By Tran My, Vietnam Magazine, 1974
"Come to Vietnam and see an authentic Shiva temple." Sound absurd ?
South Vietnam, everyone knows, is a land of Buddhists, Christians, Confucianists and animists. Shiva reigns in Hindustan. But a wide variety of sects and religions flourish in this country, and Shiva himself is worshipped everyday in Saigon temples. His devotees are both Indians and Vietnamese.
The next time you're in Saigon and want a genuine touch of India without going there, take a taxi or pedicab down to the Central Market and stop at 45 Truong Cong Dinh Street. We did, and found that the crowd of worshippers outside were mostly women. There's a reason for that. Of the three Southern Indian temples in Saigon, this one, Mariammane Temple, is for women.
Sculptured Indian deities, perched high on the facade of the temple, were looking over the Saigon street scene of cyclo drivers, coconut carts, a woman astrologist and kiosks selling beer and soft drinks. Inside the temple was C. Vellaichamy of Madras State, an ash mark between his eyebrows. He stood in a white cotton wasthi, surrounded by his gods and the sensuous, aromatic flavors of burning incense and sacramental malikai flowers.
"Every day about 2,000 people come for prayer, every day," he said. 'Seventy percent are women. " The women we saw were mostly Vietnamese, and they looked devout. They had come for prarthani (prayer) and to worship the virtues of Shiva in his manifold reincarnations. One of these reincarnations included the supreme lingam of the god, potent phallic symbol of fertility and everlasting reproduction. In a scene not unrelated to one of the scenes in D.H. Lawrence's novel, Lady Chatterly's Lover, the women were placing sweet-scented flowers on the immortal organ of Shiva. The ritual seemed very charming, naive and deeply human. It did not smack of the hard, automaton pornography that flourishes in certain urban areas of the modern world today. Vellaichamy stood under a picture of Mahatma Ghandi that was framed and draped with a garland of flowers. "Many beggars also come to Mariammane Temple," he said. Vellaichamy arrived here in 1970 from Southern India. "I am temple accountant. I also buy bananas and coconuts for the gods."
Mariammane temple, named after a very large temple in India, was built by Indian craftsmen about 80 years ago. Of the two other Southern Indian temples in Saigon, the one on Cong Ly Street was built about 100 years ago and the one on Ton That Thiep Street is 60 years old. These two temples are for men. Only Mariammane is ladies' temple.
Advocates of Women's Lib. might find some objectionable images in the temple. Vellaichamy was standing beneath one of them, or rather two of them: The male god, Paramasivam located next to his wife. Parvathi. Parvathi was holding one of their two sons, Murgan. But Paramasivam was decked out far more splendidly than his wife. In addition to a golden trident and a variety of lively green cobras he was equipped with four arms. His wife Parvathi, however, was equipped with fairly plain dress and only two arms.
But the faithIul still come to the temple. Of the more than 1000 Indians in Saigon, many are Muslims who attend the local mosque. Vellaichamy estimates thar 450 are Hindus. This indicates that most of the ladies who come to the gods at Mariammane Temple are Vietnamese or Chinese. They are drawn to the jasmine-scented aura of Shiva, Vishnu and the female entourage that includes the golden-skinned Valambigal, Kanniga, Kammatchi, Amman, the two-armed Andal and Birman, the lady goddess of three faces.
"All Hindus come here. Buddhist people come too, come for the prayer. They like the Mariamane. Indian Muslim donot come because only have one god, named Allah. But Buddhist people, like Hindu, have many gods."
The artistic riot of graven images around the temple bears witness to this polytheistic profusion. The gods are everywhere. The temple, drenched with incense, seems almost drunk with them.
"In Southern India we have many lady gods, many man gods. We have 1,000 temples, 200 gods. Shiva the number one god, main god."
And who was Vishnu and the blue-skinned Krishna?
"Krishna best friend of Shiva. Vishnu same as Krishna, in different form."
The guru of the temple is Vaithinata Iyar, 65 years old. "He comes every morning at 9 o'clock. every evening at 6 o'clock, to lead the prayer."