Le Thi Lien - Institute of Archaeology, Vietnamese Academy of Social Sciences; Research Fellow, Harvard-Yenching Institute 2006-2007
The land and people in the Cuu Long River Delta (South Vietnam) served as an idea area for the maritime trade networks during the first millennium A.D. Being developed as outcome of these activities, the Oc Eo culture is considered as a part of the material remains of the ancient Funan Empire, which was the first organized nation of Southeast Asia in the early Christian era. Southern Vietnam thus became an important link between the East and the West. Along with maritime trade, Buddhism and Hinduism, two great religions that originated from India, have made great contributions to the cultures of Southeast Asia. The penetration of their ideas and beliefs might have been started early before the Christian era with more clearly archaeological evidences from the first centuries A.D in the South Vietnam.
Archaeological background The excavation in Oc Eo ancient Port-City and the extensive surveys in other Southern Vietnamese provinces of the French scholars in late 19th and early 20th centuries have brought to light a large number of art objects. Buddhist and Hindu artifacts have been found from about 177 sites, out of more than 300 sites. The reexamined surveys and explorations in major sites during 1978-1981 conducted by Vietnamese archaeologists resulted in collecting a large number of artifacts and figuring out preserved conditions of archaeological sites in the whole area. Main collections of the provincial museums in South Vietnam are formed from these activities. During 1982-1992, many excavations have been conducted extensively in the major sites and brought to light important evidences of Buddhist and Hindu architectures and artifacts. From 1993 onward, the excavations and research works are emphasized to settlement sites, which provided interesting evidences of Buddhist and Hindu beliefs in daily life.
Vestiges of Buddhist and Hindu Art Buddhist and Hindu artifacts found from the Cuu Long River Delta includes 3 broad categories: sculptures, architectural decorations, and tiny and miscellaneous artifacts. Buddha images, wooden sculptures of Buddha in particular; Bodhisattva images of Avalokitesvara and Maitreya might have been the main idols in Buddhist pantheon, whereas, Visnu images have been found as the main representation of Visnuism in sculpture. Although being represented mainly in symbolic forms of Linga and Linga-Yoni, Saivism seemed to be prevalent belief of the people in all periods of Oc Eo culture. Images of the goddesses and other gods are also found, but in modest number. Early religious buildings might have been decorated with mainly terracotta and wooden architectural components. Decorations in stone and brick became into vogue in later period in several places. Tiny and miscellaneous artifacts (gold plaques, ornaments, seals and sealing etc.) are the richest sources of religious beliefs and practices. Gold plaques found from inside of the architectural foundations provide interesting evidences for the study of not only art history but also religious customs and ceremonies. Stylistically, while influences from various sources of Indian artistic styles can be traced out, Buddhist and Hindu art of the Cuu Long river Delta represents its own and unique value and merit.
Buddhist and Hindu Art in the Cuu Long River Delta in a broader cultural context In context of archaeological sites, Buddhist and Hindu artifacts related closely with major sites of Oc Eo culture and served as evidences of the formation and development of economic, cultural and political centers as well as of the trade networks. The combination of both imported religions and local beliefs are traceable. History of Buddhist and Hindu art related closely with cultural development and can be assigned to several periods during the first millennium A.D. Being constantly inherited from various sources of inspiration, particularly Indian civilization, the art of the Cuu Long River Delta also shared its experiences and styles with the arts of other neighbors.
Problems in the study of Oc Eo Culture Although being the subject of many researchers in more than 60 years, several questions related to Oc Eo culture and its politic entity are debated. Archaeological evidences of Buddhist and Hindu art and architecture need to be further studied and will be important sources to understand not only the develop process of religions but also history, culture and economy of the area.
Le Thi Lien was born in 1959 in Vietnam. She obtained her B.A. in Chinese and Sino- Nom at the Hanoi College of Pedagogy for Foreign Languages in 1981, followed by a B.A. in Archaeology, from Hanoi University in 1989. In 1992, Le Thi Lien obtained her M.A. in Indian Archaeology and Ancient History from the M.S. University of Baroda, Gujarat, India, and completed a PhD in Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, Vietnamese Academy of Social Sciences in 2003. She has worked as an archaeologist in the Institute of Archaeology since 1986, taking part and leading several excavations and explorations in Vietnam, particularly the sites of Oc Eo culture in the Cuu Long River Delta. Dr. Le Thi Lien has recently published a book on Hindu Art in the central region of Vietnam, entitled Nghe thuat Phat giao va Hindu giao o Dong bang song Cuu long truoc the ki X, - English subtitle “Buddhist and Hindu Art in the Cuu Long River Delta Prior to 10th Century A.D.” The book is available at the Institute of Archaeology, The Vietnamese Historical Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, The Fine Art Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.