Festival at the Temple of Ba Chua Xu

The Sam Mountain, 284 m high, is located in the That Son (Seven mountains) region of An Giang province, 5 km to the south-west of Chau Doc town. In this region there are many places of interest. The most noted are the Tomb of Thoai Ngoc Hau and the Temple of Ba Chua Xu (Regional Tutelary Goddess).
Thoai Ngoc Hau was a mandarin under King Ming Mang’s reign (1820-1840). When in charge of the Vinh Thanh region (An Giang province and a part of Kien Giang nowadays), he rallied people to reclaim land, dig canals, and establish villages, thus turning Vinh Thanh into a fertile and populous region. His tomb is located at the Sam Mountain, looking onto the Vinh Te canal.
The Temple of Ba Chua Xu is also located at the Sam Mountain foot. There are three legends related to the statue of the Goddess, which is seen inside the Temple.
1. It was found accidentally in the forest by a wood¬cutter. Then, the villagers built a temple to worship it.
2. A villager, in his dream, was told by the Goddess that he should send nine virgin girls to the Sam Mountain to take her statue to the village for worship. The Goddess would become the village’s tutelary deity. The villagers went to the mountain and found a stone statue there. They carried it to the village and built a temple in its honour. Since then, the day of installing the statue in the temple has been considered the commemorative day for the Goddess.
3. Under King Minh Mang’s reign, Thoai Ngoc Hau was assigned to protect the southwest border of Viet Nam. Before any attack on the foreign invaders, he and his wife would come to the Temple to pray to the Goddess for her blessing. As Thoai Ngoc Hau attributed his successes to the miraculous assistance of the Goddess, he and his wife had the temple refurbished. When the project was completed, a festival was held on three days, 24th, 25th and 26th days of the 4th lunar month, to mark this event. Since then, the festival has become a yearly function.
So far, the origin of the statue has not yet been clarified. Noteworthy is the fact that it represents a male deity and is made of sandstone, a material very popular in Cham sculpture, but absent in the Sam Mountain region. Some scholars assume it to be a product of Cham medieval art with some Indian influence.
The Temple of Ba Chua Xu is divided into two sections. The back section is where the statues of the Goddess and two white cranes are placed. On the right there is an altar with a stone linga, and on the left, an altar with the wooden statue of a female deity. The second section is reserved for the General Worship Altar, two statues of phoenix, two altars for the founders of the village.
The statue of the Goddess represents a seated man (!), about 1.25m tall, wearing a loincloth. The decorations include (carved) bracelets on his arms and a (carved) necklace round his neck.
Here stands a question: How does the statue come to be attributed to a female deity?
The book Dai Nam Nhat thong chi (Records on Unified Viet Nam) compiled under the Nguyen Dynasty in the 19th century mentions only Tay An Pagoda and Thoai Ngoc Hau’s tomb as attractions in this region. No information is found on the Temple of Ba Chua Xu. In his book Discovering the Hau Giang – Sai Gon Region (1959), writer Son Nam, well-versed in the culture of South Viet Nam, does not mention the Temple either.
Apparently, the Temple of Ba Chua Xu became famous only the mid-20th century. Pham Van Tien, a member of the Temple’s Management board, proposed that the statue should be decorated as a lady. With the consent of the Board, he invited artisans from Sai Gon to “beautify” the statue. Specifically, crystal pupils were fitted into the eyes of the Goddess, thus making them lively. And the Goddess was dressed in finery.
According to another source, during 1942-1944, French archeologist Malleret had chances to study the statue of the Goddess. He revealed that it depicted a male deity and had a highly artistic value.
Ceremonies and rituals conducted during the Temple’s yearly festival
1. Ablutions. The ritual is held at the mid-night of the 23th day of the fourth lunar month.
To start the ritual, the chief Officiant, two elders and the Management Board light the two big candles beside the statue and offer alcohol, incense and tea to the Goddess. Then, a curtain is hung in front of the statue to cover it. Four or five women designated by the Management undress the statue. They respectfully wash it with new cotton towels soaked in perfumed water. The women try to use as many towels as possible because these are donations from pilgrims, who aspire to the Goddess’s blessing. After the ablutions, the statue is adorned with new finery and headgear. And the curtain is pulled aside to let people to admire the statue and get lucks (flowers, fruits) etc. from the altar for the Goddess.
2. Ceremony of carrying the worship tablets from the Thoai Ngoc Hau Mausoleum to the Temple.
It is conducted at 15 o’clock on the 24th day of the 4th lunar month. The Thoai Ngoc Hau Mausoleum is located on the opposite side to the Temple of Ba Chua Xu. The procession consists of the Chief officiant, two elders, other village notables, and devotees. A palanquin with four dragon headed poles is carried by four persons.
The ceremony finishes when the worship tablets for Thoai Ngoc Hau, for his wife Lady Truong Thi Miet, and for the rest sanctified celebrities respectively have been installed temporarily at the Temple of Ba Chua Xu. Obviously, the ceremony is indicative of the villagers’ gratitude to Thoai Ngoc Hau and other sanctified persons for their merits in developing the region.
3. Sacrificial ceremony (tuc yet)
It is held just after the midnight of the 25th day. The Temple’s Management Board, the village notables, four young male devotees and four young female singers stand in line on both sides to the statue of the Goddess. The Chief Officiant stands in the middle of the shrine, facing the Goddess. Votive offerings include: a slaughtered white pig, a plate with some of its blood and hairs, a tray of sticky rice, a tray of fruit, a tray of betel leaves and areace nuts, a plate of rice and salt.
The ceremony is conducted to the accompaniment of drums, gongs and other musical instruments. The officiants respectively offer incense, alcohol and tea to the Goddess. A member of the Management Board reads the oration in honour of the Goddess and then bums it. The ceremony finishes.
4. Artistic Performance (Xay chau)
A classical opera troupe is invited to give performances, which usually start after the sacrificial ceremony. The artists stand in line before the central altar. The chief of the troupe soaks a twig of willow in the bowl of water placed on the altar, and sprays the water around while saying prayers. Then, he beats the big drum three rounds and gives a signal to start the performance. The plays often have topics drawn from the national history.
5. The principal sacrificial ceremony
It is held at four o’clock in the morning of the 26th day. The rituals are the same as those of the tuc yet ceremony. In the afternoon of the 27th day, the worship tablets are carried back to the Thoai Ngoc Hau Mausoleum and the festival thus finishes.

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