Tiger fights echo in old arena

The country’s former royal capital city Hue is known as the home of many historically important relics, and one of the most interesting but often over-looked sites is Ho Quyen, Tiger Fighting Arena.

Situated on Bui Thi Xuan Street on the southern bank of the Huong (Perfume) River, the circular structure built in 1830 was the site of gruesome battles between tigers and elephants. While the arena is not of Roman proportions, it is imposing, has been preserved well and is a unique example of Southeast Asian architecture.

“It’s an extraordinary example of architecture in the city,” said Nguyen Dac Tuyen from Viet A Travel, one of many tour operators in the city who take visitors to the arena.

“The arena’s brick walls are still the original walls and the structure’s design has remained intact, despite the war and the wet climate here.

“The arena reminds visitors of the Colosseum in Rome.”

The battles at the Ho Quyen Arena were held by the royal court as ritual offerings to the gods, and unfortunately for the tigers, the fights were fixed so that the elephants would always win. Some of the grisly clashes were also held as entertainment for the king and members of the royal court.

The beastly battles were held long before the arena was built in 1830, during the reign of King Minh Mang. For many centuries elephants symbolised the royal court and were also used in real battles against foreign armies. This was the reason why tigers were starved and sometimes drugged before a fight with an elephant.

An older site of fights between wild beasts in Hue was the Da Vien hillock in the middle of what is now the Huong (Perfume) River. Spectators used to sit on boats around the hillock to see the fierce fights. The most bloody fighting was seen in 1750 when 40 elephants finally killed 18 tigers.

During the reign of King Gia Long, a large yard in front of former Royal Citadel was used to train solders in the art of combat, and sometimes they would grapple with wild tigers. One particularly bloody event saw a tiger kill 10 soldiers in the year 1700.

King Minh Mang decided to build an arena in Thuy Bieu Village, 4km west of Royal Citadel to provide a safer place for the tiger fights.

The open-air arena was built in the shape of an ellipse with two thick, circular walls around an earthen rampart, with stairs leading to the top of the wall, one set reserved for the king and his family, and another for the rest of the court and other spectators. Opposite the royal rostrum there are five tiger cages where there are still claw marks visible in the plaster walls.

The arena has five stages for tigers and a big entrance for elephants.

There are two staircases – one for the King and mandarins and the other for soldiers and civilians.

After the arena was built, fights between elephants and tigers became even more fierce, with the fight only ending after the tiger’s death. The elephants kept by the royal court were trained for battle and symbols of the king’s power, while the tigers represented evil.

“In the past time, people thought that tigers should be sacrificed to the gods, so that’s the reason why tigers used to be killed in the arena,” said Tuyen, a historian who has studied the arena for 20 years.

A fight between 12 elephants and three tigers, which was held during the reign of King Minh Mang, saw the three tigers eventually killed, but three elephants also died.

During the Nguyen dynasty, elephants played an increasingly important role in the military, so fighting against tigers was crucial training for them.

The king ordered the construction of temples to worship elephants, which were killed in fights against tigers or on the battle field. The elephant worship temple is also an important relic in the Hue monument complex, which was recognised by UNESCO as a cultural heritage site in 1993.

The last fight in the arena was held in 1940 during the reign of King Thanh Thai and the clash saw an elephant kill a tiger by crushing it against the arena’s brick walls before trampling it with its feet.

“The arena is still one of the most visited sites in the city after the Royal Citadel and Imperial Palace,” said local guide Tran Anh Tuan.

Tuan, who was born in Hue, said he visited the arena for the first time when he was a child.

“At that time it was like a huge ground for children to play and now I know, it’s one of the most magnificent buildings not only in Viet Nam, but in Southeast Asia. It’s like a small version of the Colosseum in Asia.” — VNS

To the death: The arena built in 1830 hosted gruesome battles between elephants and tigers. — FIle Photos

Beastly battles: The open-air arena was built in the shape of an elipse with two thick, circular walls around an earthen rampart, with stairs leading to the top of the wall.

Must-see: The arena is still one of the most visited sites in the city after the Royal Citadel and Imperial Palace.

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