Exploring Hue Citadel: Imperial City



Exploring Hue Citadel: Imperial City

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At the very heart of the vast Hue Citadel lies the Imperial City, also known as Dai Noi or the Great Enclosure. Over the past few years, this historic and unusually evocative part of the Citadel has undergone extensive restoration work, which has allowed more than just a glimmer of its former glory and grandeur to shine through. Entrance to this royal city is via the imposing Ngo Mon Gate, beyond which a bridge leads bet ween lotus-filled ponds to the splendid Thai Hoa Palace. Behind this is an open courtyard that overlooks a stretch of land, once home to the Forbidden Purple City.

Cot Co or Flag Tower

Looming over the Citadel at a height of 120 ft (37 m), the Flag Tower or Cot Co has dominated Hue’s sky line since 1809, when Emperor Gia Long (r.1802–20) erected it over a big 59-ft (18-m) brick redoubt.

On January 31, 1968, during the Tet Offensive, Cot Co achieved international  recognition when the communist forces seized the Citadel,  hoisting the National Liberation Front’s yellow-starred banner on the Flag Tower’s mast.

Nine Deities’ Cannons

Cast by Emperor Gia Long in 1803 as symbolic protection for his new capital, these colossal cannons were made out of bronze. Each weapon is said to represent one of the four seasons and five elements – earth, metal, wood, water, and fire. The cannons can be seen flanking the Ngan and Quang Duc Gates on either side of Cot Co.

Five Phoenix Watchtower

Located above the huge stone slabs of the Ngo Mon Gate, this elaborate pavilion was where the emperor sat enthroned on state occasions. Viewed from above, it is said to resemble a group of five phoenixes. The middle section of the roof is covered with yellow glazed tiles, and decorated with dragons, banyan leaves, and bats, while the panels along the eaves are embellished with ceramic orchid, chrysanthemum, and bamboo mosaics. Above the pavilion, a concealed staircase leads up to a room from where women of the court could see through finely carved grills.

Thai Hoa Palace

Originally built by Emperor Gia Long in 1805, Thai Hoa or Hall of Supreme Harmony housed the throne room of the Nguyen Emperors. The most impressive of Hue’s remaining palaces, it has been beautifully restored. It is easy to envisage the hall as the venue for coronations, royal anniversaries, and the reception of  ambassadors. On these occasions, the emperor would sit on the resplendent throne, wearing a crown with nine dragons, a gold robe, jade belt, and other attire. Only the most senior mandarins were allowed to stand in the hall, while others waited outside.

Forbidden Purple City

No man except the emperor was permitted to set foot in  the 25-acre (10-ha) city-within- a-city known as Tu Cam Thanh  or Forbidden Purple City – any male who crossed its threshold was condemned to death. Only the queen, nine separate ranks of concubines, female servants, and court eunuchs were allowed to enter.

Built between 1802 and 1833, the Forbidden City once comprised more than 60 buildings arranged around numerous courtyards, but unfortunately, it was damaged extensively by heavy bombing during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Royal Theater

Originally built in 1825, the Duyet Thi Duong or the Royal Theater is once again a leading  venue for traditional entertainment, offering performances of  nha nhac or court music. Declared a Master piece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, nha nhac features bamboo lutes, zithers, and fiddles, accompanied by drums.

Royal Library

In the northeastern quarter of the Forbidden City, the Royal Library was constructed by Emperor Minh Mang in 1821, as a retreat where he read in solitude. The decrepit building stands before an artificial pond, with a rock garden to its west. Small bridges, crossing other lakes and ponds, connect various galleries, creating a tranquil atmosphere. The library has been used to stage performances of Hue music, as well as various theatrical events.

Dien Tho Palace

Once the exclusive preserve of the Queen Mothers, Cung Dien Tho or the Residence of Everlasting Longevity was built in 1803 during the reign of Emperor Gia Long. Open to the public, the elegant building is sur rounded by a wall that is pierced on the south by Cua Tho Chi or the Gate of Ever lasting Happiness. Inside the building, the crafted furniture is carefully inlaid with delicate mother­of­pearl, and carved lanterns hang from the ceiling, which is ornamented with fans made from feathers. To the east of the entrance to the palace is the Truong Du Pavilion, with a small artificial lake and a graceful rock garden.

Hung Mieu

Emperor Minh Mang built Hung Mieu in 1821 to honor his grandparents. The temple was seriously damaged by fire in 1947 at the beginning of the First Indochina War, but has now been restored. It is renowned for its refined design and fine roof carvings.

The Mieu

Located in the southwest area of Imperial City, The Mieu or the Temple of Generations is dedicated to the Nguyen Dynasty, and contains altars honoring emperors, from Gia Long to Khai Dinh. The building has a roof of yellow glazed tiles, the ridge of which is decorated in the shape of a wine gourd. The altars were once stacked high with gold ingots, but today these have been replaced with gilt and lacquer ornamentation.

Nine Dynastic Urns

Cast on the orders of Emperor Minh Mang, Cuu Dinh or Dynastic Urns of the Nguyen Dynasty weigh up to 2.75 tons each. Decorated with traditional patterns, and rich in symbolic detail, they play a big role in the cult of imperial ancestor veneration.

Hien Lam Pavilion

Located in the center of the The Mieu court, Hien Lam was built in 1824 by Emperor Minh Mang to honor those who gave the great Nguyen Dynasty its formidable status. As a mark of respect, it was declared that no other building in the Citadel could rise higher than Hien Lam, which is distinguished by its pyramid shape, as well as its finely crafted wooden façade and brick paving.

Dan Nam Giao

Built by Emperor Gia Long in 1802, Dan Nam Giao or the Altar of Heaven stands beyond the former French Quarter on the east side of the Perfume River. For more than a century, this was the most important ceremonial site in the country. Approximately every three years, between 1806 and 1945, the Nguyen Emperors reaffirmed the legitimacy of their rule through a series of elaborate sacrifices to the Emperor of Heaven. The ritual was consciously modeled on the rites practiced in Beijing by the Chinese emperors at the 15th-century Tian Tan or Temple of Heaven.

Today, not much remains of this ceremonial site other than a series of three raised terraces. The first two are square-shaped and are said to represent humanity and earth. The circular terrace at the top symbolizes the heavens. Though there isn’t much of the building left, the site has plenty of atmosphere. In this set ting, it is easy to conjure up images of the emperors as the rightful Sons of Heaven, interceding with the gods on behalf of their subjects.

Tu Hieu Pagoda

Set amid the attractive pine woods to the north of Tu Duc’s tomb, Tu Hieu Pagoda is surrounded by a delightful crescent-shaped lotus pond. One of the most serene pagodas in the Hue region, it was  established in 1848 by imperial eunuchs. Since they could not have children, the eunuchs financially secured the temple, thus guaranteeing that future generations of monks would always be on hand to perform the necessary ceremonies for their lives in the hereafter. Indeed, several monks still inhabit Tu Hieu and hold prayer services daily. The main shrine is dedicated to Sakyamuni Buddha, also known as the Thich Ca Buddha. Lesser altars carry images and tab lets honoring various deities and some prominent eunuchs of the past.

Thien Mu Pagoda

Rising on a bluff above the northwest bank of the Perfume River, Thien Mu or Heavenly Lady Pagoda is an iconic symbol of Hue. Founded in 1601 by Lord Nguyen Hoang, the pagoda is dominated by a seven-story octagonal tower, Thap Phuoc Duyen, which translates as Source of Happiness Tower. A pavil ion close by shelters a huge bronze bell cast in 1710. Weighing more than 4,409 lb (2,000 kg), it can purportedly be heard at least 6 miles (10 km) away. A second pavilion houses a stone stele erected in 1715, which eulogises the history of Buddhism in Hue. Inside, the main shrine is presided over by a laughing bronze Buddha and statues of the ten kings of hell and 18 arhat or holy disciples of the Buddha. Close by is a striking image of the Thich Ca Buddha. The monks’ quarters and gar dens are at the back of the temple. In an open garage to the west is the car that drove monk Thich Quang Duc to Saigon in June 1963, where he immolated himself in protest  against the Diem regime.  Images of this horrific event were shown all over the world, provok ing widespread shock and outrage.

Royal Arena

Built for the entertainment of the Nguyen Emperors and the mandarins, this amphitheater is also known as Ho Quyen or the Tiger Arena. It was used to stage combats between elephants, symbolizing royalty, and tigers, signifying the former Champa Kingdom. As a result, these contests were rigged so that the elephant would win. To achieve this, the tiger was declawed and had its mouth sewn shut. Fortunately, no fights have been held since 1904, but the place remains in fairly good condition. The viewing platforms are intact, as are the five doors opposite leading to the tigers’ cages.




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