Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Chăm Legacy of Quàng Nam, Vietnam

                                                          by Jim Goodman

Chăm temple ruims at Mỹ Sơn
       Qung Nam province lies roughly in the center of Vietnam, adjacent to Đà Nng and south of the Hi Văn Pass.  In ancient times Đèo Hi Văn marked the boundary of the extent of Chinese influence.  Qung Nam did not become part of a Vietnamese state until the late 15th century.  Before that it was home to an Austronesian people known as the Chăm, who established several independent states along the coast of central Vietnam.  Qung Nam was the site of two Chăm capitals.  The first was Sinhapura, at what is now Trà Kiêu, on the Thu Bn River southeast of Đà Nãng, established after 446 in the wake of a Chinese invasion that looted and destroyed the previous capital near Huế.  The second was Indrapura, now the village of Đng Dương, founded in 875 and vanquished in 1044.
       While very little remains of Sinhapura other than a bit of its walls, or of Indrapura besides a small remnant of its main temple, vestiges of Chăm monuments remain at four sites in the province.  The most famous is Mỹ Sơn, a World Heritage Site since 1999, a Chăm royal sanctuary a little west of Trà Kiêu, founded in the late 4th century and containing the ruins of religious monuments erected up to the 14th century.  Other towers, at Khương Mỹ, Chiên Đan and Bằng An, date from the 10th and 11th centuries, the last period of the state of Amaravati.    
Tháp BằngAn
       The Vietnamese state the Chinese conquered in the 2nd century BCE only included about the northern third of what is today Vietnam.  The Chinese claimed jurisdiction all the way down to the Hi Văn Pass, but the territory south of Ngh An was very lightly populated, mainly by non-Vietnamese people, and only nominally administered.  It was also subject to periodic revolts and in 192 CE the southernmost district of Tượng Lâm, corresponding to today’s Quảng Trị and Thưa Thiên Huế provinces, declared its independence as a state the Chinese called Lin-yi.
       Over the next several centuries it would expand north, contract now and then, be known from the 8th century as Huan-wang, and by the time of Vietnamese independence in 938, be identified as Champa.  The new state distinguished itself by modeling its government and society on Indian models rather than Chinese.  Central Vietnam is very narrow compared to the Deltas of the north and the south, so agriculture could not be a state’s major economic input.  The Chăm were also seafarers.  Regular contact with proto-Khmer in the federation of ports known as Funan led them to adopt the Indian civilization then spreading in Cambodia and southwest Vietnam.     
Chăm warriors, Tháp Chiên Đàn
The king identified himself as an incarnation of the Hindu god Shiva.  The first monument erected at M Sơn, established in the late 4th century when the capital was still north of the Hải Văn Pass, was dedicated to Shiva.  This first tower and subsequent ones were made of wood and all burnt down in a 6th century fire.  Subsequently, the construction materials were brick and stone.  The baked bricks were fitted together with glue made from a local resin and some of the exterior carvings were done directly on the brick surface.  Columns were generally stone, as were most of the free-standing sculptures.
Mỹ Sưn stele of Chăm life
       The shapes of the buildings, exterior designs, sculptures and motifs reflected heavy Khmer influence.  The revered deities were mostly Hindu—Shiva primarily, but also Vishnu, Laxmi, Surya, Indra, Krishna, etc.  In sculpting these gods Chăm artisans followed the Khmer styles, themselves derived from Indian models with precise, written instructions on what a particular deity was supposed to look like.  The rules allowed for a bit of stylistic variation, which made Chăm sculptures slightly different from Khmer, especially in the depiction of real and mythical animals.  Examples of this are the monkeys in a Khương Mỹ frieze, elephants at the base of one of the Chiên Đàn towers and the mythical beasts at Bằng An.
elephants at Tháp Chiên Đàn
       While most Chăm kings identified themselves as Hindu, the founder of Amaravati in 875 was a Mahayana Buddhist, as were his immediate successors.  While the state religion subsequently reverted to Hinduism, for a brief period Buddhist themes dominated Chăm art.  Surviving sculptures, such as the bronze Tara and the reliefs and Buddha images from Đồng Dương in the Đà Nãng Chăm Museum, exhibit a high quality of technique.
       Whether officially Hindu or officially Buddhist, the Chăm state of Linyi-Huanwang-Amaravati never had friendly relations with its northern neighbors.  The original state expanded north into contemporary Quảng Binh and periodically raided the southern districts of Chinese-occupied northern Vietnam.  This continued
Avalokitesvar, Quảng Binh, 10th c. 
 after the Vietnamese won back their independence in 938.  The Vietnamese retaliated in a major way in 982, capturing Indrapura, but eventually the Chăm recovered and resumed raids.  In 1044 King Lý Thái Tông led an expedition that destroyed Indrapura.  His forces also captured all the Chăm Court’s entertainers and dancers and took them back to their capital Thămg Long (today’s Hanoi).  Chăm dancers then became part of the Lý Court’s entertainment. 
       Amaravati ceased to exit as a state, but the Vietnamese only annexed the area north of Đèo Hải Văn.  Control of Quảng Nam passed to the nearest Chăm state south—Vijaya.  Its kings continued to erect monuments in Mỹ Sơn now and then, until the Vietnamese conquered Vijaya in 1470 and annexed its territory from Quảng Nam to Phú Yên.  They did not attack the Chăm monuments, unlike the Khmer in earlier wars with Viyaya, but without state power behind them anymore these fell into neglect and decay.
       The Chăm people practically vanished from this part of Chăm territory.  Many fled south or west, while those who stayed behind submerged themselves into the growing Vietnamese population, hiding or abandoning their ethnic identity.  The monuments their ancestors left behind remained basically ignored until their discovery by French archaeologists at the end of the 19th century.  To them it was the discovery of a “lost” and unknown civilization and excavating and cataloguing the monuments, assembling and translating the stone inscriptions, particularly at sites like Mỹ Sơn, soon commenced.  
Mỹ Sơn ruins
       Mỹ Sơn contained nearly seventy monuments of one kind or another, some of them mere heaps of collapsed components.  Besides recording everything that lay in place, archaeologists also had to determine which pieces belonged to which structure and what it was supposed to look like when it was first erected.  Finally they were able to begin the even more painstaking work of reconstruction in the mid-1930s.  The work had to cease in 1943 because of the war situation and could not resume afterwards because of the ensuing battle between the colonial forces and the Việt Minh. 
       Following the end of the war and the separation of the country into two parts, the government in South Vietnam did not take up restoration and reconstruction in Mỹ Sơn.  The sanctuary returned to its former condition of neglect and gradual decay.  In the 60s the armed struggle against the Saigon government intensified and prompted the Americans to intervene.  National Liberation Front guerrillas, the Viet Cong as they became known, established control over most of the countryside and set up bases in remote areas everywhere, including around Mỹ Sơn.
gajasimha, half-lion, half-elephant, Tháp Bằng An
       In August 1969 American planes carpet-bombed Quảng Nam’s Chăm heartland.  The bombs practically obliterated the remains of Đồng Dương and destroyed much of the Mỹ Sơn sanctuary, including some of the restored works.  It was one of the war’s great cultural tragedies.  Even today there are unsafe, no-go zones in the vicinity, suspected of being littered with unexploded ordinance and land mines.  The bombing did not destroy the guerrillas, of course, and they simply moved bases and carried on with their ultimately successful campaign.  
       Fortunately, the smaller Chăm tower sites, being near the coast, were not targeted and today look pretty much like the original French photographs.  The smallest is Tháp Bằng An, a few km west of Hội An.  A single, bullet-shaped tower with an appended entrance section, it is the only Chăm tower on an octagonal base.  Much of its external decoration, like the friezes on the arch above the doorway and the designs along the columns, has eroded.  But in the yard stand two large stone statues of the gajasimha—a mythical beast half-lion and half-elephant.
Tháp Chiên Đản
     About 50 km south on Highway 1 the triple towers of Tháp Chiên Đàn lie just west of the road.  They have lost most of their domes and vegetation is creeping up the walls, but many of the stone relief carvings have survived around the bases—dancers, musicians, warriors, elephants, etc. The towers rise behind a large courtyard, which must have originally held other buildings, judging by the remains of the foundations.  Off to the right stand a large gajasimha, a stone lingam and a mounted stone slab inscription fragment.  Next to these is a small museum, housing objects found during excavations around the towers, such as 
Khương Mỹ Krishna
segments of friezes, a carving of Durga and other sculptures.

       A little further south, just past the turn to Tam Kỳ, Tháp Khương Mỹ also comprises three towers.  Vegetation has covered their upper sections, but some of the decorative elements are still in good shape, like vegetal patterns on the pillars, a carving of court life and a frieze of monkeys.  Khương Mỹ’s best statues—of a multi-armed Shiva mounted on Nandi and of Krishna holding up a mountain to protect cattle from a storm—were removed to the Đà Nẵng Chăm Museum.
       All these sites attract scant attention.  The emphasis is still on Mỹ Sơn.  That’s understandable, considering Mỹ Sơn has such a large collection of monuments.  Restoration is still going on there and recently an entire section previously closed for reconstruction finally opened to visitors.  Mỹ Sơn is not a Chăm equivalent of Angkor, but it was never intended to be.  It was not a royal city, but a sanctuary, where kings commissioned religious monuments to make merit, not to impress the urban populace as at Angkor, and had their tombs built.
       It’s about a half hour drive from Hội An, a little more from Đà Nãng, in a secluded, wooded valley about ten km west of the ancient capital Sinhapura at Trà Kiêu.  Best to go early morning, before the tour buses arrive and listen to the birds as you take the quiet walk down a long stone path to the site of the first, and biggest, collection of ruins. 
Chăm tower andCat Tooth Mountain
external sculpture,Mỹ Sơn
The French excavators divided the monuments into eight groups and gave them the rather unimaginative names of Groups A, B, C, D, E, F, G and H, with numbers added to identify each building within a group.  Actually the groups are in just five locations.  The first set encountered after coming down the walkway comprises Groups B. C and D.  This is the most interesting site, where the ruins are not as ruined as at other sites, and the massif looming in the distance behind them, Cat’s Tooth Mountain, which to the Chăm symbolized the holy mythical Indian peak Mt. Meru, is clearly visible.  
assembly hall, Mỹ Sơn
       Towers, temples, stone linga, storehouses and assembly halls are all represented, with some of the external decorations and carvings in fairly good condition.  In addition, one small building houses several statues, steles, stone inscriptions and remnant temple decorations.  Group A, on the other hand, a little southeast of this site, is less well endowed.  Fewer buildings remain standing, carvings are scarce and lots of columns and stone blocks lie on the ground.
       Leaving Group A and turning northeast you come to Group G, a single compound east of Groups B, C and D.  Bomb damage is more evident here than natural erosion, which is also a factor further up the same road to Groups E and F, which lie adjacent to each other.  The last site, Group G, lies all by itself past the cafes northwest of Groups B, C and D and comprises just a part of a tower wall. 
Chăm dancer, from a Chiên Đàn frieze
       A normal walk through all the sites takes about two leisurely hours, though I found myself returning to the B-C-D site for another lingering, appreciative look before leaving.  On the way out I discovered a small stage just before the exit and happened to be in time for the park’s entertainment show.  It began with Chăm folk dances, with rural themes and props like water jugs, baskets and farm tools, followed by soloists on Chăm instruments.
       The rest of the program featured ancient Chăm dances.  Performers dressed in costumes resembling those of the carved dancers on the temple friezes.  The themes were very Hindu, too, as three girls lined up behind each other and waved their arms so that they appeared from the front as one girl (one goddess) with six arms.  All of the choreography seemed to be inspired by Chăm temple art.  It was like a live version of the sculptures, a fitting conclusion to a morning excursion into ancient history.
performance of ancient Chăm dances at Mỹ Sơn

                                                                                * * *
            Mỹ Sơn is one of the stops on my cultural-historical journey through Vietnam.  See                                                                 for details

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