Tran Tan Vinh

The monks who built Tu Van Pagoda in Cam Ranh found their inspiration – and building materials – in the sea

Statue of Buddha in contemplation under the shelter of the Sacred Snake

Vietnam is a maritime nation. The sea is a source of life and a source of inspiration for the nation’s arts. Marine products such as coral and seashells have been used for many artistic purposes. Ancient people collected snail and clam shells to fashion into ornaments or use as currency. Seashells were also a key material in the construction of monuments and residences. Snail and clam shells were crushed and processed into paint used to decorate residential buildings and titular temples, pagodas, shrines, etc.

Centuries ago, due to lack of construction materials, coastal residents exploited coral rocks to calcinate lime. They used a mixture of coral and mortar to build the walls of houses, pagodas and towers, including houses in Ninh Thuy fishing village (Ninh Hoa Town, Khanh Hoa Province) and an ancient “coral brick” house in Hon Khoi (Ninh Hoa Town, Khanh Hoa Province). Tu Van Pagoda (Cam Linh Precinct, Cam Ranh City, Khanh Hoa Province) was built out of coral, clam shells and other seashells, creating one of the most distinctive sacred buildings in south-central Vietnam.

The Wheel of Incarnation

Tu Van Pagoda is also known as the Shell Pagoda since various constructions, the pedestals of the Guanyin Buddha statues, its gardens, the Six Paths Bridge, Multiple Treasures Stupa and underground caves were finished with coral and decorated with seashells.

According to the head monk Thich Anh Tong, monks collected the coral off Cam Binh Beach between 1985 and 1995, before Vietnam had banned its exploitation. The Buddhist scripture of Amitabha holds that coral is a “treasure of the sea”. For this reason, local believers wished to use coral to build the pagoda’s stupas. The most impressive one is the Precious Stupa, which stands nearly 40m high and was erected from countless coral rocks and millions of clam shells and seashells. The stupa is conical and divided into three high stories. It is made entirely of coral.

Image of flowers

The round interior opens up with eight doors to symbolize the Eight Honest Ways. The upper story is dedicated to Buddha and the lower one to visitors. Outside the Grand Stupa stand 49 smaller conical stupas. At the top of each stupa stands a lesser stupa. The stupas’ exteriors are covered with coral.

The head monk Thich Thong Anh and other monks spent 10 years designing and building these stupas with their bare hands. They patrolled nearby beaches in search of seashells and coral to create this unusual religious building. Seashells of grey-blue and glistening silver were chosen in different sizes and glued over the pagoda’s doors, pillars, ceilings and doorsteps. Surfaces were elaborately decorated with Buddhist motifs such as the Wheel of Incarnation and lotus blooms. The Grand Stupa in the Shell Pagoda aside, there are many grottos and statues decorated with coral and seashells. The Shell Pagoda exemplifies the influence of the sea on Vietnam’s folk culture.