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Secrets of the stone snake

Update: March, 08/2013 - 04:32


The temple dedicated to Le Van Thinh in the northern province of Bac Ninh.

by Trung Hieu

In Le Van Thinh Temple, there is a mysterious stone statue that looks extremely peculiar: a giant snake biting its own body.

But unlike other snakes, the statue - located in Gia Binh District in the northern province of Bac Ninh - has legs. Similar to the limbs of an Indonesian komodo, the two legs tear at its own flesh.

Le Van Thinh (1038-96) was a talented scholar during the Ly dynasty (1009-1225). After passing a royal exam to hold the first doctorate degree during the reign of King Ly Nhan Tong, he was nominated to be the King's teacher, a role in which he carried out many important tasks for the country.

But in 1096, the dynasty blamed Thinh for a plot to kill the King and he was exiled to a remote mountainous place.

Le Van Thinh Temple, built during the Later Le dynasty (1427-1789), is located on the foundation of the house where Thinh was born and grew up.

Many people believe that the statue was made to express the injustice Thinh suffered.

According to legend, in March 1096 the King was riding on a small boat on West Lake to watch the fishermen when a sudden fog appeared. Within the fog, the King saw another small boat rapidly moving toward his own. Panicked, the King threw a spear towards the fog. Immediately the fog disappeared, but the King saw a big tiger growling on his own boat.

While the King and his men were scared, fisherman Muc Than came to rescue them and caught the tiger in his net.

The creature then revealed itself to be Le Van Thinh. Enraged, the King ordered his men to tie Thinh up and imprison him for life. But thinking of all Thinh had done for him in the past, the King pardoned him and only exiled him.

No one knows how many years Thinh lived in exile in remote, dangerous forests.

Near death, Thinh was finally taken home. But he breathed his last by the bank of the Dau River - never returning to his family.

To commemorate Le Van Thinh, people in the region held a festival on the seventh day of the first lunar month. In addition, 10 villages that worship him as their patron saint hold festivals from the fifth to the seventh days of the second lunar month.

The sculptural motif of the snake biting itself is unique in Viet Nam - as well as in the world - and many consider it tobe historical evidence of what happened to Thinh.

Standing 72cm high and 137cm wide and weighing in at about 3 tonnes, the sandstone statue looks like a sea monster. The snake has a large head, without beard and mane.

Its eyes bulge out. Its ears stick out too, but the right ear is filled, while the left ear is empty. The two gills balloon, so it looks like a giant, extremely angry python. Its mouth opens wide, letting the long fangs plunge into its body.

Two sinewy legs stretch out from the body, each with five sharp claws digging into flesh in a visceral representation of anguish both psychological and physical.

Researchers have discussed the statue's origins and symbolism for many years, but none of their theories have been proven conclusively.

According to Nguyen Duc Dam, the temple's manager, the statue was unearthed in 1991.

"It was buried underground. Villagers had to dig down about one metre to see the entire statue. After many days of discussion, we decided to remove it from the ground and worship it," he said.

Some argue that the snake's "one healthy ear and one deaf ear" suggest that it portrays King Ly Nhan Tong. Indeed, it could well be intended to portray the King's regret for listening to the deceptive mandarins and hurting his loyal

teacher. If that is the case, perhaps the King buried it underground because he was ashamed of his actions and did not want anyone to know until generations had passed.

But those who believe that this statue represents Le Van Thinh are equally vociferous in their opinion.

"It is a meaningful statue, full of plaintiveness, so different from the usual statues of dragons from the Ly and Tran dynasties. Obviously, it relates to the injustice that Le Van Thinh had to bear at the time," said Le Viet Nga, director of the Bac Ninh Province Museum.

Mysterious origin Scientists and cultural researchers continue to study the statue, but despite years of work, they have not reached a definitive conclusion.

For ancient people, each statue often had a meaning, said Associate Professor Tong Trung Tin, head of the Viet Nam Archaeology Institute. But no one knows the meaning of this snake.

"The only thing we can say with certainty is that this is a unique work of art that reveals the talent and creativeness of sculptors during the Ly dynasty.

However, we still cannot confirm its historical significance," he said.

There is one fact on which all researchers agree: it is a snake, not a dragon.

"We can consider it a God Snake, because the statue depicts a reptile. It is not a dragon, because the dragons of the Ly era had much more complicated details," said folklore professor Tran Lam Bien.

Bien's guess is that Le Van Thinh's talent was what caused his personal tragedy. After he died, his mourning descendants made the statue to warn future generations.

"We can consider it a national treasure because of its unique, strange and lively features," said Nguyen Hung Vi from Ha Noi National University, adding that the statue's self-destructive movement made the work "really impressive".

There is scholarly disagreement on the statue's age, as well as its interpretation. Associate Professor Tin claimed it was made during the Ly dynasty, since that style of sandstone sculpture was common during that era.

But Prof Bien argued the statue was made during the 18th century or even later.

It has been over one thousand years, but the mystery has still not been solved. But one thing is certain: the writhing statue depicts the pain of a wise, royal man who suffered from injustice.

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