ON TOUR WITH THE GODDESS
A feature in which pilgrims who have been on Goddess tours and retreats write about their experiences. This contribution is by Lydia Ruyle about a visit to discover Goddesses in S.E Asia.
My husband Bob and I were invited by our family to join them on a trip to SE Asia. At Hong Kong airport we met with our daughter, son-in-law, grand-daughters and in-laws, and eight of us flew into Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon), which was decorated for Christmas, with twinkling lights, reindeer, snowmen, igloos, Santa Claus and even tree trunks wrapped like packages! The next morning after breakfast we started the day with a visit to Cholon, the largest such Chinatown district in Vietnam. I had asked to visit a Kuan-yin temple, who is called Quan Am in Vietnam, and our guide took us to several.
Our first temple stop was to Thien Hau/Tien Hau. Robin (our daughter) had visited a Tien Hau temple in San Francisco and I had visited one in Los Angeles. Chinese people brought her with them wherever they settled including Vietnam. Tien Hau can travel over the oceans on a mat and ride the clouds to wherever she pleases. Her mobility allows her to save people in trouble on the high seas. She is very popular in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the U.S. Outside the temple two guardian lions protect the entrance: the male lion has his foot on a ball, the female lion has her paw on a cub.
Intricate ceramic friezes frame the doorway. One female held the moon as a mirror, another played a musical instrument. Two fierce male guardians stand on both sides of the entrance. A frieze of Thien Hau riding across the waters is over the door. Many Vietnamese were lighting incense and bringing offerings to Tien Hau. Circular spirals of incense were lit by an attendant and hung high overhead with messages to the ancestors. We did the same. I placed one of my small prayer flags of Kuan-yin on the main altar. On the main dais are three figures of Thien Hau, one behind the other, all flanked by two servants or guardians. On the far right is the Goddess Long Mau, also known in Taoism as many armed Doumu, Protectress of Mothers and Newborns.
All of the temples we visited primarily featured Buddha, but some also had altars to Quan Am/Kuan-yin. One had a special room to Tien Hau whose help was requested by women for themselves and their children. A black Tien Hau sat on a U-shaped altar shelf with black helpers on both sides. Some were holding children and the altar had many offerings on it. Next we visited the Jade Emperor Temple, the supreme Taoist god. Inside the main building are two especially fierce and menacing figures. The Jade Emperor presides over the main sanctuary.
On the right is a multiarmed Tien Hau/Taoist Doumu Mother Goddess. Through the door on the left-hand side of the Jade Emperor’s chamber is another room. On one end is a dark figure in relief of Quan Am/Kuan-yin with her vase of water. Behind her on the other side of the wall is a fascinating little room in which the ceramic figures of 12 dark mothers, overrun with children and wearing colourful clothes, sit in two rows of six. Each of the women exemplifies a human characteristic, either good or bad. Each figure also represents one year in the 12 year Chinese calendar. Presiding over the room is Kim Hoa Thanh Mau, the Chief of All Women.
Mahayana Buddhism was transmitted to Vietnam from China during the early 1st millenium CE, and by the 2nd century CE, Hanoi had become an important centre for Buddhism. The bodhisattva, or being who postpones their own enlightenment in order to help others achieve salvation, was central to Mahayana Buddhism. Quan Am or Guanyin, the female form of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, became very popular in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) due to her power to alleviate all forms of suffering. She was also popular in Vietnam and images such as this emphasize her universal qualities, through the iconography of the multiple arms and various attributes held in each hand.
We flew to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.The city takes its name from the Wat Phnom Daun Penh, now known at Wat Phnom or Hill Temple, built in 1373 to house five statues of Buddha on a man-made hill almost 100 feet high. The hill was named after Grandma Penh, a wealthy widow whose shrine is next to Buddha’s on the top of the mountain. There were many offerings to Grandma Penh at her shrine. Locals, particularly women, worship her for advice, personal matters, wealth, prosperity and protection. When wishes are fulfilled, thank offerings of coconuts, rice and fruits will be served to repay the mercies of Madam Penh.
Our next stop was was to the National Museum, the country’s leading historical and archaeological museum. It houses the world’s largest collection of Khmer art, although it tends to be overshadowed by the great temple complex at Angkor and the associated museums in the Siem Reap region. A huge Garuda, mythical bird of Vishnu, guards the entrance, and inside I found gorgeous statues of Durga, Lakshmi, Prajnaparamita, Vishnu and Uma.
The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda is a complex of buildings which are the royal abode of the Kingdom of Cambodia. The Kings of Cambodia have occupied it since it was built in 1866 with a period of absence during the reign of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s. The complex faces east and is situated on the western bank of the four divisions of the Mekong River. The stairway is guarded on both sides by seven headed Nagas, which we were to see regularly at all temples also called Wats in Cambodia and Vats in Thailand. The royal presentation hall is huge, elegant and ornate mostly covered in gold and red materials.
Holding up the roof are mythical figures of Kennorey (female) and Kennar (male). The Kennorey is depicted in arts and literature more often than its male counterpart, the Kennar. They are gold and have human heads, round breasts and bird like feet. The Kennorey is used in temple decorations and is a symbol for beauty and grace.
We returned to our hotel for our Christmas dinner, and then flew on to Siem Reap and the temples of Anghor Wat. Ever since I saw images of Anghor Wat in art history, I dreamed of visiting the magnificent temples.They are truly wondrous, full of divine feminine energies and Goddesses. So many temples and so many images – it would take months to see them all! We did the best we could in one day.
The exquisite carved bas reliefs of apsaras and devatas exude feminine energies. Each one is individual within a prescribed pattern. Descriptions of the temples often distinguish between two types of depictions of female celestials: depictions of figures who are dancing or are poised to dance, which are called “Apsaras;” and depictions of figures who are standing still, facing forward, in the manner of temple guardians or custodians, which are called “Devatas.” Carved apsaras are particularly common at Angkor Wat. Scholars have counted more than 1,860 at the 12th Century monument, some carved on pillars, some on walls, some high up on towers. A study published in 1927 by Sappho Marchal cataloged remarkable diversity of hair, headdresses, garments, stance, jewelry and decorative flowers, which Marchal concluded were based on real-life practices of the Angkor period. Some apsaras appear with arms around each other and seem to be greeting the viewer. “The devatas seem to epitomize all the elements of a refined elegance,” wrote Marchal.
Some Goddesses in Cambodia are Mae Thorani, Neang Preah Dharan, Preah Dharani, Ma Penh/Phnom Penh, Yay Deb and Prthivi.
Yay Deb or “divine female ancestor” sits today facing east under a bodhi tree on a traffic island northwest of the king’s residence in Siem Reap. The Yay Deb statue is virtually identical to one titled the leper king exhibited at the National Museum except that Yay Deb has no fangs. Siem Reap residents believe in the parami (spirits) of Yay Deb. Mulitple offerings are made to her on a daily basis. Draped permanently in red and saffron robes, Yay Deb is also regularly made up with face powders, creams, and lipstick. Food offerings especially chickens are made to her along with rice alcohol.
The first goddess to appear in Buddhism is Prthivi, “Vast One”, mother earth. She is present at the moment of Buddha’s enlightenment when he touches mother earth. Prthivi is depicted in art rising from the earth. Her navel is the throne of enlightenment, truth, the source. Prthivi helps Buddha defeat the forces of evil, personified in Mara with earthquakes, violent storms, martial actions, by wringing her hair to drown them.
In Laos, Buddhism and Animism coexist in harmony. The Lao people believe in “Phi”, a word that means spirit, soul or ghost. Most Laotians would tell you about a “phi” who visits them when they are asleep “Phis” are everywhere. They can be good, bad, or mischievous, and can be found in trees, animals, houses or people. They are the Asian version of a genie. To protect themselves and show respect, people build a spirit house, a small altar which is placed in a precise spot, in front of the house or in the garden, where people offer food and drinks to keep the spirits in peace.
Baci is one of the most representative and most frequent ceremonies in Laos. Good health and long life is wished to all its participants. The lay term for Baci is Soukhouan which means the calling and receiving of the soul. It is believed that the body has 32 parts each with its own wandering soul. During the ceremony the absent souls are asked to return to their physical bodies. This is performed by what is known as a Thit or Chane, a former monk or shaman. On the day of Soukkhouan the people bring a tray called a phakouan on which are banana leaf cones filled with flowers, the champa or frangipani flower, which is the emblem of Laos. Also on the tray are alcohol, eggs, rice cakes, money, candles and cotton thread. When all the guests have arrived the ceremony begins with the lighting of the candles and incense after which the Thit communicates with the divinities. Then cotton thread is knotted about the participants’ wrists, like thin white bracelets. You are to wear the bracelets for three days without removing them for good luck and prosperity. Our baci ceremony concluded with several beautiful young girls performing traditional dances accompanied with music.
We left the Democratic Republic of Laos on one side of the Mekong river and entered Thailand on the other side. That evening was New Year’s Eve and we celebrated in a gorgeous hotel in Chiangrai. At the New Year’s party around a pool, I noticed what looked like balloons in the dark sky. I went to investigate and found several people lighting a small burner held in place at the bottom of a paper tube, the heat of which sent the paper tubes aloft. We sent one up to a dear friend who had just passed, and then one to my parents.
Chiangmai was our next stop where we visited another Buddhist temple with a shrine to Prthivi/Mother Earth wringing Her Hair. Kinnaris/Kinnaras are mythical beings holding up and adorning palaces in Thailand. Kinnari women are very beautiful and wander freely in the forests. They are well-skilled in vocal and instrumental music, cadence, motions and could sing divine tunes in proper and charming voices. Kinnaris are from the low mountains of the Himalayas. The people of the Gangetic Plain looked upon them with wonder and considered them as super-human. In SE Asian mythology, Kinnaris are depicted as half-bird, half-woman creatures, with the head, torso, and arms of a woman and the wings, tail and feet of a swan. She is renowned for her dance, song and poetry, and is a traditional symbol of feminine beauty, grace and accomplishment.The Kinnari in Thai literature originates from India, but was modified to fit in with the Thai way of thinking. Thai Kinnari is depicted as a young woman wearing an angel-like costume. The lower part of the body is similar to a bird and should enable her to fly between the human and the mystical worlds.
Next morning we said farewell to SE Asia and our fantastic journey.
All pictures and photos © Lydia Ruyle