Champa gems

William B. Noseworthy

Share:
Makara, from Thap Mam, Binh Dinh province (twelfth-thirteenth century), is notable because, while many of the motifs and carving techniques appear to arise from a clear Sino-Vietnamese contact zone, the stone and the location of the find and the styles also make it similar to the elephant-lion (gajasimha) statue found in the same area.
Photo: Paisarn Piemmetawat

Vibrancy in Stone: Masterpieces of the Danang Museum of Champa Sculpture
Tran Ky Phuong, Vo Van Thang, & Peter D. Sharrock (eds) 
River Books: 2018
.

Next year marks the centenary of the Danang Museum of Champa Sculpture. When I first set foot in this museum more than ten years ago, I was struck by the nature of the collection. The bright yellow colonial-era French architecture remains ubiquitous in contemporary Vietnam, but it was the collections within the museum that were most impressive. It had been proposed in 1902 by the École Française d’Extrême-Orient, although it was only in 1919 that the significant efforts of Henri Parmentier led to the opening of the first Champa sculpture collection at the present site.

The French orientalist researchers, working in part with Vietnamese and Cham collaborators, initially conceived of Champa as a lost kingdom, and so gave detailed attention to the subject of many of the statuaries that make up the present collection. The museum, of course, has since been expanded, mainly because of the new archaeological finds since 1975. Many of these finds, along with the works that were collected by the original EFEO teams, are not only stunning but also provide a valuable resource to promote the understanding of Champa art and the location of Champa civilisation within a Southeast Asian cultural milieu and Southeast Asian history.

Given more than a century of international efforts in Champa and Cham studies, along with the substantial challenges that these fields pose to new scholars, it is no small task to produce a new work that could have a significant impact on readers. Vibrancy in Stone is just that effort. Peter D. Sharrock, of SOAS, whose previous expertise in Angkorian archaeology finds a new home among Champa studies, has teamed up with many leading researchers in the field in this effort. It is the collaboration between SOAS and Vietnamese institutions, including the Danang Museum of Champa Sculpture, that makes Vibrancy in Stone such a successful presentation. Scholars from Europe, North America, East Asia and Southeast Asia have produced a series of impressive volumes in recent years. Even so, with all these new works produced in English, and scores of accompanying research articles in English, French and Vietnamese, there was not one recent in-depth study of Champa art that also pulled in the perspectives of experts in history, epigraphic studies and archaeology, while also contributing significant updates to the field through high quality full colour photography.

Siva, from the Yang Mum, Kontum, archaeological site (fourteenth-fifteenth century), is notable for being one of, if not the last, surviving piece of Champa art from this period and location. The later tower complexes, especially the sixteenth-seventeenth century Ppo Romé tower, likely held other pieces, but they have unfortunately not seemed to survive. The facial features, the garb and the pose are specific to Champa styles, although the piece itself is also remarkable in that it was found far into the hinterlands, at a tower site that is often considered as part of the evidence that non-Cham ethnic groups were part of this magnificent classical Southeast Asian Hindu-Buddhist civilisation that controlled various portions of what is now central and south central Vietnam, as well as parts of the central highlands, from the fourth through the seventeenth centuries. Photo: Paisarn Piemmetawat

The challenges that Cham scholars experience are familiar to experts in Southeast Asian studies and well known by non-scholars in the region as well. The first is that centuries of conflicts past, and even decades of conflicts more recent, have damaged the resources that scholars may rely upon to produce the necessary foundational works that keep a field alive. In the case of Champa studies, these conflicts are the classical contestations between armies from Angkor, Majapahit (Java), Dai Viet and various Chinese dynasties, as well as the more contemporary conflicts during the Vietnamese struggle for independence from 1945 until the reunification of the southern Republic of Vietnam with the northern Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1975.

Champa is best conceived of as a classical civilisation stretching across hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres of archaeological sites dotted up and down the coastline of what is now southern and central Vietnam, as well as extending well into the hinterlands, from the fourth century through at least the seventeenth century of the common era.

Vibrancy in Stone begins with Vo Van Thang’s essay on the history of the Danang museum collections of Champa art provides an introduction to the collections that form much of the basis of the present study, as well as framing for new readers some of the challenges that the team faced in the present volume, including that the original archives and inventories of the collections first amassed by French orientalist scholarship disappeared between 1945 and 1975.

Dvarapala temple guardian, from the same area and period. Dvarapala are familiar throughout East and Southeast Asia. What makes this particular image unique is the combination of East and Southeast Asian artistic styles, as well as the unique artistic style of the human form, prevalent in Champa: the face with “… thick and heavy features is softened by the elegant curved lines of the abundant eyebrows, the moustache and the beard …”. Photo: Paisarn Piemmetawat

John K. Whitmore, the pre-eminent historian of Champa-Vietnamese and Champa-Angkor interactions, gives readers a detailed understanding of the sociopolitical landscape of Champa civilisation, composed of a layering of kingdoms that only rarely coalesced into a single polity and often were engaged in internal and external competition for influence. Most often, these polities are subdivided into a period of the kingdom of Champa, as well as other city-state kingdoms centred at Indrapura, Amaravati, Vijaya, Kauthara and Panduranga. Whitmore provides a lucid explanation of the rise of Bhumi Vijaya, alternatively known as Vijayapura, through a period of Angkorian conquest and political influence. Sharrock’s essay on Champa-Angkorian interactions and Do Truong Giang’s on the trade networks of the ports of Amaravati focus predominantly on sociopolitical history and slightly less on religious history or ideas about artistic styles.

Since the art of the Champa civilisation is most often discussed concerning relations to south Asian and specifically Indic Hindu-Buddhist influence, Chiao-Hui Tu reminds us that Champa is best conceived as a series of locations at the nexus of cross-cultural trade networks. Furthermore, because Champa dynasties often turned to Chinese dynasties to form long-distance trade-tribute relations in hopes of support against the impending threats of Vietnamese armies, and Vijaya, for example, even became a primary stopover for Ming fleets, it is not a surprise to learn that there is even more new evidence of such ties. While, as Arlo Griffiths et al hint, there has yet to be a significant cross-referential study of valuable Cham manuscript collections with the available data in art history, epigraphic studies, archaeology and exogenous classical manuscripts, Vibrancy in Stone is a welcome reminder of the phenomenal work in the field of Champa studies.

William B. Noseworthy an Assistant Professor of History at McNeese State University in Lake Charles.
Previous Article

Tsunami, Family photoshoot & Spooky action at a distance

Next Article

True believer

More from the Mekong Review