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Quang Cung Palace honours Holy Mother

Update: March, 01/2010 - 22:29
Lady in Red: A medium forgets herself during a hau dong performance.
Good vibrations: A troupe of cung van sit behind the curtain playing music.
 
Sacred site: Quang Cung Palace's manager, Tran Thi Van, shows off a stone bird.
Pilgrims flock to Quang Cung Palace to worship the Mother Goddess and to watch the cung van performances that honour the deity, Do Minh Thu enjoys these performances.

The medium keeps dancing as she throws money to the followers that sit around her. The followers, old and young, men and women, rise up to catch the money as it flies through the air because they believe it is lucky money, gifts from the gods. All of them have satisfied smiles on their faces. Both the medium and her followers continue to sink into the enthusiastic van melodies (music used in shamanic trances), singers and instrumentalists (also called cung van).
As the spring is welcomed with various festivities, cung van and lovers of singing meet at Quang Cung Palace in Nam Dong Village, northern Nam Dinh Province.
The palace was built to commemorate Mother Goddess Lieu Hanh's first descent to earth. She is one of Four Immortals that Vietnamese people believe in. She is joined by Chu Dong Tu - a fisherman who became a fairy; Saint Giong - who helped defeat foreign invaders; and Son Tinh - the god of Tan Vien Mountain.

Legendary palace
Oral tradition over many generations have told the story that Mother Goddess Lieu Hanh is the daughter of the King of Heaven. She is the symbol of mercy, who uses miracles to help good people and save the country. However, she is also strict and punishes evil doers.
Throughout the country many temples, pagodas and palaces have been built to worship her. Alleged evidence suggests that the Mother Goddess' first descent was to Quang Cung Palace. A workshop to affirm the historical and religious values of the palace was organised last November.
The evidence includes parallel sentences that were stored at the Day Palace, in Vu Ban District, Nam Dinh Province, the country's most famous palace for worship of Mother Goddess Lieu Hanh. The sentences read "In three incarnations, she came to Vi Nhue (now known as Nam Dong Village), Van Cat (or Day Palace), Nga Son, Song Son (northern province of Thanh Hoa) and Tay Ho Palace, Ha Noi. For five hundreds years she has shone in history."
Recorded writings of Mother Goddess Lieu Hanh's incantations stored at Quang Cung Palace were recognised by researchers at the workshop.
The wood block of writings, carved in 1913, includes legends about the Mother Goddess's three incarnations. These stories are filled with realistic details such as dates and observable evidence, but also include fictional information about miracles.
Soul music: 30-year-old Phan Van Quyen has been singing for ten years at these performances. — VNS Photos Viet Thanh
Memorial: An ancient copper statue of Lieu Hanh Mother Goddess at Quang Cung Palace.
Pham Thai Ong and his wife, Pham Thai Ba, from Vi Nhue Village, were quite old and were never blessed with children. The couple did a lot of charity work in the local community and helped to build many pagodas. From above, the King of Heaven saw their virtue and high morals and asked his daughter to be re-born as their child.
Ba gave birth to a daughter on the sixth day of the third lunar month in 1434. When they saw that their little girl was as beautiful as a fairy, they named her Pham Thi Tien Nga (Tien Nga means fairy). Nga's beauty grew with her, and she was always dutiful to her parents. She never married but served the couple until their deaths. She also helped them with their charity work for the region's poor.
After 40 years of life on earth, she flew to the sky on the second day of the third lunar month without leaving behind any mortal remains. In mourning, the locals built a palace on the floor of her house in order to commemorate and worship her.
Over time, the ancient temple and its items of worship were destroyed and lost due to weather, age and war. However, a bronze statue of the Mother Goddess that was donated by a couple in the 18th century, was stored at the Yen Dong Commune People's Committee.
Heart broken that the holy statue wasn't placed in its deserved position, the local people contributed money and manpower to build a small temple to the Mother Goddess in 1994.
Local authorities invited Tran Thi Van, a well-know builder with experience managing and restoring many temples, to help repair Quang Cung Palace. Van has been working on the palace for ten years to help protect the structure and raise funds for its restoration and expansion.
"When I arrived, it was just a small, dilapidated temple," Van says. "I was worried about whether I'd be able to encourage enough people to help restore it."
Over time, Van was able to raise enough money to transform the temple into a palace that was in harmony with the surrounding area.
During her many years on the site she spent a lot of effort researching the history of the palace. Now she recognises the important role it plays.
The Viet Nam Federation for UNESCO has awarded her with several certificates for her contributions to Quang Cung Palace.
At the workshop, the palace's bronze statue of the Mother Goddess was considered as one of the most unique Mother Goddess sculptures in the system of temples and palaces for her worship in Viet Nam.
Moreover, participants agreed that the statue was evidence of the long-standing history and culture of the palace and the region where the Mother Goddess made her first descent.
The statue was made out of copper, and despite many ups and downs, remains intact. It portrays the Mother Goddess sitting cross-legged, with a peaceful face. Her hair is gathered into a bun without jewellery or crown, unlike other statues of her in other palaces. She wears a simple dress with a long necklace. Her eyes look down as if she is concentrating on her thoughts. Her hands are on her knees.
"Details on the statue, such as her bun, ears, and especially the hands are very authentic," says Trang Thanh Hien, a researcher from the Ha Noi Fine Arts College. "Only master artisans could cast something like this," she says.
"This statue is not meant to portray an exact image of the Mother Goddess, but just a character who is real and very close to the common people, because the legend says the Mother Goddess was born to a common family," Hien says.

Spiritual activities
The solemn and splendid palace, surrounded by its legends, lures people to visit for prayer and to attend hau dong (shaman) performances. The ritual is aimed at entertaining the gods, and commemorating and praising their merits. Through a medium, people believe they can connect to the gods and enjoy good health and fortune in present life, unlike other beliefs in after-lives.
A hau dong performance can't take place without van singing. The singing plays an important support role for the medium. A cung van assumes dual roles of singing and playing musical instruments, mostly flute, castanets, drum and dan nguyet (moon-shaped zither), says Dr Bui Trong Hien.
A good cung van knows how to co-operate with the medium and can be flexible in their performance based on the medium's emotions, Hien says.
Based on the cung van's songs, the medium will dance and act out the roles and merits of gods.
In total there are 36 gods that can be portrayed through 36 songs. Each song is comprised of many sections that are performed in different styles. For example, the beginning of the song, which invites a god to bless the performance, is sung differently from the part of the song that praises the god's achievements.
Each hau dong performance can last from nine to ten hours, so van singers gather in a groups of four or five to support each other as they get tired.
Local van singer, Phan Van Quyen, 30, has performed van for ten years.
"Before learning to sing, I read biographies and legends about the gods so that I would understand them. This helped me learn the lyrics by heart and allows me to make the songs more emotional," Quyen says.
When performing, mediums seem to forget who they are, and they only seem to hear the voice and sounds of the cung van. Quyen and his colleagues are guides and storytellers for the followers and mediums to enter legendary scenes.
Yen Dong Village is the home of leading cung van. The oldest van singer Dao Thi Sai passed away several months ago at 90 years old, taking with her a rich stock of van songs.
Quang Cung Palace is the holy land of legends about the Mother Goddess Religion, said Dr Nguyen Xuan Nam from the provincial Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
Recognised as a historical vestige of the province since 2004, local authorities have restored sections of the palace and plan on more efforts.
The annual Quang Cung Palace Festival is held on the fourth day of the third lunar month and lures many visitors and pilgrims from around the country with hau dong performances and holy rituals which show respect for the Mother Goddess, he says. This year festival falls on April 17.
The medium continues to shimmy within the endless cung van melodies. Followers and the audience seem not to notice the fatigue and sing themselves into holiness and legend. — VNS

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