Seal of chaos stamped on New Year festivals

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The rush for a slice of luck descends into violence and turmoil at popular Tet pilgrimage sites

The festival organizers were well prepared for the onrush.

Or so they thought.

Five security rings with almost 2,000 guards, including police and military personnel, were ready as the crowds started pouring in from far and wide to the Tran Temple in Nam Dinh Province's Loc Vuong Ward.

The Seal Opening ritual would begin at 10 p.m. and organizers had announced that the fabric pieces stamped with the Tran King's seal would not be distributed before 11:30 p.m., but the multitudes, estimated at more than 50,000, had begun gathering as early as 5 p.m. outside the temple, according to some reports.

About 15 minutes before the anointed hour, the eager, excited crowd could not hold it down anymore. Pandemonium broke out as people started pushing violently against each other and using choice language to make their way to the place where the seals would be distributed.

Some climbed over the fences, and some climbed over those who were standing before them.

In ragged clothes, Nguyen Van Thang, who'd come from the northern province of Thai Binh, said it had taken him more than an hour to get two seals. To and fro, he was squeezed, elbowed and jostled as he pushed his way through.

"Only when I got out of the crowd could I believe I am still alive. My legs are flagging and my body is just in sheer pain," said a much relieved Thang.

But for one of the young men who were hired to get the seals by others, it was a piece of cake. "I've got 10 seals. I let them go first, and I went later, pushing them away and no one could stop me." He was paid VND500,000 (US$26.8) for his trouble. It was his lucky day alright.

It was not so lucky for the 60 people who organizers said fainted during the rush and were taken to a local hospital.

With a wad of cash in one hand, a woman stuffs money into the palms of a statue in Hanoi's Mia Pagoda on the third day of the Lunar New Year, February 16. The increasingly widespread practice of "handing" money over to statues in pagodas to invite luck has been decried by some scholars as a form of commercialization of religion.

It was also not so lucky for many who reported that their wallets or phones were stolen as they jostled for the seals.

As not everyone could make their way through the crowd or hire someone to get the seals for them, many turned to buy those that were being sold in front of the temple for VND30,000 ($1.6) each. However, some said there was no guarantee that the seals were authentic

The Seal Opening ritual is not the only festival where chaotic scenes were played out as people fought for luck.

In the northern province of Phu Tho, the fights that broke out as hundreds of young men fought for a lucky wooden ball were covered in local media over the past week. Tuoi Tre newspaper published a front page photograph of a man who was beaten by people when he'd just managed to catch the ball.

Money, money, money

Not all seekers of luck journeying to holy places during the Lunar New Year get embroiled in violence.

Many bring a lot of offerings, burn a considerable amount of votive papers and even donate a lot of money to the pagodas. However, some experts on religion say that the belief that the more people offer to the gods, the more they are blessed, is misplaced.

The Mia Pagoda in Hanoi's Dong Sang Town is one of the country's most famous pagodas and a national historical and cultural heritage with hundreds of Buddha statues of high artistic integrity. Here, on the third day of the Lunar New Year, money, mostly in small change, could be found scattered everywhere, from the statues' hands to their thighs or chairs. Pilgrims just stuffed bills and threw coins wherever they could, or just sprinkled them over the statues.

This has become such a common practice that experts are concerned it is damaging the real value of worship and offering.

It's time people are educated about how to worship properly, said Prof. Nguyen Van Huy, former director of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology.

"In my opinion, the most important thing is that people should know when to stop. If they don't, it [the offerings] is nothing more than a trade where money is used to buy luck," Huy said.

Bui Trong Hien, a researcher of folk culture, agreed with Huy, saying the fact that people tried to offer as much as possible to Buddha and gods was turning them into "greedy mandarins" in "unreal trades."

He said offerings can only accepted as part of religious activities when they are simple. When they became lavish and elaborate, they should be considered superstitious acts, he added.

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