Sunday, 26 October 2014

Đạo Mẫu | Serendipity Then Research

One of the main interests that underpins my career as a travel photographer is the documenting of ancient religious rituals, ceremonies and festivals that are still observed and practiced around the world, and the primary objective of many of the photographic expeditions-workshops I lead is to document such rituals and festivals. This interest is somewhat of a brand for me; a brand that I cherish and nourish.

Following my gut instinct, and helped by a degree of serendipity, during my recent photo expedition in Viet Nam, I stumbled on an ancient religious ceremony called Đạo Mẫu, which I photographed on two occasions in Sa Pa and Bac Ha,  and have now uploaded a selection of color photographs on a gallery titled Đạo Mẫu: The Worship of Mother Goddesses.

These photographs were all made with a Fuji X-T1 and a Zeiss Touit 12mm.

Whilst photographing these two ceremonies (one followed the other over two days), I was hampered by a dearth of information regarding these ceremonies. Either the translation was inadequate or the information obtained by those involved in the ceremonies was sparse and superficial...even the name of the rituals differed.

Hearing chants and music coming from the Gia Quoc Cong Vu Van Mat temple in Bac Ha, but finding no one that could understand English, I asked patrons in a nearby restaurant what the ceremony was about, and one finally understood my gesticulations, and told me that it was hầu đồng...words I recognized from my earlier photo-shoot in Sa Pa.

All I knew at the time was that the ceremonies revolved around a medium who communicated with spirits), trances, and religious songs....and I photographed the unfolding ceremony in the Bac Ha temple, as I did earlier in Sa Pa. With other things relating to the photo expedition-workshop on my plate, I hadn't the time to research it deeper than a cursory internet search with the little information I had. Otherwise, I would've sank my teeth in the research like a bull terrier.

I have since started research Đạo Mẫu, or The Worship of Mother Goddesses in Viet Nam, and the rituals of Lên đồng (or Hầu đồng), the practice of spirit mediumship in this type of worship. There are scholarly texts that associate Lên đồng séances to extremely ancient indigenous rituals, which possibly included rites of human sacrifice of mediums possessed by evil spirits.

One of the sources of basic information is Wikipedia, which describes the main ritual, which may last from two to seven hours, as beginning with petitions to Buddha and to the deities for permission to proceed with it, after which the medium sits in the middle of four assistants, whose job it is to facilitate the medium's incarnation of different deities and spirits. Musicians and singers perform invocation songs to induce trances in the medium, at which point he or she is ready to incarnate different spirits. The assistants help the medium to change costumes, and hand over the various props such as swords and torches.

This is precisely what I witnessed during the ceremony (actually, they were two ceremonies back to back) in the Bac Ha temple. The two mediums were flanked by four assistants, and musicians played songs in a corner of the temple.

The color of the medium's four costumes represents a deity who manages a part of the universe. Heaven is red, Earth is yellow, Water is white and Forest is green.

My interest in Đạo Mẫu is certainly piqued, and I intend to continue gathering information on it, online and through friends in Viet Nam. My knowledge of Southeast Asian religious traditions is not as broad as I would've liked, and with Đạo Mẫu serendipitously appearing on my radar, it's certainly time to redress this.

That said, the rituals of Lên đồng (or Hầu đồng) are not easy to photograph. The temples where I witnessed the rehearsal and the ceremony were small, and had devotees sitting on every inch of the floor, so it was difficult to move about and get different angles, especially as the altars are large. The ceremony itself was held at night, with poor and uneven lighting. Although the costumes are gorgeous, with the medium performing unusual rites such as throwing small denominations of cash to attendees, puffing on cigarettes and twirling swords and flags, the rituals are somewhat repetitive, and finding different angles is a must. The mediums appear to be fascinating characters, and would offer interesting insights into this belief system.

In short, Đạo Mẫu is on my list.