Development is the buzzword in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it is officially called. South Vietnam’s burgeoning metropolis has changed to the point of unrecognizable over the past few decades as the communist country eagerly enacts market reforms. Old buildings quickly gave way to skyscrapers and erased historical landmarks. But around the Ben Thanh market, in the traditional heart of the city, there are still some cultural vestiges of a bygone era. Traces of the country’s French colonial past remain in the Saigon Opera House, Saigon Central Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral.
The traditional heart of Saigon, District 1, is home to a popular place of worship that dates back to the days when a small thriving Tamil community lived in the city. In a central alley near Ben Thanh stands the large and colorful 12-meter-high raja gopuram of the Mariamman Temple, which was built at the end of the 19th century. At 10 a.m., a Khmer priest begins the daily rain goddess pooja, who, according to devotees, also heals illnesses and brings prosperity. The morning pooja is regularly frequented by ethnic Chinese, Khmer and Vietnamese devotees who have a deep faith in the goddess. During the first three quarters of the 20th century, the temple was the center of the Tamil Hindu community that lived in Saigon. Now, apart from a manager of Tamil origin whose mastery of the ancient language is limited, and a few tourists or software professionals, it is unlikely that we will spot a Tamil in the temple.
Tamil immigration to Cochinchina
Cultural and commercial ties existed for centuries between the great Tamil dynasties and the various reigning dynasties in Indochina, but at the time of the French invasions in the 1860s, Vietnam did not have a Tamil community.
A few decades after the French colonized the southern part of Vietnam (then called Cochinchina), Tamils ââfrom Karikal and Pondicherry were welcomed to work and settle in the colony. The Pondicherry decree of September 1881 granted Indians of the French colony the right to renounce their personal status by means of a declaration to the town hall. They would then be subject to the French civil code, making them full French citizens. These people were called renunciators and had to adopt surnames.
The French considered these new citizens, educated in French middle schools, as assets that could help govern new colonies in Indochina. French-speaking Tamils ââalso wanted to live on an equal footing with their colonizer, and many sought a better life in Cochinchina. However, the colonial authorities in Saigon were reluctant to treat a group of colonized people on an equal footing with the rulers of another colony.
“In principle, the renouncing Indians held the same rights and principles as the French citizens of metropolitan origin”, wrote Natasha Pairaudeau in the autumn 2010 edition of the Vietnamese Studies Journal, published by the University of California Press. âThey had fought vehement battles with the colonial authorities in Cochinchina at the end of the 19th century to defend the exercise of their electoral and civil rights in the colony. Even though there were continued efforts by the authorities in Cochinchina to undermine renunciation status, these rights were firmly recognized in the metropolis in the 1900s. “
Pairaudeau, historian and associate researcher at Cambridge University’s Center for History and Economics, added that the preferential treatment and higher status enjoyed by dark-skinned Tamils ââin Vietnam created great resentment among locals. who felt they were higher up in the racial hierarchy.
After renouncing Tamils ââmoved to Vietnam to work as administrators, clerks, policemen and judges, another group of Tamils ââbegan to see lucrative opportunities in the colony – the Nattukottai Chettiars. The community settled in Saigon during the last two decades of the 19th century and spread to the French colonies of Indochina, even establishing money-lending businesses in villages along the Mekong River. Along with the Chettiars came the Tamil Muslim traders, who offered stiff competition to the Vietnamese.
Saigon’s vibrant Tamil community even had their own French newspapers that highlighted their issues.
A temple of the Hindu community
In the early 1880s, a member of the Tamil community in Saigon built a small house where he kept an idol of the goddess Mariamman. The room turned into a makeshift temple for the city’s Tamils, and in the middle of the decade the community decided to raise money to build a real temple. Once they had sufficient funds, artisans, sculptors, and laborers were brought in from the Madras Presidency in British India to build an authentic Dravidian-style temple.
The temple has become popular with Tamils ââand non-Tamils ââalike. Historical Vietnamese accounts mention the enthusiasm with which the city marked the annual Simha Vahanam temple procession that passed through Saigon. The annual Mariamman feast was celebrated on October 6 and a feast would be organized for all the devotees.
âIt is in this temple in central Saigon, dedicated to Mariamman, that the liveliest interactions between local Cochin-Chinese and overseas Indians occurred,â Pairaudeau wrote in his 2010 article. temple became increasingly popular in the first half of the 20th century with Vietnamese and Khmers. “
To this day, the Vietnamese regard Mariamman as the Indian equivalent of Ba Den (Dark Lady), their goddess who, according to devotees, brings health and prosperity to her worshipers. âIndeed, the Vietnamese absorption of the Khmer practices of Hinduism provided the link between Ba Den and the Indian Hindu deity,â Pairaudeau said.
Local tradition in Saigon is full of stories of how misunderstandings were common between Tamils ââand Vietnamese when it came to Hindu traditions. The Vietnamese were intrigued by the Hindu concept of the sanctum sanctorum as well as the rules prohibiting the entry of toddlers into the temple. There was once a slight racial surge when a guard prevented two Vietnamese women with babies from entering the temple. Allegations and counter-allegations flew between the two sides, with Vietnamese women making up stories about the âBengaliâ guard. Punjabi and Pashtoon guards were often referred to as Bengalis in Vietnam, while most other non-Tamils ââwere referred to as âBombayâ.
Once these types of misunderstandings were cleared up, worshipers from various ethnic backgrounds began to crowd into the temple. It is now a tradition for Vietnamese to make offerings to Mariamman, including garlands of jasmine, lilies, rice, noodles, moong dal, incense sticks, coconuts, and various oils. Local vendors also sell pooja baskets outside the temple.
The structure, as it stands, was renovated over a three-year period in the late 1940s. There is very little that sets the temple apart from a typical Mariamman temple in Tamil Nadu. He has a lingam of Shiva and idols of Murugan and Ganesha. Its mandapam and the outer walls of the shrine contain idols of Bhairavi, Parvathy and Chamundi (all forms of Mariamman). It also hosts other important gods of the Hindu pantheon such as Krishna.
One of the small local features of the temple is the green Vietnamese shuttered windows. There is no Tamil signage in the temple now.
Departure of the French
During World War II, the Japanese captured Vietnam, using it as a base to attack China. Since the Tamil community is believed to have numbered a few thousand at most, there is very little information about them during this time. It can be assumed, however, that most of the renunciators of Indian origin would have fled with the French.
After the war ended, the French returned, but only for a brief period. There was a series of long drawn out battles which ultimately resulted in a French defeat. In 1954, France renounced all territorial claims in the Indochinese peninsula. At that time, Vietnam was divided between Communist North Vietnam and South Vietnam, supported by the United States.
The Chettiar and Tamil Muslim communities remained in South Vietnam, despite the final departure of the French. The temple continued to function normally during the Vietnam War. In 1975, when Saigon was liberated by North Vietnam and the United States was defeated, most of the Tamil and Indian communities fled the reunified country.
The new government took over the administration of the temple and handed it over to a popular committee, which immediately banned any direct payments to priests. Instead, devotees were asked to put any financial contributions into collection boxes where the money could be used to pay priests and maintain the temple.
The last surviving Tamil priest from the temple adopted two Khmer boys and taught them Hindu rituals. The present priests are believed to be their children.
Since the mid-1990s, the Chettiar community in Southeast Asia, as well as wealthy Tamils ââin Malaysia and Singapore have been generous with their financial contributions to the temple. With money coming both from abroad and from worshipers in one of Asia’s fastest growing economies, the temple regularly feeds the poor and destitute of Saigon.
Along with the Sri Thendayuthapani and Subramaniam temples of Saigon, the Mariamman temple is one of the main links between Tamil Nadu and the booming city. With more economic opportunities opening up in Vietnam, there is a good opportunity to rekindle the centuries-old ties between these two parts of the world that predated European colonization.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a freelance writer and journalist based in Mumbai. He is Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2021.