Festival of Keo Pagoda

Keo pagoda is in Duy Nhat commune, Vu Thu district, Thai Binh pronvince. From Ha Noi, follow highway No. 1 to Nam Binh city, cross Tan De bridge, turn right down Red River dyke about 10 km, and you will be there.
Because it is a pagoda, Buddhas are worshipped. But it also has connection with a monk whose name has been recorded as Duong Khong Lo. This monk came from Giao Thuy. He was originally a fisherman, then entered religion and attained Nirvana. He knew magic and once came to the capital to cure king Ly Thanh Tong so he was honoured as the teacher of the prince. He has pagoda Nghiem Quang built and later renamed it Than Quang (Keo Pagoda).
Keo Pagoda was built in the 17th century. This is a large scale collection of unique architecture of the type known as “Buddhist front, God back”. That means Buddha is worshipped in the front and God is worshipped at the back. In addition to the area used for worshipping Buddhas, there is also a part used for worshipping monk Khong Lo. Between these two parts, there is a bell-tower very famous for its architecture. Festivals are held here twice a year, in the 1st and the 9th lunar months. On the 4th day of the 1st lunar month, a festival is held, in which there are three competitions: catching ducks, and cooking rice. But the bigger festival that attracts many people from all parts of the country is held in the 9th lunar month.
Festival of the 9th lunar month:
The festival is officially held for three days, from the 13th to the 15th. Monk Khong Lo died on the 3rd day of the 6th lunar month, the festival of Keo pagoda is held on the 13th day of the 9th lunar month, 100 days after his death. His birthday is on the 14th day of the 9th lunar month. The festival lasts through the 15th because it lands in the middle of the month, usually marked by Buddhists. That is why the festival, apart from its competitions, also has clear historical characteristics. In this festival the main part of Khong Lo’s life is reflected as a historical event. There are activities full of religious and cultural significance. Hence the festival attracts people of all ages.
In spite of my parents’ prohibition I never quit the festival of Keo pagoda.
From the 3rd day of the 6th lunar month, locals offer the gods cakes made of powdered sticky rice, mixed with molasses and steamed for 2 nights and one day (called banh bia). Eights small hamlets of Keo village then elect a host of the festival (a village chief who is respected and who has the right to decide everything for the festival). Each small hamlet also elects one representative to assist the festival host. From the 3rd day of the 6th lunar month to the 15th of the 8th lunar month, the villagers choose days to decorate statues of the gods. The host chooses four of the eight above-mentioned representatives to help him decorate the gods’ statues. These 5 people have to fast 10 days beforehand, wash themselves, then come into the upper sanctuary to do such chores as: cleaning the sanctuary, pasting up paper, lighting lamps and joss-ticks and carrying the gods’ statues to the central sanctuary. They use coconut milk to wash the statues and use fragrant powder mixed with water brewed from seeds of grapefruits to paint the gods’ statues.
The 15th day of the 8th lunar month: After the gods’ statues are decorated, the host, together with 8 representatives, make offerings to Buddhas then to the gods. Once a year, there is also a custom of making offerings to change the clothes on the gods’ statues. Nearly 100 metres of silk are bought to make clothes for the statues. An auspicious statues’ date between the 15th day of the 8th lunar month and the 10th day of the 9th lunar month is chosen to make the offerings.
The 11th day of the 9th lunar month: Villagers set up a gonfalon about 40 metres high. To fly a flag of 5 metres long each side, they have to use a rope made from 8 rattans. Moreover, the 8 small hamlets each have 8 flags hanging on 8 poles around the outside gate. On each flag, four words “Cung Phung Thanh To” are embroidered. On the same day, strong young single men gather at the stone- paved courtyard in front of the outside three-door-temple gate to attend the choosing of the sedan chair carriers. They queue in a single line round a square stone-paved court 6 metres long each side. Their movement must follow the signal of the messenger. At the end, the host chooses 24 skillful young men to carry the sedan chairs, imperial palace, altars, the imperial boat and the small boat (a small boat painted red as a symbol of Khong Lo’s fishing boat).
The 12th day of the 9th lunar month: The selected 24 young men again attend the choosing to select 4 main carriers, 8 side carriers (4 couples), two fan carriers who shelter the two sides of the sedan chair and 8 altar carriers. The remaining 10 will carry the imperial palace, the imperial boat and the small boat.
In the afternoon from the 10th to the 12th, the 8 small hamlets launch 8 skiffs to practice rowing from a small river (Tra Linh river), in front of the pagoda, to a big river (the Red River).
Skiffs are made of light wood, 12 metres long and more than 1 metre wide with narrow, curved ends. Each skiff requires 8 to 10 couples of rowers, one messenger and one navigator. When rowing, the oars must follow the same rhythm as the chant of rowers. Every afternoon, they practice two rounds to choose the rowers, the navigators and messengers.
On the morning of the 13th day, the festival begins. The opening is a procession of josstick altars, the imperial palace, the imperial boat and the small boat. In the morning they are carried to the outside three-door gate, in the evening to the celestial perfume palace.
On the afternoon of the 13th day, the activities of Keo Pagoda Festival are extended and spread from the pagoda to the banks of the Red River, about 5 km long.
After the morning procession, there are skiff races in the afternoon. At a stretch of Tra Linh river in front of the pagoda, eight bamboo poles are stuck into the riverbed, at 40 meter intervals, to act as landmarks for the eight skiffs of the hamlets. Out in the Red River, three landmarks are set up for skiffs to row in a zig-zag course. The markers are from 1 to 2 kilometres apart and they are monitored by a referee. The final landmark is at An Lang pier on the right bank. In each skiff, the rowers are dressed in g-strings, sleeveless shirts and their heads are wrapped in turbans of the same colour. To distinguish them easily, the 8 skiffs must be in 8 different colour. After three rolls of the drum and nine beats, each skiff, in turn, moves in and stops with its end touching the landmark and its head directed to the left of the pagoda.
On the bank, the messenger recites the orders of the host, reminding the competitors about the rules of the race. After a drumroll sounds from the river bank, the skiffs set out. The starter beats the wooden fish, the rowers begin to row simultaneously and the navigator pounds the floor. Their actions must be in rhythm with the sound of wooden fish and the chant of the rowers to push the skiff quickly forward. At first the skiffs can keep close pace, but when they get to the big river the situation changes. When they reach the farthest landmark, they return. When they arrive at the landmarks where they started, they are considered to have completed one round. Those skiffs that come to their landmarks first, second, and third after completing 3 rounds without violating the rules will be given the first, second and third place awards. The awards for each day’s race are rice and money. If a skiff wins on all three days successively, it will rewarded one more barrel of rice and three strings of cash.
Also on the 13th afternoon, there is a competition of literary recitation. Those competitors who have good accent and ability for literature come to attend from downstream of the Red River. Each one exhibits his accent by a literary production for that year’s offering to the gods. Those who have a good accent will be chosen to take part in an official competition. The participant must create one or more literary productions according to 6 topics: josstick, lamp, flower, tea, fruit and food. They call this six-offering literature. This literature in Keo Pagoda is different from those in other places. It is written completely in Vietnamese language, in satire, so the reader needs to have a satirical accent to read it. Why should these satirical literary production be read before the temple of god? According to some old men in Keo village, this is a competition in literature not a procedure of worship. Although the content of these literary production concerns six things that are used in worship, still it is in parable. Each article puffs itself up, boats about its place of honour, its usefulness to the worship of the gods. The more satirical each poem is, the louder the spectators laugh.
On the evening of the 13th day, the josstick altars, the imperial palace, the imperial boat and the small boat are carried back to the celestial perfume palace to hold the offering to the god. After that, there are two more artistic competitions of bugle and drum.
Concerning the bugle competition, the competitors blow a kind of wooden bugle which is nearly 1 metre long. Fist they have to play some specified songs. Each competitor who enters the official round will play a song he chooses himself.
The drum competitor must play three kinds of drums, all hanging from his body: a cylindrical tamboorine on his chest, a small drum on his belly and a large drum on his left side. The competitor chooses for himself what he likes or what he is most skilled at playing.
About mid-night of the 13th day there are the customs of offering to the gonfalon.
On the morning of the 14th day, the birthday of monk Khong Lo is celebrated. First there is a long and complicated procession of the god’s sedan chair. At about 3 o’clock in the morning, the messenger gives three rolls of the drum, and nine drum beats urging the carriers to have breakfast. Half an hour later, he beats the drum three times as the signal to take a bath. At about 4 o’clock, a drumroll and three beats are given to inform the sedan chair carriers to “wrap bags”. It means to put on a g-string and wrap a bag full of rice husk round their waists, which looks like a small float. At 5 am, the drum is beaten once to signal the collecting of troops in front of the pagoda. At 6 am, the procession begins. People from all parts of the country attend, jamming the two sides of the dyke near the gate of the pagoda. Inside the pagoda, the bell and the drum sound off. The procession starts from the upper palace, and moves to the outside three-door gate. In the evening, the ancestral tablet of God is again carried back to celestial perfume palace.
In the lead come two wooden horses, one pink and one white. Around each horse stand four people at 4 comers. Their uniforms comprises a red turban, green and red shirt, white trousers and legs wrapped in puttees. They push the horses slowly, leading the procession. Next come the light flags of the God, on long poles carried by 8 persons who stand 5 or 6 metres apart.
Following the flags come 42 people who wrap their heads in green turban and dress themselves in white trousers, yellow gowns and a red sash tied on the left. Each of them carriers one of the eight precious things for worship in the upper palace.
Next, four persons dressed in black silk gowns, ready-to-wear turbans, white trousers and green cloth tied on the left, carry the red and yellow lacquered imperial boat. This is the symbol of the boat that carried Khong Lo to the capital to cure the King. After that, four other persons in the same uniforms carry the small red-lacquered boat, symbolizing Khong Lo’s life as a fisherman.
Then comes a musical company of 10 to 15 musicians playing a moon-shaped lute, two-string Chinese violins, flute, bugle, drum, castanet, cymbal.
Next come four people carrying the imperial palace. After the imperial palace are 4 people carrying josstick altar. They are all in the same uniforms.
Following the josstick altar are eight buffalo boys from 12 to 14 years old. They are dressed in uniforms of yellow shirts, green trousers, red cloth belts tied with two knots. Their heads are wrapped in a red turban with two knots like two breeches. They are symbols of buffalo boys who were close to Khong Lo when he was a fisherman. The spectators particularly pay attention to the group of people who carry the god’s sedan chair. This is a red and yellow lacquered sedan chair, which is the most beautiful in the region. The ancestral tablet of Khong Lo is placed on the chair. Twelve young men dressed in g-strings and the hats of old men. On each man is a yellow turban tied from the left shoulder to the right side. There are 7 messengers who are asked to receive orders in different stages. The best messenger is to take command of the sedan chair carriers. When the sedan chair goes under a roof, which the villagers call the “tunnel”, the carriers must go on their knees with their elbows against their sides. Every movement must follow the drum signal of the main messenger so that the sedan chair can remain balanced. Following the sedan chair is a man holding a sunshade to shelter the sedan chair, and two men are holding fans to cover up the two sides. In the outside lines of both sides of the god’s sedan chair there are eight escorts wearing blue ceremonial robes, white trousers, ceremonial hats and boots; their hands are folded in large sleeves and raised as high as the chest; they solemnly move following the signals. The host follows the sedan chair. His dress is the most solemn with a ceremonial hat on which there are silver carved images and a full new waxing moon in the front. His dress is all purple red, his hands are folded in the front and he moves slowly. Following the sedan chair, the old women go under a ribbon of white cloth of about 6-7 metres long with green edges, chanting the history of monk Khong Lo. Controlling the whole procession, which is about 200 metres long, are the two commanders. One wears a red gown and green belt and the other a green gown and red belt. They all wear pleated ready-to-wear turbans, white trousers and hold a bronze gamophone to give orders. The orders of the commanders make all the people in the procession follow strictly.
When the sedan chair arrives at the comer of the pond on the left, people can see 4 people controlling the wooden puppets. The first person controls a happy-face woman puppet. The hands of the puppets are controlled by string and easily raised or lowered. This puppet symbolizes Ba Chang or Ba Ca Roi. It is said that in the old days, when Khong Lo returned from his fishing trips, his fish was often bought by this lady. The other six puppets are men wearing carved image hats, controlled by 3 people. They go up and down in welcome in front of the sedan chair.
The 15th day is the ordinary monthly festival of the Buddhists. Every procedure is the same as in the 14th. But today, the God offering of the 12 carriers is held by a festival. This is also the last activity of the three days of Keo Pagoda Festival.
These are symbolic skiff rowing gestures; just like a dance, the 12 people in ceremonial dress queue in two lines, facing the palace, like the line-up of a skiff. There are 2 messengers. One holds a little drum, the other holds wooden fish, like the messengers on the skiff. The 12 men make simultaneous movements of rowing, beating the floor and chanting “heave ho”, while performing a beautiful dance.
Reviewing the process of Keo Pagoda Festival we can see the richness of its contents, and its varied form. The Keo Pagoda Festival reflects many details of Khong Lo Tale. Many old customs, folk songs and dances are preserved, and they can help researches in their study of history, nationality, and the peasants’ culture in the Red River Delta of Viet Nam.

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