The Festival of the Temple of 19 Founding Fathers

The temple of 19 Founding Fathers (or “Tien cong” temple, as called by local villagers) is located in Cam La commune, Yen Hung district, Quang Ninh province.
From Ha Noi, eitheir of two routes can be taken in order to reach the temple:
a) Follow Highway N°. 1 to Bac Ninh town, then take Highway N°. 18A up to kilometre 11, turn right and take the road leading to Hai Phong but stop at Quang Yen district town, the seat of Yen Hung district.
b) Follow Highway N°. 5, past Hai Duong, and Hai Phong, to reach Quang Yen, the seat of Yen Hung district.
From Quang Yen, cross the river Tranh by ferry to Ha Nam and then turn left, walking for two kilometres until you reach.
The temple is dedicated to 19 people who were the first to build dykes which expanded the area under cultivation. This led to the establishment of a group of islands in Ha Nam in 1434.
Before the construction of the dykes, the area had been a low sand bank at the estuary of the Bach Dang River. It sank below the high tide level by 3 to 3.5m. Therefore at high tide, the area was covered with water except for a few keys surrounded by mangroves and covered with trees. In the 11th and 12th centuries, tens of thousands of fishermen came to the sand bank but could eke out only a very precarious living, their homes were under constant threat from the sea.
During the reign of King Le Thanh Tong (1434), 17 people came from Kim Hoa precinct of the Thang Long Capital, and led the fishermen in driving back the sea and founding 3 villages: Cam La, Yen Dong and Phong Coc. In the meantime, at the Eastern part of the sand bank, two people from Tra Ly (Nam Ha region) also mobilized the population to encroach on the sea to set up the Ban Dong hamlet (whose name was later changed to Trung Bin). Later on, Trung Bin and the other 3 villages were combined into Phong Luu commune. The example was gradually followed by other areas in Hii Ninh, Hai Duong; resulting in the extension of dykes, the establishment of new communes and the surfacing of the Ha Nam group of island, including 34 km of dykes and 7 communes inhabited by nearly 50,000 persons. The same feat was repeated in other parts of Quang Ninh province by the people of Ha Nam, where new homelands such as Phuong Nam commune (Uong Bi region), Dai Yen commune (Hoanh Bo region) were established to farm, to breed and catch sea life, and operate in water transport.
In recognition of the achievements of these 19 pioneers, the local population built a temple dedicated to them. The exact date of the construction of the temple of the 19 Founding Fathers is unknown, but the temple has survived innumerable natural calamities, as well as many wars. The current House of Rites and the Ancestors Worship House were built in 1804 (with inscriptions denoting various dates of repairs in December 1920, February 1931, May 1946 and so on).
The temple is located on an elevated area of 3,000 sq.m., which borders in the east on Cam La village, and in the west, south and north on the paddy fields of Phong Coc commune and Cam La village. The temple consists of two parts. In front is the House of Rites which is a variant of the Three-door Temple gate. This is where people who come from afar can rest and prepare their incense sticks and other offerings before entering the Temple. Today, the House of Rites is reserved for cultural activities during Festival days. At the back, is the Ancestors Worship House. In between is parts in a large yard.
The Festival officially started on the 7th day of the 1st lunar month, 1805 after the temple had been reconstructed. According to the family registers of the Duong and Bui families in Ha Nam, the 7th of the 1st lunar month was the day when the Founding Fathers succeeded in finding fresh water sources on the islands. The 1st lunar month is the time when the summer paddy has been transplanted, and the people are making preparations for the planting of secondary crops and for repairing and improving irrigation structures, including the dykes.
Long before New Year’s Day, preparations are already underway for the Festival. The inhabitants of 4 communes (Yen Bai, Cam La, Phong Coc, Phong Hai) are the main participants in the Festival, which is also attended by former residents who have migrated to other areas to earn a living, as well as by people from neighbouring communes.
The order of the Festival of the Temple of 19 Founding Fathers is as follows:
– On the 6th day of the 1st lunar month, the families of old men aged respectively 70, 80, 90 and 100 years organize religious ceremonies in honour of their ancestors and to celebrate the longevity of the patriarchs.
– On the evening of the 6th day of the 1st lunar month, notables of the above-mentioned 4 communes hold a preliminary ceremony in honour of the Founding Fathers and check on the preparations for the festival to be held on the next day, which involve the selection of the officiating dignitary, of the writer of the funeral oration and the official members of the ceremony; the selection of 4 old men, whose health is still good and whose families are known for their harmony and good behavior, the creation of a symbolic dyke and the enactment of a symbolic round of wrestling.
– Morning of the 7th day of the 1st lunar month, the 70, 80, 90 and 100 year-old patriarchs and their offspring bring offerings – usually a branch of areca nuts, betel leaves and one litre of liquor – to the temple of the Founding Fathers. Some well-to-do families prefer to have their old men transported in a hammock under a big parasol. Sometimes, the whole group is organized into a procession to the rhythm of drums.
The ceremony starts at 12 o’clock. All the patriarchs from the 4 communes assemble at the House of Rites – in fact many of them have arrived there some time after 10 a.m. Following the ceremony, the patriarchs bring the offerings into the ancestors’ worshipping chamber. Later, the organizing committee distributes all of the offerings – betel leaves, areca nuts, liquor – to members of the community.
Then comes the ceremony relating to irrigation: the 4 selected patriarchs each carry a bundle of earth, prepared for them by their offsprings, to a place in front of the altar and start building a symbolic dyke. Only after this ceremony, can people work their fields and gardens. The same rule applies to the burial of persons who are dead from the 1st of January onward. Those who fail to abide by this rule are held responsible for any misfortunes which might befall their commune during the New Year. They can be punished for their transgression.
After finishing the construction of the symbolic dyke, the 4 patriarchs perform symbolic wrestling and then, return to their homes. Now is the time for extended merry¬making by villagers from the 4 communes and other neighbouring areas. Amusements include buffalo fights, cock fights, human chess (a regular chess game in which human beings replace the toy chesspieces), card-playing (a game which involves the seating of principal players in different watch-houses), along with song-exchanges.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the festival agenda remained more or less the same, with only small variations in the procession of patriarchs: to add to the power of the event, the cortege was preceded by carriers of eight objects of worship, flags representing the five basic elements, a band of trumpets, two-string violins and drums, a main drum for pacing the procession, an altar accompanied by dragons and horses made with leaves and flowers, and a royal palanquin made from coconut leaves and straw.
From the 1950 to now, while the basic rites remain unchanged, some improvements have been made in response to a changing social environment. Matriarchs as well as patriarchs are invited to the communal house. On festival day, the families of the patriarchs decorate their houses, altar, and other places of worship and even build temporary accomodation to entertain guests. The festival is no longer attended by only inhabitants of Ha Nam area, but also by inhabitants of the whole Yen Hung district as well as other districts of Quang Ninh province.

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