Development is the buzzword in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it is officially called. The booming metropolis in southern Vietnam has changed beyond recognition over the last few decades as the communist country eagerly adopts market reforms. Old buildings have rapidly made way for skyscrapers and markers of history effaced. But around Ben Thanh Market in the traditional heart of the city there are still a few cultural relics of a bygone era. Traces of the country’s colonial French past survive in Saigon Opera House, Saigon Central Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral.
The traditional heart of Saigon, District 1, has a popular house of worship that dates back to the time when a small and thriving Tamil community lived in the city. Standing out in a central lane near the Ben Thanh is the large and colourful 12-metre high raja gopuram of the Mariamman Temple, which was built at the end of the 19th century. At 10 in the morning, a Khmer priest starts the daily pooja to the goddess of rain, who devotees believe also cures diseases and brings prosperity. The morning pooja is regularly attended by ethnic Chinese, Khmer and Vietnamese worshippers who have a deep faith in the goddess. For the first three quarters of the 20th century, the temple was the centre of the Tamil Hindu community that lived in Saigon. Now, besides a Tamil-origin manager whose proficiency of the ancient language is limited, and a few tourists or the odd software professional, one is unlikely to spot a Tamil in the temple.
Tamil immigration to Cochinchina
Cultural and trade ties existed for centuries between the great Tamil dynasties and different ruling dynasties in Indochina, but by the time of the French invasions in the 1860s, Vietnam did not have a Tamil community.
A few decades after the French colonised the southern part of Vietnam (then called Cochinchina), Tamils from Karikal and Pondicherry were welcomed to work and settle in the colony. The Pondicherry Decree of September 1881 gave Indians in the French colony the right to renounce their personal status via a declaration to the local mayor’s office. They would then be subject to the French civil code, effectively making them full French citizens. Such people were called renouncers and were required to adopt surnames.
The French saw these new citizens, who were educated in French medium schools, as assets who could help govern new colonies in Indochina. French-speaking Tamils were also keen to live on equal footing with their coloniser, and many sought a better life in Cochinchina. However, the colonial authorities in Saigon were reluctant to treat one set of colonised people on par with the rulers in another colony.
“In legal principle, Indian renouncers held the same rights and principles as French citizens of metropolitan origin,” Natasha Pairaudeau wrote in the Fall 2010 edition of the Journal of Vietnamese Studies, published by the University of California Press. “They had fought vehement battles with the colonial authorities in Cochinchina in the late 19th century to defend the exercise of both their electoral and civil rights in the colony. Even though there were continued efforts on the part of authorities in Cochinchina to undermine renouncer status, these rights were firmly recognised in the metropole by the 1900s.”
Pairaudeau, a historian who is a research associate at the Centre for History and Economics at the University of Cambridge, added that the preferential treatment and higher status that the dark-skinned Tamils enjoyed in Vietnam created a great degree of resentment among the locals who felt they were higher up in the racial hierarchy.
After the Tamil renouncers moved to Vietnam to work as administrators, clerks, police officers and judges, another group of Tamils began to see lucrative opportunities in the colony – the Nattukottai Chettiars. The community set up shop in Saigon in the last two decades of the 19th century and spread out across the French colonies in Indochina, even starting moneylending businesses in villages by the Mekong. Along with the Chettiars came Tamil Muslim traders, who offered stiff competition to the Vietnamese.
The vibrant Tamil community in Saigon even had its own French newspapers that would highlight its issues.
A Hindu community temple
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 Tamils of the city, and by the middle of the decade the community decided to collect money to build a proper temple. Once they had enough funds, craftsmen, sculptors and workers were brought in from Madras Presidency in British India to construct an authentic Dravidian-style temple.
The temple became popular with Tamils and non-Tamils alike. Historic Vietnamese accounts mention the enthusiasm with which the city marked the yearly procession of the temple’s Simha Vahanam that was taken across Saigon. The annual festival of Mariamman was celebrated on October 6, and a feast would be organised for all devotees.
“It was at this temple in central Saigon, dedicated to Mariamman, that the most lively interactions between local Cochinchinese and overseas Indians occurred,” Pairaudeau wrote in her 2010 paper. “The temple became increasingly popular in the first half of the 20th century with both Vietnamese and Khmer.”
Till date, the Vietnamese consider Mariamman to be the Indian equivalent of Ba Den (Black Lady), their goddess who, according to the faithful, brings good health and prosperity to her worshippers. “Indeed, the Vietnamese absorption of Khmer practises of Hinduism provided the link between Ba Den and the Indian Hindu deity,” said Pairaudeau.
Local lore in Saigon is replete with stories of how misunderstandings were common between Tamils and Vietnamese when it came to Hindu traditions. The Vietnamese were puzzled 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 minor racial flare-up when a guard stopped two Vietnamese women with babies from entering the temple. Allegations and counter-allegations flew between both sides, with the Vietnamese women inventing stories about the “Bengali” guard. Punjabi and Pashtoon guards were often referred to as Bengalis in Vietnam, while most other non-Tamils were called “Bombay”.
Once these kinds of misunderstandings were cleared up, devotees from various ethnic backgrounds began to throng the temple. It is now a tradition for Vietnamese to make offerings to Mariamman, including jasmine garlands, 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 period of three years in the late 1940s. There is very little that distinguishes the temple from a typical Mariamman temple in Tamil Nadu. It has a Shiva lingam and idols of Murugan and Ganesha. Its mandapam and outer sanctum walls contain idols of Bhairavi, Parvathy and Chamundi (all forms of Mariamman). It also accommodates other important gods of the Hindu pantheon such as Krishna.
One of the small local features of the temple is the green Vietnamese shutter windows. There is no Tamil signage in the temple now.
Departure of the French
During the Second World War, the Japanese took over Vietnam, using it as base to attack China. Given that the Tamil community would at most have numbered a few thousand, there is very little information about them during this period. It is safe to assume, however, that most Indian-origin renouncers would have fled with the French.
After the war ended, the French returned, but only for a brief while. There was a series of long-drawn battles that finally resulted in a French defeat. In 1954, France relinquished all territorial claims in the Indochinese peninsula. At that time, Vietnam was divided between communist North Vietnam and South Vietnam, which was backed by the United States.
The Chettiar and Tamil Muslim communities stayed on in South Vietnam, despite the permanent departure of the French. The temple continued to function as normal through the Vietnam War. In 1975, when Saigon was liberated by North Vietnam, and the United States was defeated, most members of the Tamil and other Indian communities fled the reunited country.
The new government took over the administration of the temple and handed it over to a People’s Committee, which immediately banned any direct payments to the priests. Devotees were instead asked to put any financial contributions in collection boxes from where the money could be used to pay the priests and maintain the temple.
The last surviving Tamil priest of the temple adopted two Khmer boys and taught them Hindu rituals. The current priests are believed to be their children.
Since the mid-1990s, the Chettiar community in Southeast Asia, as well as wealthy Tamils in Malaysia and Singapore have been generous with their financial contributions to the temple. With money coming both from abroad and from devotees in one of Asia’s fastest growing economies, the temple regularly feeds the poor and destitute of Saigon.
Along with Saigon’s Sri Thendayuthapani and Subramaniam temples, the Mariamman temple is one of the major links between Tamil Nadu and the booming city. With more economic opportunities opening up in Vietnam, there is a good opportunity to revive the age-old links between these two parts of the world that predate European colonisation.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2021.