It often took years to find a site with the right aesthetic requirements that would also satisfy the court cosmologists charged with interpreting the underlying supernatural forces. Artificial lakes, waterfalls and hills were added to improve the geomantic qualities of the location, at the same time creating picturesque, almost romantic, garden settings for the mausoleums, of which the finest examples are those of Tu Duc and Minh Mang.

Though details vary, all the mausoleums consist of three elements: a temple dedicated to the worship of the deceased emperor and his queen; a large, stone stele recording his biographical details and a history of his reign, usually written by his successor; and the royal tomb itself. The main temple houses the funerary tablets and possessions of the royal couple, many of which have been stolen, while nearby stand ancillary buildings where the emperor’s concubines lived out their years. In front of each stele-house is a paved courtyard, echoing the Imperial City’s Esplanade of Great Salutations, where officials and soldiers lined up to honour their emperor, but in this case the mandarins, horses and elephants are fashioned in stone; military mandarins are easily distinguished by their swords, whereas the civil variety clutch sceptres. Obelisks nearby symbolize the power of the monarch, and lastly, at the highest spot, there’s the royal tomb enclosed within a wall and a heavy, securely fastened door. Traditionally the burial place was kept secret as a measure against grave-robbers and enemies of the state, and in extreme cases all those who had been involved in the burial were killed immediately afterwards.

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