Cham Museum

By Tran Ky Phuong

Published on 6/1/95 on Things Asian

Entrance to the Cham Museum

Built in 1915, the Museum of Champa Sculpture in Danang displays an intensive and diverse collection of Champa sculpture dating from the 7th to the 15th centuries. The museum was established at the end of the 19th century by the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient with a collection of artifacts gathered in central Vietnam, from Quang Binh to Binh Dinh. They were then displayed at Le Jardin de Tourane on a small hill by the Han River. This is the site of the present museum. The building was designed by two French architects, Delaval and Auclair, in imitation of the most commonly used aspects of Champa towers and temples.

In 1935 the museum was expanded to display the artifacts excavated at Tra Kieu. The museum currently has on display about 300 sandstone and terra-cotta sculptures. Most of the artifacts are masterpieces of Champa art and some are considered to be equal to works anywhere in the world.

The arts of the Champa were chiefly sculpture, but the sculptures are only part of the religious architecture. The temples and towers themselves are considered to be sculptural artifacts. They are decorated on the exterior of their brick walls with bas-relief columns, flowers and leaves and worshipping figures between brick pillars. The tympana, lintels and the ornamental corner pieces are of sandstones carved with the figures of gods, the holy animals of the Hindus and flowers and leaves.

The artifacts displayed at the museum are altars, statues and decorative works collected from Hindu and Buddhist temples and towers. Champa sculpture displays various styles. Sometimes they were influenced by other cultures but no matter at what period or in what style the Champa artifacts were made they always displayed original characteristics.

Visitors to the museum will have the opportunity to appreciate the eight centuries of evolution of Champa sculpture from its golden age to its decline. In their own way, the artifacts exemplify the rise and fall of the Champa civilization. When we stand before these artistic masterpieces we can comprehend the noblest ideal of art, the creation of the infinite from the finite.

Two periods of Champa arts are represented by the sculptures at the museum, before and after the year 1000.

The first period, from the latter half of the 7th century to the end of the 9th century, witnessed the brilliant development of Champa art, which reflected the most prosperous era of the Champa kingdom. Champa art during this period clearly exposed the Champa’s aesthetic personality in a lively, fresh and liberal style.

Among the masterpieces of this period on display at the museum is the Tra Kieu Altar. The altar was used for the worship of Siva, the creator and destroyer of the universe, and the symbols of her creative ability, the Ling and Yoni, are present on it. The four scenes carved around the base of the altar tell the story of Prince Rama. He came to the citadel of Videha to try to break the sacred bow of Rudra so that he could marry princess Sita. Price Rama broke the bow, a task that had been tried by many before him, and he and the princess were wed.

The artifacts in the Dong Duong room (style of the 9th-10th centuries) create a deep impression with their vigorous, lively and exaggerated style and represent the climax of the development of Champa art. These statues of the first Champa kings, with the characteristic big eyes and noses and thick lips of the native people, show their vitality and imposing appearance. These carvings show the absolute belief that a supernatural force was supporting the rule of the Champa kings during the period when Buddhism was the dominant force.

The second period lasted from the 11th to the 15th centuries. The devastating wars from the end of the 10th century onwards took the Champa kingdom into decline, and the relocation of the capital from Tra Kieu (Quang Nam) to Tra Ban (Binh Ding) in about the year 1,000 brought about a new direction in their art. The experiences of the Champa had a direct influence on the development of Champa art. The second period of Champa sculpture had a different beauty. The decorative motifs on the animals statues became more ornate whereas those depicting humans became arid and dull, gradually losing the passionate and expressive characteristics of the early period.

The artifacts discovered at Thap Mam (style of the 12th-14th centuries) are monumental sculptures of large animals such as elephants, makara (sea monsters) and garudas (the birds of the gods) which served as protectors of the temples and towers. The Thap Mam style with its enormous artifacts represents the last efforts of a civilization on the decline. However, the exquisite talents of the sculptors can still be recognized on several statues. On the polished figures with their austere appearance are unearthly, calm smiles.

After the Thap Mam period Champa art declined. The Siva statue displayed in the Kontum room has an exhausted appearance. This was one of the last artifacts of the Champa sculptors. By the end of the 17th century the Champa aristocracy distegrated.

The eight centuries of art at the Champa museum is a thick history book reflecting the ups and downs of Champa art. From inanimate stones came living art, and from these wonderful invaluable artifacts we can get the feeling that the warmth from the Champa artists’ hand is still there, on the fine skin of the stone-timeless.

A Brief History of the Champa

According to Chinese chronicles, the Champa kingdom was founded in 192 AD and had different names such as Lin-Yi, Huang-Wang and Chang-Chen. Its territories stretched from south of the Ngang Pass in Quang Binh Province to the delta area of the Dong Nai River in Binh Thuan Province. It included the coastal plains, highland and mountain ranges.

Influenced by the early Hindu civilization, the Champa kingdom was a federation of several smaller states called Mandala and comprised several ethnic groups.

The most important legacy of the Champa kingdom is located in Central Vietnam in the form of brick temples and towers which are scattered over the coastal lowlands and highlands. The structures date from between the 7th and 8th centuries to the 16th and 17th centuries and are concentrated in Quang Nam Danang, Binh Dinh, Khanh Hoa, Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan.

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