The One Pillar Pagoda is a historic Buddhist temple in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. It is regarded alongside the Perfume Temple, as one of Vietnam's two most iconic temples.
The temple was built by Emperor Lý Thái Tông, who ruled from 1028 to 1054. According to the court records, Lý Thái Tông was childless and dreamt that he met the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who handed him a baby son while seated on a lotus flower. Lý Thái Tông then married a peasant girl that he had met and she bore him a son. The emperor constructed the temple in gratitude for this in 1049, having been told by a monk named Thiền Tuệ to build the temple, by erecting a pillar in the middle of a lotus pond, similar to the one he saw in the dream.
The temple was located in what was then the Tây Cấm Garden in Thạch Bảo, Vĩnh Thuận district in the capital Thăng Long (now known as Hanoi). Before the pagoda was opened, prayers were held for the longevity of the monarch. During the Lý Dynasty era, the temple was the site of an annual royal ceremony on the occasion of Vesak, the birthday of Gautama Buddha. A Buddha-bathing ceremony was held annually by the monarch, and it attracted monks and laymen alike to the ceremony. The monarch would then free a bird, which was followed by the people.
The temple was renovated in 1105 by Emperor Lý Nhân Tông and a bell was cast and an installation was attempted in 1109. However, the bell, which was regarded as one of the four major capital works of Vietnam at the time, was much too large and heavy, and could not be installed. Since it could not be tolled while left on the ground, it was moved into the countryside and deposited in farmland adjacent to Nhất Trụ Temple. This land was widely inhabited by turtles, so the bell came to be known as Quy Điền chung, which means Bell of the Turtle Farmland. At the start of the 15th century, Vietnam was invaded and occupied by the Ming Dynasty. In 1426, the future Emperor Lê Lợi attacked and dispersed the Chinese forces, and while the Ming were in retreat and low on weapons, their commanding general ordered that the bell be smelted, so that the copper could be used for manufacturing weaponry.
The temple is built of wood on a single stone pillar 1.25 m in diameter, and it is designed to resemble a lotus blossom, which is a Buddhist symbol of purity, since a lotus blossoms in a muddy pond. In 1954, the French Union forces destroyed the pagoda before withdrawing from Vietnam after the First Indochina War, It was rebuilt afterwards.
The name is immediately evident, its second name is Pagoda of the goddess Quan Âm. Quan Âm is the goddess of the mercy. According to the legend the goddess Quan Âm appear to King Lý Thái Tông (1000 – 1054) in a dream. The king was already old and still childless and sought a successor. In the dream Quan Âm handed him a son while seated on a lotus flower. The king then took a farmer girl as concubine and had a son by her, who is the long desired successor to the throne forecasted by the goddess. Deeply gratefully Lý Thái Tông built in the year 1049 the Một Cột Pagoda in honors of the goddess of mercy. As the name suggests the pagoda stands on one pillar in the middle of an artificial square lake. In the season, the lake is covered by lotus flowers. The pagoda itself is wooden and about 3 x 3 meters. Inside resides a statue of Quan Âm. In the course of its 1000 year history this pagoda was destroyed – and rebuilt – many times. The French occupation army last destroyed it shortly before quitting Viet Nam. In 1955 it was – again – reconstructed, this time – unfortunately! – with a concrete pillar instead of the original wooden pillar. Unfortunately? It could be seen as the pragmatic Vietnamese attempt to connect the tradition with the modernity. Whether concrete or wood, the Bodhisattva Quan Âm will continue to be admired here as child-bringing goddess. This delicate pagoda is worth a visit anyway.
The pagoda was built in a square, three meters long on each side, and it has a curved roof. It was built on a stone pillar of 1.20m in diameter and 4m high which is actually two overlapping posts skillfully joined as one. The upper storey is a system of several pieces of wood which make up the solid frame supporting the main part to resemble a lotus rising from a small square lake with a brick handrail. Visitors can climb up the beautiful stairs to see the statue of the Avalokitesvara and the words “Liên Hoa Đài” (the Lotus Lamp) to remind them of the king’s dream that inspired the pagoda.
The pagoda was originally much bigger. On the Sùng Thiên Diên Linh bell tower in the Đọi Pagoda in Nam Hà Province (built in 1121), there is a description of the One Pillar Pagoda: “…In the middle of the lake there rises a stone pillar with a thousand–petal lotus on the top. On the lotus, there is a blue temple with a golden statue inside symbolizing the talent and kindness of the Buddha. Surrounding the lake there is a pond with a rainbow-shaped bridge on either side. There are crystal towers at the bridge’s feet in the front and on both sides…”
In May 1080, King Lý Nhân Tông (1072-1128) asked the people to cast a big bell and built a temple of blue stone of 24m high to complement the magnificence of the pagoda. Because the bell was too big to hang, it was placed in a low rice field that had many tortoises so the bell was became known as Quy Điền (Tortoise Field) Bell.
During its long history, the One Pillar Pagoda has experienced a number of changes each time it was repaired, especially in 1249 in the Trần Dynasty when it was almost totally rebuilt. It was also repaired many times in the Lê Dynasty, and its lotus lamp and stone pillar have been made smaller.
In 1426, when the Ming invaders in Đông Quan (an ancient name of Thăng Long) were surrounded, they destroyed the bell along with the bronze parts of the Báo Thiên Tower near Hoàn Kiếm Lake in order to cast bullets. After the French invaders were defeated and driven away in 1954, they set off an explosion to destroy the pagoda. The government has since rebuilt the pagoda following the design from the Nguyễn Dynasty.
The pagoda holds three statues wearing flat hats rather like mortarboards – “Brahmanism, they govern heaven, but today are transformed into kings, one responsible for births, the order for deaths”, explains my friend. Behind the three “kings” and those lining the walls – there are ten Kings of Hell (a hell to fit each crime) – is a busily carved, open work gilt, nine-dragon altar to Sakyanumi as a baby.
“The nine dragons supplied water at his birth, after which he took seven steps, saying, “there is only one Buddha – Buddha is everywhere around us, in heaven and in human beings.”
The temple to the left of the courtyard, holding a large statue of a monk, is dedicated to “resident monk patriots and the cult of the Holy Mothers”, who joined the assemblage of religious personages occupying Vietnamese temples from Taoism.