Protector of seafarers

One of HCMC’s most popular pagodas honours the Sea Goddess Mazu, the deified form of a girl from China’s Fujian province.

By Ngoc Linh on April 15,2018 11:12 AM

Protector of seafarers

Photos: Ngoc Linh

Few historical relics, pagodas or temples welcome as many visitors as Thien Hau Pagoda  in Nguyen Trai Street in HCMC’s District 5 does.

Groups of Vietnamese and westerners come throughout the year to worship or just visit. Whether on their own or on tours, they take a passionate interest in the pagoda and its Chinese style, while old objects, pictures and architectural features are everywhere. Offerings can be made to the Sea Goddess Mazu, for whom the pagoda was built. Legend has it that she was actually a young girl named Lin Moniang, who was born in 960 in the Chinese province of Fujian. She was very intelligent and brave and could predict the weather, which was helpful for fishermen. She also knew and practiced traditional medicine. She passed away in 987 and many people, especially fishermen, set up temples to worship her. The main statue in the pagoda bears her image.

Protector of seafarers

Then-Saigon’s Chinatown, Cho Lon, was prosperous in the late 1700s and the pagoda may have been built in those days.

Also known as Thien Hau Temple, the pagoda’s roof still bears elaborately made tiles and dragons. There’s no record of when it was actually built. Then-Saigon’s Chinatown, Cho Lon, was prosperous in the late 1700s and the pagoda may have been built in those days. Writings on the stone monuments note renovations in 1800, 1825, and 1842.

According to some elderly Vietnamese of Chinese origin, merchants from China sailed big boats from Guangdong province along the coast of Vietnam and down to Saigon in the 1760s. The big Chinese boats travelled all around Asia and were dependent upon tides and prevailing winds. Weather conditions were not always favourable, and many Chinese merchants remained in Vietnam for a couple of months before suitable winds blew. Some decided to raise funds for the construction of a temple to worship the Sea Goddess Mazu as well as living quarters while they waited to return to China. Over time, some of these merchants settled in Cho Lon.

Thien Hau Pagoda is a good reflection of Chinese architecture. The structure is a combination of four conjoined houses creating the shape of the Chinese character for ‘mouth’ or ‘nation’. The row of three conjoined houses in the middle are called the front hall, middle hall and back hall. Between these is an opening that ventilates the entire building, making it more airy than others.

Decorations include objects in the shapes of leaves, fish, birds, and animals, and wooden boards bearing wise expressions. There are about 400 old objects on show, including seven wooden statues, six stone statues, nine stone monuments, two small bells, four bronze candle stands, one stone candle stand, and 41 carved pictures.

Protector of seafarers

According to Vietnamese scholar Vuong Hong Sen (1902-1996), the bricks, stones and ceramic pieces at the pagoda were all brought from China.

The old objects date from the late 18th century to the 20th century and were all elaborately made. A large bell of cast iron was made in 1796 and another in 1830, while one of the candle stands was made in 1886.

Protector of seafarers

Thien Hau Pagoda welcomes visitors every day. The busiest days are during Tet, the first full-moon festival, the lunar mid-year festival, and on the first and fifteenth days of each lunar month. On the 28th day of the 12th lunar month, the pagoda presents offerings to the Sea Goddess Mazu and blessings are sought for everyone. Her birthday, on the 23rd of lunar March, is the pagoda’s main event, with thousands of people visiting to worship the Goddess and seek good fortune.

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