Sunday, July 5, 2009

Sacred places

The most sacred sites in any Vietnamese town are the pagoda, temple and communal house. Tuan Anh checks out all three in Bac Ninh province.

The 1B national highway, which connects Hanoi with the far northeastern province of Lang Son, makes for a short trip to Bac Ninh province. After a swift drive of 20km, you can find yourself in Dinh Bang village standing outside Den Do (Do Temple), which was built nearly one thousand years ago by the Vietnamese King Ly Thai Tong.

This was his hometown and the temple, which was constructed in 1030AD, was later used to worship the eight kings of the Ly Dynasty, hence it also bares the name Den Ly Bat De (The Temple of the Eight Ly Kings). The Ly dynasty was devoutly Buddhist and the temple is concealed in a highly traditional and tranquil landscape, which seems to have avoided invasive modernisation.

The temple grounds covers an area of 31,250sqm and includes a scenic half-moon shaped lake, which seems to offer instant relief by reconnecting visitors to nature. Through the Five-Dragon Gate, I enter the main shrine. Outside, I spot Ly Thai To’s (formerly Ly Cong Uan) Edict on the Transfer of the Capital from Hoa Lu to Dai La (now Hanoi), issued in 1010AD after he founded the Ly Dynasty.

The main shrine houses statues of the eight kings and overlooks a beautiful pavilion in the middle of the lake. It’s the perfect spot for a 15-minute break especially as you can feel a cool breeze even on a hot summer’s day. “This pavilion is where villagers often hold traditional quan ho (love duets) performances or where the audience stands to watch a water puppet shows in the lake,” says Hoang Van Bach, a local resident.

After leaving the temple, I head to the village’s communal house, which also bares the name of Dinh Bang. This is one of the oldest and finest communal houses in Vietnam. Constructed from 1700AD to 1736AD, its structure includes a three-gate door, two left and right wings and a ceremonial hall, which is linked to the back sanctuary hall making the shape of a Chinese character meaning “communal”.

Dinh Bang communal house is constructed using large pillars made from teak. Its floor is elevated to 0.7 metres above the ground, making it highly durable and resistant to humidity and floods. The house is used for worshipping the Mountain God, the Water God and the Farm God, as well as the six individuals who led the reestablishment of Dinh Bang Village in the 15th century after it was razed by Chinese invaders.

It also functions as the village’s meeting hall and is home to the village’s government office. As I wander around two women spread rice seeds across the communal house’s spacious courtyard to dry them under the bright sun, making a striking golden carpet that somehow compliments and completes the idyllic rural scene.

“The communal house and its courtyard are the heart and soul of a typical Vietnamese village, serving as the venue for most of our community activities, so we all love our communal house,” says Nguyen Thi Vai, one of the women drying rice in the yard. “On a quiet and sunny day, the courtyard makes a good, clean drying site for rice seeds.

We have been doing this for centuries and it does not harm anyone, even though they recently put up a sign on this courtyard to prohibit it.” My last stop is Phat Tich Pagoda in Phat Tich Commune, Tien Du District, not far away from Ding Bang village in Tu Son Town. There is not much to see at the moment as the main structure, built in 1057AD, and has been destroyed and restored over the centuries and is currently under restoration again.

A giant jade Buddha statue has set off for Australia after making a stop at this pagoda as part of a world tour. The showcase attracted thousands of visitors and caused a bit of mess around the site. But the special thing about Phat Tich Pagoda is the history. This area was where Indian Buddhism first made arrived in Vietnam back in the first century AD and created a foundation for Buddhism to flourish in Vietnam.

After the pagoda was officially built in the 11th century, it became a major Buddhism centre for the Ly Dynasty. The scenery is also breathtaking as the pagoda sits on the side of the imposing Phat Tich mountain. Getting through the lush front garden and the pagoda’s various structures, I start to climb the stone stair up the mountain into a forest of pine and sandalwood trees.

The silent walk into nature takes me closer to a feeling of absolute peace and tranquillity – the key to getting in touch with Buddhism.


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