The Thay Pagoda Festival

Thay village (nowadays known as Thuy Khe village) is located at the foot of Sai Son mountain, and belongs to Quoc Oai district, Ha Tay province.
Visitors come to this village all the year round for several reasons. The village and Sai Son mountain have well-known scenic spots including a nice lake (Long Tri Lake) with a big pavillion where annual water puppets shows are performed. There are also 2 wooden bridges with curved tiled roofs, and many beautiful mountain caves. The mountain, at its foot and on its slopes, has a number of old pagodas. The best known is the Thay Pagoda where people worship Tu Dao Hanh, a monk of the Ly Dynasty who hailed from Lang village (Ha Noi) and was endowed with supernatural powers, (see the legend associated with Tu Bao Hanh in the article dealing with the Lang Festival in page 88).
Both the Thay and Lang Pagodas festivals are held in early March of each year, but differ from each other in terms of specific rites and ceremonies.
In order to visit Thay village, one should start from Ha Noi, follow the Ha Noi-Son Tay road up 24 km and then proceed for 9 more kilometres along a provincial road.
The Thay Pagoda festival is actually a joint festival of 4 villages (Thuy Khe, Da Phuc, Khanh Tan and Sai Khe). While the whole area has many pagodas, the festival is held mainly in Thien Phuc Pagoda, alias Thay Pagoda, which comprises 3 buildings: the ante-chamber, Buddha’s Building, and the Building of the Genius. It is said that Tu Dao Hanh led a religious life and died in this very pagoda. At the end of his life, he sat in meditation for several months without food and drink and died in the process. Thereafter, the people put his withered corpse in the Building of the Genius for worship. The Ming invaders who ruled over Viet Nam from 1407 to 1427, took Tu Dao Hanh’s corpse to a mount and burned it. The local population collected his ashes and mixed them with earth to make a statue to worship. From then on, the mount was called the Burning Mount.
Ceremonies connected with the Thay Pagoda Festival started from the 5th to the 9th days of the 3rd lunar month. It includes the bathing of Tut Bao Hanh’s statue, the presentation of incense sticks, a procession of the tablets, folk theatrical plays (Cheo), chess games, and a water puppets show, and a recital of the feast of Tut Dao Hanh.
The most noteworthy events and distinctive features of the festival are the .procession of the tablets and the water puppet show.
The procession of the tablets takes place on the 7th day of the 3rd lunar month, in which all the four villages – Thuy Khe, Da Phuc, Sai Khe, Khanh Tan – take part. The local population believes that Tu Dao Hanh had originally learned supernatural powers and became a genius, then later time, embraced Buddhism. Therefore at the start of the procession, his tablets must be wrapped in a piece of yellow cloth (the colour of the robes worn by priests endowed with supernatural powers) and on the return trip the same tablets should be wrapped in the brown frock of a Buddhist monk. In the course of the procession, Buddhist nuns walk while recounting the feats of Tuf Bao Hanh, first in learning suprernatural magic and then in leading a religious Buddhist life. The procession proceeds at a very slow pace, and usually comes back to the pagoda late at night. This timing is considered propitious as it is the time when night takes over from day, when they come into contact with each other. The order of the procession also has variations with specific significance. At the start of the procession are the tablet of the Spirit Protector and the Red Horse of Thuy Khe and Khanh Tan villages; at the end comes the tablets of Tut Bao Hanh. The tablet of the Spirit Protector of each village is carried by people of the concerned village, while that of Tuf Bao Hanh is carried by 4 people appointed by the four villages. Buring the return trip, the tablet of the Spirit Protector and the White Horse of Ba Phuc village must come first, to be followed by the tablet of the Spirit Protector and the Red Horse of Thuy Khe village, the order of the remaining components of the procession remains unchanged. The above change in the precedence of the Red and White horses is connected with a specific legend: When Tuf Bao Hanh promised to reincarnate himself as the offspring of Sung Hien Hau (younger brother of King Ly Nhan Tong) he told Sung Hien Hau: “When your wife is giving birth, you must notify me immediately so that I can perform the due rites”. As agreed, on that day, Sung Hien Hau ordered some horsemen to rush to the Pagoda for this purpose. The Red Horse reaches the pagoda first and brought in the news, while on the return trip the White Horse outstripped the former and came home first. The change of precedence in the procession is an evocation of past events.
The second noteworthy item is the water puppet show, a traditional cultural activity related to wet rice cultivation in the Red River Delta. This item comprises two basic components: puppets and water. The puppets are products of traditional popular wood sculptures and lacquer painting. The place for the puppet performance is a lake or a part of the river. With its fluid nature and reflections, water can efficiently mirror the changing colour of the sky, mountains, trees and leaves, and give a mythical air to the performance. The artists must usually stay inside the water and direct the movement of the puppet through connected sticks and strings. Although several festivals in various places do have water puppet shows, they are performed by professional groups coming from other localities and in improvised stages. But the Thay Pagoda has a fixed and specialized stage – the pavillion in the middle of the Long Tri lake, also called the Dragon lake and its entire expanse of water which stretches 15 m from the pavillion to the bank of the lake. This is much larger than the stages provided in other places, which are generally only 4 metres. The water puppet shows reflect either productive activities, such as rice cultivation, duck breeding, fishing, and weaving, or games such as wrestling, unicorn dance and historical tales. The shows also draw from folk or classical theatrial plays.
The skits performed by the water puppet are usually short, and silent (except for some occasional introductory remarks, and accompanying folk or classical music), but they reflect distinctly the life of the population and their struggle against natural calamities and foreign invasion, and their struggle for national development and defence. They fill the audience with surprise and pleasure, and also pride in the rich imagination and dexterity of the performers who created in this art. Indeed, the founder and teacher of the water puppet show is none other than Monk Tu Dao Hanh.
The Thay Pagoda festival attracts many people because of the myth surrounding Monk Tu Dao Hanh and his feats, the beautiful scenery, and the water puppet shows. Also, a romantic dimension must be added, as the labyrinth of caves and paths in the mountain are ideal for hide-and- seek games.
This is reflected in an old saying:
“The Thay pagoda area has the Cac Co cave Young bachelors often remember it with nostalgia”.

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