Mountain mausoleum blends nature with cultural history
A royal mausoleum on a Hue mountaintop is unique because the original architects built no walls or fences to protect it. Their idea was to allow it to blend in with the mountain, sky and the rain in an eternal bond with the elements as outlined in feng shui (wind, water). Feng shui is the art of placing buildings, gardens and even cities in the best position to draw on these elements.
In summer, taking a boat trip on the poetic Huong (Perfume) River is the perfect way to enjoy a cool breeze and look at daily life of those living along the river. But it is greater if the trip has a destination, such as Thien Tho Mausoleum, the resting place of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945)’s first king, Emperor The To (1762-1820), who named his reign Gia Long.
The mausoleum, which is the furthest royal burial site around Hue City, is about a 90-minute row upstream. The building covers a low mountain, blending in beautifully with the landscape.
Built in 1814-20, Thien Tho Mausoleum occupies more than 2,800ha land in the Thien Tho Mountains in Huong Tho Commune on the outskirts of Huong Tra District. About 40 other small mountains and hills dot the plain. Nature here is marvellous for those who want to escape from urban life.
Pine trees flank the entrance road, providing a peaceful inspiration for four kilometres. Then three buildings appear in the distance. The main buildings at the shrine do not interfere with nature. They include a worshipping pavilion, the royal tomb itself and a pavilion for stone stela (carved, upright stones) in a nearby valley. One of the stela records the contribution of the late king by his son, Emperor Minh Mang.
The buildings have similar motifs, such as turtles, unicorns and dragons. The worshipping pavilion includes three wooden houses, altars, and a roofed gate with three doors. But the tomb of Emperor The To is different from others. The king built the mausoleum after the death of the first Queen and he wanted to be buried in the same tomb.
A book by Hue researchers said that this was a unique element of the mausoleum, showing the love of an Emperor for his Queen, a popular theme among ordinary people, but rarely reflected in Vietnamese royal families.
Gia Long gave his throne to his son by the second queen, not the son of the first queen as was the rule in feudal times. Some researchers believe the burials were politically motivated. One, Ho Tan Phan, believes the king wanted to ensure his dynasty lasted well after his death.
“The king wanted to ensure stability in the royal family, so he might have wanted to ensured there was no room for jealousy between the children of the two queens,” he said.
But the greatest element of the mausoleum is the setting. Buildings pay full respect to what existed before the royal mausoleum was built. Unlike other mausoleums, the buildings are not surrounded by fences or walls, leaving the mountain and its topography open. Standing high on the mountain, the mausoleum’s canal and lake system looks like a dragon circling with its mouth open to the Perfume River.
Water circulates year round in the canal and lakes, lotus flourish, making the scene even more poetic, especially at this time of the year. The lotus is the favourite flower of most Vietnamese. The dragon symbolises regal power, and the lotus is considered noble. Boating on the lotus lake is cool and the soft perfume is delicious.
According to researchers, the long canal and lakes were created to increase feng shui and the beauty of the whole complex. The place is a great destination for photographers looking for free flowing nature, ancient patterned buildings and lotus.
“I am so impressed with the scenes here. It is worth visiting many times during the summer for refreshment and joy,” said Thanh Giang, a visitor from Hue City.
It is also a place to learn something about the way things were in the not so distant past. Visitors can also bike to reach the mausoleum. Last April, a temporary floating bridge was erected for vehicles, including bikes and motorbikes to reach the mausoleum without travelling up river. There is an 18km road running from the city to Tuan Confluence, where two source branches of the Perfume River meet.
I pay visits to the mausoleum every year in different seasons to feel the changes.