Quietly sat next to Taka Plaza, the Hindu temple has played witness to the vast changes experienced by Saigon. Words by Vu Ha Kim Vy. Photos by Bao Zoan
Indian people were an early foreign group to come to Saigon, when merchants from the subcontinent began expanding their business to this city. In order to create a strong community and the opportunity to practice their religion, at the end of the 19th century they built Hindu temples.
In the beginning, there were four temples, including Mariamman (45 Truong Dinh, Q1), Sri Thenday Yutthapani (66 Ton That Thiep, Q1), Subramanian Swamy (98 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, Q1) and Ganesha (139 Thuan Kieu, Q11) — this last one no longer exists. Although these temples were all built in 1885, Subramanian Swamy is regarded as the first Hindu house of worship in this town.
Like so many other buildings in this city, Subramanian Swamy and the two other remaining temples have been through the ups and downs of a changing Vietnam.
Those Glorious Days
According to professor Nguyen Phan Quang — author of Gop Them Tu Lieu Saigon – Gia Dinh (Information Adding of Saigon – Gia Dinh), Indian immigrants first came to Saigon in the 1870s. Many came from French-speaking Mahé, Pondicherry and Karical, and worked as staff in French commercial departments. Some Vietnamese, especially from the Mekong Delta, call Indian people cha or cha va. The Indian community at that time was also made up of a combination of people from Bombay, Delhi and Benares. They were called cha Bombay and from Tamil areas, cha Chetty.
A list of names of Indian merchants and their business in La Communauté Indienne en Indochine in 1949 by G. Vidy, showed that most Indian people were moneylenders and bankers living on Rue Ohier (Ton That Thiep, Q1). Fabric and silk businesses were mainly situated on Rue Vannier (Ngo Duc Ke, Q1). They were described as veteran and wealthy traders and had their own streets. They lived separately from the Vietnamese community and wore traditional costume.
Together with economic growth and religious requirements, they constructed their own houses of worship for the community. These temples were first built on a small scale and only for Hindus. Apart from functioning as places for Hindu followers and purajis (priests), they also functioned as banks and community centres. The lively religious and cultural activities took place regularly. At that time, Vietnamese weren’t allowed to be at these temples or join any religious rituals including the God procession and the kavadi festival.
The Ups and Downs
With the departure of the French, so most of the Indian immigrants followed. Subramanian Swamy and the other Hindu temples fell into neglect.
“Rats were everywhere when I moved in,” says Yen, the current caretaker of Subramanian Swamy. “[We] had to spend days cleaning it up.”
That was in 1971, and Yen had just moved to the temple with her husband, Ramasamy, who was born to an English-Indian father and a Vietnamese mother from Phan Thiet. Ramasamy couldn’t speak either English or Hindi and never got a chance to see his fatherland. He died just over 10 years ago.
Thanks to the clean-up, they got their first visitors.
“[Ramasamy] didn’t have a job and I had to make a living in Cholon. But we finally got some money from donations,” she says.
“There was a puraji living here before,” she adds. “But he left after 1975. The temple was then handed over to the government.”
According to Cuc, who has been selling drinks in front of the temple for more than 30 years, Subramanian Swamy soon became a night-time meeting point for the less wholesome elements of society. Then it became a warehouse for peppers and cashew nuts, and then a jewellery market. Eventually after the intervention of the Consulate General of India it was restored to its original function as a temple.
Since she first moved in, the temple hasn’t changed much, says Yen. Everything including the various statues and Hindu artefacts are still where they were when she first arrived.
“We repainted the temple a few times and repaired the room where the puraji stayed before,” she says. “The tiled floor you are looking at right now was built more than 10 years ago with the help from a group of Hindus from Singapore.”
It's Open and Free for Everyone
Compared to Mariamman temple on Truong Dinh, Subramanian Swamy has more Indian than Vietnamese visitors. Apart from other important festivals, such as Thaipusam, Ganesha’s birthday, Murugan’s birthday and Diwali, other special occasions including weddings or births are also held here.
“Indian people come here a lot,” Cuc says. “There was a celebration yesterday. But if you’re curious about their religious rituals, come here every Tuesday morning. It’s peace prayers!”
Yen admits that she doesn’t know any Hindu rituals, the stories of the gods and the language.
“Normally, they will have their own puraji,” she says. “They just need to let me know about the celebration in advance.”
“Whether you come here out of curiosity or just to take photos, whether you are Hindu or not, all are welcome.”