Flying on air

Thursday, 2018-04-26 11:25:50
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Que palace is dedicated to Queen Vu Thi Ngoc Xuyen, wife of Trinh Tac Lord, and their daughter Princess Trinh Thi Ngoc Cang.
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NDO - A sacred ceremony that is organised every five years in Hanoi’s Xuan Dinh village is dedicated to a local woman who brought prosperity to the locality in the 17th century.

Que Phu, or Que palace, is a traditional architectural work built towards the end of the latter Le dynasty. Located in the Loc hamlet of Hanoi’s Xuan Dinh ancient village, located by West Lake, the palace is dedicated to Queen Vu Thi Ngoc Xuyen, wife of Trinh Tac Lord, and their daughter Princess Trinh Thi Ngoc Cang.

The palace is medium-sized but its scientific, historical, artistic and architectural values have made it famous in Vietnamese history.

Trinh Tac was one of the most successful of the Trinh Lords who ruled northern Vietnam. He took control of the Vietnamese government at a time when things looked bleak as the 1627-1673 Trinh-Nguyen war was waged between the two ruling families in Vietnam.

During his rule (1653-1682), he made peace with the Nguyen, ending the long war. Trinh Tac also captured Cao Bang, the last small province of Vietnam ruled by the Mac dynasty (1527-1592). The peace between the Nguyen and the Trinh was to last for the next 100 years. With the end of the war, Vietnam became peaceful and prosperous. Trinh Tac died in 1682, leaving the government in the hands of his son Trinh Can.

A great heart

Xuyen met Tac, who was making a tour around the citadel, while she was cutting grass at the edge of the ancient Thang Long citadel. The beautiful 14 year old girl was then brought to the court to hold a big wedding. At this time, Tac was yet to be crowned as a lord. Xuyen was a virtuous wife and a good supporter of Tac’s cause.

Xuyen was born in Xuan Dinh. After many years living in the court, she and Cang returned to their native land to live. Seeing the locals living in poverty, Xuyen asked the court to provide them with 529 mau of rice fields (one mau is tantamount to 3,600 square metres) and used her own fund to buy tens of mau to support the local temples and pagodas and built roads. Like her mother, Cang also used her money to buy more rice areas to support the local people and pagodas.

In 1682, when Tac passed away, Xuyen asked the court to upgrade a shrine, which was dedicated to Saint Giong, one of Vietnam’s four immortal gods, into a bigger temple. The temple is also one of the most sacred places in the locality.

The present-day Que Palace used to be the home of Xuyen and Cang. The two people often collected money to help locals and prayed to the Heaven and Buddha for good health, happiness and prosperity for all locals.

Xuyen passed away in 1686 and was interred in the locality. The tombs of hers and Cang’s, which were built of white stone slabs, are still kept in good condition.

Xuyen’s statute is one of Vietnam’s two sole statutes made of rattan.

In the anti-French war, the palace was used to hide Vietnam Revolutionary League (Viet Minh) cadres from the French, store weapons and organise patriotic meetings. The Lien Viet Front was also established at the palace, which aimed to unite people from all walks of life to fight the French occupation.

On the fly

The scenery of the queen’s palanquin flying is the most sacred and exciting highlight of the festival.

Locals offer joss sticks to Xuyen and her daughter everyday but the Que Palace festival only takes place every five years from the 10th to 13th day of the first lunar month.

Preparations for the festival are made months before.

Like many other festivals, this festival boasts many traditional games such as playing human chess, swinging, and catching ducks in a large pond of water.

However, the scenery of the queen’s palanquin flying is the most sacred and exciting highlight of the festival.

It is just 6.30am but the large yard of the palace is already packed by thousands of people. A big palanquin, at a height of 3.5 metres, has already been placed in the middle of the yard.

With the fragrance of the burning joss ticks, the village’s eldest men kneel before the altars inside the palace to pray for prosperity and happiness for all of the villagers and ask the queen’s permission to carry her throne out to the palanquin.

A pageant including traditional dances mixed with local songs as they slowly walk around the yard officially begins. The sound of drums reverberates during the striking traditional dragon dances, extolling the merits of the queen.

Palanquin carriers are called trai kieu (male carrier) and gai kieu (female carrier). They are carefully selected months before the festival. Those who will carry the queen’s palanquin on their shoulders are gai kieu only and trai kieu will follow them as supporters only. All of them are kneel in front of the palanquin to perform a ceremony.

It is a huge honour for the carriers to undertake the mission. They must be good-mannered and lead unblemished lives and possess very good health.

After the elders’ prayers, the carriers slowly enter the palace to dismantle the queen’s throne from her altar to bring it out to the palanquin. The process is full of solemnity and respect.

After the throne is fixed tightly on the palanquin and after more prayers by the elders, the procession officially begins.

Everyone feels their heart beating in their chest when the eight carriers lift the palanquin up onto their shoulders. Though the palanquin weighs 300 kilogrammes, it strangely seems to be as light as a feather.

Suddenly, the palanquin accelerates its speed, running around the yard and into the nearby pagoda though there is no wind at all. The viewers also begin running, making room for the dance of the palanquin. Elderly people pray. Faint-hearted children cry. The boys sitting on a wall and tree branches fall down when the palanquin moves towards them.

“The queen is now joyful because she has not been out for five years,” an old woman whispers in my ear. “You see, her soul has already joined the palanquin and controls the carriers’ footsteps.”

I half-doubt when watching the palanquin running, or to be more precise, flying. It seems not to be touching the carriers’ shoulders, whilst the carriers seem to be holding the palanquin back lest it will fly away. While running, strangely, the palanquin does not touch any of the trees or power poles along the village’s roads.

Then the palanquin runs to Xuyen’s and Cang’s tombs, which are located several hundred metres from the palace. Following, it suddenly changes direction running straight to the nearby Pham Van Dong Street, which is now packed with vehicles and people. No one is hurt. The cheerful crowd continues following it. The striking scenery is full of the fine traits of spiritual culture.

Finally, the palanquin somehow returns to the palace. After several prayers, the queen allows the carriers to put the palanquin down on a carpet in front of the palace.

“I cannot explain my feeling when carrying the palanquin. It is somehow light and I don’t feel tired though I have run nearly three kilometres at least,” says another carrier.

Elders say the flying of the palanquin means the village will have much prosperity and good health during the year. I wonder if there is something mythical in the festival.

But, no matter what it is, it has been a fine trait of Vietnamese spiritual culture which needs to be maintained and bequeathed onto the next generations.