At the end of an old street named Phan Chu Trinh, in the ancient city of Hội An, there is a very old banyan tree. This banyan tree held a secret for many many years, until one day, that secret was revealed. The banyan tree had, at the foot of its trunk, a miếu (a tiny brick shrine made of stone).
This shrine held within its protective shelter, a stone tablet roughly around three feet tall, two feet wide, and about 6 inches in width. Its face was engraved with many characters, but the engravings are faded and difficult to read.
At first, the brick shrine looked to have been erected in an open area, but then over the centuries, a banyan tree grew near it. after countless years, the tree grew around the shrine and eventually encapsulated it.
It was so well-hidden that even the elderly living around the area confessed that although they knew of its existence, they had actually never remembered seeing it completely revealed, until around 1998, when the local government sent an arborist to cut back the roots and trunk of the tree to reveal the shrine.
The stone tablet had words on it, but much of it was worn and difficult to make out. Of the few words that could be read, nobody knew what it meant, so I did what any taobabe with a modicum of an artistic bent would do.
I created a clear layer above the tablet and I retraced what I could see with white so it would be a bit clearer. Since I am illiterate in Chữ Nôm, I apologize if my tracing is incorrect in any way. I am not able to determine if my strokes are in the correct order so that the words make sense.
This is the result of my tracing:
The first thing that grabbed my attention were all those round spots. That was just something that I had never seen before on any bùa spell (see my previous posting on Magic Spells, Deconstructed). I say bùa spell because it really looks as if it is constructed in the normal structure of one.
Those round spots, man, they just bugged the crap out of me. It had to mean something, but first things first. The local people had to know something about it, so I dug around in the news archives to find out if anyone had any ideas.
There were lots of ideas.
Some said it was a map that pointed to the location of a buried cache of treasure—specifically a car made of gold. Since this tablet was erected before the advent of the automobile, I could only surmise that they meant a horse-drawn vehicle, or maybe a rickshaw.
There were plenty of stories about four men who came to the town, and after having consulted prayer books or spell books, they were able to determine that the tree had a hidden treasure. They then used a compass to find the direction where the front of the shrine would be, and began hacking away at the tree.
It was said that they found the stone tablet, copied what it said, and went to a different location, where they was able to dig up the golden treasure, which they hauled off in a cart.
A quick check on the town’s government website and it clearly stated that from time to time, government officials had to keep hacking away at the tree to expose the shrine, because it is now a national historic site and must be kept tidy.
In the tropical heat, the tree grew like mad. Every time they cut the banyan roots and limbs back, they had to haul it off in a large cart, and the people gossiped and brewed it into a fantastic concoction about a treasure cart full of gold that had been unearthed and taken away by the local government.
It got so out of control that the local government had to erect a sign in front of the shrine stating that there was no gold treasure that had ever been found so that visitors would not be misled.
Long story short. No gold.
Then there were others said these people were Japanese archaeologists who came to Hội An following certain clues left behind by their ancestors who had come to that area hundreds of years ago to established a Japanese settlement there to do business.
This was supposed to have been a stone tablet that the Japanese people erected to be used as a bùa trấn yểm in order to pin down the water god of the land to keep him from raising the waters and flooding the streets every year.
I talked about the pinning down of locations using bùa in my previous post, Black Sorcery and the Maiden Bùa Thiên Linh Cái, where this was done over wide areas using a female’s body parts. It seemed a more likely idea since this was something that was widely done during that time in the history of the country.
However, I can personally attest that if this is the case, whoever cast this spell did a terrible job, because the year that I was there in Hội An, it flooded so badly, I couldn’t go anywhere and was stuck on the third floor of a hotel, watching the waters rise higher and higher. It sounds plausible except for one important thing.
There are no Japanese characters on the tablet. All the words were written in Nôm script, what we call Chữ Nôm.
Here is what I was able to gather and translate.
All those Spots
I did say those spots were the first things that caught my attention, and bugged me to no end, until I realized they were star charts of a sort. Unfortunately, I am such a bad astronomer that the only two constellations I have ever been able to identify have been Orion (due to his three unique belt dots), and the big dipper.
Lucky for me, on the right side of the stone tablet, I could recognize the big dipper immediately, even though it looks as if it is seen from the other side…it being backwards and tilted on its head.
It’s as if—whoever drew this is saying to us—Pay attention to this star chart! This is what we saw on our planet when we looked up in the sky.
And I am once again having to rethink all that I know about my ancestors—WHO ARE WE???
And then I am like…damn I wish I could just plug these star points into a computer and figure out exactly where the hell it is that this star chart would be if we were to look up in the sky and see the big dipper like this.
Well, regardless of where it is viewed, the names still apply, so I put translated names to the individual stars that make up the big dipper. This clears up the first part of the stone tablet’s mysterious spots.
Unfortunately, the three round stars at the top had no clear indications, names ascribed, or even suggestions as to what they are, so I could not give them names. Likewise for the two round spots on the top left with a single line joining them. I have no clue what constellation that is from. If anyone recognizes them or have any sudden insights, please share with me, because I haven’t been able to figure this one out.
As it turns out, the words are written in Chữ Nôm and read: Bắc đế sắc lệnh lập cực ngự phong yểm thủy đạo. Án ma ni bát mê hồng. Thái Nhạc sơn
I need to separate them out so I can parse them into something that makes sense. There are three lines. Let’s take a look at each line.
The words are separated into three sections and read thus:
- Bắc đế sắc lệnh lập cực ngự phong yểm thủy đạo.
- Án ma ni bát mê hồng
- Thái Nhạc sơn.
I’m starting with the second sentence first because it’s the easiest part of the entire tablet. The second line, Án ma ni bát mê hồng is simply the sound that we Vietnamese hear when we hear the sanskrit sutra for Om mani padme hum:
Right off the bat, we can see that this is not a bùa trấn yểm thủy đạo or anything of the evil sort. It has a sanskrit prayer embedded right into the stone, with a very complex meaning: The jewel is in the lotus. I could take an entire posting just to explain this one sentence, but it deserves its own posting, so I will get back to the other two sentences.
Bắc đế sắc lệnh lập cực ngự phong yểm thủy đạo roughly means Edict from the Imperial North requires the construction of the highest barrier against the pinning down of the waterway.
First, let me stress that I am translating this based upon my scanty knowledge of ancient Vietnamese words, so if I make any translations errors, please let me know and I will fix it..
In my defense, I am hardly a scholar in ancient Vietnamese, although if there was such a study available where I live, I would sign up for some classes, because I find the subject of ancient Vietnamese etymology to be endlessly fascinating.
Also, the way I translate is seriously pathetic. It’s almost like I’m reading a new language. I only recognize a few words, and the rest, I have to look up in a huge dictionary.
Usually, the dictionary will list about ten or twenty possible meanings for a single word, and I have to dig through to see if one or more of them makes sense when juxtaposed within the sentence structure.
I then have to compare the context from other ways the same word has been used in various literature stemming from the same time period to confirm that the meaning I ascribe is the same as that of those who lived during that time, when those words are placed together.
It pisses me off to no end that ancient people have SO MANY FUCKING HOMONYMS!!! Why can’t they just make up new unique combo words to mean different things and ideas instead of using the same old tired word to mean a hundred other things?
It is seriously tedious work, and the only thing that makes it worth my while is—I’m actually starting to develop a pretty decent vocabulary in ancient Viet, which makes it easier and easier to read old writings as I limp along.
OK, I stop ranting now.
Second, I am not what you would consider a black wizard in the least. I only study this crazy scary stuff and try to make sense of the history behind it because, let me tell you what. Ancient Asian history is filled with black wizardry, and there is no way to understand the context of such ancient history if I do not have a firm grasp on the methodology of how it all fits in.
If you have been following my posts throughout the last few months, you will know what pinning down means. I talked about the pinning down of locations using bùa in my previous post, Black Sorcery and the Maiden Bùa Thiên Linh Cái, where this was done over wide areas using a sacrificial young girl’s body parts, but that’s not what this tablet is saying.
This tablet is stating emphatically that Bắc đế sắc lệnh. Bắc đế means the Imperial North sắc lệnh means to deliver an edict. We don’t know who gave that command, but I will assume it’s the king of the northern region, commanding an area south of it.
You may be wondering why the King, who is living in Huế, would say he is from the north, but you must remember that Huế was not the capitol back in those days.
After the Trưng sisters lost the war with the Han Chinese, the capitol of Vietnam was relocated to Hà Nội, and that was where the king’s court was. Hà Nội would be far north of Hội An (see map), which means it had to have come from the King at that time, whoever he might have been. Since Emperor Gia Long moved the capitol from Hà Nội to Huế in 1802, it must mean that this stone tablet is at the very least, older than 218 years ago.
How much older? I don’t know, but I might have a clue.
The next section is lập cực ngự. Lập means to erect or build. Cực means the highest or peak. Ngư‘̣ means defense or barrier. The king is telling his subjects that he is ordering them to build the best possible defense. Defense of what?
Defense against phong yểm thủy đạo, that’s what. Phong is the first part of phong thủy, which means feng shui. Yểm means pinning down of the black magic variety. Thủy đạo means waterway.
The King is ordering his subjects to build the best possible defense against the pinning down of the waterway by the feng shui black wizards.
The Last Three Words
Thái Nhạc Sơn
At first, it looks as if Thái Nhạc Sơn could be the name of a person, being way at the bottom of the tablet, but as I have pointed out in my previous post, Magic Spells, Deconstructed, the name of whoever wrote this would be located on the stamp at the bottom of the long string of words.
This stamp is the required Power Word, indicating that these words have the power of whoever is putting his or her name onto this tablet. If I am not mistaken, it would be the name of the king who sent the edict out.
Thái Nhạc Sơn, therefore, would not be the name of a person, but rather the name of a place. I have a very strong suspicion that this place is the mountain known as Thái Sơn. You notice there is also the word Nhạc in the name. That’s because Mount Thái Sơn was also known as Đông Nhạc.
Đông simply means East. Nhạc is the name of the mountain. The location where the king was would be the Thái Nhạc sơn Mountain. The location of those three words would be in the general vicinity of where the markings on a run-of-the-mill lá bùa would be.
In one of my previous posts, Âu Cơ (嫗姬) Royal Mother, I pointed out that the Viet kingdom used to extend all the way up north to present-day Mount Taishan, which is basically the pronunciation for the Viet word Thái Sơn.
If that is the case, then the king we are talking about had to have been located way up there, which pushes this stone tablet far past 200 years.
It would have to be over 2000 years…but who’s counting.
Are you sure it’s talking about a literal cart and not an abstract one? The Dipper has been likened to a cart more than once before.
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Hahaha!! The accounts that the locals said was that the cart was loaded with gold and stuff that had been buried, and then the government took it all away. They were all peeved about not getting any of the riches. I don’t think they cared much about any abstract cart. 😀
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Did Vietnamese dynasties before or after any Chinese occupation have a symbolic affiliation with the Big Dipper? Because if not then I am wondering if this goes back to a time when there was Chinese occupation and a dynasty and emperor more strongly associated with The Dipper, or Taiyi perhaps. Interesting find.
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I don’t know Stephen. I will do some research into ancient history and see what I can dig up.
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It can’t be 2000 years, because the Chữ Nôm script has only existed for 1200 years ??.
Vietnam had a written language system far older than 1200 years ago. The iterations changed over time, but many of the basic words remain in place.
You write “At the end of an old street named Phan Chu Trinh, in the ancient city of Hội An, there is a very old banyan tree.” But which end of the street you mean, eastern or western? Phan Chu Trinh is a one km long street (See: Google maps). I would be greateful if you pointed to a more precise location. Maybe you could give a nearby house number?
Next month I am going to Da Nang, and I would have like half a day (only!) to visit the nearby Hoi An as well. I would like to see this banyan temple with my own eyes, and I would not like to waste my time searching for it in vane at the wrong end. Thank you, Maciej from Lublin, Poland.
By the way, Hoi An was saved from a planned destruction, renovated and protected, by a Polish architect from my town, Kazimierz Kwiatkowski. There is a monument to him in Hoi An, at the address: 138 Trần Phú, Phường Minh An, Hội An, Quảng Nam, Vietnam. (‘Kazik’ is a Polish short form for Kazimierz, like Joe is for Joseph in English).
See: Wikipedia: Kazimierz_Kwiatkowski_(architect)
(I am sending this comment already for the third time, and it does not appear. Why? Maybe your blog does not accept links in the comments?
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Hi Maciej. Thank you for reading.
The ancient banyan tree is located close to the roadside, in front of a house. Address is 93 Phan Chu Trinh street, Hội An. If you give your driver this address, they can get you to that spot.
I am very grateful for your countryman’s help in protecting this beautiful ancient city. Thank you Mr Kazimierz Kwiatkowski.
Also, if you are nearby Đà Nẵng, you might want to check out Ba Na Hills. It’s a gorgeous French mountain village with a very long very tall cable car system that takes you up to the top of the mountain. Have fun on your trip!
PS: I only received this one message. Not sure why the other messages were not received by WordPress.