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Thanh Thu joins the pilgrims heading for Hanoi’s Chuong My District to visit one of the country’s oldest and most famous pagodas, Chua Tram Gian

At Tien Phuong commune on the outskirts of Hanoi people from all walks of life are gathering for a pilgrimage. The destination is Tram Gian pagoda on So mountain.

Also known as Tien Lu and Quang Nghiem pagoda, the religious site was first constructed in Tien Lu village in 1185. During the Tran Dynasty (1225-1400), a monk by the name of Binh An (Peace) from the neighbouring district Thanh Oai’s Boi Khe village decided to renovate the pagoda.

An was said to be extremely intelligent but also something of a magician. Legend has it that he could turn himself into a giant and where his feet fell he would leave a pond or a lake behind. He passed away at the age of 95 and after his death his soul frequently appeared to advise the locals, who worshipped him as a saint.

When the Chinese Ming advanced on Vietnamese territory, the soldiers ran amok, robbing, pillaging and looting pagodas, temples and houses before razing them to the ground. But when the soldiers approached Tram Gian pagoda, An’s spirit made it rain blood and the soldiers were scared off by this creepy and ominous omen.

You have to climb several hundred steps and walk down an alley paved with bricks and stone to find the pagoda but it’s worth the effort. First you will see a two-storey bell tower of eight elegantly corner-curved roofs. Known as the Bell Tower of Tram Gian, its detailed art work still survives.

A large terracotta platform supports an ornately carved altar bearing lotus flower, legends, and dragon, tiger, horse, and elephant reliefs. Nearby stands the black-lacquer wooden statue of Tuyet Son styled on one found in the Himalayas.

The imagery goes on at every turn: arranged and ornate altars to worship 18 Arhats and the Ruler of Hell in the Ten Great Halls, a separate pagoda and altar to worship Saint Boi or Monk Nguyen Lu also known as Binh Yen. Legend has it the statue is actually his rattan preserved body covered by an oil cloth.

In the pagoda itself, a statue lauds General Dang Tien Dong, who served King Quang Trung in the historic battle of Dong Da, and then in 1794 helped repair the pagoda, casting its bell and erecting stele. He too was commemorated as one of the architects, if not of the pagoda itself, then certainly of its place in history.



A magical festival

Tram Gian pagoda’s festival is a regional one jointly organised by a number of villages in the district and Boi Khe, where Binh An was born. The festival officially lasts from the fourth to the sixth day of the first lunar month but unofficially it runs until the tenth day of the month. Tens of thousands of pilgrims descend on the pagoda over the course of the week.

You will hear gongs reverberating, the banging of drums, as young men dressed in vermillion silk coats, twinkling green silk belts, white trousers, and yellow shoes, shuffle past with a gilded palanquin towards the pagoda. The palanquin is accompanied by a traditional orchestra and an entourage of pilgrims carrying parasols, handheld fans, pennons and spears. Bamboo horses and elephants on wheels flanked by traditionally dressed warriors also come marching through.

After the procession makes its way into the pagoda the locals follow clutching handfuls of incense and votive offerings.

Check mate

After the ceremony it’s time for the pilgrim to let their hair down. At the festival there are tonnes of traditional games and puppet shows. There will also be a lavish feast with ‘oan’ – a cone-shaped cake made from roasted glutinous rice flour.

Most of the participants look forward to Danh Co (chess) which was traditionally played with actual humans. Nowadays, human-sized figures made out of wood are used.

Anyone can play. But all participants must qualify after playing other hopefuls on a normal sized board. In the past the games were more sacred and solemn but now the game is a lively event. Drummers keep a rhythm going while spectators cheer and applaud decisive moves. Sometimes games can last for up to two hours.

Pham Van Nam, a 64-year old chess-veteran stresses the need for patience and calm. “You cannot play for form’s sake and hurry through a match,” says Nam. “If you want to be successful, you must be cautious.”

Another player, 72-year old Bui Thanh Mien believes that chess expresses Oriental people’s desire to solve problems through wisdom rather than violence.

“The chessboard represents our way of life,” Mien says. “If you carefully observe players’ gestures, moves and the way they hold the pieces, you can see who they are. Whoever is narrow-minded, moves with only immediate benefits in mind. Whoever is cunning, uses tricks, whoever is insighful and good-tempered, balances offense and defense effectively,” Mien says.


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