If we talk about an ancient pagoda that has retained its original architectural structure, But Thap Pagoda is probably the first thing that comes to mind. But Thap is a must-visit destination for those who wish to admire magnificent stone and wood carvings. But Thap also attracts compassionate people seeking to understand humanity and spirituality.
The name But Thap (Pen Tower) dates back to 1876, when Emperor Tu Duc visited and saw a high tower made of blue stone. Comparing it to a brush writing on the sky, he named it the “Pen Tower”. Formally named Ninh Phuc Tu, the pagoda is located near the dyke on the right bank of the Duong River in But Thap village, Dinh To commune, Thuan Thanh district, Bac Ninh province. Local people also call it Nhan Thap (Swallow Tower) as many swallows nest there.
According to legend, the pagoda dates back to the era of Emperor Tran Thanh Tong (1258 – 1278). Through the twists and turns of history and many preservation efforts, the pagoda achieved its current architecture and size thanks to the efforts of Empress Dowager Trinh Thi Ngoc Truc and her daughter, Princess Le Thi Ngoc Duyen. The pagoda bears the unique marks of the architectural and sculptural styles of the Le – Trinh era in the 17th century.
The entire structure is divided into three sections. The first area includes the triple-entrance gate and the bell tower, which are completely open, inviting the common people to approach religion. The second area is a strictly restricted section reserved for the spiritual practices of the monks. The third area holds a number of stupas outside the pagoda’s grounds. These stupas rise high to signify an escape from the mundane realm. The architecture of these structures signifies ups and downs like a rhythmic melody that is sometimes calm and sometimes rises and falls to create an architectural symphony about human life that seems almost unintentional.
But Thap Pagoda houses a special treasure, the Avalokiteśvara statue. With a thousand eyes and a thousand arms, this is a masterpiece of Vietnamese sculpture art. The statue is 3.7 meters tall, 2.1 meters wide, and has 11 heads, 46 big arms and 954 small arms. There is an eye on the palm of each hand. The image depicts the boundless power of the Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva who can control everything in the universe and help mortals to attain enlightenment. It took a sculptor with the surname of Truong ten years to create this masterpiece, which was completed in 1656. The pagoda’s main sanctuary holds a complete set of statues, including a Tam The statue, Bodhisattvas like Thich Ca Tuyet Son, Van Thu and Pho Hien, and two rows of 18 Arhats. All of the statues, altars, and wooden reliefs carved with images of dragons and phoenixes on the beams of the central house are outstanding examples of Vietnamese Buddhist sculptures. The stone railing that surrounds the main sanctuary is decorated with 26 reliefs of masterful sophistication, depicting sacred animals and beautiful scenes of nature.
What sets this pagoda apart from others is the transitional space between its main sanctuary, which is considered the realm of Buddha, and the back house, which is considered the world of the monks, in the form of a 4-meter curved stone bridge with three spans across a lotus pond. Twelve stone reliefs adorn both sides of the bridge. These lively carvings depict imaginative animals and plants.
Behind the stone bridge stands the Tich Thien Am building, inside of which is a wooden nine-storey lotus tower with eight sides, symbolizing the nine levels of consciousness in Buddhism. Since the lotus tower can rotate on an axis, it is traditionally called a “mill”, which is a special tool in Tantric Buddhism.
But Thap Pagoda features diverse, beautiful and highly creative patterns carved on the stone bridges and galleries of the main sanctuary, a typical example of which is Bao Nghiem Tower, where the relics of monk Chiet Tuyet are buried. The tower is constructed entirely from stone blocks stacked together without plaster. There are 23 stone carvings in total, at the foot of the railings of the first and second floors. The two columns of the tower’s gate are carved with dragon images of a sophistication rarely found in ancient pagodas across the country.
Throughout history, many things have remained unchanged in But Thap Pagoda. Generations of our predecessors have left us with an exquisite architectural structure and a rich, intangible heritage that holds the philosophy of human life. Now, the special national heritage of But Thap Pagoda is not only a place where these precious values are preserved, but also an attractive destination for visitors and scholars to learn more about the history and culture of the ancient Kinh Bac area.