Since the year 2009 is the year of the buffalo according to the lunar calendar, we dedicate this issue to learning more about festivals and other cultural activities centering around the buffalo.
Buffaloes are used as the major transportation in the countryside and mountainous areas.
Festivals involving the buffalo are celebrated differently from region to region, but they all arise from the natural rhythm of planting and harvesting which governs the life of the Vietnamese people. These festivals are usually celebrated early in the lunar year, after the harvest but before spring planting, when farmers enjoy more free time.
The Dinh Bang festival of Bac Ninh province is celebrated from the 15th to the 18th of the first lunar month and involves the barbecueing of an entire buffalo, which is offered to the gods. The same custom is part of the new year festival celebrated from the 11th to the 12th in Thuong Liet, Dong Hung district, Thai Binh province.
Then there is the La Van festival celebrated on the 4th which includes a ceremony leading a buffalo and carrying a plough to the communal house to mark the start of a new planting season. The Festival of the First Furrow celebrated in Ha Tinh province, from the 7th to the 15th is quite similar.
In feudal times, residents of the capital held an elaborate procession with buffalo statues that would go all around the Thang Long citadel. The festival to honor the god of agriculture also involved buffaloes.
Of all the buffalo festivals, perhaps the most typical and traditional is the Choi trau or buffalo-fighting festival. This festival is celebrated throughout the country, but the most famous takes place in Do Son in the area of Hai Phong city.
The origin of this festival is unknown, but it is written in the Dai Nam nhat thong chi (Records of the Unified Great South), “At the foot of the Do Son mountain in Nghi Duong district stands a temple to the god of water.
Legend has it that a local saw two buffaloes fighting with each other every night in front of the temple; therefore, the Choi trau festival was held every year on the tenth of the eight month.” To this day, the festival is still held on that date.
An annual buffalo-fighting festival in Do Son, Hai Phong province
Although the main festival is only a day, it takes half a year to prepare for it. After a ceremony performed at the beginning of the second lunar month, male buffaloes are purchased and brought home for raising and training. The buffaloes must be completely black.
Naturally they must be strong with balanced horns, small heads, flat foreheads, clear eyes, long necks, small bellies, long thighs and short forelegs. Once purchased, they are taken to a secluded place and given special treatment and training. After two trial rounds, one in mid-May, and one in June, six of fourteen buffaloes are chosen to take part in the actual festival.
The Choi trau festival takes place right in front of the Do Son communal house in a six-hectare arena encircled by flags on stakes. Temporary cages are erected on either side for the buffaloes waiting to compete.
Before the matches begin, however, there is a big procession introducing the buffaloes to the crowd. At the sound of the drum roll, a palanquin carried by twelve men, followed by clarinets and drums, parades around the arena. The six buffaloes follow, adorned with red cloth and flowers on their backs and pink ribbons on their horns and escorted by two men each.
When the procession reaches the front of the communal house, a drum roll sounds and twelve men dressed in red enter the arena to perform a dance that will open the competition. Following the traditional rules, the six buffaloes are paired off into three khap (pairs). The three winners in this round will then enter the final round to determine the first, second and third places.
At a signal from the referee, the first pair is led into the ring. The animal stand face-to-face about 20 meters apart and their escorts quickly remove the rope from their nostrils and with-draw from the arena. At first the two buffaloes stand still looking at each other, but then suddenly they rush towards one another and lock horns.
As they each struggle to knock down their opponent, the audience shouts words of encouragement. Matches can last as long as an hour. When one of the buffaloes gives up or runs away, the winning buffalo will immediately run after it. At that time, a brave man is needed to capture the winner, signaling the end of the match. To this day the Choi trau festival remains very popular in the region of Hai Phong.
All the festivals described so far are particular to the Kinh, the ethnic group that constitutes the majority of Viet Nam. Yet ethnic minority groups also celebrate the buffalo. For example, the Cham people offer white buffaloes to the gods as part of their festival called Cau Dao which prays for rain.
During the first three lunar months, the Cham of Phu Yen province also build a buffalo pillar to pray for blessings and to express their gratitude to Giµng (the highest god in the pantheon). In the second lunar month, the Cham in Khanh Hoa province celebrate the Po Nagar (or the Parale Rija Sah) festival in which they drop statues of buffaloes into the water as offerings to the god Po Nagar in return for abundant crops.
People of the Thai ethnic group slaughter buffaloes as sacrifices to spirits in the the Xen Muong festival and in the Muong Thai pillar erecting festival held once every twelve years. The Muong of Thanh Hoa Province hold the Xec Vua festival in which they choose a buffalo to plough the first furrow in the fields as a way to ensure abundance for that year.
The most typical buffalo festival held by the ethnic minority groups is the Buffalo Slaughtering Festival celebrated by the E De, the Gia Rai, the Pa-co, and other ethnic groups in Tay Nguyen.
The time, scale, and reason for the festival can vary. Often it is held to celebrate a victory, to inaugurate a communal house, to pray for peace, to offer thanks, or to bring in the new year. In this festival a buffalo is tied to a blang khao pillar, which has been erected in a ceremony of its own, and ritually slaughtered.
The rituals and ceremonies centering around the buffalo are an integral part of many village festivals, both of the Kinh and other ethnic groups, and they are an expression of the desire for abundant crops and a peaceful, happy life.