The Phu Ung Festival

The Phu Ung temple is situated in Phu Ung commune, An Thi district, HUng Yen province. The temple holds yearly a three-day festival in January (lunar year) which is attended by people from many parts of the country.
The temple is dedicated to Pham Ngu Lao (1255-1320), a famous general, and a native of this commune. An encounter with Pham Ngu Lao in 1275 greatly impressed Commander-in-Chief Tran Thing Bao, and he immediately added the young man to his staff. After Pham Ngu Lao demonstrated his mettle in several intense battles, Tran Hung Dao promoted him to the rank of General and gave him the hand of his adopted daughter, Princess Tinh Hue. While very severe and exacting in the training of troops and in enforcing military order, Pham Ngu Lao shared joy and sorrow with his men and treated them fairly. Soldiers and officers held him in high esteem and enthusiastically followed his lead in defending the country. In two successive wars of resistance against the Yuan-Mongolian invaders (1285-87), Pham Ngu Lao was credited with brilliant feats of arms and became a famous general. The King promoted him to a very high military rank (Dien suy thuong tuong quan). He was also greatly admired by the people. After his death, the people in Phu Ung commune and the neighbouring areas set up a temple right on the foundations of his former house. Neither time nor the vagaries of historical judgement have eroded the affection of the local population for the hero. The temple continues to be tended and has been renovated and reconstructed several times. Recently, the government of Viet Nam has put it in the list of historical and cultural monuments that must be preserved. Partly as a result, more visitors have flocked to the temple’s festival.
The temple is located on a large high and airy piece of land oriented to the North. Nearby is another temple dedicated to Pham Ngu Lao’s mother, and half a kilometre to the east is an old pagoda and a temple dedicated to his daughter, Princess Thuy Tien.
These three temples, the ancestors’ worship house and the tomb of Pham Ngu Lao’s father constitute a cluster of monuments, where, on festival days, people from many provinces gather to light incense.
The Phu Ung festival is held on the 11th, 12th and 13th days of the 1st lunar month.
On the 11th day of the 1st lunar month, a grand ceremony is held in the main temple (dedicated to Pham Ngu Lao and his father, Pham Tien Cong) and the ancestors’ worship house (for the worship of the ancestors of the Pham family).
On the 12th day of the 1st lunar month, a ceremony is held at the temple and pagoda dedicated to Pham Ngu Lao’s mother and daughter.
Cult ceremonies and incense presenting rites performed on these two days are strictly in accordance with the Vietnamese people’s practice of worshipping and remembering the feats of the ancestors.
On the 13th day of the 1st lunar month, a ceremony is held to escort the statue of Pham Ngu Lao’s daughter to the main temple. This is a special feature of the festival and is related to the life story of Princess Thuy Tien. She was very beautiful, but her moral qualities far outstripped her beauty. She was bom in a palace, amid wealth and honours, yet preferred the simple serenity of pagodas and rural areas where she studied agricultural work and sericulture. The king married her and bestowed his deep love and affection. Yet, after many years of conjugal life she remained childless. With the kings’ consents, she returned to her native village and entered a local pagoda as a nun. After her death, she was elevated to the rank of royal princess. This explains why the pagoda serves both as a place of worship for Lord Buddha and a temple dedicated to Princess Thuy Tien.
The carrying of the statue of Thuy Tien to the main temple is in fact a ceremony that symbolizes filial piety, a daughter, visiting her family home in order to pay respects to, and look after, her father. On the 2nd day of the 3rd lunar month, another ceremony marks her return to her own temple.
On the evening of the 11th day of the 1st lunar month, villagers come to her temple to perform a ceremony and prepare for her departure to the main temple. Her statue is washed and cleaned, while offerings made of paper – parasols, horses and palanquins, clothings, jewels and cosmetics – are readied for the trip.
The 12th day of the 1st lunar month is the day scheduled for the princess’ visit. From early morning, villagers and visitors from all over the country assemble around the temple. The procession is led by a group of “royal guard” comprising young men wearing tight ancient military uniforms and wielding wooden lances, spears and scimitars. Then comes a dragon dance, with a bright golden dragon dancing to the tune of drums. This is followed by the maids of honour clad in traditional dresses of various colours, with red bras, coloured belts, neat gauze turbans, and long pants. They walk in two rows, carrying trays of offerings on their heads to be presented to the Princess’s father: Money, expensive cloth, steamed glutinous sticky rice, boiled chicken, uncooked ordinary and glutinous rice, betel leaves and areca nuts and, in particular, two dishes for the sufferings experienced by parents in the process of child rearing. The ceremony is imbued with profound ethical significance. The focus of the procession is the red-lacquered and gilded palanquin, with curtains and hangings, which contains the statue of Princess Thuy Tien. After the palanquin is taken out of the pagoda-cum-temple, the carriers must genuflect three times while pointing the front of the palanquin toward the pagoda to show the respects of the Princess toward Buddha. Behind the palanquin are red horse and servants who carry clothing, hats, boots and shoes, a betel service and other items the Princess is supposed to use during her stay in her father’s house. Flags line the road (the road has become known as the Flag Road). On the way to the main temple, the procession and the palanquin turns around and stops for a while at the temple of Pham Ngu Lao’s mother where, the palanquin must be lowered and then raised three times, symbolizing respectful bows. Then presents are offered. The palanquin and the procession continue their march to the main temple along the Flag Road. This episode – stopping at the temple of Pham Ngu Lao’s mother – means that the princess needs to pay respects to her grandmother before visiting her father.
The flags road leads to the main temple but makes a short detour to the left before entering the yard. The procession arrives at the main temple just as the setting sun starts to illuminate the yard. All the guards, maids of honour and servants line up in 2 rows before the main gate, waiting for the princess to bow 3 times (as reflected by the palanquin being raised and lowered 3 times). The statue of the princess is set down in the yard. Present are deposited on the altar (as offerings to her father and ancestors) while presentations of joss-sticks and liquor are made 3 times in the antechamber of the temple. Then, the statue of the princess and her belongings, including the red horse, are brought into the back chamber where she will remain until the 2nd day of the 3rd lunar month, when she is then escorted back to her own temple.
While feudal ethics may be seen as pervading the Phu Ung festival, it is important to realize that these rites also reflect some inner features of the soul of the Vietnamese people, which are gratitude and respect for patriotic heroes and ancestors, as well as a striving for the good.

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