Fantasia of the East

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When I was in Vietnam, I took a trip northwest of Saigon to the Long Than village. This is close to the small city of Tay Nihn (which is not far from the Cambodian border), and this is where you will find the beautiful and elaborately adorned Cao Dai Temple (also known as the Temple Divine).

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Cao Dai (which is pronounced gao-die) is a syncretic religion, with its origins in Vietnam, absorbing concepts from Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism. It was formed in the region in the 1920’s and, although it is a minority religion in Vietnam, it is Vietnam’s largest home-grown one.

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The author Graham Greene, when he was living in Vietnam during the 1950’s, described the Temple in Quiet American as like “Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of a cathedral on a Walt Disney Fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in Technicolor.” These elaborate images taunted and fascinated me – What does Fantasia of the East look like? Seeking an escape from the frenetic pace of Saigon, I was drawn to the Temple to seek out these fantastical images, for my own eyes.

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In Vietnamese, the terms ‘Cao’ and ‘Dai’ literally mean high tower or high place. This image of the high place represents the heavenly place and Supreme Being reigning over the Universe.

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I took a bus from Saigon to reach the Temple (this takes about 4 hours although, be warned,  the traffic getting out of Saigon is simply immense!!).

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Walking through the Temple entrance gates, I was overwhelmed and intoxicated by this almost unworldly environment: women clad in striking white robes, and men in sapphire tunics walked past me, smiling, their gowns billowing in the searing afternoon heat;  worshippers standing on the veranda of the incense infused Temple; coconut trees bordering the Temple, and its ornate gardens, occasionally swaying in the limping breeze.

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The magnificent Cao Dai Temple is a captivating mixture of Eastern and Western architecture: it is adorned with vivid and bold colours; animal figures are carved into the Temple; protective mythical lions stand over the steps leading upwards; Romanesque columns with dragons and lotus flowers climb  towards the sky; layers of red pointed roofs, typical of Chinese architecture, crown the Temple; and the haunting All Seeing Eye, framed in triangular surrounds, follows your curious steps.

Seeking shelter from the scorching Vietnamese afternoon heat, I went inside the airy Temple where I saw the calm faces of Buddha, Confuscious and Jesus staring down at worshippers kneeling on the marble floors chanting prayers.  Even the most temple weary tourist cannot but loose themselves within this dizzying incense infused atmosphere. This is a Temple unlike most, and I think this is because of the origins of this religion.

Cao Dai is a religious and political movement that emerged in the 1920s whilst Vietnam was under French colonial rule. Based upon a philosophy espousing the unity and accord of world religions, Cao Dai draws ethics from Confusianism, and theories of karma and rebirth from Buddhism, with some influences from the Roman Catholic Church including an ecclesiastical hierarchy.

The religion gained followers from wide and disparate backgrounds; including the urban elites and rural peasantry. The effect of this was to create a distinctly Vietnamese religion which  transformed into a mass movement during the 1930’s.

Cao Dai spread quickly throughout Vietnam pursuing a vision of nationalism. In part this rise in popularity is claimed to be because of increasing levels of apathy and disenchantment towards traditional religious practices, in addition to the climate of developing unrest towards the colonial administration, and desire for political independence, within Vietnam at the time.

With the historic fall of Saigon to the Communist north in April 1975 came the religious suppression of the Cao Dai  (the religion had all of its land and property confiscated until the mid 1980s).  Fearing persecution, many followers fled. The effect of which has since spread the religion as far away as the Europe and the United States.

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