I remember visiting a cave once near Lake Inle in Burma. It had a sulphur spring inside, so when you went into the cave it felt warm and you could smell the Sulphur.
As I entered the cave, I passed by a Buddhist monk who lived on a small platform at the entrance to the cave. Then inside the cave there was a linga.
The linga was ingeniously made, so that sulfur water actually emerged from the tip of the linga, producing a constant small stream of what my guide called “magic water.”
The presence of the Buddhist monk and the linga indicated that this cave had a long history as a sacred site. Lingas are important for Brahmans and Hindus, and the presence of a linga in this cave was a sign that at some point in the past, some Brahman had probably had the linga built there.
That there was a Buddhist monk residing in the cave when I visited, was a sign of how Buddhism had come to supplant Brahmanism in Burma (a transformation that occurred centuries ago).
As such, it was easy to see the role that Brahmanism and Buddhism had played in this cave, but what about before those “foreign” teachings had arrived? Surely the local people must have known about and thought something about that cave before the arrival of those Indian teachings. What had they thought about the cave? What had they called the cave?
It’s now impossible to know, because whatever “indigenous” ideas and beliefs had existed were erased by the Brahmanical and Buddhist ideas that eventually took hold in the region, at least among the elite.
I was recently looking at some writings about mountains in Vietnam, when I realized that the same phenomenon took place there as well.
Today there is a mountain in the northern part of Vietnam known as Mount Yên Tử (安子山) that is associated with Buddhism. This association with Buddhism developed during the time of the Trần Dynasty.
Before that time, however, Mount Yên Tử had certain Daoist associations.
Lê Tắc’s 1335 Brief Account of An Nam (An Nam chí lược 安南志略), the fifteenth-century Ming gazetteer the Annan zhiyuan (安南志原), and the nineteenth-century Nguyễn Dynasty commission Unified Gazetteer of Đại Nam (Đại Nam nhất thống chí 大南一统志) all indicate that this mountain was earlier associated with the Qin Dynasty-era immortal, An Qisheng 安期生.
Indeed, “Yên Tử” (安子) can be translated as “Master An.” So the name of this mountain could be understood to mean “Master An’s Mountain.”
Meanwhile, Du Guangting 杜光庭, a Daoist writer who lived during the late Tang and early Five Dynasties period wrote a text called A Record of Grotto Heavens and Blessed Lands (Dongtian fudi ji 洞天福地記) in which Mount Yên Tử was referred to as a “blessed land” (fudi/phúc địa 福地), a kind of sacred space according to Daoist thought.
Then there was a book that was produced during the time of the Song Dynasty by Daoist Li Sicong 李思聰 called Illustrations of Famous Mountains amidst the Peaks and Seas (Haiyue mingshan tu 海岳名山圖) which also referred to Mount Yên Tử as a “blessed land” and contained a poem with clear Daoist imagery which stated that,
A place where phoenix-crossing immortals cultivate purity,
And where occasionally appear gold dragons, playing in the azure pool.
From a Daoist “blessed land,” Mount Yên Tử then transformed into a Buddhist sacred mountain during the time of the Trần Dynasty, a time when Zen Buddhism enjoyed great popularity throughout East Asia among the educated elite.
But what, one wonders, did common people think of this mountain? What did people who did not know anything about Daoism or Buddhism or who could not read classical Chinese call this mountain? In other words, what were the “indigenous” ideas and beliefs about this mountain?
As was the case with the cave I visited in Burma, this is something that we do not know. Just as one can discern the presence of different foreign teachings in that cave in Burma, so can one detect the presence of foreign ideas on Mount Yên Tử, but as for “indigeneity,” that is long gone.
That said, a couple of medieval texts might provide a slight glimpse of how this mountain might have been originally viewed.
The Brief Account of An Nam says that Mount Yên Tử was also called “Elephant Mountain” (Tượng Sơn 象山), while the Annan zhiyuan says that it was also referred to as “Elephant Head Mountain” (Tượng Đầu Sơn 象頭山).
These terms were written in classical Chinese, which is not indigenous to the Red River Delta region. However, if they are meant to be translations of the meanings of a local term, then perhaps they do point to some indigenous concept – Núi Voi.
If that is the case, then we have a name that points to something indigenous, but other than that, indigeneity has been erased over time by Daoist and Buddhist worldviews.