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  • Writer's pictureBridget March

Two Charming Lions

Food dogs, temple dogs, temple lions, Vietnam

A visit to Phat Tich Pagoda, Bac Ninh

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 his foot on an embroidered cloth ball that represents power and the whole world. The female has one paw on a reclining lion 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 movement to eject 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 and it seems that the two lions flanking the steps to the Phat Thic pagoda in Bac Ninh Province in the shade of old hoa dai blossom trees, I expect many visitors just pass by without noticing them. But these lions are amongst the rarest in South East Asia and may be Vietnam’s oldest examples of the original style of guardian lion

I was taken to see Phat Tich one misty autumn afternoon when 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 building 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 colonising 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 wonderous; a large marble Buddah that has been carefully stitched and pinned back together with iron staples and pins, after being shattered in that bygone disaster. At nearly 2 metres 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 is a pair of elephants, two horses a couple rhinoceros and two buffaloes. These dark, sandstone creatures are beautifully carved and, especially, the fine details of teeth, claws and imperial motifs of the two charming lions are amazingly well preserved.

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

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