Go to hell, reflect on heaven at Cam Ranh’s Shell Pagoda
Tien Thanh breathed a huge sigh of relief as he came out of the tunnel.
“I feel as if I have come back to life,” he said.
Thanh had just emerged from “Duong xuong Dia nguc” (Pathway to Hell), a 500m-long winding tunnel leading to a cave that symbolises the afterlife place of eternal torment in many religious mythologies.
The path and the cave, built using dead coral and seashells, are major attractions at the Tu Van Pagoda, also known as the Chua Oc (Shell Pagoda) in Cam Ranh Town, Khanh Hoa Province.
Before stepping foot on the pathway, it is recommended that visitors light candles and put on helmets for protection against the cave’s rough ceilings. Once inside, the path is a narrow, winding one, sometimes curling into a spiral shape.
There are 18 doors in the cave that symbolise the 18 layers of hell mentioned in Buddhist scriptures, and at each door is a description of the sins that a person may commit during his/her lifetime.
Thanh said after completing his journey through the 18 layers that the “half-bright, half-dark” tunnel plus the punishments depicted in each layer generated a feeling of excitement and fear in him.
“It felt so strange and we were even afraid of making any noise. At moments, I held my breath.”
There are other places in the pagoda that make people hold their breath, not out of fear, but out of amazement at spectacles like the Bao Tich Tower, which has been decorated with sea shells, clam and coral rocks from the local coast.
Chief monk Thich Thong Anh said construction of the Tu Van pagoda was completed in 1973, and it was more than two decades later, in 1995, that the idea of building and covering the tower with seashells and dry coral came up.
The aim, he said was to improve the physical and mental conditions of the monks and to create a unique tourist attraction that features treasures from the coast.
Detail: Colourful shells are arranged in many patterns.
No machine or special equipment was used to build the various attractions at the pagoda. The monks built them with their hands, he said.
This information increases the visitors’ admiration for the hard work and creativity of the monks.
At the main entrance of the tower is the Bat Nha Boat which carries righteous and generous people across the ocean of misery after death.
The boat is 10m-long, four metres wide and has three storeys stacked with Buddhist prayer books as well as books on Buddha’s teachings.
Hundreds of statues of the Buddha and other deities are planted on outside, and inside the tower stands a statue of the Goddess of Mercy with a thousand arms and a thousand eyes.
The tower has eight doors which represent Bat Chanh Dao – Ariyamaggani – the Eightfold Path (Right views, Right intention, Right speech, Right action, Right livelihood, Right Effort, Right-mindedness, Right contemplation) or the Way to the End Suffering.
One visitor said: “It was overwhelming to stand inside the tower and find myself surrounded by thousands of shells and clams arranged in different patterns.
“When I looked up to the top of the tower, it felt like I was inside a giant spiral shell.”
Smoke from burning incense spreads throughout the tower, creating a mysterious, sacred and peaceful atmosphere. The monks’ creativity is evident in every pattern inside and outside the structure.
There are 49 smaller towers surrounding the Bao Tich Tower and inside each one is a statue of the Buddha.
Next to the tower is Bat Nha Hoa Vien, a garden full of big shady trees and statues of animals and sea creatures resting in harmony with their surroundings.
The Most Venerable Thich Thong Anh said they started collecting seashells used to build Bat Nha Hoa Vien in 1985.
“At that time, residents were digging ponds to breed shrimp or fish, so we could easily found coral rocks along the coast,” he said.
“Other monks and I designed and built these works together,” he said, adding that every work related to a story in Buddhist mythology.
Among the works are big statues of the Buddha in different positions and a couple of dragons, all made with seashells.
The dragon statues were carried from Da Nang City’s Ngu Hanh Son Mountain, another famous Buddhist site in the country.
Once the visit to the pagado iscompleted, a beach just two kilometres away is an ideal place to find relief from the summer heat and to reflect on what one has just seen and learnt at a remarkable Buddhist monument.