Culture Culture

15/03/2019 - 10:09

“Milestones” by the road

So far, it has been difficult to talk exactly about the existence of the stones by the roads, in the alleys or villages, or at the crossroads, etc., which Hue people worship. Around them are anecdotes which have been passed down orally from generation to generation in a very vivid and original way about people’s culture of belief.

The stone Thach cam duong at Thuong Hamlet in Nguyen Bieu Village (Hue City) has been existing for a long time.

Unique culture

It is not hard to find a stone under a banyan tree next to a cafe at the crossroads of Hung Vuong St. and Nguyen Tri Phuong St. in Hue City. Amid the hustle and bustle of life and through lots of urban renewals, that stone, up to now, has been protected and worshiped by people who live in the area. 

On the stone carved the 4 words “De bat dia phan” meaning the 8th Ward. Mr. Nguyen Trong Nguyen, the 30-year-old owner of the cafe at the crossroads said he had seen the stone on that location since he was born. It is like a witness to the development of the city over time.

Being asked about the age of the stone, Mr. Nguyen said it was hard to tell exactly. But he was certain that it had been there for more than 100 years, since his grandfather’s time. “I am told by the elderly that the stone was erected as a milestone between the wards in the city in the old days,” said Mr. Nguyen. In urban renewals, all the construction was adjusted to avoid the stone and it has thus come intact.

Still according to Mr. Nguyen, there have been many people who wanted to move the stone elsewhere for research but people living around it did not agree. To them, that stone is now like part of their life. “The place is where we worship every day. Now and then we repaint it when seeing the letters on it fade away,” confided Mr. Nguyen.

Beside the Perfume River is another ancient stone at Thuong Hamlet in Nguyen Bieu Village (Hue City) that is also well known for the legend which has been existing for a long time. Following the instructions by the villagers, we went along Nguyen Bieu Str. to find the stone at a dam under a big tree. It is rectangular in shape and carved with the three Chinese characters Thach cam duong.

Mr. Ho Huu Dinh (an 88-year-old villager,) who lives nearby told us that the stone has been there for a long time. It is made of rock from Thanh Hoa with a very big base and considered very sacred. “There are many stories about this stone. I heard from the elderly that since Nguyet Bieu Village at the time was next to both rivers and mountains, it had been troubled by ferocious wild animals. After lots of thinking, the old people in the village decided to set up a stone stele at the beginning of the village to shoo wild animals away. They had disappeared since then,” said Mr. Dinh.

The stone De bat dia phan at the crossroads of Hung Vuong St. and Nguyen Tri Phuong St.

Milestones of belief

In addition to the two above-mentioned stones, many others have gone through many changes as witness to changes and development of the society. Some examples are the stone Thai son thach cam duong at a crossroads of Thuong Hamlet, Hai Cat Village (Huong Tho District, Huong Tra Town); Than thach tran lo next to Dieu De Pagoda on Chua Ong Str., Thien tong tu dia phan on Thien Thai Str., etc.

Anywhere there is a “stone deity”, it is considered sacred, becoming the place for people to put unused worship objects such as incense-burners, vases, statuettes of Kitchen Gods, etc.

Scholars have been studying this worshipping custom since the early 20th century. They have been very surprised at its popularity. In the book “Deities, People and Country,” Ta Chi Dai Truong wrote: “The close relation between worshipping stones and worshipping trees sounds surprising because of the contrast between the stillness of the stone and the development of the tree. However in terms of emotion, tall and thick trees and mountain rocks intermingle with each other. Both trees and stones have spirit. Researchers think the custom of worshipping trees and stones is connected with the belief of fertility of people in an agricultural society who always aspire for proliferation in everything.”

According to Mr. Le Quoc Tho (MA) at the Branch of Vietnam Institute of Culture and Art in Hue, the custom of worshipping stones has a long history and is connected with the everyday life of the people in a certain area with the belief that “everything has spirit.”  Not only stones, people in the old days also worshipped trees, or anything that was related with or affected their spiritual life.

Still according to Mr. Quoc, the continuity of this worshipping custom can be seen at the stone pillars erected by our ancestry. Their descendants have created legends, anecdotes or placed incense-burners in front as a way to protect them. With the development of the society and people’s awareness, this custom of worship is understood more clearly, but belief and sacredness remain.

However, through time, some stones have been ruined or destroyed. “I think they should be preserved. Though they no longer play their roles or perform their function as before, they mark a form of belief. We need to conserve them in connection with the spiritual life of the community with another meaning that suits the present-day life,’ emphasized Mr. Quoc.

Story and photos: PHAN THANH