Artisans chisel wisdom out of Buddhist tower

by Cu Mai Cong, Vietnam News Service, Oct 18, 2004

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam -- After more than two years of painstaking work, a group of young workers finally gave a sigh of relief when they finished engraving the seven-storey tower within the Vinh Nghiem Pagoda, the largest Buddhist centre in HCM City late last year.

At 14m, the all-rock tower, which was named Vinh Nghiem Tower, is the tallest of its kind in Viet Nam.

Experts spare no words in praising the accuracy of the construction work: the top of the tower stands only 7mm from its very centre, an accuracy far higher than the construction standards currently applied in the country. The tower, measuring 5m on each side of its foot, is surrounded by a square banister stretching 9.5m on each side, and placed on an octagonal base.

On the body of the tower, workers chiselled out a pair of giant dragons and 27 pairs of smaller dragons bearing the typical characteristics of the Tran Dynasty (1225-1400).

Monks said the design is consistent with the fact that Vinh Nghiem Pagoda is an imitation of another of the same name built in Duc La Village in the northern province of Bac Giang, the largest Buddhist centre in Viet Nam during the Tran Dynasty. The dragons are intertwined with numerous images of lotus leaves, lotus bulbs, waves, bats, clouds, prayers, etc. The seven roofs of the tower are all single slabs, each weighing six to 10 tonnes, and are decorated with amazingly sophisticated carvings.

The tower is dedicated to the late Most Venerable Thich Thanh Kiem, one of the two co-founders of the Vinh Nghiem Pagoda in 1964. It is also recognised by architects and fine art researchers as the most sophisticated with the highest density of carvings among the towers in Viet Nam.

"An indispensable requirement for the construction is that it must manifest Most Venerable Thich Thanh Kiem?s qualities: virtue, wisdom and nobility," said his disciple, Venerable Thich Thanh Phong, who took charge of the selection of the tower design. "It must be distinctly Vietnamese architecture."

To select a suitable design for the tower, Phong and his fellow monks from the Do Pagoda in Hai Phong City, Trung Hau Pagoda in Vinh Phuc Province, and Huong Pagoda in Ha Tay Province combed every ancient pagoda in the north for designs.

"The slabs for the tower, which weighed more than 200 tonnes, were quarried from the central province of Thanh Hoa, a region famous for its stone, to ensure the fine grain and the pure colour of the rocks," said Tran Cong Kien, 31, chief of the working team.

He admitted in many cases his workers had to check many times before satisfying the monks? high standards.

Most of the members of the carving team are in their early 20?s and 30?s. They come from the Ninh Van Commune in the Ninh Binh Province, and are descendants of those who constructed the famous Phat Diem Catholic church in that province over a century ago.

"Many of our fathers and grandfathers sometimes recall the days when they worked together to build the mausoleum dedicated to late President Ho Chi Minh in Ha Noi in the early 1970?s," Kien said.

He himself learned the craft from his grandfather, a prominent craftsman in Ninh Van Commune, and started working at the job when he was only 15-years old. The commune now has hundreds of young and skilled workers like Kien who use chisels as easily as pens.

Kien admitted to sleepless nights during the selection of his team to construct the Vinh Nghiem Tower. Although it is the largest and most sophisticated, Vinh Nghiem is not the only construction project Kien is undertaking. His workers are also currently working at the Phuc Khanh Pagoda in Ha Noi, the Huong Pagoda in Ha Tay Province, and the Bach Hac Pagoda in Phu Tho Province.

With their primitive chisels and hammers, Kien?s forefathers could carve the images and designs only 2-3cm out of the rock. However with help from handheld electric machines, he can make designs 7-10cm deep.

Thanks to the increased depth, many experts believe the images will remain prominent for millennia against the erosion of nature.

Yet, the machines can ease only part of the heavy work. The human skills, devotion, and creativeness still dictate the accuracy and beauty of the construction, Kien said.