Located beside the picturesque Huong River, Thien Mu Pagoda, with its ancient architecture, adds its charm to this beautiful natural setting. The sound of Thien Mu bell is like the soul of Hue, ever resounding over the Huong River flow winding its way in front of the Citadel to the sea, resonating in the hearts and minds of the people and of visitors to Hue, the ancient capital.
Hue is home to many of the most beautiful sites and ancient pagodas in Vietnam
The oldest pagoda in Hue is Thien Mu Pagoda whose establishment is associated with the early actions of the first Nguyen Lord in Dang Trong (South Vietnam). This legend relates how, when Nguyen Hoang was sent to Thuan Hoa (now Central Vietnam) to rule this area, he himself made a survey of the terrain to choose a site for settling down. As he rode his horse upstream along the Huong River side he saw a small hillock beside the river, whose terrain looked like a dragon turning its head back. This hill was called Ha Khe. The local people told a story that every night an old lady in a red blouse and green trousers appeared here saying that a true Lord would come to this place and build a pagoda for the prosperity of the country. Thus this place became known as Thien Mu Son (Heavenly Lady Mountain).
It seemed that the grand ideas of Lord Nguyen Hoang matched the people’s desires so he ordered a pagoda to be built on the hillock, facing the Huong River and to be named “Thien Mu Tu“ (Thien Mu Pagoda). In fact, a pagoda of the Champa people had previously stood on this site – a relic mentioned in the book O Chau Can Luc written by Duong Van An in 1553. It was not until 1601 that the pagoda was built following the decision of Lord Nguyen Hoan.
With the development, prosperity and spread of Buddhism in Dang Trong, the pagoda was rebuilt on a larger scale in the reign of Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu (1691-1725). In 1710, this Lord ordered that a big bell with an inscribed teaching be cast. And in 1714, he again had the pagoda renovated and many great architectural structures added. These new additions included the Thien Vuong, Dai Hung and Thuyet Phap buildings, Tang Kinh Pavilion, Monks’ rooms and a house for religious meditation. Many of these buildings no longer exist today. Nguyen Phuc Chu himself wrote a narrative description describing the construction of the buildings here, praising the philosophy of the Buddhism, and relating the merits of the Buddhist monk Thach Liem, who was instrumental in helping Lord Nguyen boost Buddhism in Dang Trong. The inscribed stele was placed on a big stone turtle with simple decorations which enhanced its beauty.
With its enlarged scale and natural landscape, Thien Mu pagoda was said to be the most beautiful one in Dang Trong at that time. During the ups and downs of history, Thien Mu was once the place for sacrifices to the Deity under Tay Son’s reign in 1788 and was restored many times under the Nguyen reign. In 1844, on the occasion of the 80th birthday of Queen Thuan Thien Cao Hoang Hau (Gia Long’s wife and Thieu Tri’s grandmother), the pagoda was again renovated together with the construction of Tu Nhan Tower (later renamed Phuoc Duyen), Huong Nguyen temple and two steles inscribed with Thieu Tri Emperor’s poems.
Phuoc Duyen Tower is a famous symbolic link with Thien Mu Pagoda. It is 21 metres high, has seven storeys, is located in front of the pagoda and is visible from the Huong River. On each of the seven storeys there is a statue of Buddha. Inside the tower a spiral staircase leads to the top storey where formerly a gold Buddha statue was displayed. Huong Nguyen temple is in front of the Tower.
Thien Mu Pagoda was ranked one of the twenty most beautiful landscapes in Hue with the poem Thien Mu chung thanh, composed by the emperor Thieu Tri, inscribed on the stone stele set near the Pagoda gate. In 1862, during the reign of Tu Duc, who prayed for a child, the Emperor was afraid that the word Thien profaned Heaven because it means heavenly. So Tu Duc renamed the Pagoda as Linh Mu which means Holy Lady. It was not until 1869 that the Emperor allowed the reuse of the old name Thien Mu meaning Heavenly Lady. The Pagoda is still known by both names today.
In 1904, a terrible storm seriously damaged the Pagoda. Many structures were ruined and Huong Nguyen Temple was destroyed. Through many re-constructions and restorations Thien Mu Pagoda still retains valuable architectural structures such as Phuoc Duyen Tower, Dai Hung, Dia Tang and Quan Am temples, the stone steles and bronze bells. Thien Mu Pagoda is also home to many valuable antiques of both historical and artistic value and importance, such as the statures Ho Phap, Thap Vuong, Di Lac Buddha, the three Buddhas symbolizing Past, Present and Future Lives, lacquered boards and panels with parallel texts that mark the glorious periods in history of the Pagoda.
The Pagoda is surrounded with a garden of flowers and plants that are carefully tended every day. There is a bonsai of the ancestor of Vietnam Tuong (Classical drama), Dao Tan, situated next to the car left in 1963 by the Superior Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, before burning himself to protest the policy of Ngo Dinh Diem regime in suppressing Buddhism. At the end of the garden is the Tower of the Superior Buddhist monk Thich Don Hau, a famous head of Thien Mu Pagoda who devoted his whole life to the promotion of Buddhism and the good of society.