Emperor Lê Hoàn, the third Emperor of the incipient nation of Dai Co Viet, ordered the construction of Chùa Nhất Trụ (“One Pillar Pagoda”) in the 10th century to house a large “sutra pillar” (Lăng Nghiêm) that would engrave the sutras (wise words) of the Buddha’s teachings.
These multi-faceted carved pillars had a religious reputation as magical objects and many were constructed in India and China during the same time period. Later, in 1010, when Emperor Lý Thái Tông of the Ly Dynasty moved the capital to Thanh Long (Hanoi), he ordered the construction of a replica of the pagoda to be built.
The stone Buddhist sutra pillar at Nhất Trụ Pagoda is a designated national treasure and the Pagoda itself proposed as an addition to the UNESCO World’s cultural heritage list. Regardless of certification, it is a unique and beautiful part of the Hoa Lu Ancient City legacy and many worshipers come to Hoa Lu to visit this Pagoda and its revered artifact.
Some 4m high and weighing in at an estimated 4.5 tons, the Sutra Pillar is actually a composite of eight separate pieces of stone. All are intricately fitted together without mortar or adhesives and topped with an unopened lotus bud.
The eight faces of the pillar are engraved with an estimated 2500 words copied from the Buddhist scriptures, including the Shurangama Sutra, As the Dai Co Viet had yet to document their own language, the characters of the sutras are carved with Song Dynasty (Chinese) and Sanskrit (Indian) characters.
Over the course of the millennia and the depredations of numerous wars and countless pilgrims, there has been substantial weathering and many characters have worn away. But in the protected areas, the ancient words and the engraved lotus flowers are still sharp and clear, demonstrating the skill and reverence of the ancient master craftsmen.
That the pagoda has survived over ten centuries, through fire, flood, feast and famine is remarkable. Still standing today, it reminding visitors of how time negates all failures and successes, regret and jubilation. All have faded from memory while these ancient buildings remain quietly intact. To emphasis the point, the main Pagoda also houses a small museum of 10-11th century artifacts discovered at nearby Yen Thanh ancient village in Truong Yen commune.
Architecturally the pagoda is built in the early Vietnamese “Đinh” style (basically a “丁”shape facing the west). Along with the Sutra pillar, the pagoda consists of a main hall, the ancestral house, a living room, a dining room, and the traditional gate towers. The curved roof of the pagoda is designed in the classic “boat” style and features dragon motifs decorated tiles.
The Pagoda interior is incised with the reliefs of dragons and/or swords, the primary motifs of the ancient Le Dynasty who commissioned the building. The main hall contains four rows of Red Buddha statues adorned in gold trim, surrounded by paintings of stylized flowers, leaves, twisted vines, lotus flowers, seals, and lions.
Each year on the 15th day of the first Lunar month, there is a festival here to pray for the peace of the nation. On 8th day of the fourth Lunar month, the pagoda celebrates the Lap Ha (Lixia) ceremony, which signifies the beginning of summer. On 15th of the same month, Buddha’s birthday is celebrated.
Nhất Trụ Pagoda is located in Yen Thanh village, Truong Yen commune, Hoa Lu district, Ninh Binh province. Around 8km from Ninh Binh city center, it is about 5 km from the Trang An boat station and a little less than 11 kilometers from Tam Coc village. It is also within easy walking distance of the Phat Kim and Dinh-Le temples and it makes an excellent side excursion from a visit to the Ancient City for anyone interested in Vietnamese spiritual history.
Nhat Tru Pagoda is one of the impressive pagodas in Ancient Hoa Lu City and with ancient Sutra and small museum of discovered artifacts, one of the more interesting. Just remember it is still a very much alive and respected place of worship so dress and act appropriately.
Entry is free but donations for the upkeep of both the Pagoda and its attendants are welcome.