The Glory of Ancient Champa
In the Hindu trinity, Shiva is known as the God of destruction, who resides in Mount Kailash in the Himalays, now in the Chinese Tibetan territory. But there was a time when Shiva reigned supreme as the God of protection in ancient Champa, an enterprising trading nation located on the south eastern coast of what is known today as Vietnam. Champa owed its prosperity to its location on the maritime Silk Road that stretched from China to India. But the political beliefs and organisation of its rulers came from India, with Lord Shiva as the official deity of its rulers. Successive Kings of Champa not only sought protection for their kingdom from Lord Shiva, they also claimed personal legitimacy by closely identifying with the deity.
A visit to the Cham Towers that dot the landscape of southern coastal areas of Vietnam (Danang, Binh Dinh, Nha Trang and Phan Rang), and the museums housing Champa artefacts (the most important being the Cham sculpture museum in Danang) attest to this. The main site of Cham civilisation, My Son, is in central Vietnam, which I had visited previously. This time, I was in search of Shiva in the towers of the South, which were built mostly in the last five hundred years of Champa’s tenure as an independent entity.
Champa, which existed roughly from 2nd century to 15th century as an independent kingdom on the southern coast of what is today known as Vietnam. In 1471, it suffered a decisive defeat in the hands of the Dai Viet, a powerful and more numerous ethnic group to the north, was absorbed into Vietnam.
Champa was an Indianised kingdom, but not an Indian colony. Indian traders visited Champa in large numbers, brining with them Indian religion and Hindu Brahmans found profitable employment in the courts of Champa rulers. But the Chams were an Austranesian race, who arrived in the area from the sea and spoke a Malay-Polynesian dialect. They were thus different from the Austroasiatic peoples in the neighbourhood: the Vietnamese, Khmers or the Tais, who descended from southern and south-western China.
But the religion and politics of Champa was heavily influenced by India. Champa art shows heavy Indian influence, along with Javanese and Khmer aspects. The court language of Champa was Sanskrit, as numerous inscriptions left by the Champa Kings attest. The people of Champa borrowed heavily not just the classical language of India, but also its religion, art and most important, system of law and government.
The rulers of Champa were ardent Shivaites. At times Buddhism found patronage in Champa, this could be seen in the relics of the monastery at Dong Duong. But Hinduism was clearly dominant. Other Hindu deities such as Visnnu and Brahma were worshipped in Champa temples, and Champa rulers took names such as Harivarmana, Jaya Indravarmana, Vikrantavermana, etc. Indravarmana was a popular name, as Indra, the king of gods, was, like Shiva, a powerful source of protection. One early king of Champa moved the capital from Simhapura (modern Tra Kieu), to Indrapura (modern Dong Duong). But it was Shiva who was the presiding deity of Cham rulers. And in ancient Champa, Shiva known not as the destroyer, but as the protector. Evidence of the Shiva’s influence survives in the relics of numerous tower-temples which were built by the rulers of Champa to pay homage to Shiva and to defy themselves as Shiva’s political heirs.
The first ruler of Champa to have assumed a Sanskrit name was King Bhadravarman, who built a temple in My Son dedicated to Bhadresvara, a name of Shiva. His successor, who rebuilt the temple after it was destroyed by a Javanese raid, posthumously assumed the name of Sambhuvarman, another name of Shiva. The names were suggestive: Bhadreswara means ‘protector’ while Sambhu connotes ‘powerful’.
The Cham towers, made of brick, are not as grandiose as the temple complexes of Angkor or Pagan. But they have a distinctive beauty and represent a high point of artistic achievement. The towers were political-religious shrines which served as temple-Mausoleums of its rulers. This is where the kings of Champa assumed their deification as a portion of Shiva. The outer walls of many of these towers are decorated with images of dancing Shiva, and their sanctums houses a lingam.
The staging point of my search was the picture-perfect costal town of Nha Trang (left), whose ancient name was Kauthara.
The first Cham Tower I visited was Po Nagar (left), in the beautiful coastal town of Nha Trang. Set in picturesque environs with the waters of Nha Trang Bay to the east and mountains of Western Vietnam as the perfect backdrop, this is one of the most well-preserved Cham towers in Vietnam today. The tower is named after Goddess Yang Ino Po Nagar, a Cham female deity identified with the Hindu Goddess Bhagawati.. Apart from a image of the Goddess in the main sanctum, the smaller shrine has a lingam, its base surrounded by a lotus motif and set in a yoni. On top of the main entrance gate is the mystical image of a dancing Shiva. A building next to the tower contains images of Ganesa, Hanuman, and Shiva, we all early 20th century photographs of the tower taken by French archaeologists.
To visit the other Cham towers in the vicinity, one has to go either north towards Binh Dinh province or south towards Phan Rang (old name Panduranga). I decided to head South, as this is where some of the last towers built by Champa kings are located. They are interesting example of how art imitates real life. As the fortunes of Champa kings declined due to relentless conflicts with the Dai Viet to the north and the Khmers to the South. Khmers sacked capital Vijaya in 1190, while the Dai Viet dealt the final blow to a decaying Champa kingdom by capturing its capital Vijaya in 1471). From 11th century onwards, Cham Towers became more sparsely decorated. They were built on hills (unlike My Son plains where most of the early towers were located) to make them appear more imposing. The human figures appearing on these late towers wear expressions of worry and anxiety and sometimes a savage look.
The only exception to this is the Hoi Lai Cham Tower, which was built in the 9th century when the Cham capital had moved temporarily to the South to Panduranga (it moved back north to My Son again a few years later, but then to the south central area of Vijaya (Bin Dinh) at the beginning of the 11th century). The Hoi Lai towers are known for their ornate décor, and are regarded as a distinctive period of Cham art (there are towers of the Hoi Lai school in My Son and Dong Duong). But this original Hoi Lai towers in the south are in a bad state of disrepair, with the middle tower having collapsed entirely. The other two are in the process of being restored by the Vietnamese government, although many images from the tower, like other relics, have been taken to museums in Danag and Saigon.
The first of late constructions I visited was the Po Kloong Garai tower (left) on the main road from Phan Rang to Dalat.
Here too, the synthesis between king and Shiva comes alive. A bust of King Kloong Garai adorns the main shrine.
The bust of the king is attached to a lingam (Mukhalinga, left) which is placed within a yoni. Shiva images adorn the outer wall stories of the tower. The walls of the tower are devoid of intricate motifs, as found in earlier Cham monuments. But a good deal of restoration work has been done to the towers, the result is an impressive monuments whether seen from a distance or from near the complex.
The third tower I visited was Po Rome (left), one of the last towers to be built, before the total collapse of Cham polity.
Here, the highlight is a stone relief of King Po Rome (left), displaying eight arms, six of which holds objects symbolising his divinity. At the entrance to sanctum is a Nandi, as in Po Kloong Garai. Once again, the physical, not to mention spiritual, identification with Shiva is unmistakable. A smaller shrine adjacent to the tower contains a statue of the Queen in a kneeling position (below). Besides it is the king’s kut, or funeral epitaph (below) in stone. The kut conveys man’s unity with the earth. By the 15th-16th century when the tower was built, the concept of divine kingship under Shiva’s patronage has lost its political appeal, and pre-Hindu practices, such as erecting stone epitaphs, had returned.
The cult of Shiva helped the kingdom of a relatively small number migrant people from a seafaring and trading culture survived for more than a thousand years and produced distinctive and magnificent monuments. It allowed Champa rulers to secure legitimacy before their own subjects. Indian ideas and methods, such as the law of Manu, helped organise their kingdoms more efficiently and durably.
Did the cult of Shiva mask the vulnerability of Champa as a small nation of seafarers without the manpower to fend off the designs of its larger and far more populous neighbours, - Khmers to the West and Dai Viet to the north? The lack of a large and sustainable population and geopolitical strains caused by constant conflicts with its rulers of Cambodia and Dai Viet ultimately led to the fall of Champa. Chams today are an ethnic minority in Vietnam numering about 140,000. On the road to Po Rome, we visited a Cham village (left), their life and manner reminds one of ethnic Malays. Like the latter, many Chams converted to Islam, although one group practice both Hinduism and Islam.
Related Work by Amitav Acharya
- Amitav Acharya
- Amitav Acharya is the UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance and Professor of International Relations at the School of International Service, American University, Washington, D.C. He also chairs American University’s ASEAN Studies Center. Previously, he was Professor of Global Governance at the University of Bristol; Professor at York University, Toronto and at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore; and Fellow of the Harvard University Asia Center and Fellow of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He has contributed commentaries and op-eds to foreignaffairs.com, International Herald Tribune, Financial Times, Jakarta Post, and Times of India, and been interviewed by CNN International, BBC World Service, CNBC, Channel News Asia, and Al Jazeera TV. Among his recent books are Whose Ideas Matter (Cornell 2009) and Non-Western International Relations Theory (Routledge 2010). His articles have appeared in International Organization, International Security, International Studies Quarterly, Journal of Asian Studies, and World Politics.