Come back to the history, legend said that a humble fisherman in the 11th century achieved enlightenment as a Buddhist monk and could thereby fly through the air, walk on water and tame snakes and tigers. However, the holy man Duong Khong Lo (1016-1094) secured his name firmly in his country’s history books when he used his magic powers to cure King Le Thanh Tong (1066-1127) of a terrible disease. Over 900 years later, residents of Vu Nhat Commune, Vu Thu District, Thai Binh Province still honour the Buddhist hero with a festival as mystical as the legend it recognises.
The flocks of visitors who come to witness the Autumn Festival, the province’s biggest cultural event of the year, have no trouble finding Keo Pagoda, located on the site where the Buddhist dignitary had pagoda built in the 17th Century.
Keo pagoda is architecturally unique and stands at a scenic spot on the Red River Delta. The Pagoda is home to a wealth of ancient relics, from intricately engraved wooden dragons to a collection of over 100 statues. The pagoda also has valuable antiques including a pair of candlesticks from the Mac Dynasty, pottery ware and altars from the Le Dynasty, imperial boats and more, which are all as well preserved now as they were during the time of the Le Trung Hung Dynasty in 16th century.
The yearly festival is celebrated from 13th to 15th of the ninth lunar month, 100 days after the death of the Buddhist dignitary Duong Khong Lo. The festival features religious and traditional rituals and customs held in celebration of the Buddhist monk who rendered great merits to the people and the country. The festival also hosts different traditional cultural activities reflecting the life style, which is imbued with traits of the Red River Delta’s agricultural culture.
The pagoda’s own mythical appeal plays a significant role in drawing so many visitors to Vu Nhat Village each year on the 13th, 14th and 15th days of the ninth lunar month. Normally, people visit the commune to offer prayer at the Keo Pagoda in honor of the Buddhist monk. Similar to other Vietnam festivals and events, Keo Pagoda Festival commences with a procession of palanquin to remind people of the anniversary of Khong Lo’s death, followed by a boat race and a literary recital competition during the day. When night falls, it's time for music and a trumpet and drum competition, light from the main shrine illuminates preparations for the next day’s procession, prayers are offered until midnight.
On the 14th day of the ninth lunar month, in celebration of the birth anniversary of monk Khong Lo, in the morning, the procession ceremony comes after the incense-offering ritual. A carriage pulled by two pairs of white and pink wooden horses head the procession, accompanied by 8 flag bearers and 42 men carrying bat but luu bo, a classical Vietnamese weapon. Four people wearing black gauze outfits and white trousers, who carry a dragon in commemoration of Khong Lo’s journey by boat to the capital of the kingdom to treat King Ly Nhan Tong. Four people in the same outfit carrying a small gilded boat put in a stand, depicting the period of monk Khong Lo’s life when he was a fisherman. In the afternoon, at Gia Roi shrine, the mua ech vo (frog-catching dance) ritual pays respect to the gods, while incense is offered to Buddha.
The festival continues into the next day with further entertainment and traditional games such as duck catching, rice cooking competition and firecracker hurling competition. However, the most interesting performance that attracts a large number of tourist is the boat rowing dance on land which is performed by 12 people in fine costumes, standing in two parallel lines like the way they sit in the boat. As one performer beats a small drum and another holds a wooden fish, the 12 performers "row" while flexing their legs and calling out rhythmically. This performance also puts an end to the three-day Keo Pagoda Festival.
It is believed that together with this meaningful festival, Keo Pagoda will remain an interesting tourist attraction and a pride for Vietnamese architects, Vu Nhat villagers and all of Thai Binh Province – as well as our whole country!
More festivals and ceremoies in Vietnam: