Buddha is a sacred belief in Asia in general, and particularly in the Vietnamese people’s religion. With a long-term tradition, Budha idol crafting becomes a job of many Vietnamese people. As a part of that, many families who lived in a quiet quarter in District 6 – HCMC, have been making cement Buddha idols for decades.
The alley near Giac Hai Pagoda has around 10 households which cast them, one of them for the last three generations. Many cement Buddha idols can be seen lining the alley.
The place bustles from 7 a.m to 4 p.m daily as vehicles enter to deliver the raw statue. These are newly taken out of the mould. Craftsmen here, then polish them to make the final statue.
Thi Quoc, 71, a craftsman, makes a statue mould from bricks, sand and cement. “This is an idol of Sakyamuni Buddha in nirvana which is 3 meters long and weighs nearly a ton. It takes up to 10 days to make it, so patience is an important factor in this profession.”
Craftsman Huynh Van Thong carefully draws palm lines on an idol of Sakyamuni Buddha. He has been crafting hands for more than 20 years and is a master at it.
In a quiet room filled with idols of gods and the Buddha, Ba Tien is busy in carefully adding minute details to them. Tien is the owner of Le Van Chanh workshop, one of the oldest and famous statue production houses in the town. “I am the third generation to follow this profession. In the olden days, my ancestors made the idols from jackfruit wood; in the last 60-70 years, we switched to cement and gypsum. I am proud that so far no one has ever complained about our family’s products.”
“The most important thing is to have a passion. Only passion can create the soul of the idols.”
His family’s products are sold locally and also exported to foreign countries, including the U.S., Canada, Japan, and India.
“Making a beautiful idol involves many stages,” Tien says. Every worker is important, whether they cast, peel, scrub or decorate the statue. An idol’s quality is decided also by the eyes and the face which should be lively and soulful, he explains.
In a workshop with dozens of statues in different designs, craftsmen are working. According to the owners, the statue cost VND100.000 to millions of dong, depending on their size, materials and sophistication. Mai Thi Hoang, 64, the daughter of a craftsman, is colouring a God of Fortune.
“The most difficult thing is to make the shape and colour look lively,” she says, revealing that her father taught her to focus on the beautiful traits of Buddha when making an idol. “I know I have not mastered the task, but I’m trying.”
“Whether a statue is small or big, simple or complex, it must be made meticulously so that it can be beautiful and soulful,” she thought.
The wages of the workers depend on their expertise and output and range from VND150.000 to VND800.000 ($6.4-34.3) per day.
Workers bring a Buddha idol back to the warehouse and replace it with another after a customer refused to take delivery since it was too big.
According to the artisans, due to the availability of many different materials such as stone, bronze and composite, the craft of making Buddha idols is gradually waning. Moreover, with the development of the economy, the young have various professions to choose so that these Buddha handcrafting artisans don’t know how long this traditional work can remain.