Vietnam and the Onam connection

Vietnam and the Onam connection
Parade of dragons and lions in the lion dance ceremony of Chinese Vietnamese people on a street in the HoChiMinh city on season Tet holiday of lunar year. Photo: Getty Images
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In a couple of weeks, Vietnam will mark Tet, the Lunar New Year and the Southeast Asian country's most important celebration. A casual observer of the country may believe that the country’s customs and traditions are heavily influenced by neighbouring China, but Vietnam has very strong links to India as well, and the legend behind Tet is in all likelihood a localised version of the Onam myth.

In a book titled 'Learning True Love: Practicing Buddhism in a Time of War,' Sister Chan Khong, one of the bravest and most compassionate women ever born, wrote in detail about the Vietnamese Lunar New Year and the celebrations.

"At one time, the Kingdom of Viet was disturbed regularly by the evil doings of Mara the tempter," she wrote. "There was much struggle and it seemed that nothing could stop this interminable conflict. Then one day, the suffering of the people touched the compassion of Buddha and he decided directly to speak with Mara to find a peaceful solution."

Vietnam and the Onam connection
Parade of dragons and lions in the lion dance ceremony of Chinese Vietnamese people on a street in the HoChiMinh city on season Tet holiday of lunar year. Photo: Getty Images

In the Onam legend, the people of Kerala are happy subjects of Mahabali and not oppressed by any means. But, as we know, the gods became jealous of the great king. Lord Vishnu approaches Mahabali after Aditi, the mother of the gods, asks for his help.

The methods used by Vishnu and Buddha seemed to be the same.

Sister Chan Khong continued: "'You can have our land' said Buddha, 'to do as you wish. But can you leave one small spot where we can live in tranquillity? This spot can have very clear boundaries, and as long as we stay within them, you will agree to leave us alone. In turn, we will not violate any of your new territory.' 'How much do you want?' asked Mara. 'Only a piece large enough to stretch my yellow robe over,''' said Buddha.

Vietnam and the Onam connection
Parade of dragons and lions in the lion dance ceremony of Chinese Vietnamese people on a street in the HoChiMinh city on season Tet holiday of lunar year. Photo: Getty Images

Mara had no idea she was being tricked. “Hearing so easy a proposition, Mara accepted and solemnly promised not to touch the spot of land, covered by Buddha's robe. But when Buddha stretched out his robe, it extended miraculously far and covered all the land that was habitable and arable. The people's houses, farmland and cattle were all under the protection of the yellow robe. Frightened by Buddha's supernatural powers, Mara fled into the forest. Buddha advised the Viet people to plant a tall bamboo in front of each house, and each year, to hang from it, a banner of yellow cloth, to remind Mara that this is Buddha's land and Mara cannot enter.”

Vishnu, who came in disguise as a dwarf and poor Brahmin called Vamana, too asked for a small piece of land, telling Mahabali that he just wanted as much land as his three steps could cover.

Mahabali was equally gullible, when he allowed Vamana to take his land with three steps. With his first step the Brahmin covered the entire earth and with the second step he covered the whole of the skies. He then asked the king where the space was for him to keep his third foot.

Vietnam and the Onam connection
Acrobats perform lion dance show during dance competitions commemorated to the Chinese New Year celebrations in Nha Trang, Vietnam. Photo: Getty Images

Mahabali realised that he was no ordinary mortal and his third step would destroy the earth. The king with folded hands bowed before Vamana and asked him to place his last step on his head so that he could keep the promise. Vamana placed his foot on the head of Mahabali, which pushed the king to the nether world.

Vishnu allowed Mahabali to visit his people once a year on Onam, while Buddha told the Vietnamese how to keep Mara at bay. The story of Vishnu and Mahabali may have travelled to Vietnam when Hinduism was widely prevalent in the country. There are quite a few ancient Hindu temple complexes in the Southeast Asian country. As is the case in nearby Thailand, Vietnamese believe that Buddha was an avatar of Rama (and hence an avatar of Vishnu). The story of Mahabali probably underwent changes when most of the country adopted Buddhism.

Vietnam and the Onam connection
Believed to have been introduced by erstwhile ruler of Cochin Maharaja Rama Varma Sakthan Thampuran two centuries ago, Pulikali is a symbolic representation of bravery and wild spirit.

Religious beliefs, customs and stories travelled far and wide from Kerala in the past, proving that globalisation is by no means a new phenomenon. The landscapes, nature and climate of many parts of southern Vietnam are very similar to those of Kerala. Communism was also a common link between these distinct parts of Asia, and a large number of Malayalis admire Vietnam for the way it stood up to France, the United States and China. However, there is so little that Malayalis and Vietnamese know about each other. Hopefully the opening up of the Southeast Asian country will help us discover more hidden cultural links that were buried under the yoke of colonialism, something that set all of Asia back by at least a century.

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