Updated  
November, 03 2013 18:18:00

History roars to life through lion statues

Stone cold: These large su tu, stone lion pedestals dating from the 11th century, are well-preserved at Ba Tam Pagoda in a suburban district of Ha Noi. — VNS Photo Pham Hoang Van

While guardian lion sculptures are frequently associated with China, Viet Nam also boasts many such masterpieces. Reflective of the country's rich history and culture, they are worth a look for anyone curious about Viet Nam's past. Nguyen My Ha reports.

When we visited the Forbidden City in Beijing in September, I was surprised to see giant lions statues guarding the entrance to the Royal Citadel.

It was the week prior to China's National Day, and Tiananmen Square was bursting with colour, crowded with people who had travelled from across the country to visit the capital. Our tour guide, a Chinese national who spoke perfect Vietnamese and had 15 years experience, told us that the lions represent the mighty power of the Chinese Emperor.

Mighty and powerful as they were, they looked familiar to us Vietnamese, as smaller stone variations have made their way to Ha Noi. Walk around the city, and you can spot them outside banks and office buildings.

"Chinese tourists come here and say these lions are Chinese," said Associate Professor Tong Trung Tin, Director of the Institute of Archeology. "But Viet Nam also has lion sculptures - and they look happier."

Hear them roar: Giant lion heads, which archaeologists say used to be pedestals for Buddha statues, in Ba Tam Pagoda near Ha Noi. — VNS Photo Pham Hoang Van

Ly Dynasty treasure

The founding father of the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225) was Ly Cong Uan. His nine descendants then ruled for over 200 years.

However, all was not peaceful. The first century of the Ly reign was marked by warfare with the Chinese Song rulers. In 1075, General Ly Thuong Kiet led his soldiers north to fight a 40-day battle, and emerged victorious. The following year, the Song allied with two kingdoms to the south, Chenla and Champa. But Ly Nhan Tong again sent General Ly Thuong Kiet to battle the invading army.

He beat them along the trenches of the Nhu Nguyet River and wrote a poem, which became the country's first Independence Declaration.

The Ly kings went on to fight many battles with southern kingdoms, and expanded their territory southwards After they won the war with the Champa, they took artisans from the region to Thang Long Capital to build pagodas and temples. Their influence can still be seen in sculptures today.

Buddhism prevailed during the Ly dynasty. The kings were committed Buddhists and as a result, criminals received very lean sentencing. They also valued education. King Ly Thanh Tong founded the Temple of Literature in 1070, the first university in the country to select civil servants through exams.

Lost forever: Sandstone statues from the 11th century at Huong Lang Pagoda were chopped off, historians believe, after the Ming Emperor's order to destroy everything cultural when his army invaded Dai Viet.

Founding father Ly Thai To's decision to choose the Dai La Citadel as the capital, which became a bustling trade centre, reflected a new concept. Previous kings preferred strategic military sites over economic prosperity.

The second century of the Ly rule was relatively peaceful. "Under the Ly kings, the country got back to its original culture: an agriculture civilisation with an independent spirit," said Tong Trung Tin. "The Ly kings made Buddhism the national religion and the Dai Viet became closely related to other East Asian Buddhist kingdoms at that time. Members of the royal family and nobility made pilgrimages and built pagodas and temples. At the same time, Buddhism became an increasingly localised faith associated with magic, spirits and medicine."

Spiritual icon

Viet Nam, like China, is not home to native lions, but they remain one of the country's cultural and spiritual icons. One sunny morning, we left Ha Noi and headed east to Gia Lam District to look at the stone lions at Ba Tam ("Lady Tam") Pagoda, crafted about one thousand years ago during the Ly Dynasty.

The four hectare complex off Highway 5 is named after Queen Regent Y Lan, who took over when her husband left the citadel to fight foreign invaders at the border.

Welcome: These lions stand first among 10 other animal statues at the entrance to Phat Tich Pagoda, where the country's oldest Amitabha Buddha statue (1057) is kept.

Carved from sandstone, the lions crouch under the main altar in the pagoda, holding large jade balls in their mouths. The Han Chinese character for 'king' is engraved on their foreheads, confirming their status in the animal kingdom. The lions often come in pairs, and those at Ba Tam are two of the rarest in Southeast Asia.

"The carving is particularly exquisite, making them look graceful yet powerful," reads the placard leading to the pagoda.

Every detail hints that the lions possess superpowers, from the giant eyes under the bushy eyebrows and open mouths, to the neatly carved teeth and strong paws with sharp nails.

"The details around their mouths and the small flower patterning on their shoulders and front legs make them look as if they're about to move."

A pedestal statue consists of three parts, according to Phan Cam Thuong, an art researcher and author of Ancient Sculpture. The base is carved with figures of waves and dragons, the middle part is the lion and the upper part is Buddha's lotus-laden throne, added to make the statue more solemn.

The lion pedestals are safe in the pagoda, but ordinary people are unaware of their existence.

Another lion of similar shapes and sizes can also be found in other pagodas built during the Ly Dynasty in Huong Lang in Hung Yen Province.

Silent support: Ong Sam, or the Lord of Thunder in Vietnamese, is the name locals gave to the lion pedestal at Huong Lang Pagoda. — VNS Photos Pham Hoang Van

This lion pedestal at Huong Lang (or Ong Sam) Pagoda in Hung Yen Province is almost identical to the ones at Ba Tam Pagoda. Researchers say that Regent Queen Y Lan ordered the pagodas to be built in honour of the maidens who died prior to her accession to power.

People who live around Huong Lang Pagoda refer to it as the Lord Sam Pagoda, named after the only lion-pedestal that survived the wars there. The Ming invaders in the 15th century were ordered to destroy any historical or cultural heritages. The beheaded sau, the smaller lion variations statues, leading to the pagoda can still be seen today. Under French rule, the pagoda was blown up along with the whole compound.

It is widely believed that these lion-pedestals come in pairs, but only one survived in Huong Lang.

At Phat Tichpagoda, another relic from the Ly Dynasty, one can see a group of ten sacred animals stand guarding by the main hall. Miniatures of these full size lion statues, Prof. Tin, suggests, could stand guard outside any imposing government as a symbol of supreme royal power.

"Under the Ly kings, Dai Viet had trade relations with the north and the south," said Tin. "The arts of the time absorbed the essence of neighbouring cultures. We need to revive our own national heritage, bringing the lively lion sculptures from our well-kept pagodas back to life, rather than copying foreign works."

In Phat Tich Pagoda, home of founding Ly Cong Uan, five pairs of lions, elephants, rhinoceros, buffaloes and horses stand safeguarding the main entrance. All the creatures look lively and amicably and accessible image of royal power.

"That's how our ancestors should be remembered: not overwhelming and frightening, but amicable and happy with a sense of humour."

Just look at the faces of lion statues at Phat Tich Pagoda. But watch out: mind their big fat paws with sharp nails! — VNS

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