Sunday, October 27, 2013

Only the Ruins Remain: Chăm Relics in Bình Định

                                                          by Jim Goodman
    Quy Nhơn is a small but pleasant, uncongested city of about 300,000 on Vietnam’s south central coast.  The capital of Bình Định province, it lies halfway between the better-known tourist destinations of Hôi An and Nha Trang.  While endowed with the same basic features that make those places popular—splendid beaches, a landscape of rolling hills, the ruins of ancient Chăm towers and delicious seafood—it draws but a small fraction of the tourists.  Maybe it’s because the historical relics are scattered throughout the province and not concentrated in a single place, like the collection of monuments at Mỹ Sơn, near Hội An, or the sprawling Pô Nagar temple next to Nha Trang.  Maybe it’s because the city has no real nightlife.
the beach at Quy Nhơn
    It certainly has its attractions, both within the city and at various sites in the countryside.  Flanked by a bay that keeps the worst of the typhoon winds from striking the city, Quy Nhơn is blessed with beautiful clean beaches.  The most accessible is right next to the city, especially the southern stretch along Nguyôn Huệ Street. Pretty much deserted during the day, the beach fills up with local Vietnamese around 4 p.m., when the sun is low enough not to affect their skin tones.  Vendors appear selling grilled seafood, fruits and other snacks while groups form up on the beach for football or volleyball and others go for a wade or a swim in the sea, usually fully clothed.  A few indulge in jet-ski rides or parasailing and a couple of times during the year the waves are strong enough for surfboard riding.
    A long, hilly peninsula lies just offshore to the east, enclosing the Thị Nại Lagoon that bounds the northern part of the city.  The longest bridge in the country stretches across the southern part of this lagoon to connect the city with the port area on the peninsula.  North of this peninsula are several clean, white, secluded beaches beside small fishing villages.  A few guesthouses and restaurants serve the rare visitors, where the seafood is fresh and cheap.
secluded beach north of Quy Nhơn
    The city has a variety of religious monuments, the biggest of which is the centrally located Long Khánh Buddhist temple.  Originally a more modest building from the 18th century, it was rebuilt in recent years and is now much bigger, three stories high, housing an enormous Buddha statue inside and backed by a multi-tiered pagoda.  The city also has a few Catholic churches, a legacy of the Portuguese mission first established here in the early 17th century.  At that time Quy Nhơn was, after Hội An, the second most important port in Đằng Trong, the portion of the country ruled by the Nguyễn Lords from the late 16th century.  Quy Nhơn was a relatively young city then, for Vietnamese didn’t come here to settle until the beginning of the 16th century.
    Before that, until 1471, all of Bình Định, as well as Phú Yên to the south and Quảng Ngãi and parts of Quảng Nam to the north, were part of the Chăm Kingdom of Vijaya, which became the most important Chăm state from the late 11th century.  Its capital lay about 20 km northwest of Quy Nhơn, between two branches of the Côn River, which flowed into the sea at nearby Thị Nại, the state’s main port.  One of the principal Chăm relics from that period is within the urban area of Quy Nhơn, near National Highway 1A.  It’s called Tháp Đôi—Double Tower—because the two towers look like twins.  Originally three towers stood here, but the northern one collapsed long ago.  The two that remain are in relatively good condition, with sculpted friezes and garudas still intact on the upper levels.
    Vijaya rose to prominence because its northern neighbors, the Chăm states of Amaravati and Indrapura, had finally lost in their centuries-long conflict with the Vietnamese.  Trouble between the Vietnamese and the Chăm started during the period of Chinese rule over the northern third of the country, which they called their province of Giaochi (and later Annam).  The Chăm often raided the southern districts of Giaochi, which extended down to present-day Nghệ An province.  The Chinese, or even local Vietnamese militias and guerrillas, would then drive them back and this sort of situation continued even after the Vietnamese expelled the Chinese and won back their independence in 938.  Fed up with the raiding, sometimes the Vietnamese launched a punitive expedition against the offending Chăm capital, destroyed it, then forced the Chăm to cede their own northernmost districts, which could then no longer be used as bases for raiding parties on Vietnamese settlements.   
Bánh Ít--one of the Chăm temples from Vijaya's heyday
    Sometimes there were long periods of peace between the two sides, such as most of the 13th and early 14th centuries.  From the late 12th century Vijaya was more involved with wars with Angkor’s Cambodia and suffered Khmer occupation for a few decades at the start of the 13th century.  Not long after that the Mongols invaded both Vijaya and the Vietnamese state further north.  The invasions failed and Vietnamese-Chăm relations, forged by a common experience of invasion, were good for a while.  But by the mid-14th century they had soured and under a vigorous king named Chề Bổng Nga Vijaya forces sacked the Vietnamese capital Thăng Long three times.  Finally, in the late 15th century, the Vietnamese, under a strong young king named Lê Thánh Tông, decided to settle accounts with its main Chăm nemesis once and for all.  Leading a massive land and naval expedition in 1471, he destroyed the Chăm kingdom of Vijaya and leveled its capital. 
    The Chăm civilian population fled in several directions.  Many boarded ships under the command of a surviving Chăm royal prince to sail all the way to Hainan Island, where the Chinese Ming Emperor granted them permission to stay and autonomy within their own district.  Descendants of these refugees still live in Hainan.  Other Chăm fled west to Cambodia and Thailand, while a great number took up residence in northern Sumatra, becoming the ancestors of the people of Acheh province.
Tháp Bình Lâm, in old Thị Nại
    The triumphant Lê Thánh Tông announced that the former lands of Vijaya were now open to Vietnamese colonization and created a system of militarized settlements to achieve this.  But for the next hundred years the new settlers were mainly criminals, gangsters, political exiles and such.  Only after Vietnam became embroiled in dynastic struggles and civil war, from the mid-16th century on, when the population in the Red River Delta was declining from war-induced famines and life was becoming untenable there, did migration to the south begin in earnest.     
    From the beginning of the 17th century Vietnam was split into two parts:  the north, ruled by the Trịnh Lords, and everything south of Quảng Bình, ruled by the Nguyễn Lords.  The latter relied more on foreign commerce taxes than land-use fees as the basis of its state revenue and the newly established port of Quy Nhơn quickly rose in importance.  Foreign missionaries came with foreign trade and in the early 17th century the Portuguese set up a fairly successful mission there.  Government attitudes towards the foreign missionaries changed in later years and became quite hostile.  At the rocky promontory at the south end of the beach in Quy Nhơn are statues of the first Church officials and martyrs in Quy Nhơn.
Tháp Phườc Lốc
    When the Vietnamese conquered Vijaya they destroyed the citadels at the capital Chà Bàn and the port of Thị Nại but did not destroy Chăm religious monuments, just left them in place, where today they comprise most of Bình Đính’s tourist attractions.  Aside from Tháp Đôi, they lie north and northwest of Quy Nhơn.  The best preserved towers, called Bánh Ít, or Tháp Bạc (Silver Tower), stand on a hill just east of the highway 18 km north of Quy Nhơn.     Built in the late 11th century and originally comprising several buildings, today four of them remain, and from the summit one has a view of the heartland of old Vijaya, as well as some of the other towers.
    Another 12 km to the north, also east of the highway, the lone, phallic-like tower Tháp Phước Lộc stands on top of a broad, barren mound above the rice fields.  A lateral road running west from the junction leads, after a few kilometers, to the recently restored Tháp Cánh Tiên, standing on a small mound just west of Chà Bàn Citadel.  The remains of this citadel date from its reconstruction during the Tây Sơn Era in the late 18th century.  When it was the capital of Vijaya the citadel was much larger and the Cánh Tiên Tower was in its center.  
the roof of Cánh Tiên Tower
    Further west, off the road running north of the Côn River, on a low mound in a setting of rolling hills, stand the three towers of Đương Long.  These were the last major structures built in Vijaya’s heyday, exhibit strong Khmer influence in the shape and decorations and are the tallest Chăm towers in the province.  South of the river, off the road leading to Tây Sơn, the single tower Tháp Thủ Thiện stands among sugarcane fields, its foundations badly eroded, looking like it might topple over any day.
    The last of the province’s Chăm relics is the Bình Lâm tower, which used to be the centerpiece of the Thị Nại Citadel, 23 km northeast of Quy Nhơn.  A tributary of the Côn River ran from Chà Bàn to Thị Nại and Thị Nại was the first place the invading Vietnamese captured in 1471.  Before advancing on the capital they destroyed Thị Nại’s citadel and today only a 200-meter dilapidated fragment remains, though they left the tower intact.  The original population left after the fall of Vijaya and it never again served as a port.  When Vietnamese settlers finally moved into the area Quy Nhơn became their port city.  Those who moved into the old Thị Nại area reclaimed land towards the sea, so that nowadays the former Chăm seaport is several kilometers from the sea.
     In general the Chăm towers stand on slightly elevated square bases.  The entrance to the interior is on one side, with false doors on the other three sides, with sculpted decorations along the sides and above the doors.  The tops of the towers feature graduated, tapering tiers, some with flared tips at the corners.  Not much of the original sculptures are left, thanks to natural decay, war damage and looting, and the best examples have been removed to the big Chăm Museum in Đà Nẵng.  But the provincial museum in Quy Nhơn holds a few statues and other decorative elements.  A separate Chăm ceramics museum in the city, actually a private family collection, holds several lovely sculptures, imaginatively displayed, and a whole range of ceramics.   
Chăm stone sculpture
false doors, Tháp Đôi
    For the average Vietnamese, the Chăm legacy of Vijaya is less relevant than the fact that Bình Đính was the birthplace of the Tây Sơn Revolt, so called because it was led by three brothers from a village in Tây Sơn district, about 45 km northwest of Quy Nhơn.  The three—Nguyễn Nhạc, the eldest, Nguyễn Lữ and Nguyễn Huệ--launched their revolt against the Nguyễn Lords ruling Đằng Trong in 1771.  By 1778 they had seized the entire south and exterminated all but one member of the ruling family, Nguyễn Ánh, who escaped to Thailand.
remains of the Tây Sơn citadel at Chă Băn
    Nguyễn Nhạc proclaimed a new dynasty and decided to set up his capital on the old site of Chà Bàn.  Partly this was to curry favor with the Chăm as allies.  He had a new citadel built, though a much smaller version, in which Tháp Cánh Tiên was a couple hundred meters outside the walls.  
Eight years later he dispatched Nguyễn Huệ north to end the rule of the Trịnh Lords and restore the authority of the Lê king.  But when the latter died and his son took over and called in Chinese troops to establish his authority, Nguyễn Huệ, who had withdrawn to the south, announced the end of the Lê Dynasty and declared himself Emperor Quang Trung in December 1788.  He then had his army celebrate the Tết New Year holiday early, marched them north and on the Tết holiday pounced on the unsuspecting Chinese and utterly destroyed their army.   
Nguyễn Huệ, later Emperor  Quang Trung
    Quang Trung died suddenly in mid-1792.  Nguyễn Nhạc died the following year.  The Tây Sơn Dynasty lasted just under a decade more until it fell before the slow, steady, relentless campaign of Nguyễn Ánh.  While Nguyễn Nhạc has been all but neglected in Vietnam, Nguyễn Huệ, the military genius who defeated a massive Chinese army, has been elevated to national hero status.  Every city has a Nguyễn Huệ Street (in Quy Nhơn it’s the one along the beach) or a Quang Trung Street, or both.  A mighty statue of him stands in Quy Nhơn’s central roundabout.
    Another Nguyễn Huệ statue stands in front of the Tây Sơn Museum near Phú Phong village, the brothers’ birthplace.  Inside are displays such as weapons and uniforms used in that era, portraits and sculptures of the leading personalities of those days and models and maps of the major Tây Sơn campaigns.  The Tây Sơn rebels were good at marshaling the strength of angry, disaffected people, at overthrowing a feudal order and at ending the political division of the country.  For these achievements they still receive favorable portrayals in the state-run media and school textbooks.  They eventually lost to someone who reinstated the feudal order, but maintained the unity of the country.  What began as a local revolt in Bình Định in a long divided country ended in a single, unified nation stretching from the Chinese border to the tip of Cà Mau.  Unfortunately, six decades after Nguyễn Ánh’s triumph the French came in and broke it all up again.

Cánh Tiên Tower
                                                                    * * *
         Chăm and Tây Sơn sites in Bình Định are on the itinerary of my VIetnam tour program.
                                            See for details.

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