The Charm of Cham Art

Less than 50 km from the picturesque port city of Hoi Ann in Vietnam is the ancient city of Mỹ Sơn, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the 4th to the 13th century, Mỹ Sơn was site of religious ceremony for kings of the ruling dynasties of Champa as well as a burial place for Cham royalty and national heroes. Today, it is a cluster of partially ruined Hindu temples dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva.

The partially ruined temple complexes at Mỹ Sơn in present day Quang Nam province, Vietnam.

Not far away to the west, is the town of Tra Kieu, once the capital of Champa. Here, protected by a ring of mountains are over 70 structures of brick and stone, most of which were dedicated to Shiva. Some of the most impressive relics of Tra Kieu are now housed in the Da Nang Museum, majority of which date back to between the 7th and 15th centuries and are made from sandstone in different art styles. Three Cham artifacts in the museum have been recognised as national treasures by the Vietnamese government, namely My Son E1 and Tra Kieu pedestals and Tara Bodhisattva statue (pictured). They speak to a once-glorious culture whose artistic heritage is perhaps second only to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.

Remains of a once spectacular Hindu temple.

Masterpieces of Cham Art

Pedestal, Mỹ Sơn, Quang Nam province, sandstone, 7th – 8th century.

This pedestal once supported a huge linga, a phallic-shaped structure associated with Shiva, the supreme god of the Hindus. Its base is adorned with blocks of stone decorated with high-relief scenes of Hindu gods, mountain forests, and caves with ascetics performing various activities. The finely carved décor is typical of Cham art, although there are some details which call to mind the art of Pallava and that of Sri Lanka. While the idea for this narrative base derives from India, it illustrated themes common to both pre-Angkor in Cambodia and Dvaravati in Thailand.

Aspara dancer, Tra Kieu, sandstone, 7th – 8th century. Height: 63 cm.

This is one of two aspara or celetial dancers,cpart of a “dancers pedestal” found at Tra Kieu in 1899. The tiered pedestal is carved in high relief with musicians and two enchanting aspara in graceful classical Indian dance poses. At first sight, the dancer seems to wear only jewellery, but in fact her garments are transparent skirts, almost unrecognizable except for the flap between the legs and the knot of wide, short pleats at the lower back. These sandstone dancers have become icons of Cham art.

Architectural element with dancer, Binh Dinh, south-central Vietnam, 12th – 13th century. Sandstone. Height: 118 cm, width: 64 cm.

The graceful apsara dancers usually appear either as reliefs, standing alone or forming a group. Despite being unfinished, this dancer exudes charm and grace.

Polo players, Quang Tri, north-central Vietnam, 10th century, sandstone. Height: 104 cm, width: 192 cm.

One of the most remarkable sculptural reliefs found adorning the outer face of a balastrade depicts two horse riders playing polo. Movement at speed is indicated by the poses of the horses and the raised horse tails. Polo originated in Persia and spread along the Silk Road to East Asia.

Tara Bodhisattva statue, Dong Duong, 20 km south of My Son, 9th – 10th century, bronze.

This statue of Tara, the female god of compassion, is the largest known Cham bronze sculpture. It was discovered in 1978 by locals of Dong Duong, a Buddhist center of Champa on the plain about 20 kilometers south of My Son. The intense expression reflects the fusion of Indian and Chinese influence with Cham traditions. The beautifully modeled hands appear to be showing a mudra gesture, the root meaning of which signify cleansing and purification as well as satisfaction and delight.


[1] Who were the Chams of the Champa kingdom? Historians believe that the Cham were an Austronesian people of Malayo-Polynesian stock who settled along the coast of what is today central and south Vietnam. The Champa kingdom flourished between the 4th and 17th century before they were absorbed by the Vietnamese. For more than a thousand years, the Cham were contemporaries of the Khmer, with whom they shared cultural and religious ideas, particularly Buddhism and Hinduism (and the associated concept of divine or semi-divine kingship), Sanskrit and other elements of material culture. Hinduism infiltrated into Champa society as early as the 4th century and it was around this period that the Cham people began to create stone inscriptions in Sanskrit and in their own language for which they created a unique script. Starting from the 7th century, the Cham controlled the trade in spices and silk between China and India, and as far away as the Indonesian islands in the east and the Abbasid empire in Bagdad, Iraq to the west. In the process, the Cham’s hold on the Silk Road greatly facilicated the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism to Vietnam. As early as the second half of the 7th century, royal temples began to appear at Mỹ Sơn, with the worhip of the Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu as the dominant religious themes. By the second half of the 7th century, royal temples were beginning to appear at Mỹ Sơn with Hinduism as the dominant theme. The strong imprint of Hinduism can be seen in the beautiful sculptural reliefs that survive in temple complexes as shown above.

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