Two Charming Lions

A visit to Phat Tich Pagoda in Bac Ninh Province

There is a current debate concerning the guardian lions of Vietnam that stand in pairs at the entrances of religious and government buildings.

A pair of guardian lions comprise of one male (yin) and one female (yang). The male has one foot on an embroidered cloth ball that represents power and the world. The female has one paw on a reclining cub, as if stroking its stomach; this represents nurture and care. They are there to repel invaders and to protect the people within.

In Vietnam there is a movement to remove all the fierce-looking Chinese lions (often called foo dogs by Westerners) and replace them with the more traditional, happier-looking Vietnamese variety. Experts have been referring to the oldest surviving guardian lions in Vietnam to uphold their claims for change – the two lions flanking the steps to the Phat Tich pagoda in Bac Ninh Province in the shade of old hoa dai blossom trees, passed by many who likely hardly notice them. But these lions are amongst the rarest in Southeast Asia and may be Vietnam’s oldest examples of the original style of guardian lions.

I was taken to see Phat Tich pagoda one misty autumn afternoon about two years ago. I was visiting the home of a recently deceased artist and was invited by his lovely widow to get on the back of her scooter and visit her local pagoda. I could not possibly have imagined the treat in store as we bumped along country lanes and through a small town to the imposing entrance of a large religious mountain site.

Ahead of me was a steep climb of steps to a low, wide altar building. This structure is only 30 years old but it replaced a temple founded in 1057 by the Ly Dynasty that was, unfortunately, bombed to ashes by colonial forces in the 1950s.

I was led by hand into the richly decorated interior furnished with large painted statues of all the usual suspects. Somehow they seemed more real, more awe-inspiring than others I have spent some time with. This was a special place– there was no doubt.

Deeper into the temple I found something wondrous – a large marble Buddha statue that had been carefully stitched and pinned back together with iron staples and pins, after being shattered in that bygone disaster. At nearly two meters high, this Buddha was once the nation’s most important, and is now considered to be a great treasure of Buddhism in Vietnam. It certainly has an unforgettable presence.

The two ancient lions mentioned in the debate sit in line with kneeling pairs of four other sacred animals on a terrace. There are a pair of elephants, two horses, a couple of rhinoceros and two buffalos. These dark, sandstone creatures are beautifully carved, especially the fine details of the teeth, claws and imperial motifs – and the two charming lions are amazingly well-preserved.

I would definitely support the movement to replace the forbidding Chinese-style lions with the more affable Vietnamese breed. I find they reflect this country’s unique culture and character better.

BIO: A professional artist and author of A Week in Hoi An, Bridget March specializes in urban landscapes and aims to reveal the hidden treasures of city life and small town cultures through her illustrations. Bridget offers art classes and sketching tours in Ho Chi Minh City. For more of Bridget’s work, visit Bridget March’s website.

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