relics, they said.

Dr. Bui Minh Tri, director of the Center for Imperial City Research at Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, said writings on the items showed a high devotion to Buddhism during the time of the Mac Dynasty.

Cheaper than scrap

Bronze drums in Vietnam used to be associated with power or leadership, yet the Thanh Hoa Museum in northern Vietnam bought one at half the price of scrap copper of the same weight.

Nguyen Thanh Hien, deputy director of the museum, said she still feels bad about how poorly the finder was rewarded for discovering what is now a national treasure.

It was found in late September 1992 by Bui Duc Tau while digging his garden.

The news flew fast among antique collectors who rushed to his house several days later from across the northern region.

Two dealers from Hai Phong and Hanoi offered him VND70 million for the drum, which could buy a house on the street in Thanh Hoa’s capital town at the time, but Tau didn’t take it.

The high demand caused Tau to hide the drum under his bed, until the museum officials approached him in January and requested him to hand it over for VND1 million.

Vietnamese heritage laws require residents to submit relics they find to the authorities for a cash reward of 15-30 percent of the relic’s value, but the law was not established at the time and officials could only try to persuade him.

Tau refused, saying he could earn twice that sum by selling the drum to a metal scrap dealer.

But when the officials left, he had second thoughts and asked his son to run after them for nearly five kilometers, and asked them to come back.

Hien said she always feels bad for the loss of the family. “But we were only given such little sums from the state budget.”

The 60-kilogram drum, known as Cam Giang, from the Dong Son period is described by the museum as unique. It has four ducks on its surface instead of the toads found on all other bronze drums.

Hien said buffaloes and ducks are animals close to water paddy farmers in Vietnam, and the fowls are typical symbols of the first Vietnamese civilization.

The drum’s round surface of 73 centimeters in diameter is filled with a 16-point star with nine circles of bird patterns.

The drum has been exhibited in cultural and diplomatic events and its print copy was displayed by the Asian Civilizations Museum of Singapore at a cultural festival in the country.

Hien said Thanh Hoa was the cradle of bronze drums and many have been excavated there, but Cam Giang was chosen as the province’s candidate for national treasures for its uniqueness.

In disguise

A stone Buddha statue from the Ly Dynasty at Ngo Xa Pagoda in Nam Dinh Province outside Hanoi had been covered in red paint and gilded to look like a wooden one to avoid the attention of Chinese invaders from the Ming and Yuan Dynasties.

It is one of two stone Buddha statues from the 12th century that have been found in Vietnam, besides one in nearby Bac Ninh Province.

Archaeological documents say that the search for some statues started in 1960s after many Buddhism relics of the Ly Dynasty were found in the area around Ngo Xa Pagoda. The discovery of a ruined stele in the 1980s gave further impetus to the search and encouraged a lot more digging.

The remains of the stele, shown to be made in 1670, said that when the Yuan invaded the country between 1258 and 1288, they destroyed all rock Buddha statues built from the early 12th century, and there was only one left near the top of a mountain.

Still, no debris of a statue was found, so the archaeologists turned their attention to many wooden statues in the pagoda at the time.

They tapped the statues and one sounded like rock.

Its cover was cleared, revealing a rock statue which was skillfully sculpted.

The statue, two meters high, is of Buddha sitting on a lotus base. 

Researcher Nguyen Hong Phuong, who was part of the team that discovered the statue, wrote in his documents that the statue was special because it was different from other Buddha statues in Vietnam. It depicted Buddha’s face more like a real man’s: not so chubby, eyebrows not touching each other, and the ears normal instead of elongated.

Researchers think that people of the Later Le Dynasty (1428-1788) moved the statue into the pagoda.

Boat to afterlife

An excavation in 1961 in Hai Phong found five boat-shaped coffins from the Dong Son era.

The boats were hollowed trunks four meters long, and there’s only one that contains the deceased’s belongings, and it is kept at the National History Museum.

The boat was named Viet Khe after the archaeological site in the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam where the boats were found.

Beliefs in afterlife were strong during the period. Vietnamese people then were confident that the end of life in this world would open one in another world, where they would continue to work, live and fight. That explained the items put together with the dead, always including tools for daily activities and production, not to mention weapons.

Vu Quoc Hien, deputy director of the museum, said the Viet Khe coffin was buried in a mud tomb and was quite rotten when found, but many of the 107 items inside were intact.

Most of the items were made of bronze, including weapons like axes, ploughs, some jars, pots, lamps, bells and damaged drums. Wooden items included an oar and some buttons, and there were some leather and clay products.

Among the bronze items were those that looked like brushes in many shapes and sizes.

Researcher Bui Van Liem said all the five coffins were positioned in the same east-west direction, a little bit to the south, which suggested that Dong Son people had practiced some burial rituals. 

Liem said the Viet Khe coffin not only contained belongings, but was also the biggest of the five, and this probably indicated differences in burial customs depending on the status of the deceased.

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