In support of the latter theory it is significant that the founders and directors of this movement were all men who had spent most of their lives in the harness of a profession or in the civil service. To have been successful as they had been in these walks of life would have left them little time to cultivate taste, if they happened to have been born without it. I was interested, subsequently, to note in the ensuing ritual that, although the Governor of South Vietnam kowtowed energetically before the altar, no attempt was made to induce Monsieur Pignon, the High Commissioner, to do so. Profiting by the experiences of even the Emperors of China and Annam with foreign ambassadors, the Cao- Da’ists have recognised the seemingly congenital disinclination of Europeans to performing the kowtow, so that Western converts are excused this form of devotional exercise. Monsieur Pignon did, how¬ever, consent to hold lighted joss-sticks between his clasped fingers and incline his head, even if somewhat distantly, before the massed symbols of Lao-Tse, Confucius, Buddha and Jesus Christ. The siting of the Cao-Daist Rome at Tay-Ninh was by no means acciden¬tal. A few miles from the town a single symmetrical mountain humps up suddenly from the plain, rising from what must be practically sea-level to 3000 feet. As there is not another hillock for fifty miles in any direction to break the flat and featureless monotony of Cochin-China, this darkly forested plum-pudding silhouette is quite remarkable. In a part of the world where every religion has its sacred mountain, such an eminence is obviously irresistible. Consequently it has been since dimmest antiquity a place of revelation. Its slopes are said to be riddled with caves, both natural and artificial, housing at one time or other the cult objects of numerous sects. It was most unfortunate from my point of view that the holy mountain itself was possessed not by the Cao-Daists but the Viet- Minh. This prevented a most interesting visit, although it was in any case improbable that revolutionary iconoclasm had spared the relics of those ancient beliefs.
But there were other survivals of Tay-Ninh’s notable past to be seen in the streets of the town itself; pathetic-looking groups of Chams in the penitents’ robes of the rank and file of the Cao-Dai’st faithful. At the end of the Middle Ages the Annamese, moving southwards from China, had overwhelmed, absorbed, digested the brilliant civilisation of Champa. Now only a few particles of that shattered community remained. They were scattered about in a few isolated villages in Cochin-China and Cambodia, and here they had clung to their holy place.
These Chams were aboriginal Malayo-Polynesians, the only group of that race to have accepted the civilisation of Indian colonisers in the remote past. They made a great impression upon Marco Polo, but judging from the account of the Dominican, Gabriel de San Antonio, who visited them in the sixteenth century, there was a nightmarish element in their civilisation. It was brilliant but unbalanced and psycho¬pathic, like that of the Aztecs. The Chams could place themselves in the vanguard of the technical achievement of their day, devise new agri¬cultural methods, undertake vast irrigational projects, encourage the arts and sciences. And yet one half of the racial mind never developed. Stone age beliefs, like grim Easter-Island faces, were always there in the background. On certain days, San Antonio says, they sacrificed over six thousand people, and their gall was collected and sent to the King, who bathed in it to gain immortality.
These degenerate survivors of that glittering, sinister past were Brahmanists or Muslims, or both combined. The metaphysical appetite of South-East Asia is insatiable and its tolerance absolute. The modern Chams find no difficulty in worshipping the Hindu Trinity, the linga, the bull of Siva, a pythoness, Allah – who is believed to have been an eleventh century Cham king – plus Mohammed and a number of uncom¬prehended words taken from Muslim sacred invocations and regarded as the names of deities, each with its special function. They are inclined to give their children such names as Dog, Cat, Rat to distract from them the attentions of evil spirits. For this reason there were several Cham kings named excrement. One assumes that the Chams will have little difficulty in adding to their already enormous catalogue of rituals and credences those few new ones imposed by the Cao-Daists.
From the newspaper account I learned that on leaving the cathedral, ‘preceded by a unicorn, a dragon and a band playing une marche precipiteuse, escorted by a numerous suite carrying the car of the Buddha, the portraits of Sun-Yat-Sen and Victor Hugo, and the statue of Joan of Arc’, we marched to the Vatican. The streets, said the account, were lined with adepts dressed in togas of red, blue, yellow and white. In the general commotion I must have missed some of this. I should have much enjoyed the processional unicorn, which I failed to see either then or at any other time. I recall, however, the dragon; a fine capering beast which on its hind legs leaped up into the air and tossed its head most desperately to the jerky rhythm of fife and drum. The report failed to mention a guard of honour of the Cao-Daist army, equipped with well-made wooden imitation rifles. When I mentioned the matter of the toy guns, I was told that it was out of respect for the sanctity of the surroundings.
The Vatican was the administrator’s villa all over again, except that His Holiness had an evident liking for grandmother clocks. Fanned by turkey’s feathers, hosts and guests exchanged lengthy platitudes of goodwill, which at random were broken off for a stroll in the garden, or a visit to the champagne bar, and then renewed without the slightest embarrassment, as if no interruption had taken place.