A bronze bell was found by local fishermen on a summer morning 1958, in coastal area of Do Son port.
After the bell has been lifted elder men and archeologists have determined that the Long belfry formerly located in Nui Rong mountain at an altitude of 91.7 m bell was belonged to Van Ban pagoda (1). Van Ban pagoda was associated with Tuong above sea level
Bell of Van Ban pagoda
Nui Rong Mountain is the first of 9 mountains located along Do Son peninsula of city in which the relics of old Tuong Long belfry had been found, the Haiphong Tuong Long belfry has been built by the Dai Viet state): “Autumn, September the King has visited Ba Lo coastal area and he headed by the order of king Ly Thanh Tong in 1058. According to record in the book of Dai Viet Su Luoc (history of way to place for construction of belfry in Do Son, next year (the year of pig) he saw golden dragon appears in Truong Xuan palace of Thang Long (Hanoi in present) and decided to name the belfry in Do Son as Tuong Long (appearance of dragon) for remembering good foresight” (the book of Dai Viet Su Luoc, 1960)
Forty years ago, the institute of archeology together with Haiphong museum have exhumed foundation of the belfry. Notwithstanding that only first stage of the foundation remained, the corners of the belfry are saved in good conditions so that the curves of them could be seen well, especially bricks, they were heat treated evenly, in every brick an inscription in Chinese: “made on 4th year of Long Thuy Thai Binh, the 3rd king of Ly dynasty (1057)”. Ornaments in bricks are dragon, phoenix, leaves of Buddha ficus and lotus that characterized Buddhist art at the period of Ly dynasty.
Because the bell of Van Ban pagoda is a rare and precious antiquity it quickly has been moved to Vietnam Museum of History (National Museum of History in present) for exhibition to wide public. Research works on the bell had begun since 1963, the most significant issue for the researchers were the age of the bell, Nom writing (2) as well as other related issues as rules of land-use, donation scheme, and about Buddhism. The bell was registered to the state registry of treasures under the numbering LSb.18165. It has a height of 127 cm, it’s mouth diameter is 80 cm and weighs about 300 kg.
The bell has cylinder form with enlarged mouth, grip has the forms of twin dragons with connected bodies typically for many bells related to Le dynasty period but the position and shape of the dragons look like the dragons in grip of the bell of Binh Lam pagoda in Vi Xuyen dictrict, Ha Giang province that has been referred to Tran dynasty period. The dragons have high rowers having the shape of mountain raw, raised heads with wide opened mouths showing even teeth and spiraling tongue in 3 circles. Top of bell’s grip were cast in the forms of lotus flower, the dragon’s bodies are thick with the ornaments of carp scales.
Grip has the forms of twin dragons with connected bodies
Body of the bell is divided in 8 cells by protruded wide thick lines; 4 upper cells have the forms of trapezoid, in 2 of them an inscription text in Chinese was engraved, there are 16 columns in first cell and 10 columns in second comprising of 250 Chinese characters of Hanh Thu (3) style in total. The bell’s got 6 round striking places around every of them the lotus with combination of large and small petals in position upside down was cast. The bell’s mouth was cast in 52 double lotus petals, in large petal are 2 protruded lines. 4 lower cell of rectangle form remained without inscription.
Protruded lines on bell’s body.
5 years after discovering the bell of Van Ban pagoda, author Tran Huy Ba has published first article about it in To quoc newspaper (Tran Huy Ba, 1963, pages 26-27) according to character Binh in the inscription (4), the author has concluded the year of the bell’s manufacture was Binh Thin (1076). Author also compared: dragon shape in the bell’s grip to the dragon shape on stone pedestal of Amitābha statue in Phat Tich pagoda (Bac Ninh province); lotus petals raw on the mouth of Van Ban pagoda’s bell to lotus petals raw on pedestal of Binh Son belfry (Vinh Phuc province) so that he could determine that the age of the bell is belonged to Ly dynasty period. Moreover the author has concluded other related issues as Nom writing question, administrative post of Ta boc xa in Ly dynasty period. Sum up the article, the author suggested: “In this way, maybe the bell has been manufactured about 900 years ago and has been rest in the deep of sea for more than 700 years before moving to museum” (Tran Huy Ba, 1963, pages 27).
Another author (Trinh Cao Tuong) in 1978 also came to the opinion about Ly dynasty age of the bell as Tran Huy Ba (Trinh Cao Tuong, 1978 p. 75-79)
Arguments determining the age of Van Ban pagoda’s bell in Tran dynasty period.
Author Nguyen Dinh Chien in 1978 has researched a bell that has been cast in 1296 year at Binh Lam pagoda, Vi Xuyen district, Ha Giang province (Nguyen Dinh Chien, 1978, p. 339). 4 years ago this bell which was cast in time of King Tran Anh Tong has been recognized as state treasure by the government on December 30, 2013.
In 1980 the author has published an article about inscription text on this bell in archeological journal (Nguyen Dinh Chien, 1980, p. 32-45). Based on research works of Binh Lam pagoda’s bell that belongs to Tran dynasty period the author was be able to determine the age of Van Ban pagoda’s bell by comparisons of: dragon shapes of bells grips of the same type; 6 round striking places of each bell have analogous ornaments of large and small lotus flower petals (5); dimensions of both bells are also similar (the ratio of height to mouth diameter for Binh Lam bell is 1,03m/0,65m = 1,58; for Van Ban bell is 1,25/0,80m = 1,56). These results of comparison testify to the uniform art and technical standards of both bells (Nguyen Dinh Chien, 1980, p. 38).
In 1996 during researching inscription text of Van Ban bell, assistant professor Ngo Duc Tho has discovered that character Nam was replaced by Binh character. According to his opinion, in many text documents describing land use of Tran dynasty period, character Nam was often being replaced by Binh character in the words relating to south or southern. This was a result of naming taboo during Tran dynasty period (Ngo Duc Tho, 1996, p. 376-383). Based on this result, the author has concluded that the Van Ban pagoda’s bell maybe relates to Tran dynasty. This opinion is the same as the opinions of other researchers as Ta Trong Hiep, Claudune Salmon (Dinh Kính,1997, p.57-58)
Inscription text engraved in bell’s body
Regarding administrative post of “Ta boc xa” by the Ta Cong Cu, there was no any evidence describing this post in documents associated with Ly dynasty. Moreover there is an interesting coincidence in 2 books, the first is the book by author Phan Huy Chu “Lịch triều hiến chương loại chí” and the second is “Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư”. In first book Phan Huy Chu wrote “in the first year of Trung Hung (1258) was established a post of Ta boc xa”, this post was considered as “Van giai” post and it had got the order of significance after “lục bộ Thượng thư” posts and before “Tả Hữu Ty Lang trung” posts. Phan Huy Chu had also explain about this post: “ the posts of boc xa was firstly established by the king of Tran Anh Tong, there were Tả (bộc xạ) post and Hữu (bộc xạ) post. People held a rank of this post was usually from “Hành khiển Thượng thư” order in society as Trần Thời Khiến, Trần Bang Cẩn (Phan Huy Chu, 1961, p. 22). In the book of “Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư” was firstly mentioned about this post: “in the 7th year of At Dau (1285), autumn, august the Ta boc xa official Luu Cuong Gioi was ordered to reward good peoples of various ranks and punish surrendered soldiers” (Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, 1971, v II, p..62).In “Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư” were also described many peoples having Ta boc xa post in Tran dynasty period as Tran Hung Thao (1301), Tran Thoi Khien (1305), Tran Khac Trung (1307), Tran Bang Can (1324). In this way, based on these 2 books we shall be able to conclude that the post of Ta boc xa has been originated since 1258 year and at the same time the age of Van Ban bell is approximately in the period between 1258 – 1304. But the bell could not be manufactured during the struggle against Yuan (Chinese) invaders is being held until 1288 when Yuan invaders were defeated. So the bell could be manufactured between 1288 – 1304 under kingdom of Tran Nhan Tong (or Tran Anh Tong)
In 2003, in the book “antiquities of Vietnam” an introduction about Van Ban pagoda’s bell in picture number 100, page 92 (Luu Tran Tieu, 2003) in which the age of the bell is presented under Tran dynasty, 13- 14 century.
Van Ban pagoda’s bell is unique antiquity related to Tran dynasty and Van Ban pagoda with Tuong Long belfry that have been constructed in time of Ly dynasty in Do Son area, Haiphong city. The bell’s got grip of dragon shape, lotus flower petals raw in striking places and mouth that have been characterized as Buddhism art features under Tran dynasty. The inscription text in the bell is precious historical document for researching history, religion and society in time of Tran dynasty.
There have been decades the Van Ban bell is being proudly demonstrated in Tran dynasty sector in National Historic Museum as well as in many special exhibitions abroad. The bell is also being introduced in many historical research works on Vietnam home and abroad and it is worthily recognized as a national treasure by prime minister.
Doctor Nguyen Dinh Chien
Pictures: Duy Linh
Translator: Nguyen Thai Hung
(1) as rumored in Do Son area, the bell has been triply sunk in the bottom of the sea. There was 3rd time as the bell was being discovered.
(2) The Nom writing has been found in inscription text: Dao Duy Anh 1970. “oldest evidences about Nom writing in a headstone of the period of King Ly Cao Ton” (journal “historical research number 134, p. 45-46).
(3) the inscription text on the bell is very hard to read because of small and effaced characters. Up to now are some suggested translated versions as: *Đồng Thị Hồng Hoàn, 2008.“New findings about Van Ban pagoda’s bell” www.Fandevent.com.vn; *Nguyễn Ngọc Nhuận. “Van Ban pagoda’s bell”. Han – Nom Inscription writing, p. 729-733 (Han – Nom Research Institute)
(4) Binh character here is not the prefix name of year and has the meaning of south direction according to explanations of Gno Duc Tho.
(5) mould copies of inscription text on Thong Thanh quan’s bell are saved in the institute of scholar information under numberings 13955, 13956, 13957 and 13958. Striking places in this bell also have got lotus flower petals row, unfortunately the bell does not exist now (Hà Văn Tấn and Phạm Thị Tâm, 1966. “inscription text on Thong Thanh quan’s bell and other historical issues of Tran dynasty, journal “historical research number 88, p. 25 – 32.