The annual Keo Pagoda Festival lasts three days during which lots of religious and traditional rituals and customs are held in celebration of the Buddhist monk who rendered great merits to the people and the country. The festival also hosts different traditional cultural activities, reflecting the life style, which is imbued with traits of the Red River Delta’s agricultural culture, of a riverside residential area.
Preparation for the festival
on the 3rd day of the 6th lunar month, after carrying out the ritual of offering bia cakes to Buddha, eight hamlets in Keo Village select their chief officiant. Each hamlet also chooses its own assistant to the chief officiant. From this day to the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, villagers decorate the pagoda. Ten days before going into the pagoda to do this work, those selected must eat vegetarian food and have a bath to clean their bodies.
On the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, the chief officiant and his eight assistants carry out the ritual of offering incense and changing the costumes of statues of gods. This ritual is held on a good day according to the zodiac between the 15th day of the eighth lunar month and the 10th day of the ninth lunar month.
On the 11th day of the ninth lunar month: the villagers hang high a big flag, and many other small flags alongside the three – entranced gate of the pagoda. On the same day, palanquin and boat bearers are selected.
On the 12th day of the ninth lunar month: On the morning of the 10th to the 12th days of the ninth lunar month, eight hamlets launch eight boats in preparation for a boat racing. Each boat is made out of light wood, 12m in length and 1m in width. Each boat can house 8 to 10 pairs of oarsmen, a guide and a helmsman.
On the 13th day of the ninth lunar month, the festival commences with a ceremony of procession of palanquin in celebration of the 100th day death anniversary of monk Khong Lo. The procession brings the altar, incense table and big and small boats to the three-entranced gate in the morning.
On the afternoon of the 13th day of the ninth lunar month, there takes place a boat racing. Spectators and fans flock to the banks of the Red River, standing along a distance of several kilometers. After the signal is given, the competing boats rush forward. At the end of three competing rounds, the first, second and third boat which reach the destination without violation of rules become prize-winners. At the end of the three-day competition, rating is carried out.
In the gia roi tower there takes place a contest of reading oration of sorcerers. The orations are written by the sorcerers according to the topic of “six kinds of offerings” (incense, light, flower, tea, fruit, and food). This contest is different from other competitions as its orations are written in romanized script in the form of satire. The more satirical the oration the higher the prize it gets.
In the evening, all the palanquin bearers, flag holders, and village dignitaries selected for the festival come to pay respect to the gods. Next comes the contest of horn blowing and drum beating. At 24:00 hours of this day, the chief officiant conducts the ritual of paying respect to the pennon pole.
On the 14th day of the ninth lunar month, in celebration of the birth anniversary of monk Khong Lo, in the morning, the procession ceremony comes after the incense offering ritual. Two pairs of white and pink wooden horses drawn by some people head the procession. Then come eight people holding eight flags, 42 people holding bat buu (eight traditional weapons) and lo bo, four people wearing black gauze outfit and white trousers bearing a dragon describing the journey by boat of monk Khong Lo to the capital of the kingdom to treat the king, four people in the same outfit carrying a small gilded boat put in a stand, depicting the period of monk Khong Lo’s life when he was a fisherman. Next come the octet, four persons bearing the altar, four carrying the incense table, eight children from 12 to 14 years old in yellow tunic, green trousers and red belts, resembling the buffalo boys who made friends with monk Khong Lo when he was a fisherman. The gilded palanquin in which is put the worshiping tablet of monk Khong Lo is carried by 12 boys. The chief officiant follows the palanquin. In a purple outfit he solemnly holds his two hands in front of his cheat, walking leisurely to the salvo of the drum. The festival goers come last.
When the palanquin reach a pond, four persons manipulating seven wooden puppets dance to welcome the procession. Of the seven puppets one is said to be Mrs. Chang with a cheerful and happy face. Legend has it that she often bought fish of monk Khong Lo.
On the afternoon of the 14th day, the boi trai competitions continue to take place in the river. At the gia roi tower there is a ritual of dancing to pay respect to gods, which is called “mua ech vo”.
On the 15th day of the ninth lunar month, the ritual of presenting incense as offerings to Buddha continues. This night after the procession of palanquin the game of on – land trai boat dancing.
The boat rowing dance on land is performed by 12 people in fine costumes, standing in two parallel lines like the way they sit in the boat. Two persons direct, one holds a small drum and the other, a wooden fish. Under their signal, the 12 performers “row” while flexing their legs and crying rhythmically. This interesting performance attracts large audience. This performance also puts an end to the three-day Keo Pagoda Festival.