Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thien Hau- pagoda-hopping in Vietnam part 1

A smartly dressed lady weaved through the small crowd of worshippers, clutching a handful of sandalwood incense sticks. She lit and planted half of them purposely in the copper urn of ash at the central courtyard. Unhurried and unmindful of the people milling around the temple, she proceeded to the far end of the inner chamber, to the shrine of Thien Hau Thanh Mau.

Thien Hau
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/125s, f/1.8, 50mm, ISO 100

Thien Hau incense sticks
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/250s, f/1.8, 50mm, ISO 100

The goddess of the sea and patron of the sailors stood regal above two women deities in the elaborately carved wooden altar and flanked by two more goddesses in the side altars. All were ornately dressed in bright colorful garments reminiscent of pre-colonial Chinese times, still but seemingly observant.

Thien Hau altars
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/60s, f/3.5, 21mm, ISO 1600, +1/3EV

Everyday, hundreds of visitors perform acts of similar piety in the pagoda of Thien Hau. Popular among locals and tourists from mainland Chinese and Taiwan, the temple lies in Nguyen Trai Street, at the heart of Cholon, the Chinatown district of Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon).

Thien Hau offering
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/250s, f/2.8, 100mm, ISO 400, -1/3EV

Thien Hau incense
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/125s, f/5.6, 120mm, ISO 400, -2/3EV

Thien Hau became the first stop in our photographic hop of pagodas in the historical district. Richly, if not intensely decorated, this temple is arguably the most important of the Chinese temples in Cholon. Walking tours are immensely popular among visitors of Saigon, and not far from this pagoda are several other temples, all within 300 meters walking distance, and with exotic if not unpronounceable sing-song names like Tam Son Hoi Quan, Ba Thien Hau, Quan Am Pagoda and Phuoc An Hoi Quan.

Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/40s, f/3.5, 18mm, ISO 1600, +2/3EV

Photographic opportunities are not wanting inside the pagoda. The building is a series of concentric rectangles with an open courtyard at the dead center. Sunlight streams around this square where a pavillion rises on four thick wooden pillars, with ceramic tiles piled over its distinctive pagoda roofline. Lighting is dim save for the numerous shrines that are illuminated with incandescent lamps and candles of various sizes.

Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/500s, f/1.8, 50mm, ISO 400, -1/3EV

incense coils above
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/50s, f/4.5, 31mm, ISO 200, -2/3EV

Prayers came in different forms. Ribbons in pink with Chinese calligraphic writing fluttered on the opposite walls by the central square. Fruits spilled over plastic trays and sweets filled folded colored paper vases. Smoke wafted heavily in the air as sticks burnt onto the ash-filled jars. Incense coils hang on the ceiling rafters, billowing heavy fragrant smoke around the temple. Worshippers supplicated on padded circular kneelers.

incense coils
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/500s, f/2.8, 100mm, ISO 100, +1/3EV

lighting a coil
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 1/4000s, f/1.8, 50mm, ISO 400, +1/3EV

For 20,000 VND (1.2 USD) each, my Vietnamese friend bought a couple of incense coils. He gave me one and told me to write two names on the pink slip of paper. For good health, he said. I wrote three. He helped me tie the ribbon on the top of the cone and light the outer end of the coil. An attendant took the incense and raised it up using a long pole and hooked and hang it by the ceiling. Ashes intermittently showered on us down below. I said a prayer too and wished for my own intentions.

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