Text: Tran Tan Vinh

Photos: Tran Hieu, Nguyen Hoai Nam

Ancient images of elephants adorn sacred spaces in Vietnam’s northern delta

Elephants have long been the close companions of people in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. These animals have deeply impacted Vietnamese culture. What most people don’t know is that elephants were also considered sacred in Vietnam’s northern delta, the cradle of Vietnamese culture. Throughout the northern delta, sculptures of elephants were placed in sacred spaces.

Reliefs of elephants in Ngoc Than Titular Temple (Quoc Oai, Hanoi)

The earliest representations of elephants found in Vietnam date back to the Dong Son Culture. These include elephant figurines on bronze bells; an elephant statue carrying bronze drums; a bird figurine perched on an elephant; a snake figurine biting an elephant’s foot; and a tiger figurine mauling an elephant’s foot. The Vietnam National Museum of History houses a bronze drum made 2,000 to 2,500 years ago that features many decorative patterns depicting humans and animals. These patterns include images of women riding elephants to the frontline, showing that female warriors rode elephants into battle during the Dong Son Era. Elephants are associated with heroines at the dawn of our history and during the era of the Trung Ladies (Hai Ba Trung), who led battles of national resistance against Southern Han invaders.

A Dong Ho folk painting of the Trung Ladies shows them riding elephants clad in yellow outfits and ivory slippers with curved toes. Another Dong Ho painting portrays Lady Trieu (Ba Trieu) as a fairy riding a white elephant. This heroine was not depicted with a weapon. She was wearing a two-flapped tunic. The painting highlights her bosom and determined facial expression.

Throughout the history of Vietnam’s feudal dynasties, elephants were used in court activities and military maneuvers. Elephant corps were key units in the royal army. During the Le and Trinh Dynasties, our nation boasted a powerful and highly maneuverable elephant corps of nearly 300 war elephants and 147 generals and elephant tamers organized into battalions. During the Nguyen Dynasty, elephant corps were stationed at the Hue Imperial Citadel and stood guard at the Hanoi Citadel.

As a result, this animal left a strong mark on the Thang Long Citadel in Hanoi. Elephant motifs may be seen in its titular temples, pagodas and pavilions; in graphic arts and sculptures in northern Vietnam; and in ancient royal palaces. Stone elephants often stand guard outside reception halls and in the corridors of shrines, titular temples, temples and palaces. In Pho Giac Pagoda, in addition to a stele detailing the history of the elephant corps, there are well-crafted elephant statues. Elephant and tiger statues stand in the corridors of Co Bi Pagoda (Gia Lam, Hanoi). Elephant statues flank the entrance to the temple dedicated to the Trung Ladies.

Relief in Tay Dang Titular Temple (Ba Vi, Hanoi)

Reliefs of elephants such as “Riding elephants to the frontline”, “Elephant riders in a festival”, “Kneeling elephants” or “Bolting elephants” may be seen in titular temples on the outskirts of Hanoi and in the Red River Delta, including the titular temples of Tay Dang, Quang Huc and Diem. These valuable artworks were used to decorate lintels, beams and gables.

Hoang Xa Titular Temple (Hanoi) boasts some unique images, including three bas-reliefs of “Elephant riders” on a beam and a relief titled “The emperor plowing furrows with an elephant”. Doan Xa Titular Temple (Ung Hoa, Hanoi) and Gie Ha Titular Temple (Phu Xuyen) both have “Elephant riders” reliefs on their beams. Chay Titular Temple (Ha Nam) has a wide range of wooden elephant sculptures, including sophisticated reliefs such as “An elephant rider staving off a tiger”, “The tamer of elephants and horses”. Perhaps the most outstanding artwork is the relief “Puxian Samantabhadra on elephant back” in Kim Hoang Titular Temple (Hanoi). Another surprising relief is “Elephant race” in Nghe Giam Temple (Cam Giang, Hai Duong), which depicts elephant handlers poking elephants’ heads with poles to make them run faster. This relief has been replicated in plaster and is on display at the Vietnam Museum of Fine Arts.

Relief titled “The emperor plowing furrows with an elephant” in Hoang Xa Titular Temple (Hanoi)

Elephant reliefs in titular temples were usually portrayed using co-present perspective and refined details. We can see the elephants’ curved tusks, tilting trunks, chains and chimes on their necks and pendulous saddles.

As well as leaving their mark on the cultures of Vietnam’s Central Highlands, elephants influenced the fine arts of the nation. Portrayals of elephants in titular temples add to the artistic legacies of Hanoi’s ancient Thang Long Citadel and the northern delta.