Nguyen Quoc Huu

We report on Buddha statues created millennia ago in Vietnam’s southern Mekong Delta

Buddha statue Stone. Oc Eo culture, 7th - 8th century. Son Tho, Tra Vinh province Museum of Vietnamese History in Ho Chi Minh City

Phu Nam was an ancient kingdom founded in Southeast Asia that rose to prominence during the first ten centuries AD. Some material relics of this kingdom remain in the archeological and cultural vestiges of Oc Eo in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Situated at the crossroads of the Maritime Silk Road connecting East and West, at that time the delta was home to busy port towns. This legendary trade route facilitated the exchange of cultural and religious beliefs along with trading goods. Visiting ships from India brought Buddhism to the kingdom at an early stage. Buddhism was embraced by the natives and this faith played a decisive role in the evolution of Oc Eo – Phu Nam Culture.

Buddhist influence in Phu Nam peaked between the 2nd and the 7th centuries. The faith’s importance can be seen in sculptures from this era. Phu Nam Buddhist statues have been found all over the Southern delta, clearly showing the influences of Indian culture and local trends.

A striking and salient feature of Phu Nam Buddhist sculptures are statues of Siddhartha Gautama standing on a lotus pedestal. These statues were carved from monolithic blocks of Ta-khian or balltree timber. Most of these remaining wooden statues have lost their arms. Some intact relics feature hands performing the gestures of Abhya and Varada. At the early stage (2nd to 4th centuries), wooden Phu Nam Buddha statues were depicted in the Tribhanga pose with their hips heavily skewed to the right. Their bodies were slender and slightly bent into three graceful and sensual segments. This depiction was influenced by the artistic style of Indian Amaravati. However, one can still discern some distinct local features of these figurines. The Ushnisha (a 3D oval at the top of the head, representing a top-knot) was portrayed more loosely or looked sharp. The figures had oval faces, tall necks and flat chests. These statues were shown in thin and figure-hugging robes that highlighted their curves, rather than being wrapped in heavy robes as in the Amaravati style. From the 5th to early 6th centuries, wooden Buddha statues shifted to the Abhanga pose as their hips were only slightly skewed to the right. Their upper body was straight and lacked the sensual qualities found in Tribhanga Buddha statues. Their faces were portrayed in a number of shapes such as oval or square. These characteristics followed the Indian style of Gupta. In the 6th century, wooden Buddha statues underwent another transformation inspired by the late Guptastyle. These statues were shown standing straight. The body was stiffer and rougher than before. Their robes covered one shoulder and hung loose to the ankles. The faces were not much different from those in previous stages. Local influences on the Gupta artistic style could be seen on the statues’ robes, which covered just one shoulder. The original India Gupta Buddhist statues had both shoulders covered and robes with layered folds.

Buddha statue Wood. Oc Eo culture, 4th - 6th century. Nhon Thanh, Can Tho province Museum of Can Tho

In contrast with wooden statues, Phu Nam stone statues were mostly portrayed in the mediating Padmasana posture with both hands in the Zen gesture of Dhyana, which symbolized enlightenment. The harmonious figures were carved with great subtlety and sensuality. Their faces were full, the eyebrows long and slender and their eyes cast down to show benevolence. Thin robes hugged their bodies. These statues were inspired by the late Gupta style of the 6th to 8th centuries, but further simplified with curves that were more subtle.

  A notable stone Buddha statue is a statue of Vishnu transformed into Maitreya excavated in Trung Dien (Vinh Long). Originally a Hindu statue dating back to the 5th or 6th century, it held the following treasures in its four hands: a Chui melee stick, a wheel, a snail shell and a globe. The statue was later modified by Mahayana Buddhist followers in Phu Nam into a Maitreya statue. The cap was modified into braided locks; the globe in the front right hand was modified into a lotus; and the snail shell in the rear left hand was changed into a book. Based on the hairdo, it is assumed the statue was modified in the 7th or 8th century. This proves a rare, unique and astonishing phenomenon in the religious life of Oc Eo – Phu Nam inhabitants.

Missionary expeditions and trade brought Buddhist arts to Oc Eo – Phu Nam people in the Mekong Delta. These arts enriched the local culture and bolstered the formation and evolution of major religious, cultural, economic and political hubs in the delta during the first centuries AD. The traditions of Phu Nam Buddhist sculpture were inherited and preserved well into the post-Oc Eo eras from the 8th to 12th centuries.