Like people all over the world, the Vietnamese too pray to invoke prosperity, rains and bumper crops.
Three village elders in traditional costumes prepare to offer wine to the God of Farming during a typical praying ritual
Their ancestors, depending on farming for survival and believing deities watched over their everyday lives, worshipped Than Nui (God of Mountains), Than Song (God of Rivers), and Than Nong, the supreme God of Farming.
Facing frequent droughts and generally capricious weather, the Vietnamese knew they had to do something to appease the gods. They offered chickens, pigs, or simply bananas to the gods.
To them Than Nong resembled humans in many respects. The god was represented simply as a human wearing a mandarin hat who behaves in accordance with the season.
Thus, Than Nong bends his head during early spring to sow seeds and stoops down during the harvest season to reap.
According to legend, Than Nong controls the southern region and is referred to as Viem De or Emperor of the Hot Region. Archeologists say, thus, that the deity was probably created during the Neolithic era when Southeast Asia began to develop cultivation. Than Nong is the forebear of King Duong Vuong, Lac Long Quan, and Hung Kings, all founders of ancient Viet Nam.
Than Nong is usually venerated with altars bearing the words “nen xa tac” (basis of a state). They are usually placed inside a communal house but it is not uncommon for a temple to be built for the altar.
People make offerings of incense, fruit, rice, and salt. Goats and pigs are cooked whole, with their blood in a bowl and a sharp knife next to it to indicate the food is fresh. The animal’s head is placed facing the shrine to show respect.
As mornings on earth are nights in heaven, a candle is lit in each corner of the shrine or temple so that Than Nong can see what he eats. A jar of water and towel are placed nearby for devotees to perform ablutions before and after prayers.
“Heaven punishes but never punishes someone who is eating” says a Vietnamese proverb. So nothing would be more disrespectful than to disrupt God’s quiet meal. To ensure that, guards stand in two lines in traditional garb (long gown with turbans) while sedge mats are placed on the ground for village elders -- picked to perform the rituals based on their reputation, wisdom and age -- to kneel while praying and lighting incense.
In the past kings revered Than Nong. In 1806 King Gia Long built dan xa tac (state altar), a public platform for twice-yearly offerings near the royal citadel, dedicated to Than Nong.
Than Nong is also worshiped during various other ceremonies. In northern villages, le ha dien or ceremony to begin farm work is held at the beginning of spring when farmers invoke heaven’s blessings.
A respected village elder is selected to represent the village and, in the role of Than Nong, walk to the field to plough the first furrow in what is a precursor to modern groundbreaking ceremonies.
Village notables then march to the communal house where the rest of the village awaits them to pay tribute to Than Nong and other divinities and seek security, prosperity, and a bumper crops.