29/09/2009 | 09:07:09

Bao An Pagoda and Hoa Phong Tower

To appreciate the past importance of Hoan Kiem Lake to the people of Hanoi, we need to be aware of pagodas that are no longer standing. Some of these were large complexes, housing monasteries, temples, pagodas, and meeting rooms.

The Bao An Pagoda (also known as Quan Thuong Pagoda, Nguyen Dang Giai Pagoda, Lotus Pagoda or Pagoda of Torture) was such a temple. It was constructed in the early 1840s with funds from a public subscription launched by the then governor of Hanoi, Nguyen Dang Giai. The governor was a devout follower of the Vietnamese strand of Buddhism and a defender of the country’s heritage against the encroaching French influence. The pagoda was one of two structures built in the 19th century, while Hanoi was in decline after the Nguyen kings moved the capital to Hue in 1802. The other temple built at this time was Ngoc Son.

The architecture of the 36,000 square meter Bao An Pagoda imitated a Chinese design, favored by the Nguyen kings who used similar designs in central Vietnam. The walled-in area was octagonal, with the sides representing the eight petals of the lotus flower. On the east side, the Pagoda leaned on a dyke and on the west it overlooked Hoan Kiem Lake. A brick courtyard extended from the lakeshore to a scrolled bridge leading to the main entrance, which spread out over three terraces and was flanked by two towers. Overgrown with lotus, several ponds and streams meandered among numerous stone bridges, arcades, stupas and steeples.

Over 30 small dwellings, containing some 150 rooms and enclosures, were scattered among fruit trees, frangipanis and flowering bushes. The complex included the house to worship the Mother Goddess, a prayer-book printing facility and many dwellings for the monks.

Several pillars lacquered in red and trimmed with gold supported the Grand Hall. The Buddha, 1.5 meters tall, commanded the main altar, and was covered in gold from head to toe. He sat on a lotus flower, the palm of his right hand resting on his knee, two disciples – one young and one old-standing guard on either side.

Around this central grouping, gathered on separate altars, were some 200 statues of elaborately-costumed deities, mandarins and patriarchs, some holding scepters and many joined by sculpted tigers and buffaloes at their feet.

Particularly impressive were elaborate bas-reliefs, panels engraved in wood and stone, many showing grim scenes of suffering of the sinners being punished in Hell for their wickedness. It was because of these much-admired panneaux that the French gave the pagoda the name Pagode des Supplices, or Pagoda of Torture.

In 1884, a French surveyor submitted a plan for the redevelopment of the area, which proposed the construction of several modern buildings, in neo-classical style, to serve the French administration. The Pagoda was gradually razed between 1886-1889, with many of its statues shipped to France, and two priceless carved panels reportedly moved to another pagoda in Hanoi, but they have never been recovered.

In 1892, the post office building was erected on the site, and later several other buildings, including the governor of Tonkin’s residence at the back. This is now the Government Guest House. The modern post office building was erected in 1960 on the same site as the previous one.

The only remaining part of the Bao An Pagoda is the Hoa Phong (Favorable Winds) Tower, which stands on the edge of the lake opposite the Post Office. This was an entrance gate to the pagoda complex, and was left standing as a souvenir.

Architecturally, the tower is small in scale. Its four entrances symbolize the wish for favorable winds during the four seasons. Unicorns stand on the corner columns. The upper part of the tower is narrower and the four roofs constitute a gourd, symbolizing the sky in miniature. Bricks from the famous Bat Trang ceramic village were used in the second layer./.

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