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A few kilometres off the highway lies LONG HOA, the site of the enigmatic Cao Dai Great Temple, or Cathedral, of the Holy See of Tay Ninh District. Joss-stick factories line the road into Long Hoa, their produce bundled into mini-haystacks by the roadside to dry. Around 4km later you reach Long Hoa’s market, from where the cathedral itself is another 2km.
Cao Dai Great Temple
A grand gateway marks the entrance to the grounds of the 1927-built Cao Dai Great Temple. Beyond it, a wide boulevard escorts you past a swathe of grassland used on ceremonial occasions, to the wildly exotic temple itself, over whose left shoulder rises distant Nui Ba Den, Black Lady Mountain.
The temple’s exterior
On first sighting, the Great Temple seems to be subsiding, an optical illusion created by the rising steps inside it, but your first impressions are more likely to be dominated by what Graham Greene described as a “Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in Technicolor”. Despite its Day-Glo hues and rococo clutter, this gaudy construction somehow manages to bypass tackiness. Two square, pagoda-style towers bookend the front facade, whose central portico is topped by a bowed, first-floor balcony and a Divine Eye. The most recurrent motif in the temple, the eye, is surrounded by a triangle, as it is on the American one-dollar bill. A figure in semi-relief emerges from each tower: on the left is Cao Dai’s first female cardinal, Lam Huong Thanh, and on the right, Le Van Trung, its first pope.
The temple’s interior
The eclectic ideology of Cao Dai is mirrored in the interior. Part cathedral and part pagoda, it draws together a potpourri of icons and elements under a vaulted ceiling, and daubs them all with the primary colours of a Hindu temple. Men enter the cathedral through an entrance in the right wall, women by a door to the left, and all must take off their shoes. Inside the lobby, a mural shows the three “signatories of the 3rd Alliance between God and Mankind”: French poet Victor Hugo and the fifteenth-century Vietnamese poet, Nguyen Binh Khiem, are writing the Cao Dai principles of “God and humanity, love and justice” in French and Chinese onto a shining celestial tablet. Beside them, the Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat Sen holds an inkstone, a symbol of “Chinese civilization allied to Christian civilization giving birth to Cao Dai doctrine”, according to a nearby sign.
Outside of service times tourists are welcome to wander through the nave of the cathedral, as long as they remain in the aisles, and don’t stray between the rows of pink pillars, entwined by green dragons, that march up the chamber. Cut-away windows punctuate the outer walls, their grillework consisting of the Divine Eye, surrounded by bright pink lotus blooms. Walk up the shallow steps that lend the nave its litheness, and you’ll reach an altar that groans under the weight of assorted vases, fruit, paintings and slender statues of storks. The papal chair stands at the head of the chamber, its arms carved into dragons. Below it are six more chairs, three with eagle arms, and three with lion arms, for the cardinals. Dominating the chamber, though, and guarded by eight scary silver dragons, a vast, duck-egg-blue sphere, speckled with stars, rests on a polished, eight-sided dais. The ubiquitous Divine Eye peers through clouds painted on the front. You’ll see more spangly stars and fluffy clouds if you look up at the sky-blue ceiling, with mouldings of lions and turtles.
Cao Dai services
Cao Dai services
A major attraction is attending one of the daily services at the temple (daily 6am, noon and 6pm), and most tours usually arrange their visit to coincide with the midday one. Though other times are inconvenient, they do offer the opportunity to concentrate on what’s happening without the accompanying roadshow of hundreds of flashing cameras. Before services, visitors are shepherded upstairs and past the traditional band that plays behind the front balcony, and on into the gods, from where they can look down on proceedings and take photographs. Most worshippers dress in white robes, though some dress in yellow, blue and red, to signify the Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian elements of Cao Dai. Priests don square hats emblazoned with the Divine Eye. At the start of a service, worshippers’ heads nod, like a field of corn in the breeze, in time to the clanging of a gong. Then a haunting, measured chanting begins, against the insect whine of the string band playing its own time. As prayers and hymns continue, incense, flowers, alcohol and tea are offered up to the Supreme Being.
The basic tenets of Cao Dai were first revealed to Ngo Van Chieu, a civil servant working in the criminal investigation department of the French administration on Phu Quoc Island, at the beginning of the 1920s. A spiritualist, Ngo was contacted during a seance by a superior spirit calling itself Cao Dai, or “high place”. This spirit communicated to him the basics of the Cao Dai creed, and instructed him to adopt the Divine Eye as a tangible representation of its existence. Posted back to Saigon soon afterwards, Ngo set about evangelizing, though according to French convert and chronicler Gabriel Gobron the religion didn’t gather steam until late in 1925, when Ngo was contacted by a group of mediums sent his way by the Cao Dai.
At this stage, revelations from the Cao Dai began to add further meat to the bones of the religion. Twice already, it informed its mediums, it had revealed itself to mankind, using such vehicles as Lao-tzu, Christ, Mohammed, Moses, Sakyamuni and Confucius to propagate systems of belief tailored to suit localized cultures. Such religious intolerance had resulted from this multiplicity, that for the third alliance it would do away with earthly messengers and convey a universal religion via spirit intermediaries, including Louis Pasteur, William Shakespeare, Joan of Arc, Sir Winston Churchill and Napoleon Bonaparte. The revelations of these “saints” were received using a planchette (a pencil secured to a wooden board on castors, on which the medium rests his hand, sometimes known as a corbeille-bec).
Though a fusion of Oriental and Occidental religions, propounding the concept of a universal god, Cao Dai is primarily entrenched in Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, to which cause-and-effect creeds, elements of Christianity, Islam and spirituality are added. By following its five commandments – Cao Dai followers must avoid killing living beings, high living, covetousness, verbal deceit and the temptations of the flesh – adherents look to hasten the evolution of the soul through reincarnation.
The religion was effectively founded in October 1926, when it was also officially recognized by the French colonial administration. Borrowing the structure and terminology of the Catholic Church, Cao Dai began to grow rapidly, its emphasis upon simplicity appealing to disaffected peasants, and by 1930 there were five hundred thousand followers. In 1927, Tay Ninh became the religion’s Holy See; Ngo opted out of the papacy, and the first pope was Le Van Trung, a decadent mandarin from Cho Lon who saw the error of his ways after being visited by the Cao Dai during a seance.
Inevitably in such uncertain times, Cao Dai developed a political agenda. Strongly anti-French during World War II, subsequently the Cao Dai militia turned against the Viet Minh, with whom they fought, using French arms, in the French War. By the mid-Fifties, the area around Tay Ninh was a virtual fiefdom of Cao Dai followers. In The Quiet American, Graham Greene describes the Cao Dai militia as a “private army of 25,000 men, armed with mortars made out of the exhaust-pipes of old cars, allies of the French who turned neutral at the moment of danger”. Even then, however, they were feuding with the rival Hoa Hao sect, and in a few years their power had waned.
Post-liberation, the Communist government confiscated all Cao Dai land, though it was returned ten years later. Today, the religion continues to thrive in its twin power bases of Tay Ninh District and the Mekong Delta.