Built in the beginning of the 20th century in honor of the supreme Taoist God (the Jade Emperor or King of Heaven, Ngoc Hoang), Emperor Jade Pagoda is one of the most spectacularly atmospheric temples in Ho Chi Minh City, stuffed with statues of phantasmal divinities and grotesque heroes. The pungent smoke of incense fills the air, obscuring the exquisite woodcarvings. Thanks to the unique interior and exterior designs, hundreds of statues and figurines, wood carvings and antiquity, the pagoda attracts people from around the country and the world to visit. The USA President Obama visited Jade Emperor Pagoda on 25th May 2016 at 16:30.
Location: 73 Mai Thi Luu Street, Ben Thanh Ward, District 10, Ho Chi Minh City. CLICK HERE to see the location of the pagoda on Google Maps. Jade Emperor Pagoda is nearly 4 km North of Ben Thanh Market so visitors can reach it easily from central districts of the city.
Opening hours: 7:00 – 18:00; On 1st and 15th days of the lunar month: 5:00 – 19:00.
Name of Jade Emperor Pagoda
Jade Emperor Pagoda has many names as follows:
Vietnamese: Chùa Ngọc Hoàng (the most popular), Điện Ngọc Hoàng (written on a board on the pillar of the main gate), Phước Hải Tự (written on the main gate in Vietnamese and Chinese), Chùa Đa Kao called by the French.
English: Jade Emperor Pagoda, Phuoc Hai Pagoda.
Chinese: 玉皇殿 literally meaning Jade Emperor Temple, 福海寺 literally meaning Phuoc Hai Tu or Luck Sea Temple.
The pagoda is a place of worship Jade Emperor (Ngọc Hoàng) so that it is called Jade Emperor Pagoda or Chùa Ngọc Hoàng. Phước Hải Tự is the official name of the pagoda and written in Vietnamese on the main gate.
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Jade Emperor Pagoda was built by Luu Minh from Guandong, China at the beginning of the 20th century. Scholar Vuong Hong Sen supposed the construction of Jade Emperor Pagoda was started in 1905 and completed in 1906. According to Vo Van Tuong, the pagoda was established in 1900. Others researched and concluded that the Luu Minh began to build the pagoda in 1892 but it had not been finished until 1900, and inaugurated in 1906.
According to scholar Vuong Hong Sen, Luu Minh “was a vegetarian, had Minh Su Religion, would like to overthrow Qing Dynasty, built the pagoda for worshiping and meeting”.
Jade Emperor Pagoda has belonged to the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam and managed by Buddhist priest Thich Vinh Khuong since 1982.
In 1984, the pagoda was renamed Phước Hải Tự (Phuoc Hai Pagoda).
Phuoc Hai Pagoda was restored in 1943, 1958, 1985, 1986. But it still remains the ancient architecture.
In 1994, Jade Emperor Pagoda was listed officially as an architectural site by the Vietnamese Department of Culture.
Main Gate and Fence
The main gate of Jade Emperor Pagoda is about 6 m wide and about 4.5 m high. It is not a three-entrance gate with multi-tier roofs but a one-entrance gate with one roof. This makes the pagoda and its main gate different from many Ho Chi Minh City’s pagodas and temples. In fact, there are two gates, the bigger main gate is supported by two pink concrete pillars and covered with a tiled roof. The smaller gate is supported by two stone gates with red Chinese characters. The metal grid arch and two shutters are in red and yellow colors.
The ying-yan tiled roof is curved upward and decorated with snail figurines at the eaves, “two dragons facing a moon (or a pearl)” figurines and two figurines of two unicorns. One unicorn is female, the other is male, they express the harmony of Yin and Yang and protect the pagoda from evil spirits. All figurines are made from ceramics. The concrete fence and the pillars are in pink color. This romantic color dominates the pagoda and makes it not only mysterious but also bright.
The metal gates and signboard on which written “CHÙA PHƯỚC HẢI” and “福海寺” are in red and yellow colors. The gate is usually decorated with lines of five-colored Buddhist prayer flags and lanterns.
Jade Emperor Pagoda’s land area is 2,300 m2. The outer courtyard connects the main gate and the main building. The yard has a motorbike parking, Dharmapala Shrine, a lotus and fish pond, an incense burner and an area to place candles, a turtle pond and lots of green trees.
Dozens of green old trees producing big shade are highlights of the pagoda. Entering the yard of the pagoda, visitors feel cool and enjoy the fresh air despite the hot weather of Ho Chi Minh City. It is a totally different place from the other parts of the crowded, noisy and busy Saigon with lots of buildings and skyscrapers.
Passing the main gate, visitors can see the motorbike parking on the right and the left. A concrete fence separates the parking and the inner part of the yard. Visitors pass another gate and see some stone benches, where visitors can sit and relax, along the path to the main building.
In the middle of the yard is a small shrine where Dharmapala is worshiped. The pink two-tiered tiled roof is supported by four pillars and decorated with four Qilin holding gems in their mouth on the lower roof, lotus buds and a stupa on the upper roof.
Behind the shrine is a concrete square fish pond a smaller hexagonal lotus pond in the center of the fish pond. Visitors can only see lotus flowers during the lotus flower season. Behind the fish pond is a table on which are placed lightened glass candles offered by visitors, a glass container of incense and a huge incense burner with a three-tiered roof.
The pond on the right to the main building is full of turtles and fishes w
Looking from outside, the main building has three entrances, the middle one is the main and biggest entrance. In front of the main entrance is an entrance canopy with a green tiled roof, two figurines of dragons and four figurines of snails on its top. Two big lanterns with green and red dragon patterns are hung on the canopy. On two sides of the main entrance are two stone panels and two wooden panels on which written. Between the main door and the canopy are the blue and red signboard on which written 玉寺福 CHÙA PHƯỚC HẢI and delicately carved wood.
Above the entrance canopy are three Chinese characters 殿皇玉 which means Jade Emperor Temple. The facade and the top of the main building are decorated with hundreds of flowers, leaf, cloud, wave decorations and figurines of people and animals including birds, two big dragons facing the moon (or a gem).
The right and left rooms have two green tiled balconies and green ceramic rails in traditional Vietnamese style.
The wonderful mix of the pink walls, green roofs and decorations make the pagoda eye-catching but mysterious.
Inside Main Building
The building has three rooms (ba gian) including left, right and middle rooms. Each room is a unique ancient architectural work.
Middle Room (Gian Giữa)
The middle room is the biggest, it comprises front hall, middle hall and back hall (main hall). Jade Emperor and other Gods are worshiped in the middle room. They chant and arrange the feasts in the front and middle hall on important occasions. Two delicate carved wooden doors depicting impress visitors.
Front Hall (Tiền Điện) in Middle Room
In the Front Hall, Tudigong (Earth God, Lord of the Soil and the Ground, Thổ Địa) is worshiped in the altar on the left to the entrance, Menshen (Martial Door God, Môn Quan Thần) is worshiped in the altar on the right to the entrance.
In the left wooden altar is placed a statue of the Earth God, having a long beard, wearing a hat and a yellow costume with flower and leaf patterns, and round 囍 (double happiness) pattern, smiling and holding gold in his hand. The altar was carved with two dragons facing a gem (on the top), Chinese characters (on the left and the right), farmers, soldiers, etc. In front of the Tudigong statue is an altar tablet, an incense burner and a plate used as a candle holder.
Both the Menshen altar and altar tablets are carved with two dragons facing a gem. The statue of Meshen has a long black beard, wearing a hat and a costume with dragon, cloud, carp and wave patterns. The white and blue ceramic has a dragon pattern.
There are beautiful carved wooden doors between the Front Hall and the area where Souvenirs, meditation tools and offerings are sold. The wood carving depicts battles between Nezha and demons that are in sharp contrast to nice birds, flowers and leaves above.
Middle Hall (Trung Điện) in Middle Room
Pink concrete arches, round and square pillars between separate the places of worship in the Front Hall and Middle Hall. In this area, visitors can find incense sticks, incense rings, bracelets, Buddhist prayer beads, glass candles, bottles of kerosene.
The entrance to the Middle Hall is decorated with wood carvings depicting yellow tigers, Chinese characters, a dragon, birds, flowers, leaves, animals, fruits, squirals (or weasels), a person with big belly.
On the main carved wooden shrine altar is worship a golden statue of Medicine Buddha (Phật Dược Sư). In front of the main altar are worshiped:
- Statues of Western Three Gods (Di Đà Tam Tôn) – Amida Buddha (Phật A Di Đà) and his two assistants Padmapani (Quán Thế Âm Bồ Tát) and Mahasthamaprapta (Quán Thế Âm Đại Thế Chí) in a glass box;
- Prince Siddharta Gautama on lotus on the left of the glass box;
- A colorful statue of Cundi (A Phật Mẫu Chuẩn Đề) on the outer left to the glass box.
On two sides of Medicine Buddha altar are two 4 m high paper statues of fierce and menacing generals who are famous for defeating dragons and tigers.
- Thanh Long General (Thanh Long Đại Tướng, literally meaning Green Dragon General) with a long beard wears flags on his back, a nice hat and a costume with dragon patterns. He holds a gem (or pearl) in his right hand and a sword in his left hand and steps on a defeated dragon;
- Phuc Ho General (Phục Hổ Đại Tướng, literally meaning General Tame Tiger) with a long beard and red-brown face holds a sword in this left hand, a ring in his right hand. He wears a costume decorated with dragon patterns, a hat on his hat and flags on his back. He steps on a defeated White Tiger.
Main Hall or Back Hall (Chánh Điện) in Middle Room
The Main Hall or Chánh Điện is the most favorite place of visitors to pray. This hall is filled with lots of statues on altars: Jade Emperor Altar (in the middle), Zhenwu Emperor Altar (on the left to the Jade Emperor Altar) and Water Moon Palace (on the right).
Jade Emperor Altar (Bàn Thờ Ngọc Hoàng)
The most important and biggest is the 3 m high gilded and red-painted statue of Jade Emperor, sitting on a 1 m high base, wearing a crown (mũ bình thiên), draped in luxurious robes and shrouded in a dense fug of incense smoke. Smaller statues around the Jade Emperor statue include:
- Two Jade Emperor’s assistants named after two stars Crux and Big Dipper (Nam Tào, Bắc Đẩu);
- Hua Tuo (Hoa Đà Tiên Sư), Guan Yu (Quan Thánh Đế Quân), Chinese moon & sun goddesses (thần Nhật Nguyệt), Dragon Queen Mother (Long Mẫu Nương Nương), Taiyi Zhenren ( Thái Ất Chân Nhân);
- Four Big Diamonds (Tứ Đại Kim Cương).
Highlights of the Main Hall include carved wooden panels, pillars, altars that remain over hundreds of years. Chinese characters were carved on wooden panels and pillars. Visitors have a chance to admire the delicate carved storks, phoenixes, cranes, flowers. The carvings also depict scenes of heaven, two birds expressing their love on a branch in Chinese in the past.
Zhenwu Emperor Altar (Bàn Thờ Bắc Đế)
On the left of the Jade Emperor altar is the altar where Zhenwu Emperor (Huyền Thiên Bắc Đế) known as an aspect of Jade Emperor. The statue in a sitting position, with a sword in the right hand, a turtle under one leg and a snake under the other leg represents suppressing demons.
Water Moon Palace
On the right is the Water Moon Palace (Cung Thuỷ Nguyệt) where Cundi (Phật Chuẩn Đề) is worshiped. Medicine Buddha, Siddharta Gautama, Cundi in the Middle Hall and Cundi in the Main Hall are two Buddhas venerated in Mahayana Buddhism but they are worshiped in a Taoist pagoda with a major number of Taoist deities. The arrangement of statues and the ways to worship in Ngoc Hoang Pagoda show the perfect mix of Taoism and Buddhism.
Left Room (Gian Trái)
Out the door on the left-hand side of the Jade Emperor’s chamber is another room. In the left room, there are three halls:
Jin Hua Hall (Điện Kim Hoa)
On the other side of the wall is a fascinating little room in which there are ceramic figures of deities and creatures from Vietnamese mythology and folk religion, managing and supporting marriage and childbirth of Vietnamese people. They are worshiped in a U-shaped glass altar.
On two sides, Twelve Midwives (Mười Hai Bà Mụ) are twelves women, wearing colorful clothes, holding children on their hands, having children overrun around and sitting in two rows of six. Each of the women exemplifies a human characteristic, either good or bad (as in the case of the woman drinking alcohol from a jug). Each figure represents a year in the 12-year Chinese astrological calendar. They also teach children to walk, run and talk.
Presiding over the room is Jin Hua (Kim Hoa Thanh Mau), who is known as the Chief of All Women and the Goddess of Childbirth in Vietnamese folk religion. In the hall are also worshiped Ông Tơ Bà Nguyệt – the God and Goddess of love and marriage in Vietnam.
Jin Hua Hall is the favorite place of single people praying for love, childless couples praying for children.
Cheng Huan Hall (Thanh Hoang Hall, Điện Thành Hoàng)
In Thanh Hoang Hall, Cheng Huan – the God of the Hell is worshiped. On the left to the entrance to Cheng Huan Hall, a big carved wooden painting depicting gods who dispense punishments for evil acts and rewards for good deeds, Guanyin holding a child, Manjushri sitting on the back of his Unicorn.
On the left wall, the “Ten Courts of Hell (Thập Điện)” carved wooden panels on the left wall illustrate the varied torments awaiting evil people in each of the Ten Regions of Hell. On the right wall is hung the “Five Courts of Hell (Thập Điện)” carved wooden panels.
On the altar at the back of Cheng Huan Hall is for worshiping Cheng Huan – the Chief of Hell, Thai Tue God in the heaven, Lu Ban – God of builders and contractors. In front of the altars are a red horse called Horse General (Mã Tướng Quân), Heibai Wuchang (Nhị Vị Song Án, Hắc Bạch Vô Thường, Black and White Impermanence – two Cheng Huan’s assistants who are responsible for escorting the spirits of the dead to the Hell.
Visitors usually claw Horse General and ring the bell around its neck and pray for something. Women queue up at the seated effigy of the City God, who wears a hat inscribed with Chinese characters that announce ‘At one glance, money is given’. In a mesmerizing ritual, worshippers first put money into a box, then rub a piece of red paper against his hand before circling it around a candle flame.
Right Room (Gian Phải)
The right room comprises of bedrooms, a Hall where Lady Buddha and tablets of dead people are worshiped. In the Lady Buddha Hall, there is a wooden staircase leading to Guanyin Hall were to worship Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Quán Âm Bồ Tát), Bodhidharma (Đạt Ma Tổ Sư), Guan Yu (Quan Thánh Đế Quân), Dharmapala (Hộ pháp) and Ancestor Luu Minh who built the pagoda. The panel, made in 1905, has characters meaning “Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism expresses the blend of three big religions.
300 statues and wooden panels with Chinese characters
Besides mentioned statues and figurines, Ngoc Hoang Pagoda stores about 300 statues made of wood. The most impressive statues include statues of Gautama Buddha (Phật Thích Ca), Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta (Đại Thế Chí Bồ Tát), Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha (Địa Tạng Vương Bồ Tát), Leigong (God of Thunder, Thiên Lôi), Hebo (Lord of River, Hà Bá), Wenchang Wang (God of Culture and Literature, Văn Xương), Lã Tổ.
Ngoc Hoang Pagoda owns lots of pannels, antithetical couplet, altar tablets, horizontal lacquered boards in Chinese. There are 16 horizontal lacquered boards and 53 antithetical couplets. Most of which are sophisticatedly carved woods.
Câu đối là loại hình di sản Hán Nôm chiếm số lượng nhiều nhất ở chùa Ngọc Hoàng, cũng là loại hình quan trọng giúp tìm hiểu tư tưởng tôn giáo, tín ngưỡng của đạo Minh sư qua di sản Hán Nôm. Về nguồn gốc, đa số câu đối chùa Ngọc Hoàng có xuất xứ từ Trung Quốc, thường được mượn nguyên văn hoặc thay đổi một hai chữ. Về nội dung tư tưởng, bên cạnh một vài câu thể hiện riêng biệt tư tưởng Phật – Đạo – Nho, “nhiều câu cho thấy tinh thần Tam giáo hoà quyện vào nhau một cách tự nhiên, chỗ thì tinh thần từ bi hỉ xả của Phật giáo đan xen với vẻ huyền bí thoát tục của Đạo giáo; chỗ thì chất uyên áo tĩnh tại của thiền hoà quyện với nét khảng khái can trường của nho gia; chỗ này là lời của một thiền sư, chỗ kia là lời của một đạo sĩ, chỗ nọ là lời của một nho sĩ; nhiều chỗ từ ngữ Tam giáo dung hoà vào nhau đến độ khó mà phân biệt”(9). Trong nhiều câu đối, vế đầu vừa nhắc đến đức độ của Thánh to lớn tựa càn khôn thì vế sau nói về công ơn của Thần lâu dài như nhật nguyệt; vế đầu vừa hướng dẫn cách tu Tiên thì vế sau chỉ dẫn đường tu Phật; vế đầu vừa ca ngợi lòng từ bi của tu sĩ phụng sự Phật pháp, phục vụ chúng sanh thì vế sau tán thán tinh thần nhân lễ nghĩa của người quân tử…
Ong Da Shrine
Ong Da Shrine is located behind the main building of Ngoc Hoang Pagoda. There was a small temple in which a stone was worshiped by Khmer people. After Ngoc Hoang Pagoda was built, the temple was rehabilitated and it has been called Miếu Ông Đá literally meaning Temple of Stone God. In the temple, a rectangular stone from Thai Son Mountain, Shandong Province, China is worshiped. An incense burner, Đá Thanh Long (Green Dragon Stone) and Đá Bạch Hổ (White Tiger Stone) are placed in front of the standing rectangular stone.
The pagoda was originally a Minh Su Pagoda, Minh Su religion is a mix of Zen Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism in Vietnam. However, it has been changed into Vietnamese folk religion. The pagoda celebrates holidays within the Buddhist tradition, the biggest festival at Ngoc Hoang Pagoda is the Jade Emperor’s Birthday on the ninth day of the first lunar month.
The pagoda is full of visitors coming to pray for wealth, health, love and childbirth in the first lunar month – the month of Tet days – Vietnamese New Year. The visitors usually offer the Gods incense sticks and rings, glass candles, flowers. The tradition of buying a bottle of kerosene, pouring the kerosene over candle holders while whispering their name and the things they pray for something in the yard or Main Hall.
As mentioned above, single people pray for good love and childless couples pray for children in Jin Hua Hall. Visitors claw Horse General and ring the bell around its neck and pray for something in Cheng Huan Hall
Some visitors have reviewed about the pagoda:
“You’ll be rewarded with the sight of several giant papier-mache Buddhist and Taoist figures, magnificent but fierce-looking, standing at the side. Though choc-a-bloc with statuettes and carvings, the Taoist Jade Emperor takes center stage. Take a close look at the pagoda worn walls, lined with gilt-edge and old wooden tablets, and scrawled with Chinese characters.
In addition, there are many statues such as a constellation in the northern hemisphere, Ursa major, Sun Wukong. Some statues were made from wood and others from the pasteboard.”
“The Emperor Jade Pagoda is also known as the Tortoise Pagoda. This figurine-filled place of worship is considered by many to be Saigon’s finest. The Jade Emperor Pagoda is one of the most attractive pagodas in the city. Dedicated to various Chinese-Vietnamese divinities, in a mixture of Taoist and Buddhist styles, the pagoda houses numerous statues and delicate woodcarvings with intricate tiles on the roof.”
“The Emperor Jade Pagoda is one of the most popular religious sites I Vietnam and is more usually visited by the tourists visiting Vietnam and the city of Ho Chi Minh. The pagoda is also known as Tortoise Pagoda. The temple is filled with quite a number of figurines and is considered to be one of the finest in Saigon. The crowd consists mainly of the locals in the area who are the group of worshippers performing the spiritual rites with flowers and incenses. The other group consists of tourists.”
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