Professor Trinh Sinh
Those who have visited Hung Temple to offer incense on the death anniversary of the Hung Kings have had the opportunity to admire traditional bronze drumming. Young Muong men and women from Thanh Son and Tan Son districts of Phu Tho province play these drums just as their ancestors have done for the past two thousand years.
Muong people are not only found in these two districts of Phu Tho but also in Hoa Binh, Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, and some provinces in Vietnam’s Northwest. Bronze drums are one of the greatest heritages of the Muong people, who beat drums on happy occasions like weddings, New Year celebrations, festivals, and even during spiritual rituals.
In 1948, Mrs. J. Cuisinier, a French ethnologist, traveled throughout the Muong regions to research her famous book, titled “Muong People”. She witnessed the Muong people’s attachment to bronze drums. The drum is not only a sacred object owned exclusively by the elite, but also a musical instrument that, along with bronze gongs, produces rippling sounds that spread across the mountains and forests. The drum is also a nice-looking art object. There are four statues of toads on the drum’s head. The head and body of the drum are decorated with patterns.
In the middle of the drum’s head is a hemispherical symbol that represents the sun surrounded by sharp rays. Similar to the Kinh, Muong people worship the sun, like many other agricultural cultures in Southeast Asia. Toads are considered sacred and honored as “the uncle of God”. Their calls when it rains remind people of drum beats. In times of drought, people beat drums as a message to God to pray for rain.
Many statues depict two toads on top of one another and serve as fertility symbols, carrying the Muong people’s hopes that people, plants and animals will mimic the toads to create a harmony of yin and yang, have numerous descendants, and harvest abundant crops.
The prime position on the drum’s head is reserved for the sun. The edge of the drum’s head is decorated with toad statues, spaced symmetrically. This shows the Muong people’s lateral thinking and artistic ability. Sometimes, Muong drums are also adorned with lively statues of elephants, turtles, and ducks.
Highlighting the toad statues and embossed sun design is a pattern of concentric rings. The inner ring contains a pattern of concentric diamonds that resembles a mat spread on the drum’s head. These diamond patterns sparkle in the sun or firelight at night. Concentric diamond patterns also fill the rings on the drum’s body.
Along with geometric patterns, the drums are decorated with vivid animal patterns, such as images of flying dragons, dancing phoenixes, and birds, or with Buddhist symbols. There are also patterns of flowers with four petals, coins, and liana blooms.
Researchers classify Muong drums as Type II, according to the classification of the scholar Heger. Researchers trace the patterns and casting techniques of Muong drums to those of ancient Dong Son drums, which are classified as Type I by Heger. The designs tell researchers that when the Dong Son drums used by ancient Vietnamese were lost in the plains, they were retained by the ancient Vietnamese people in the mountains, who later became the Muong. They continued to use these bronze drums, now considered Muong drums.
Muong drums are also decorated with patterns typical of different eras, such as meandering dragons of the Ly and Tran dynasty on the drum heads. Some patterns of Bodhi leaves, lotus leaves, and oak leaves bear similarities to Buddhist symbols from the Later Le period. They may be found on the drum’s head or body. These patterns are seen on ceramics and stone works in pagodas and palaces in the delta, as well as on Muong bronze drums in mountainous areas. This proves that harmonious exchanges of plastic arts took place in the land of Dai Viet.
Descended from Dong Son drums, Muong drums have “lived” for nearly two-thousand years. These are beautiful artworks and a precious heritage of our country.