Oct 07, 2021 / 10:29

Son Dong - the most famous Buddha statue making village

Woodworkers in a small craft village in Hanoi’s outskirts have had reputation for creating the most sophisticated Buddha statues in Vietnam.

After nearly a hundred years, the statue of “Thousand-Handed Quan Yin Buddha” in Dai Quan Pagoda, Khoai Chau District, Hung Yen Province still retains its beauty. The Buddha has a gentle face, calm half-closed eyes. Her two hands are clasped in front of the chest, praying for peace for mankind, while the other 998 hands stretch out, ready to protect and help her Buddhists.

The statue of “Thousand-Handed Quan Yin Buddha” in Dai Quan Pagoda, Khoai Chau District, Hung Yen Province. Photo: Xuan Thanh 

The “Thousand-Handed Buddha” statue of Dai Quan Pagoda, like hundreds of thousands of Buddha sculptures being revered in temples across Vietnam, was created by talented craftsmen from the Son Dong fine arts craft village.The outer layer of gold vermilion paint covering the Buddha statue made from jackfruit wood is almost intact, sparkling magically under the dim lights in the altar of the pagoda.

The quintessence of the craft village

Located some 20km to the west of Hanoi’s center, Son Dong craft village in Hoai Duc District is the home of sacred Buddha statues and objects of worship, where hundreds of religious items are meticulously crafted yearly.

As legend has it, the ancestor of Son Dong Village was the Saint Dao Truc who taught this trade to the villagers some one thousand years ago. The trade flourished during the time of French domination in the late 19th century as Son Dong artisans (who were called ‘Ba ho ky nghe’- craftsmen with meticulous skillful hands) had traveled all around the north of the country to create superb chiseled products made from wood.

The half-done Destiny Quan Yin Buddha sculpture was made by artisans from Son Dong craft village in Hoai Duc District, Hanoi. Photo: Huu Nen – Quang Hung

One of these artisans who took credit for restoring the traditional occupation in Son Dong was Nguyen Duc Dau (1896-1988) - a talented artisan honored and presented “the Gold Coin” by the French colonial government at a fair in Ha Dong Town in 1916. During the years of the American resistance war and the centrally planned economy time, the woodworking in Son Dong was lost in oblivion but it has been restored since 1980. The object imprints of 1,000 years Thang Long - Hanoi such as Temple of Literature, Khue Van Pavilion, The Huc Bridge, One Pillar Pagoda are said to be made by skillful artisans from Son Dong Village some hundred years ago.

With his endless love for the craft, he cooperated with teachers from Hanoi Industrial Arts University to open vocational training classes for villagers, teaching them scientific knowledge of carpentry as well as the way to “infuse the soul” in the products they made.

Thanks to their hard-working predecessors, today’s people of Son Dong village have well preserved their traditional occupation. Through many ups and downs, Son Dong remained a strong and famous craft village nowadays with over 90% of the household dedicating to the trade.

In 2007, the Vietnam Guinness Book of Records named Son Dong as “Vietnam's largest craft village making Buddhist statues and ritual objects”. 

The homeland of Buddha statues

Wood souvenir products are made by talented craftsmen from Son Dong Village. Photo: Luong Tien

Indeed, only by observing the craftsmen working can we see all the hardships and difficulties of their work. Those barefoot craftsmen have dropped a lot of sweat and squeezed their brains in every work. Coming to Son Dong today, visitors can see firsthand the process of making statues and be immersed in the ‘music’ made from the clatter of woodcarvers and the rustling sound of saws at every corner of the village.

The skillful carpenters in Son Dong village can create a lot of different wood carving products, but they do it best with the Buddha statues, so the craft village is most commonly known as the “craft village of making Buddha statute”

Their main products include the Buddhist statues such as “Thousand-Handed Quan Yin Buddha”, Guardian deities, Maitreya Buddha, Arhats, sacred animals of horses and cranes, as well as statues of Vietnamese feudal scholars, among others.

According to Son Dong artisans, the main material for their statue carvings is jackfruit wood that is brought from the neighboring provinces of Phu Tho, Thai Nguyen, among others. This soft but durable and easy-to-carve wood is considered the “sacred” material, best suited for making objects of worship.

The meticulous trade: only by observing the craftsmen working can we see all the hardships and difficulties of their work. Photo: Huu Nen – Quang Hung

“From chiseling to detaching a woodblock for a statue is a meticulous hard creative process but full of fascination,” he added.“The wood bark is peeled off, only the wood core is used,” young talent artisan Nguyen Van Manh, owner of Van Manh Wood Craving Workshop told The Hanoi Times

Despite the fact that the procedure of statue manipulation has a common formula inherited from their ancestor, each Son Dong artisan has his own secret so that each product has a potential of unique nuance.

According to artisan Tran Cong Quan, in order to create a beautiful Buddha statue, carpenters must have a certain understanding of the story surrounding the work they would create.

“The same sculptures of Quan Yin Buddha, but the Destiny Quan Yin Buddha looks totally different from the Thousand-Handed Quan Yin Buddha,” Quan told The Hanoi Times.

“The Destiny Quan Yin Buddha statue is usually carved with a slightly plump appearance. The Buddha has a round face with long ears, sitting in meditation on a lotus. Meanwhile, the “Thousand-Handed Quan Yin Buddha has an elegant but austere face, showing the Buddha's compassion for suffering beings.” By only one carving line, the artisan may alter the soul of the works.

Many Son Dong craftsmen also make wood objects for export. Photo: Huu Nen & Quang Hung

“Many overseas Vietnamese even invite Son Dong artisan abroad to make Buddha sculptures for Vietnamese temples and pagodas there,” said artisan Tran Cong Quan. During the period of international economic integration nowadays, many Son Dong craftsmen also make wood portraits and sculptures for export. Thank that, the value of Son Dong wooden statues is much higher than before. Some sculptures ordered by customers can be worth hundreds of millions of dong.

Travel to Son Dong village, tourists can visit various workshops or the artisans’ houses for learning how these carpenters can create such outstanding artwork. They can also buy some small Buddha figurines as gifts for family from the craft village’s souvenir shops.