The land of the ancestors

19/06/2019 17:05

Join us on a pilgrimage to legendary Phu Tho province 

Each year, Vietnamese people make a pilgrimage to the city of Viet Tri (Phu Tho province) to offer incense in remembrance of the Hùng kings. Viet Tri is considered Dat To (literally: the Ancestral Land), where the Ancestors’ Altar is located on the summit of Mount Nghia Linh. Few pilgrimages in the world reach the scale of the Hùng Kings Festival. Interestingly, the concepts of To (literally: Ancestor) and Dat To are collectively shared and understood among all Vietnamese people. Worship of the Hùng kings was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity on December 6, 2012.

Ancestor worship is rooted in Vietnam’s philosophical tradition of “when you drink water, think of its source”. Almost every family has an altar for parents and grandparents, while clans have ancestral clan halls. Many different clans converged in Phu Tho province and built their common altar there.

In 1938, the French School of the Far East (Vietnamese: Viễn Đông Bác Cổ) listed 1,164 villages and communes around the intersection of the Hong, Da and Lo rivers, where the Hùng kings and their generals were worshipped. More than 80 years later, the Hùng kings are still being worshipped in sites all over the country. I used to offer incense at the “Quoc To vong tu” (literally: national ancestors’ distant temple) in San Jose, in the USA, where I realized that overseas Vietnamese also erected altars to worship the Hùng kings. In the future, a Hùng kings temple will be built on the Spratly Islands. Our common ancestry will unify Vietnamese people to build and protect our country.

Legend has it that the Vietnamese people descend from the line of a dragon and a fairy. Lac Long Quan (literally: Dragon Lord of Lac) married Au Co, who bore him 100 sons. Of the 50 sons who moved with Au Co to the mountains, the eldest son became the first of the Hùng kings and established the country of Van Lang with its capital in Phong Chau (near the present-day Hùng kings Temple). The remaining 50 sons followed their father to the coastal regions.

Au Co Temple was erected in Hien Luong village (Ha Hoa district, Phu Tho province) near the Red River. Completed during the Early Le Dynasty and commissioned by a Le king, the temple is also called Mother Au Co, where the common Mother of the Nation is worshipped. Au Co’s festival is held on January 7 of the lunar year and involves a procession from Mother Au Co Temple to the communal temple. This site is a popular pilgrimage destination in Phu Tho.

The Hùng kings Temple on Mount Nghia Linh (Hy Cuong commune, Viet Tri city) is the worship site of the Hùng kings – widely considered the National Ancestors. Originally, there was a shrine devoted to the Hùng kings where locals from surrounding communes worshipped year after year. In 1874, King Tu Duc built a symbolic Hùng kings' tomb. In 1923, King Khai Dinh erected the stele "Hùng Mieu dien le bi" on the summit of Mount Nghia Linh. During this period, the Upper, Middle and Lower temples were built, featuring 539 cement steps to connect the temples. In recent years, Lac Long Quan Temple was built nearby.

Every year, in addition to the main festival on March 10 of the lunar year, there are various festivals in temples and communal temples near the Hùng kings Temple. Besides the worshipping rituals and palanquin processions, there are also song and dance performances and reenactments of tales about the Hùng kings. Notably, many villages still keep the tradition of performing Xoan singing, a folk art said to date from the time of the Hùng kings. The songs praise the Hùng kings' feats and those of gods and tutelary deities. Traditional songs and dances include “đối” (couplets) and drink-offering singing, the fisherman's dance, etc. Xoan singing was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity in December 2017.

Other unique events include the No Nuong Festival dedicated to genitals in Tu Xa; the "howl procession" festival to "open up" the forest; wrestling matches in Cao Xa; the "procession of the princess" in the two villages of Vi and Treo, which reenacts the legend of bringing Princess Ngoc Hoa to her husband Son Tinh on Mount Tan across the Da River; and playing “bach nghe trinh lang scenes (literally: folk performances of manual labour activities)”.

It is no coincidence that Phu Tho is considered the Ancestral Land. About 4,000 years ago, pre-Dong Son civilizations flourished here. Many ancient villages and relics from the Dong Son culture more than 2,000 years ago have been found in this region. In particular, the ancient tombs of Lang Ca (dating back to the 3rd century BCE), where bronze drums, spears, belts, intricate bronze jewelry, etc. were found, suggest the existence of the capital city of Van Lang in Viet Tri. The area still echoes with legends about the Hùng kings teaching villagers how to cultivate rice, to hold a groom-selection ritual, to train troops, to build granaries and palaces, and the legend of Prince Lang Lieu making Chung and Day cakes, etc.

Legends and history have intertwined to tell the story of the Ancestral Land, home to the capital of Van Lang under the Hùng kings.

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