by Vuong Bach Lien
The bell resounds from the Tram Gian (hundred com-partment) Pagoda on a late winter afternoon as I enter through its giant, pillared gate into a large brick yard.
|Sound of a nation: Tram Gian Pagoda is known nationwide for its 600-year-old bell tower.
At the end of the yard, a path made of hundreds of brick stairs lead up to the sacred site, huddled in the shade of centuries old pine trees.
Incense in hand, I feel surprisingly peaceful and serene here.
I am in Tien Lu Village, only 20km southwest from central Ha Noi. The pagoda, founded in 1185 during the reign of King Ly Cao Tong, is also known as Quang Nghiem, Tien Lu or Nui and has undergone various forms of reconstruction and restoration over time.
Worshippers at the pagoda pay homage to Buddha and Saint Boi, known for having mastered Buddhism and for his many miracles.
Legend has it that during the Tran dynasty (1225-1400) in Boi Khe Village, a woman dreamt of the Buddha's birth after which she herself fell pregnant and bore a son. Nine years later, after the deaths of his parents, the boy left home to study Buddhism at the local Dai Bi Pagoda.
Holy baskets! A local woman sells rattan goods at Tram Gian Pagoda.
|Tantilising toys: To he (toy figurines) attract children at the Tram Gian pagoda festival. — VNS Photos Bach Lien
At 15, while visiting Tien Lu, he fell in love with the natural beauty of the area and called on the head monk of a mountain pagoda to teach him sutras. After 10 years, the young man mastered Buddhism and became famous.
Aware of his reputation, the Tran King invited him to a pagoda in Thang Long Citadel and gave him the venerable name Duc Minh. Following the death of the head monk at Tien Lu Pagoda, Duc Minh returned to his village and built a new one. At the age of 95, the monk locked himself in a wooden chamber, saying good-bye to his disciples and freed his soul.
A 100 days later, his disciples opened the chamber, finding his scented remains which later preserved in a tower (stupa) and worshipped as that of Saint Boi.
Recognised as a national historical relic by the culture ministry, the sacred place has attracted thousands of visitors every year thanks to its original architecture and precious collections.
"Local habitants often consider four pillars sufficient in making a compartment. Accordingly, the pagoda has a total of 104 rooms," explains Nguyen Thi Chat, head monk of the pagoda.
The pagoda includes the Gia Ngu house which overlooks a lotus pond and is used to accommodate the saintly palanquin from which the water puppet performance is viewed. Its second structure comprises blue marble steps and a two-storey bell-tower, built in 1693.
"It is known as one of the oldest bell-towers in Viet Nam," Chat said.
The tower includes eight elegantly curved corner roofs and banisters on four sides complete with cloud and floral motives. Its columns are carved with intricate lotus shapes as well as wood panels in the shapes of dragons, flowers, leaves, clouds and the sky. Below the roof hangs a copper bell cast in 1794. It is 1.4m in height, 0.6m in diameter and includes a chiselled poem by Phan Huy Ich.
After climbing another nine marble steps, carved with dragons on both sides, I arrived at the main temple where incense smoke spiralled around the altars. In a similar vein to everyone else, I clasped my hands together and prayed for fortune to find my family and me.
The pagoda preserves a collection of 153 Buddha statues, mostly of wood except for some made of terra cotta and ceramics. The most precious among them include the Tuyet Son Buddha, carved out of black jack-tree wood, and the statue of Admiral Dang Tien Dong, a military mandarin of the Tay Son insurgent troop who contributed to the renovation of the pagoda after his victory against Qing in 1789.
A statue of Saint Boi is also preserved in a wooden room.
Other relics include a stone dragon of the Tran dynasty made as a banister, many Mac dynasty bricks used to build the Tam The statues (The Buddha of the Past, Present and Future) as well as paintings and bas-reliefs depicting animals and Arhats.
To commemorate Saint Boi, an annual festival is held at the pagoda on 4th-6th day of the first lunar month. Following Tet (Lunar New Year holidays), I attended the festival with my family. Highlights included a procession of the Saint's palanquin, a vegetarian cooking contest and many popular folk games such as human chess, wrestling and water puppetry.
"I cannot wait to attend the festival every year," said Pham Thanh Hoa, a 20 year-old girl from the village.
"Sometimes I take part in the cooking contest. It's so much fun. I hope the festival will continue forever."
Surrounded by the crowd, I enjoy hot green tea while listening to the sweet melodies of folk songs emanating from the dragon boat on the pond near the entrance gate.
My mind has become surprisingly tranquil, a state not easily reached in this day and age. — VNS