The Jade Emperor Pagoda

We regard the Jade Emperor as the best example of a Taoist pagoda in Vietnam from a tourism point of view, not just for its religious value but also for its sheer exuberance.

Entering the temple courtyard, visitors will encounter a small pool on the right full of large terrapins and, on the left, a series of enclosures containing dozens of tortoises that give it its local name of the ‘Tortoise Pagoda’. Usually, there will be women selling birds to be released by the purchaser to curry favour with the gods.

The interior is dominated by an effigy of the Jade Emperor, correctly addressed as 'Most Venerable Highest Jade Emperor of All-Embracing Sublime Spontaneous Existence of the Heavenly Golden Palace’. He is the head of the heavenly bureaucracy, governing spirits assigned to oversee the workings of the natural world and the administration of moral justice.

The gods in heaven behaved, and were treated, much the same as officials in the human world - worshipping them was a kind of rehearsal for dealing with the secular authorities. Demons and the ghosts of hell acted like bullies and outlaws threatening strangers in the real world and were treated accordingly. To avoid their attentions, people bribed them or invoked the martial forces of the spirit world’s officials to arrest them.

All these elements can be seen in the Pagoda. The mighty Emperor monitoring entry through the gates of heaven is flanked by his senior officers, one bearing a light to illuminate the path, the other wielding an axe to administer justice, and his other officials and lesser deities.

The King of Hell and his red horse are on the right of the chamber surrounded by the two gods of yin and yang, and four more gods who mete out punishment for evil and reward goodness. He looks towards the ‘Hall of the Ten Hells’, a room containing ten magnificently carved panes that vie with Hieronymus Bosch for depictions of the horrors awaiting the ungodly.

Next door, there is another room with twelve ceramic figures of women with many babies presided over by Kim Hoa, the protector of all mothers and children. Each figurine represents a particular human characteristic, good or bad, and one year of the 12 year Chinese calendar. Childless couples often visit this small chapel to pray to be granted a child.

To the left of the Jade Emperor in an enclosure containing Thien Loi, the god of lightning and other deities, is a life-sized effigy of a horse. This is also popular with women who seek fertility – they rub its flanks and neck and whisper their prayers in its ears.

Elsewhere around the walls are more effigies of figures from other religions, mainly Buddhism.

For an Occidental, making sense of the rich symbolism, decoration and ritual is almost impossible. A good guide can help to shed a little light into the complexity of Taoism, It takes many years to acquire a reasonable understanding of the faith.

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