(No.4, Vol.7,Aug-Sep 2017 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)
Inside the Bang Temple. Photo from the archive of Le Huu Truc
Bang Temple at the Dinh Bang Village, Bac Ninh Province. Photo: Le Huu Truc
Simple and elegant, unassuming but delicate, village temples feature all that is best in the traditional architecture of Vietnam. They showcase the purest Vietnamese architecture and fine art, which are rooted in and have always been a faithful continuation of Dong Son culture. They are a truthful and lively symbol, the quintessence of thousands of years of Vietnamese art.
Village temples, an expression of harmonious blending with nature, reflect the fact of Vietnamese life that gods are actively engaged in our world, and farming means cooperating with heaven and earth. Traditional folk architecture of Viet people expands horizontally and has a broad base, balanced and stable. Village temples are no exception. They demonstrate our ancestors’ wise attitude toward the living environment, taking control of and constraining nature’s harshness, and being flexible in taking advantage of favorable elements at the same time.
The temple location is chosen following strictly the principles of feng-shui because it is vital to the village’s existence. Big and impressive, the temple should not be heavy or depressing. It should have both gracefulness and solemnity.
The temple size must be proportionated to the ambient scenery because it is the face of the village. Double roof tiles make the roof thicker and heavier to withstand strong gusting winds, and at the same time keep it cooler inside. The roofs are expanded to lower the edges, preventing rain water from wetting those inside; thus there is no need for a surrounding wall. The stilted house motifs, and curved, lifted roof corners are typical for the temples of the northern delta region. It helps distinguish this architecture from that of other regions of Vietnam and beyond.
The roofs are the most interesting part of a temple. The corner ridges are curved like boat prows, making the whole structure look graceful and much lighter, as if flying. The horizontal roof and floor tiling of a temple makes it a part of the surrounding scenery. The overall structure is sophisticated while, wherever possible, the details such as beams and pillars are left in natural simplicity. Under expanded roofs the temple looks inclusive, protecting and comforting.
Village temple aesthetical motives carry unique and distinct traditional cultural values. They are taken intuitively by simple-hearted folk artisans from their everyday peasant life. In their creation, the artist-peasants are not constrained by any academic rules or standards. They use their skillful hands and freedom of imagination and expression to reflect and describe reality, bringing community comfort.
Many carving and relief techniques are employed to express their vision, which is direct, simple, humorous, at times spontaneous and immediate like that of children. The peasant-artist loves curves, and symmetry, with slow and soft variations. The ideas come from nature. Symmetry is present in lay-outs and designs, while carvings and reliefs are always crowded, as farmers love fertility, reproduction and growth.
An interesting fact is that some village temple wood carvings bear very modern features, usually seen only in western contemporary sculpture. The chess game relief at Ngoc Canh Temple reverses the far-near order, as if seen from above, from inside, and each character conforms to its own space and time limits. The fish-catching cat at Binh Luc Temple is chiseled with rude, harsh strokes like in expressionism. A large number of reliefs put in big strong frames are used to fill architectural blanks. Sculpture does not override, but rather, enhances architecture, making the temples all the more picturesque and spiritual.
*Le Huu Truc is an architect