Deciphering Ancient Cham Art

Blog Entry

by James Blake Wiener
published on 03 April 2013
PoKlongGaraiThe Cham people of central and south Vietnam have impressive artistic and architectural traditions, dating back more than 1700 years. Migrating from the island of Borneo to present-day Vietnam in second century CE, the Cham maintained a series of coastal kingdoms from c. 192-1832 CE. Champa--located at the crossroads of India, Java, and China--was the grand emporium of Southeast Asia and the chief rival of the powerful Khmer Empire. While primarily remembered in history as merchants, sailors, and warriors, the Cham were also skilled artisans and talented architects. In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks with Dr. Ky Phuong Tran--a specialist on Cham cultural history--with regard to the unique characteristics of Cham art and architecture.
The arts of Champa adapted various artistic tendencies from Southeast Asia, India, and even China as well.

JW: Dr. Ky Phuong Tran, let me bid you a warm welcome to the Ancient History Encyclopedia! I thank you so much for introducing us to ancient world of Cham art and architecture.

Although the Cham people absorbed artistic influence from Java, Cambodia, and India, I wanted to ask you which salient aspects of Cham art and architecture stand out when compared to those of their neighbors? Moreover, how should we best define and approach Cham aesthetics: through the lens of ancient Hindu art and that of the cultural sphere of "Greater India"?

KT: Research into the geographical features of Champa kingdom and those of her neighbors permit us to understand the unique facets of Cham art. The Champa kingdom was situated on the great maritime routes called the "Silk Road on the sea," and so Champa was located between two major Asian civilizations: India and China. The kingdom was actively involved in the international maritime trading networks from the second century CE onwards. Champa built close relationships with Southeast Asian states on the mainland and with the island-empires of present-day Indonesia; as a result, the arts of Champa adapted various artistic tendencies from Southeast Asia, India, and even China as well.

AsiachampamapWith regard to the Hindu religious architecture of Champa, there was no tradition of construction using exclusively sandstone materials, which contrasts sharply with neighboring architectural traditions. Champa technology is notable for its use of brick, while Khmer and Javanese technology stand out for their use of stone as evidenced in Angkor Wat or Angkor Bayon (in Cambodia), and Borobudur or Prambanam (in Indonesia). The difference in building materials implied differences in construction technique as well as differences in the application of human resources devoted to construction projects. The variation between these two approaches--the utilization of brick or stone--in construction can be explained by the specific economic systems adopted by respective ancient Southeast Asian civilizations.

Khmer and Javanese technologies were the technologies of agricultural societies, situated as they were in wide deltas (as in Cambodia) or on plains with mineral-rich, andesite soils (as on the island of Java). In these agricultural societies, kings, lords, or chieftains could easily mobilize an abundant workforce for long periods of time. Depending on the wishes of the ruler, the workforce could be employed to build temples made of sandstone or other stone materials. The people of Champa, by contrast, were inclined to overseas commerce.

In commercial societies, the capacity for the mobilization of the human resources required for the construction of important religious buildings was limited. The building of a stone temple required a concentration of labor resources for the quarrying and transportation of the stone and for all the other tasks of the construction itself. A brick temple, meanwhile, did not require such a powerful workforce: a smaller number of workers, employed for the necessary period of time, could create temples of impressive size like those of the Duong Long group (in Binh Dinh Province), which are Southeast Asia's tallest Hindu buildings in brick at 42 m (137 ft).

PonagarbestBesides these differences in materials and construction technology, the ancient artistic traditions of Southeast Asia also had their own distinguishing characteristics in a variety of ways. These relate to the ground plan arrangements and the spatial conception of the model used for each group of temple-towers. The ground plan in Cham architecture often consists of no more than a simple square, while in Khmer or Javanese stone structures, it is usually much more elaborate and complex. The Cham spatial model, based on several separate square blocks, is relatively monotonous, while the Khmer and Javanese models are more fully developed and comprise an assortment of different shapes. The variance in spatial arrangements and architectural models reflect differences of artistic consciousness: they are the products of the specific "collective intelligence" of each ethnic group and society in ancient Southeast Asia.

Although Cham art and those of Southeast Asia were all adapted from the arts of the Indian subcontinent, each Southeast Asian civilization possessed their own grammar and vocabulary to express their aesthetic characteristics and tastes. In terms of geographical and ethnic composition, we can obviously see how the differences among these kingdoms arose: the Champa kingdom was close to sea, while the Khmer kingdom was inland. Indigenous inhabitants of the region lived with several different language families co-existing in each kingdom; for example, the inhabitants of Champa combined two Austronesian languages (Malayo-Polynesian speakers) with an Austro-Asiatic language (Mon-Khmer speakers), while Khmer inhabitants mostly combined Austro-Asiatic languages. The ethnic aesthetics of indigenous people filtered the Hindu and Buddhist arts that come from India, resulting in a disparate artistic lexicon and differing artistic sensibilities.

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01JW: History has not been kind to Cham monuments and works of art: centuries of warfare and casual neglect have taken a significant toll on sites like My Son and Po Nagar Nha Trang, while decorative pieces have been lost over time. Today, most Cham artifacts exist as sandstone or bronze sculptures, with a few decorative objects cast in other metals.

Do we know anything about the other arts of the ancient Cham: painting, jewelry, basketry, textiles, pottery, or even calligraphy? Can sources from abroad or surviving steles allow us to reconstruct what other arts were practiced during Champa's zenith (c. 600-900 CE)?

KT: Yes, time and warfare--especially the recent wars in the twentieth century--have caused considerable damage to Cham artwork. Apart from religious architecture, we can only see the arts of jewelry, textile, and so forth, carved in detail upon surviving sculptures. In order to learn about Cham royal ornaments and garments through historical periods, close observation is essential; for example, during Indrapura dynasty (flourishing c. 875 CE), the art of jewelry making reached its pinnacle as one can find various types of gold ornaments, on royal persons, carved onto temple pedestals. In 1903, archaeologists found a set of golden ornaments--including hats, crowns, necklaces, bracelets, earrings, etc.--installed on an icon of the Hindu god, Shiva, dating from the ninth century CE, at a My Son sanctuary.

Presently, over 200 Cham steles have been recovered. These steles date from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries CE, and they provide fascinating details in either Cham or Sanskrit; fortunately, even though the style of the inscriptions changed and evolved over time, we can still learn a lot of information from them. Archaeologists have also unearthed several Cham ceramic kilns in former Vijaya state (located in present-day Binh Dinh Province). These ceramic kilns dated from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries CE. Not many people are aware that Cham ceramics were exported to most Southeast and East Asian states, and that they are even found in the Middle East and Central Asia. They are absolutely beautiful: Cham ceramics are monochrome with light green and pale yellow-brown.

Nowadays, the Cham minority--living in the southern part of central Vietnam--still produces traditional textiles with rich patterns and pottery without a wheel-table. They have also preserved various kinds of traditional arts related to religious ceremonies and festivals. Plenty of manuscripts in the Cham language, written on palm leafs dating from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries CE, have been preserved too.

ChamMuiNeJW: What do we know about the technologies that enabled the Cham to build these vast temple complexes? Cham temples are famous not only for their towers but also for their decorative carvings, which were cut directly into brick. Could you elaborate?


KT: Yes, the structural technology of Cham temple complex is extraordinary. Brick was baked to around 850 C (1,562 F) degrees, which was easily accomplished. In order to fix the bricks together, the Cham people used a kind of vegetable resin called, dau rai, which was extracted from the tree, Dipterocarpus Alatus Roxb. (This kind of tree was planted to form forests in central Vietnam and in peninsular Indochina.) Cham temples were built by a corbelling technique, and bricks were laid on top of one another in distinct rows and moldings. Bricks protruded horizontally at each level, creating an empty space between the two walls; eventually, they gradually tapered in, towards the top, before meeting to form a single final row of bricks at the highest point. Then the walls of a temple were very thick--about 1.5-2.0 m (5.0-6.5 ft)--providing excellent support, defense, and foundation for the building.

The Cham were also skilled in combining brick and sandstone together in one building; in some temple complexes, the two materials are still intact after thousands of years! Once they had completed construction on a temple, Cham sculptors sculpted various patterns directly into exterior brick walls. The decorative patterns evolved over time forming several different art styles from the seventh to the sixteenth centuries CE.MySonParvata

JW: Dr. Tran, I am aware that the art and architecture of My Son have been the focus of much of your research. Why was this site chosen and why did successive kings favor My Son, endow it with such fine temples? Additionally, should we conceptualize My Son as a both a religious and a political center?

KT: My Son was Cham royal sanctuary where the god-king (devaraja)--in the incarnation of Shiva, the protector of Cham sovereigns and the Champa kingdom--was worshiped. The sanctuary was built during the reign of King Bhadravarman I (380-413 CE) in the late fourth century CE. It was built in a secret valley with a sacred atmosphere, under the foot of a holy mountain of Mahaparvata, as noted in the king's inscription. The peak of the holy mountain is an odd shape as it is similar to the beak of the mythical eagle--Garuda, a god of peace in Hinduism. In ancient times, sailing boats traveling along the coast saw the mountain as an indication that they were near the important entrepôt of Hoi An.

The Cham built several minor states or "port-polities" on the estuaries of the main rivers in Central Vietnam that were considered holy. Each Cham state or port-polity was organized based by one of three models:

  1. A commercial center located at the estuary.

  2. A center of royal power--a capital "citadel"--located on a riverbank to the west of the estuary.

  3. A royal sanctuary located at the foot of a holy mountain nearby the citadel.


For example, the Champa Amaravati state, in present-day Quang Nam Province, was formed by three components:

  1. Hoi An--an ancient town sometimes called the "Port of Great Champa"--was the center of maritime trade.

  2. Sinhapura Tra Kieu--known as the "City of Lion" or the "Lion Citadel"--was the center of royal power.

  3. My Son--popularly known in ancient times as "Srisana Bhadresvara"--was the royal sanctuary.


MySonBCDMy Son is the largest and most important religious architectural site of Champa and includes nearly 70 temple-towers built continually from the fourth to the thirteenth centuries CE. The site retains important insights on Cham art and culture, reflecting the economic and the social history of the Champa kingdom. The site has attracted several generations of scholars since it was rediscovered by French scholars in the late nineteenth century. My Son was also listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1999. However, our understanding of the site is still limited due to the lack of current archaeological excavation. We are waiting for the promise of future excavations, which I hope will unearth interesting artifacts and promote efforts in preserving the site.

JW: Were sites like My Son and Po Nagar Nha Trang also places of pilgrimage? Additionally, I was curious if you might be able to explain further how nearby agricultural and urban communities supported their growth? We touched upon this earlier and I am keen to know more.


VietnamChampa1KT: Yes, you are correct, James. My Son and Po Nagar Nha Trang are two Hindu royal sanctuaries--one in the north of the kingdom, the other in the south of the kingdom--where Cham rulers and merchants made many pilgrimages. The two royal sanctuaries reflect the cosmic dualist cult of the Cham sovereigns: pilgrims at My Son worshiped the god-king, Shiva (Srisana-Bhadresvara), who represented masculine elements and principles; while at Po Nagar Nha Trang, pilgrims worshiped the goddess, Bhagavati (a consort of Shiva also called "Yang Inu Po Nagar"), who represented feminine elements and principles.

The Champa kingdom lay on an international trade route: its people possessed a coastline of more than one thousand kilometers (620 mi), and its economy was based on seafaring and long-distance commercial exchange. The people of Champa were busy throughout the year with trade and the exchange of goods. Furthermore, the kingdom's agriculture was relatively undeveloped because the available land for agricultural use consisted of only small fields, located alongside short rivers. Valleys of longer rivers--like the Thu Bon River (in Quang Nam Province) or the Con River (in Binh Dinh Province)--had more fertile soil and close links with the great ports of Hoi An (Cua Dai) and Cua Thi Nai (Qui Nhon City). Cham inhabitants grew wet rice and several kinds of agricultural products like sugarcane and aloe.

A great number of temple-towers were built of brick in these areas as a result of the greater density of population these economic resources could support. This suggests that as soon as the necessary workforce was available for the construction of religious buildings, the kings of Champa immediately made use of it to build larger and more magnificent structures in the shape of temple-towers. Generally, agricultural societies were able to supply such workforces in greater and more stable quantities than commercial societies, relying, in particular, on the underemployment of farm workers between harvests. (In ancient times, Champa had no more than one annual harvest.)

JW: Dr. Tran, it's been such a pleasure to speak with you. The Ancient History Encyclopedia wishes you many happy adventures in research. Thank you for sharing your expertise on this most interesting culture!

BayonnavalbatKT: James, it has been a pleasure! I am very happy to share my knowledge on the Cham with the Ancient History Encyclopedia.  I wish the Ancient History Encyclopedia much success in the future!

Photo Key & Credits:

  1. Temple of Po Klong Garai, located near Phan Rang, Vietnam. It is one of the best-preserved sanctuaries of the Cham and originally dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva. This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License. Image created by Andre Lettau, 2003.

  2. Map of East and Southeast Asia around c. 800 CE at the height of ancient Champa. This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License. Image created by Thomas Lessman, 2007-2008.

  3. Po Nagar Temple at the mouth of Cai River, founded c. 781 CE in Nha Trang, Vietnam. This is a file from Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License. Image created by vinhtantran, 2006.

  4. This tympanum is from the 10th century CE and depicts a dancing Shiva. This is a file from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain because it has been released there by its author. Image created by Vinhtantran, 2007.

  5. The towers of Po Sa Nu (Pho Hai), near Phan Thiet, Vietnam, may be the oldest Cham buildings in existence. In style, they exhibit the influence of pre-Angkorian Cambodia. This is a file from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain because it has been released there by its author. Image created by L-Bit, 2005.

  6. View of the famous My Son temple complex located in Quang Nam Province, Vietnam. Structures at My Son were built continuously from the fourth to the fourteenth century CE. Image: courtesy of Dr. Ky Phuong Tran.

  7. Another view of My Son with Mt. Mahaparvata in the distance. Image: courtesy of Dr. Ky Phuong Tran.

  8. This is a map of Champa and its neighbors around c. 1100 CE. Champa is shaded in green, the Khmer Empire is shaded in violet, and Dai-Viet is shaded in yellow. Major cities are listed. This is a file from Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License. Image created by Electionworld, 2006, 2009.

  9. This bas relief is from the late 12th century CE Angkorian temple called, "Bayon," which is in present-day Cambodia. It depicts Cham mariners in action against the Khmer. The Cham were the fiercest rivals of the Khmer for hundreds of years. This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License. Image created by Markalexander100, 2005.


kypictureDr. Ky Phuong Tran was a curator of the Museum of Champa Sculpture in Danang, Vietnam from 1978 until 1998. In 1993-1996 and 2005-2008, he won awards from The Toyota Foundation and the SEASREP Foundation to conduct fieldwork on Champa architectural sites in central Vietnam and other historical architectural sites across Southeast Asia. Dr. Tran was a visiting fellow at the National University of Singapore's Asia Research Institute/ARI in 2004; most recently, he was a Senior Visiting Fellow at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., in 2012. Since 2009, Dr. Tran has been a Co-Director of a special project, "Crossing Boundaries: Learning from the Past to Build the Future: Archaeological Collaboration between Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam."

James Blake Wiener is a Director and the Public Relations Manager of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be "illuminating."

All images featured in this interview have been attributed to their respective owners. Images lent to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, by Dr. Ky Phuong Tran, have been done so as a courtesy for the purposes of this interview and are copyrighted. The views presented here are not necessarily those of the Ancient History Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013. Please contact us for rights to republication.
Posted by James Blake Wiener on April 3, 2013, 17:27.

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