(No.2, Vol.7,Apr-May 2017 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)
Tran Quoc is a spiritual anchor for the nation and its kings
Tran Quoc is the name of Hanoi’s oldest and most sacred pagoda. Nearly 1500 years old, it used to receive kings in Buddhist memorial days and host famous Buddhist monks who came here to practice their religion.
Occupying a promontory at the northwest corner of the West Lake in Yen Phu ward, West Lake district of Hanoi, Tran Quoc has been officially recognised as a national relic of history and culture since 1989.
According to the Vietnam Cultural Heritage Dictionary, ‘Originally named Khai Quoc (meaning ‘Nation Founding’) Tran Quoc was built during King Ly Nam De’s (544–548) reign in Yen Hoa Village. In 1615, it was moved to what used to be the foundation of Thuy Hoa back hall and Han Nguyen Palace near Yen Phu dyke, the previous Kings’ favourite place for fishing and relaxation. From 1624 to 1639, Khai Quoc was continually expanded and later King Le Hy Tong renamed it Tran Quoc. The beginning of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802- 1945) the pagoda was renovated and acquired a bigger bell and Buddha statues. In 1821, King Minh Mang visited it and gave 20 silver taels for its renovation. In 1842, King Thieu Trị also visited Tran Quoc and contributed one big gold coin and 200 quan (the currency of the time).’
Tran Quoc was like a spiritual anchor for the nation and its kings.
Historical texts also recorded that Tran Quoc had hosted famous Buddhist monks such as His Venerable Khuong Viet Chan Luu and High Zen Priests Van Phong, Thao Duong, Thong Bien, Giac Quan and Quang Te.
Having been renovated multiple times, Tran Quoc architecture shows ‘harmonious continuity between historical eras,’ as noted by cultural experts.
The main architectural units of Tran Quoc pagoda includes the Front Hall, Incense Ward, Upper Edifice, Bell Tower, Ancestral Shrine and House of Steles.
The experts don’t mention much about the carvings and artwork at Tran Quoc. They simply remark that ‘some details are painstakingly well done.’
About the overall architectural and scenic values of the pagoda, the general opinion is that the antic solemn structures in sternly strict arrangement according to the ancient Buddhist rules and the dreaminess of the West Lake highlight each other well. Perhaps that’s why the British Daily Mail ranks Tran Quoc among the world’s 15 most beautiful Buddhist pagodas.
Having witnessed so many historical ups and downs, the pagoda preserves valuable artefacts, such as the statues in the Upper Edifice, especially the one of Shakyamuni Buddha entering Nirvana, unique and meticulously made in a distinct fashion. The 14 steles with engraved texts about the foundation and history of the pagoda, including the steles of famous scholars Nguyen Xuan Chinh (1587-1693) and Pham Quy Thich (1760-1825), are also considered highly valuable.
Behind the pagoda’s entrance is a ‘garden of towers’ with many old and new towers. Most attention is drawn to the 11-storey, 15m-tall Six Heaven Tower that houses many Amitabha statues made of precious stones, with 9 layers of stone carved lotuses at the top.
Amid the 500ha of West Lake, the pagoda’s 3000 m2 garden stands prominently under the shade of many tree species such as mountain pomegranates, longans, willows, etc. Buddhists revere the banyan tree planted by President Rajendra Prasad of India when he visited Tran Quoc in 1959.