Cao Dai Holy See – Tay Ninh province
Located 3 hours west of Ho Chi Minh City, and not far from the Cambodian border, the Cao Dai Holy See is a site I used to travel to on a regular basis 15 to 17 years ago. Back then of course the 12 noon ceremony of clerics, priests and followers at the Holy See was only starting to become a tourist attraction but it was still a special and solemn experience. As soon as the daily tour buses started to arrive en-mass my interest in the place waned and I never ventured back.
Fast forward to 2010 and I decided that I should see the ceremony again but away from the crowds. It is commonly known that the ceremony takes place at 6am, 12 noon, 6pm and midnight each and every day of the year, with a short break of a few days taken during the Lunar New Year (TET). The thought of staying overnight in Tay Ninh did not automatically appeal, but this was the only way to experience the evening and dawn ceremonies that I knew would provide ample photographic opportunities unencumbered by the normal restrictions placed upon visitors who attend the noon service. My expectations were not only met, they were exceeded.
Leading up to this trip Ho Chi Minh City was blanketed in a week of almost perpetual rain. Granted it is the wet season but as any photographer knows the light after a tropical rain storm can be exceptional and although the road journey west did not promise me these conditions I was blessed with a break of light at 5pm, almost immediately upon my arrival. I got to work immediately to take advantage of the wonderful lighting conditions. The place was devoid of any visitors at all and the local Cao Dai worshippers were very accommodating with this lonesome foreigner. The priests, walking out of their nearby residential quarters, allowed me to take photographs, although it was hard to obtain a relaxed, natural expression from them, hence I preferred to take images of the priests surrounded by their environment rather than close up portraits.
Besides the obvious photographic attraction of the priests in their colour coded attire, I was enthused to take images of the everyday followers entering the Holy See in time for the evening prayers. One young boy, who must have been only 6 years old, was straggling behind his mother and I waited for his lonesome figure to highlight the human element with the pillars of the temple framing the image (see top). The rain soaked ground and suddenly broken cloud cover provided the light and contrast to add atmosphere to the image and hence it remains one of my favourite from the shoot.
Whilst the light on the outside was inspiring, it was dark and patchy inside the temple and although I was able to shoot some good images at a high ISO of 3000 to 5000, I left the majority of the ceremony shots to the following morning as I knew that dawn would provide me with better opportunities. Sure enough the morning light was on my side and by the time of the 6am ceremony there was enough light filtering through the windows for me to shoot the proceedings with a drop of the ISO and less threat of camera shake. Although the security at the temple does not allow the visitor to roam freely (and understandably so), I had the place entirely to myself so I felt privileged at the courtesy they offered me.
When one thinks of the phrase “CaoDai,” they will associate it with a political group involved in protest of French rule in Vietnam, if they have ever heard of it at all. In actuality, while CaoDaiists did play a part in these protests, CaoDai is a primarily indigenous Vietnamese religion that encompasses many other world religions but is also extraordinarily unique in its belief system and practices.
CaoDai was officially founded through a medium session 1926 by Ngo Van Chieu (a.k.a. Ngo Minh Chieu), an official of the French colonial administration that was widely read in both Eastern and Western religion with a particular interest in spiritism (Ellwood). One of the main points of CaoDaiism can be seen as early as this point in its history: it is a religion not founded by a man like Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism were, but rather by God (Dai Dao) himself.
In 1943 a Cao Dai army was established during the Japanese occupation of Indochina. After the war the Cao Dai was an effective force in national politics; it first supported, then opposed, Premier Ngo Dinh Diem. In 1955–56 Diem disbanded the Cao Dai army and forced the sect’s pope, Pham Cong Tac, into exile.
After the communist takeover in 1975, Cao Dai was reportedly repressed by the government. Centers of worship were established in Vietnamese refugee communities abroad, however, and by the early 1990s Cao Dai was reported to have some two million adherents in Vietnam, Cambodia, France, and the United States.
Today, Cao Dai adherents may number as high as 6 million, at least according to Cao Dai sources. The headquarters of Cao Dai are at Tay Ninh, near Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), however, smaller Cao Dai temples can be found all over Southern Vietnam and the Mekong Delta. All of them hold worshipping ceremonies and although attendance is much smaller than the Holy See, they are well worth visiting, if only for a more intimate experience.
Click on thumbnails to view gallery of other images from this assignment
Images taken during the Cao Dai dawn service at the Holy See in Tay Ninh