KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
On our first visit to Saigon in 2003, we visited some of the temples in the Cholon district of the city. This area is predominately ethnic Chinese and the temples reflect the architecture and beliefs of the residents. I read about the Jade Emperor Pagoda and was intrigued by the description in the Lonely Planet. With some time to kill, while the McColls toured the Mekong Delta, we set off to see the Pagoda and then the History Museum set in the botanical gardens nearby.
The Pagoda was built in 1909 by the Cantonese Congregation. The building is long and low and quite unimposing from the outside. However, inside it is filled with the most unusual divinities and imposing heroes. The pagoda is dedicated to the supreme Taoist god, the Emperor of Jade. A huge altar with the Emperor seated high above, is flanked by huge reinforced papier-mâché figures representing characters from the Buddhist and Taoist religions. There are four guardians known as the Four Big Diamonds, so named because they are believed to be as hard as diamonds. The light is low and the air is thick with incense and the smell of candle wax. It's a place one will not soon forget.
In an adjacent room, the Chief of Hell presides along with his red horse. There are also other figures that represent the gods who decide the fate of those who sin, the sinners are punished and the faithful are rewarded for their good deeds. The room is lined with carved wooden panels that demonstrate some of the many horrors that await those who are sent to hell. While we were in this room, the sun shone broke through a high window and cast a beautiful beam of light to the floor. I managed to capture a sense of it in one of my photographs.
The Lonely Planet described yet another small room in the pagoda and if we hadn't read about it, we may well have missed it entirely. In this room, the Chief of Women presides over twelve ceramic figures of women. The figures are adorned with silk and pearls left by worshippers. The figures are arranged in two rows of six each, each of the women representing different human characteristics. Bad traits include drinking, smoking and over-eating. The women's figures are all featured with small children clinging to them. The figures are also said to represent the twelve months of the Chinese calendar.
This little pagoda is truly a gem among temples. I will never forget the experience of entering and finding all the incredible papier-mâché figures towering high above me. This temple should definitely be on the itinerary of anyone visiting Ho Chi Minh City.