Keo Pagoda in Thai Binh – Architectural masterpieces of the 17th century
Keo Pagoda is an architectural complex consisting of variety of buildings. Besides some relatively intact buildings, many of it were restored, renovated or replaced over times featuring more modern style. In spite of changes, it has remained special characteristic of one-time architecture. This article shall only focus on typical work of architecture work.
Keo Pagoda has a unique architectural feature with mainly wooden material and skillful glyphs which makes it a particular style.
Keo Pagoda panorama constructed at that time includes 21 buildings with 157 compartments. Today, Keo Pagoda remains 17 buildings with 128 compartments, consisting of principle architectural works such as Buddhist temple, Holy palace, bell tower, corridor, monastery and tower garden etc.
1. Three-entrance gate system
In pagoda architecture particularly and other variety of works in Vietnam generally, three-entrance gate is an indispensable sub-project. It is the front path of pagoda consisting of three ways; however it is not simply an entrance, but also an architectural masterpiece.
Three-entrance gate system of Keo Pagoda is divided into two segments: internal three-entrance gate and external three-entrance gate. From dyke pavement down to three step staircase, passing by a spacious yard, to arrive the external three-entrance gate. It is a house of three compartments without surrounding wall or door. Entire building is supported by four stable iron-wood pillars, which creates an open and airy space for visitors to stop for a while before entering the pagoda.
The most notable thing is the internal thee-entrance gate which is regarded as the unique architectural building of Keo Pagoda. Normally, three-entrance gate system or four huge pillars create three entrance paths to building front, or are constructed as a house of three entrance doors (like Dai Cung Mon gate of Forbidden Purple City in Hue Citadel). But at the internal three-entrance gate of Keo Pagoda, at first standing outside to have an overview, it is seemingly a house of three compartments with front yard doors, but when stepping up the yard the house has just three pillar lines; entire doors and thresholds are installed into main pillar line thrusting upward the roof. There remains only one pillar line frontward and backward, which is both yard pillar and sub-pillar. Therefore, there exist no palace but doors and yard from any side. That is the architectural style featuring “Sắc – Không” Buddhist philosophy.
Especially middle compartment’s door set of three-entrance gate has two wings of 1.3m wide upon close forming a complete bas-relief carving the theme “Two dragons kowtowing the moon“. Door centre is carved with a huge moon, each wing is with mother and child dragon and the lower corner is with small dragon all heading to the moon.
Harmony demonstrated by artisan is in detail that: on an iron-wood slab with carving depth of less than 3cm, he managed to precisely show far and wide, dark and bright laws of traditional sculpture art. Dragon body is looming with small ones twisting round. Mother dragon features fiercely hair, twisted body while small dragon bears a leisurely appearance hidden behind mother shade. Entire dragon lip, beard and mane seem to fire up. Cloud stains around dragon body emerging in blazing sea of fire. Delicate and precise glyphs together with secure layout contribute to make an unreal mascot become incredibly lively.
2. Populations inside the temple architecture
Architectural complex inside the pagoda was designed in form “Nội công ngoại quốc” (internal shape looks like Chinese character “cong” (工) and external shape looks like character “guo” (国)).
Buddhist worshiping area consists of three buildings: Ong Ho, Ong Muong and Tam Bao (Triple Gem) houses, connecting with each other to make Chinese character “gong”.
Holy temple consists of three buildings: Incense-burning hall, Main sanctuary join together with Phu Quoc hall to form the second “gong”.
Two corridor rows of 33 compartments at each side connect with Tả Vu, Hữu Vu – Bell tower and Internal three-entrance gate embracing outside. Each character “Gong” is to worship a figure; the front ones worships Biddha while the back one worships Zen Master Duong Khong Lo. It features the architecture style “Buddha priority over Holy”.
Inside Buddhist worshipping area, Ong Ho hall has 7 compartments with total length of 24m and width of 6m. Its roof is very high with skillful carving system of koi fish and dragon. Wind-guard system is also carved with kneeling dragon, dragon on cloud, dragon playing with lion while some others is with wave, lotus, daisy flower and stylized bat image symbolizing wealthy, health, piety and restful death.
Ong Muong and Tam Bao (Three Gem) halls are smaller than Ong Ho hall, which stylizes elaborately carved sketches. The rolling lacquered painting in the centre creates a huge phoenix with its beak raising upwards as stylized lotus stamen and wings stretching out as cross-weaving fan wings. One small yard distant from Buddha worshiping area lies the Holy temple where worships Zen Master Duong Khong Lo. It was constructed in larger scale than Buddhist temple. Roof set is divided into four types: flowing roof of Phu Quoc hall, stylized roof of Gia Roi hall and cross-knife roof of Incense-burning hall and Main sanctuary. Holy temple inner places foot chocking stone slab carved with lotus petal pattern. Wind guards are all sculptured skillfully with mother dragon playing with small ones. Especially, entire linking wooden pillars here have chocking pieces supporting at both heads. Forty two external chocking pieces casts 42 dragons in different postures while other forty two internal chocking pieces are smaller but sculptured more sophisticatedly.
3. Bell tower of Keo Pagoda
Distance from pavement to tower roof is over 11m, structured in three-roof storey shaping magnificent and harmonious beauty. Load-bearing frame system consists of four large pillars of 5m high and 0.6 m in diameter mounted on four large lotus petal-carved stone blocks. Each pillar is located at each corner, connected to girders and beams making a steady load-bearing frame. Each upper storey is, consecutively, 0.4m smaller than the lower ones and connects with each other by girder system. Particularly, the third storey has no pillar ramming out the basement of lower ones. It is joints to position premise of third storey and load its roof.
Looking from upside down, bell tower of Keo Pagoda likes communal house of Vietnamese highlands. Storey structure is gently and magnificent. Under roof system of each storey arranges 84 lash wings forms 3 layers with 28 main complexes connecting with each other by slender beams as roof-supporting arms. Three bronze bells weighing approximately 2 tons are hanged at the bell tower heart together with roof set load create a gravity pulling joints bonding to each other to form a steady status for the bell tower.
Owing to balancing proportions among storeys, proper distance between yard-house and roof layer and standard separation among pillars, the bell tower demonstrates its beauty at any vision corner.
Favoring all such unique features, Keo Pagoda (in Thai Binh Province) was officially recognized as a national tourist attraction by State in 1960 and today it is listed as significant tourist site of the country.
Over nearly 400 years of existence and development, with historical ups and downs and weather fluctuations leaving on mainly wooden material of the pagoda, variety of buildings inside the pagoda has been degraded, especially the bell tower (the most typical building of the pagoda), which requires functional agency, local authority and people to provide proper measures to restore, renovate and preserve the intact status so that the pagoda shall be forever “an architectural masterpiece of the 17th century”./.