Article: Le Hoang
Photos: Amachau

Khmer pagodas in Tra Vinh are outstanding works of culture and art.

Ong Met Pagoda

Wherever there are Khmer people, there are soaring pagoda roofs with corners shaped like the tail of a snake swooping softly downward. The term “pagoda” is perhaps insufficient, as these structures also serve as the communal and cultural house of the Khmer community. Almost all activities of the Khmer community take place in their pagodas, from study sessions and religious practices to traditional festivals.

Khmer people are devout Buddhists. Thus, in almost every locality with Khmer residents, people donate funds and time to build pagodas. Tra Vinh is one such locality, home to more than 100 pagodas of different sizes and architectural styles. Well known pagodas in Tra Vinh include Hang Pagoda in Chau Thanh District, An Pagoda in Tra Vinh City, and Vam Ray Pagoda and Co Pagoda in Tra Cu District.

Ong Met Pagoda

Khmer people often build their pagodas on high ground, surrounded by forests or lines of palm-oil and palm trees, making these sacred buildings look like an oasis standing in the vast rice fields. A Khmer pagoda typically includes a gate, outer walls, a main hall, a tower where urns of ashes are worshiped, and an assembly hall. Among these elements, the most important is undoubtedly the main hall, which is built in the center.

All Khmer pagodas are designed in the form of an isosceles triangle centering around the number 3. Each is designed with three layers: the garden, the stairs, and the corridor, plus the main hall. The pagoda roof has three levels, each consisting of three folds. This principle of architecture is deeply embedded in the minds of Khmer people. For this reason, even after many restorations and renovations their pagodas remain their old selves.

Ang Pagoda

It seems the Khmer build pagodas not only as a place of worship, but also as a showcase of their extraordinary skills in decorative arts. A remarkable feature of Khmer pagodas is that both the outer walls and the main hall are decorated with statues and reliefs. In addition to their aesthetic values, these artistic figures yield a wealth of knowledge about Buddhist culture. The patterns and statues showcase achievements resulting from good deeds and honor the Dharma. There are figures of deities from Indian myths, all depicted with fierce expressions due to their origins as demons, such as Reahu (a Yaksha – a benevolent but sometimes mischievous or capricious nature spirit) or the five-headed divine serpent Naga. Visitors may see these deities in front of the pagoda gate or around the main hall. They are there to protect the Dharma, and to spread an implicit message of the Buddha’s educational power, and his ability to turn evil into good.

The roof of Hang Pagoda

The next area around the main hall embodies the incorporation of the Buddha’s realm. Here, on the columns supporting the roof are images of fairies or the divine bird Krud, all portrayed as young women in traditional Khmer dress, with a pair of wings signifying their power to fly and spread the Dharma all over the world. As the Khmer are followers of Theravada Buddhism, the altar in the main hall is quite simple, with just a statue of the Buddha placed on a pedestal decorated with regular lines, shapes and flower patterns. The columns, the walls, and the ceiling, however, are elaborately decorated with depictions of Buddhist classics. The gables of the main hall usually feature reliefs of the divine Naga serpent or symmetrical decorative patterns symbolizing the highest value – wisdom crystallized in Buddhist scriptures. Through the design of their pagodas, we can partly understand the cultural lives, creative minds, and aesthetic tastes of Khmer people.