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The pagoda that sent its monks and nuns to fight for their country

Update: August, 11/2017 - 10:18
Authentic touch: Dragon carvings on the pagoda roof.
Viet Nam News

By Bạch Liên

Among the thousands of pagodas in Việt Nam, Cổ Lễ Pagoda in the northeastern province of Nam Dinh stands out. For centuries, inhabitants have cited three strange aspects of the edifice: its architectural mix of occident and orient, its bell, and its courageous monks and nuns who joined armies to fight against invaders. 

Located in Cổ Lễ town of Trực Ninh District, Cổ Lễ Pagoda was built by Zen Buddhist Nguyễn Minh Không during the Lý dynasty under the reign of King Lý Thần Tông (1128-1138). The pagoda was originally built of wood and was heavily degraded over the centuries. Superior Buddhist Monk Phạm Quang Tuyên rebuilt it in 1902, inspired by European Gothic architecture.

He designed the pagoda himself, creating arched domes to make it resemble a cathedral, but preserved the spirit of a traditional Vietnamese pagoda with its curved tiled roof. The curved corners of the roof are also decorated with typical stone carvings of dragons.

In front of the pagoda is the nine-storey lotus-shaped tower, called in Vietnamese “Cửu phẩm liên hoa”. The octagonal base of the 32m high tower sits on the back of a turtle facing the pagoda. Inside is a staircase spiraling to the top, from where limber visitors get a panoramic view of the area.

Jewelled bronze: The pagoda is famous for its large 9,000-kg bell cast in 1937.

Big Bell

In the centre of the pagoda stands a 9,000kg bronze bell cast in 1937, one of the biggest pagoda bells in the country, measuring 4.2m in height and 2.2m in diametre. The bronze was mixed with jewels donated to the pagoda by local inhabitants.

When the casting ended, war against French colonial invaders broke out. The monks tried to hide the bell by sinking it in the lake by the pagoda so the French invaders would not see it. It was only fished out in 1954, and has since occupied a place of honour above the lake surface.

Restful charm: The nenuphar lake at the pagoda.


The pagoda is also famous for the fact that all its 27 monks and nuns joined the army to fight against invaders in 1947, following President Hồ Chí Minh’s appeal for national resistance.

“No other pagoda had such a large number of monks and nuns taking part in the war,” said Most Venerable Thích Tâm Vượng, deputy chairman of the provincial Vietnam Buddhist Sangha Executive Committee who has been head of the Cổ Lễ pagoda for several years.

Four patriotic verses reflecting the revolutionary pride of the monks and nuns before going to the battlefield were carved on a stele of the pagoda :

“We take off the Buddhist monk frock to wear the military coat

Unsheathe the sword; carry the guns, to eliminate invaders

We leave the pagoda to save the country

Ready to sacrifice our lives for the country”

Twelve of those 27 monk soldiers did not come back. The survivors went back to the pagoda or continued on a military path.


Lotus shape: An ancient bridge connects the nine-storey tower in front of the pagoda to the main buildings. — VNS Photos Bạch Liên

One of those survivors is General Đinh Thế Hinh who lives in Hà Nội’s Thanh Xuân District. At 90 years old, he still remembers clearly the day when he and others decided to take up arms.

In his diary he kept, he wrote: “On February 27 1947, after a solemn flag salute ceremony, superior Buddhist Monk Thích Thế Long received 27 Buddhist frocks from 27 monks and nuns, and placed them on the Buddhist altar. He put on the heads of those monks and nuns the soldiers’ hats to which were attached golden stars. He then created a group of 27 soldiers of the National Defense army under Regiment 34."

Occidental-oriental: The pagoda was recognised by the Ministry of Culture for its architectural and artistic values in 1988.

During wartime, the pagoda became a safe house for secret revolutionary activities. After the war, Thích Thế Long became deputy chairman of the National Assembly of Việt Nam. After his death in 1985, a street in Nam Định city was named after him.

Every year, the pagoda festival held from September 13-16 attracts tens of thousands of people including non-Buddhists. They come here to admire the great architectural work, rest in a peaceful landscape shaded by age-old trees, and contemplate the tranquil nenuphar lake near the entrance to the pagoda which has become one of the most important historic and cultural sites of the Red River Delta. — VNS


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