I sucked in the sweltering tropical air and tried to ignore the sweat rolling down the sides of my face, onto my neck, and soaking into the top edge of my sundress. My clothes clung to me like warm wet napkins and my hair was plastered to my skull underneath the wide brim hat. The Tao Babe was melting like a softened wax figurine in the fierce heat of the midday sun and there was nothing I could do about it.
Using as little motion as possible to conserve strength, I tilted the wide brim of my hat to block out as much of the glaring afternoon sun as I could, and fought off a yawn. I was tired and achy and my arms were riddled with red welts from mosquito bites acquired after a full day of sightseeing where I indiscriminately plowed through bushes and pointed my camera at everything I saw. Vũng Tàu is a seriously photogenic city, sprawling along the sparkling azure coast of south Vietnam, but as excited as I was about the surroundings, my level of tolerance for heat and humidity was limited to what my body could handle. At that moment, it was telling me to seek a cool, air-conditioned bed and take the edge off the jet lag. I was so ready to get out of the heat.
And then she flashed into view.
I tapped the taxi driver and asked him to pull over. I had to get a better look at this thing. Grabbing my camera, I charged out into the full tropical sun, all thoughts of heat exhaustion evaporating like a puff of someone else’s cigarette smoke left behind as I raced to the edge of the cliff where we had pulled over. This place called out to me like a siren in the distance. There was something about it that fired up all my senses.
As I began snapping photo after photo of the place, I could feel the driver’s presence behind me like a silent ghost. He had gotten used to the sound of the camera shutter going full speed while I worked without a word, just as I had gotten used to his presence.
All my focus was on the island itself. My first impression of the place was that the island was a floating emerald jewel, on top of a sparkling aqua ocean. And then I noticed the red-roofed structure jutting up at the top of the island. It was a temple.
“What is the name of that island and who is that temple dedicated to?” I asked the driver.
“The island has been named and renamed many times throughout the ages,” he responded in thoughtful Vietnamese. “The locals call it Hòn Bà (the Lady’s Island).”
“Why?” I asked, squinting at the various structures built there. He shrugged, unable to tell me anything more about the place. I turned off my camera and signaled to him that I was ready to go. As we drove away, I asked him to take me to their local book store. I had to find out more about the temple. Several hours later, I was sitting by the pool, my nose buried deep within a book about the region, the people, the history, and the legends of the area. This is what I found out.
Hòn Bà is a tiny islet off the coast of Vũng Tàu, Vietnam. It has been named and re-named many times in the past, depending on who the dominant occupier-du-jour is. Its current moniker, Hòn Bà, is the most recent incarnation.
In the vast distance of time, before the Viet people settled in the area, but from my calculations, after the great flood which swallowed most of Sundaland (see my notes on Sunda) the Champa people spread out from central Vietnam all the way down to the southernmost point of Vietnam. Vestiges of their culture and architecture still exists to this day.
Poh Nagar, (aka Y Ana to the Vietnamese) means (Lady of the Champa Kingdom) and the Champa people worshipped her in much the same way that the Vietnamese venerated Y Ana. The Island was called Hòn Bà (The Lady’s Island), and the temple was called the Lady’s Temple.
Not much about the temple or island changed, even after the Vietnamese took control of the area since Y Ana and Poh Nagar were one and the same deity who had been venerated throughout the land. The Lady’s Island was still Hòn Bà (The Lady’s Island) and the Lady’s Temple was still Miếu Bà (The Lady’s Temple).
And then the French took over the area and forbade the people, both Viet and Champa, to approach Hòn Bà. They built ugly bunkers at the foot of the island (which can still be seen as a vestige of their dominion of the place), and defaced the goddess by chopping off her head and hands. Then, they stole the head and took it to France, where they put her on display in one of their museums. Then, in 1939, a Frenchman named Archinard took pot shots at the temple, in a show of dominance and disrespect for the local populace and their goddess. He shot three bullets at the temple, one of which did some minor damage to a corner of the structure. Someone should have told Archinard that Karma is a bitch, but he was none the wiser because he came to an untimely end soon thereafter, when he accidentally took his life with a careless bullet from his own weapon.
In honor of his stupidity, the French named the island Archinard. That name lasted only as long as the French were there, and was only used by the French in their maps of the area. The people continued to called the island Hòn Bà, and once the French removed themselves, they rebuilt the temple and re-name the island Hòn Bà.
Over time, the identity of Y Ana merged with the more ancient veneration of the goddess Thủy Long Thần Nữ (the Water Elemental goddess), one of the five Taoist Elementals, and paid homage to both at the same time. I will talk more about the Water Elementals in another posting: what she is, why she is female, and why people chose this location for venerating her, instead of one of the other lovelies depicted below.
Hòn Bà is uninhabited due to the fact that the island has no access to electricity or running water, and other than a caretaker or two, for parts of the year, it is mostly empty. The reason is simple.
There is no easy way to get there.
To get there by boat means going all the way around the island and then coming ashore in specific areas that were deep enough to avoid grounding and damaging the boat. This adds to the cost of traveling by boat to the island, not to mention the fact that you had to pay the boatman to remain there until you were ready to depart to avoid being stranded.
If, however, you were patient and were willing to time the excursion to the natural rhythm of the heavens and the earth, you could actually walk there. On the 14th and the 15th day of every lunar calendar month (also known as the Yin calendar because it follows the moon’s cycle, not to mention the female menstrual cycle), a path miraculously appears, effectively joining the island to the mainland, allowing access to the island for the faithful devotees (along with the curious and the uninitiated). To the devotees, it was a heavenly sign, something that was akin to Moses, parting the sea for the children of Israel to escape persecution. Of course, we can explain this as simply time and tide.
This ‘parting of the ocean’ is due to the tidal actions of the moon’s waxing/waning cycles which cause high tides and low tides.
For most of the month, the water is too deep to traverse, but at ebb tide, its lowest point, the Pacific Ocean exposes a boulder-strewn path encrusted with sharp, slippery coral. There are only a few aqueously-subsumed (but often-used) roads around the world, so this is relatively rare.
Let it never be said that paying homage to a Water Elemental goddess was going to be a walk in the park. Unlike the Tao which, according to Lao Tzu, is broad and plain, this path is treacherous and arduous. As I was told, many a foot has been shredded and bloodied due to slipping on the sharp rocks. It takes a strong-of-heart and steady-of-feet devotee to make the trek by foot to the edge of the island. A healthy body and a pair of waterproof sturdy shoes are highly recommended for this excursion. A walking stick wouldn’t hurt either. As if that wasn’t enough, there is only about 2 hours of ebb time available before the tides rise again and obliterate the only path that takes visitors back to the mainland.
At the foot of the island, the devotees are faced with the first of a series of stairs. There are about 120 steps to get to the top of the mountain. After huffing and puffing their way up, with plenty of stops along the way to keep the screaming in their muscles down to a dull roar, they are greeted to the welcoming sight of Miếu Bà.
Miếu Bà (The Lady’s Temple) is small and relatively simple, especially when compared to other temples of its kind and relative age. The Champa were already using this location as a worship site back in the 1700s and had a Champa-style temple constructed there. Compared this to the thousands of years of documented Southeast Asian history and a few hundred years would be considered the very recent past.
Looking at the architecture of this temple, however, I could tell, even without research, that it is quite modern, by Asian temple standards. This is due to its unique location. Anyone who has ever lived on the beach can vouch for the extreme weathering that seaside structures must endure. Without constant upkeep and maintenance, the buildings fall into ruins in relative quick succession. The latest major rebuilding effort of the then dilapidated temple was in 1971, which resulted in a Vietnamese-looking building with red tiled roofs and squared stucco-looking walls.
Immediately outside the temple is the marble statue of what is suppose to represent Thủy Long Thần Nữ, the Water Elemental goddess. To my eye, the statue is staid and matronly, in a lack-lustre and utterly boring manner–artistically devoid of any movement or fluidity.
I suppose that is what most people think a matronly goddess deserving of worship should look like. Heavens forbid they should have any sort of personality, or glamour, or even joie de vivre about them. It would break the spell of…worship-ability.
To me, a mother goddess does not necessarily have to be so stodgy and insipidly represented. As a representative of a major Taoist element, the Water goddess should be a seriously stunning Tao Babe!
I have met many a young, vivacious, joyful mother with grace, beauty, intelligence, and talent to spare. I personally feel she should look something more like this.
But eh. What do I know.
The courtyard surrounding the structure is dotted with smaller shrines dedicated to other various minor deities. I have no idea what or who the shrines are for since there is very little to indicate who or what they are venerating.
I suppose I could find out if I really felt the need to know, but my quest is focused on the deity-du-jour, the Water Elemental, and as scattered as I get sometimes, I feel that narrowing the focus down to her would allow me to at least get this post written without too many other inane, useless, rambling asides.
Anyway, back to the main subject.
Within the temple are also various other deities who have little (nothing really) to do with The Lady. In short, there are LOTS of deities all over the place, and they all come in every shape and size and color that anyone would ever desire.
No doubt about it, this place is very spiritually engaged. From the top of Cloud Lake, where a huge fat white laughing Buddha sits within a themed amusement park, to the enormous arms-outstretched Jesus overlooking Back Beach that you can clearly see from Hòn Bà, these huge obvious signs of religious dynamics form an integrated internal structure which molds and shapes the local populace’s mindset and shows the level of popularity each individual deity enjoys.
Yet, even though this ancient folk religion has been relegated to a tiny, hard to reach island in Southeast Asia, the amazing thing is that it is still flourishing and being transferred from one generation to another. This is evidenced by the constant flow of fresh fruit and flowers from the mainland, as well as an almost continuous billow of wispy strands of incense smoke rising up from the various scattered shrines and at the foot of The Lady herself. She has been woven into the fabric of the community for so long, with such rich and lavish threads, there is every reason to believe that her legacy will carry on into successive new generations.
I want to continue my next posting about Po Nagar (Y Ana), but I should focus on the Five Elementals too…that is…after I talk about Phù Đổng Thiên Vương (扶董天王).