Under One Roof
Over a hundred devotees lined the floor of the elongated temple hall. Dressed in white, they sat cross legged and facing the Divine Eye altar, the men on the right and the ladies on the left of the hall. Whenever the gong sounded, they stood up, knelt and bowed. Their white flowing robes contrasted beautifully with the ornately motifed floor tiles and gaudy decorations of the cave-like temple hall. Two rows of nine pillars lined both sides of the long hall, and divided it into nine sections by shallow steps ascending towards the Divine Eye. The steps represent the Nine Steps to Heaven. Dragons twirled the pillars, puffing into the hall as if they had just descended from the Heavens above. On the ceiling, cosmic stars made from reflective mirrors shimmered against a painted azure blue sky.
Priests in striking yellow, blue and red robes sat in the front of the lines to lead the chant. Yellow represents Buddhism, Blue Taoism and Red Confucianism. Painted on a large sky-blue sphere resting on the altar, the Divine Eye observes far and wide. Above the altar hung a panel with carved figurines of the Buddha, Jesus Christ, Confucius, Lao Zi and other Taoist deities. They are the saints from the various religions which Cao Daism embodies. At the back of the hall, a mural depicts the French author Victor Hugo, Chinese independence leader Sun Yat Sen, and Vietnamese poet Nguyen Binh Khiem penning the foundations of the religion – God and Humanity, Love and Justice. At the rear of the the temple rooftop, Lord Krishna blows his flute alongside two Taoist deities on a pagoda spire.
As tourists, we were allowed to witness the chanting ritual at the back of the hall or at the second storey. Rituals are conducted daily at 6am, 12pm, 6pm and 12am. During the ritual, musicians play traditional Vietnamese musical instruments like the Dan Nhi, Dan Bau and Gong at the second storey to rhythmise the chanting. I felt the atmosphere was solemn, spiritual and even mystical.
Mid way through the ritual, dark rain clouds gathered from nowhere and muted the bright sun. Gutsy winds blew into the back of he hall, bringing in the rain. A few ladies scurried about to close the windows and re-arrange the door mats. Their white robes flapped and rippled in the winds. They were gentle yet swift, appeared to float in a milky way. This was the moment – I saw Fairies!
Cao Daism is an indigenous Vietnamese religion founded in 1926 by Ngo Van Chieu. a district head during the French administration. Cao Daoism embodies and fuses precepts of various major world religions like Buddhism, Confusianism, Taoism, Christianity and Hinduism in order to bring harmony to different religions and unite humanity through a common vision of the Supreme Being (God), represented by the Divine Eye. The Eye is a left eye, because Cao Daism believes God is Yang and Yang is the left side. Quite similar to Buddhism, the ultimate goal of Cao Daism is the total deliverance of man from the endless cycle of existence in order to realize a life of supreme perfection. Besides the Buddha, Confucius, Lao Zi and Jesus Christ, Cao Daism’s pantheon of saints includes Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Pericles, Victor Hugo and Sun Yat Sen.
Today, the religion has about 4 million followers inside Vietnam, mainly in the South and around the Mekong Delta area. During the Vietnam war, many Cao Dai temples were hit by bombs. Following the war from the mid 70s till the mid 80s, the religion was suppressed. But Cao Daism survived.
On a Sunday noon, we visited the Great Holy Cao Dai Temple in Tay Ninh, some 90km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City. It is the largest and most iconic Cao Dai temple in Vietnam. During the visit, I noticed that most of the followers were elderly. I thought perhaps the younger followers had to go to work. Deep inside me, I was hoping … I was really and truly hoping, that in the future, the people who come to the Temple are not only the tourists!