Archaeological travel guide to Tháp Chiên Đàn, three early Cham tower ruins excavated and restored with an onsite museum.
While few and far between, the ancient monuments left by the Cham people can still be found dotting the coastline of central and southern Vietnam. These brick towers originally formed the centerpieces of larger Hindu (and occasionally Buddhist) temple complexes. While the auxiliary buildings have been mostly lost, several impressive examples of Cham towers still exist, including the Chien Dan Cham Towers.
The Tháp Chiên Đàn Cham Towers are three restored Hindu monuments built by the Cham culture in Central Vietnam in the early 11th Century CE. Excavations taking place in 1989 found a number of important artifacts that are now displayed at an onsite museum.
This article will guide you through the history and architecture of the ancient monuments and provide all the information you’ll need to visit the Tháp Chiên Đàn Cham Towers for yourself.
The Story of Chien Dan Cham Towers
The Tháp Chiên Đàn Cham Towers are located in one of the early core regions of Vietnam’s indigenous Cham culture, which was centered around the citadels of Indrapura and Simapura (modern Trà Kiệu and Đồng Dương, respectively). Like other early Indianized kingdoms of Southeast Asia who profited off the trade between India and China, the Cham maritime trading culture expanded their influence along the coastal routes of Vietnam.
The ruined towers are located on the flat coastal plain about 5 km from the ocean. Their modern name “Chiên Đàn” is the Vietnamese transliteration of the Sanskrit word “chandan”, which means “aloe wood”.
The Archaeology and Architecture of the Tháp Chiên Đàn Cham Towers
The Tháp Chiên Đàn Cham Towers are the remains of a larger Hindu religious complex built between the 10th-12th Centuries CE. This represented one of the last phases of monumental construction in this area before the cultural center of the Cham people moved southward 250 km (155 miles) to Vijaya (modern Quy Nhon/An Nhon) in Binh Dinh Province.
The towers were not built all together, but individually with different patrons who sponsored their construction over the course of these two centuries. In order, as dated by archaeologists, the southern tower was built first, followed by the middle tower, and finally the north tower.
One of the most important items found during excavations was the Chien Dan Inscription, a replica of which can still be found at the onsite museum. In addition to the architectural art style of the towers themselves, the inscription provides corroborating evidence to date the temple.
According to the Chien Dan Inscription, During the late 1000s, the Cham King “Harivarman” restored the earlier towers during a temple-wide renovation he sponsored. However, this lends itself to some confusion on the history of the site. In Cham written records, there are at least 5 kings named “Harivarman” and 2 named Jaya Harivarman.
Three of these – Harivarman II (989–997), Harivarman IV (1074–1080), and Harivarman V (1114–1129) – overlap with the rough dates ascribed to the temple and also ruled from this region. I could find no specific reference confirming which of these “Harivarman” kings is written about on the Chien Dan Inscription, although one source attributes it to the Harivarman V (1114-1129), whose rule is later than the inscription describes.
Architecturally, the towers themselves have sanctuaries (the main inner chamber containing the altar) that are high compared to many of their counterparts throughout Vietnam. To further accentuate this height, the vertical pilasters on the outside corners are indented.
Like most Cham towers (and their Khmer prang cousins) the towers at Chien Dan have one true entrance to the inner sanctuary (usually on the east side) and 3 decorative false entrances on the other sides.
While the standard items of Shiva worship, such as lingams and yonis, have been found at Chien Dan, there are indications that other gods of the Hindu pantheon were also worshipped here. One lingam design, in particular, is indicative of a Shiva-centered worship that also included the two other major gods of the Hindu Trimurti: Brahma and Vishnu.
This lingam design has a square base, an octagonal midsection, and a rounded top section, with each of these representing one of the three primary deities: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, respectively.
Other Hindu iconography found at the site includes various statues depicting gods and creatures, including Ganesh, Garuda, kinnari birds, nagas, and Makara. In all, despite its relative obscurity, even among the relatively obscure Cham ruins of Vietnam, the excavations at Chien Dan towers are some of the most fruitful in gathering knowledge of the ancient Cham culture.
Among the three Chien Dan towers, the South Tower is the oldest and, even after modern restoration efforts, has the most visible damage. This includes an entirely collapsed upper section.
Excavations in 1989 revealed the tower’s buried sandstone base and an adjoined pillar that had remarkable carvings. Their styles helped date this site to the early 11th Century, marking the beginning of the construction at the site. The best-preserved carvings on the south tower are located at the rear of the tower.
The south tower has 2 remaining pilasters located along the roof of the lower section. To the right of the entrance of the south tower is the broken remnant of a carved statue. The main feature of the statue still visible is a well-defined row of teeth. However, I was not able to figure out exactly what the statue is supposed to be.
The Central Tower at Chien Dan is in the best state of preservation, with almost the entirety of its roof and top section intact. Because of this intact upper section, it is also the tallest of the three.
Leading into the tower is a partially collapsed entryway, with only parts of the two sides remaining. The main body of the tower is decorated with plain pilasters at the corners, These lead up to a decorative sandstone cornice surrounding the top of the bottom section. The Cham researcher Tran Ky Phuong believes the cornice is indicative of Khmer-Angkorian influence.
At these corners of each level, the researcher H. Parmentier thinks there were corner towers, a decorative feature found in Cham towers at Vijaya (modern Quy Nhon). These decorative corner towers themselves look like miniature Cham towers rising from the main structure.
Only two segments of the original decorative sandstone base remain on the Central Tower. A small carving on the rear south side depicts elephants. A larger section on the south side of the entrance depicts Cham warriors and apsara dancers.
The North Tower is the newest of the three towers at Chien Dan. Slightly larger than the South Tower, the North Tower has also sustained heavy damage in the 900 years since its construction, including the total collapse of its original roof and upper section.
Like the other two towers, the entryway has almost entirely crumbled away. The interior of the North Tower is completely empty, with only a small indent in the rear wall that may have once held a small idol. There is a modern wooden scaffolding that is supporting the remaining roof at the top of the sanctuary.
A small part of the Northern Tower’s western base retains decorative sandstone carvings – of dancing girls and musicians on lotus flowers. The majority of the sandstone base is gone.
Tháp Chiên Đàn Cham Towers in the Modern Era
Official excavations began at the Chien Dan site in 1989. During the digs, the bases of the three towers were cleared, revealing several carvings still in remarkable shape. Likewise, the digs yielded a number of additional artifacts, including sandstone statues, lintels, bas-reliefs, and other decorations that had once been on (or inside) the towers.
The Chien Dan Cham towers distinguish themselves from many of their counterparts by the relatively well-preserved state and the large number of artifacts found during excavations – enough to warrant building an onsite museum to house them.
Prior to the 1989 excavations, the bases of all three towers had been entirely buried, preserving the carvings and reliefs.
More importantly than the details of this individual tower group, these preserved carvings provided archaeologists with important insight into how the bases of other Cham towers would have been decorated.
In another round of excavations at the end of the 2000s, several other significant artifacts were uncovered, including a number of distinctive Cham sandstone sculptures. These included a Braman monk, several depicting gods (two male gods, a cross-legged male god, and a goddess sitting cross-legged), a musician, and the sea creature Makara.
What Is a Cham Tower?
Throughout their territory, The Cham people built numerous religious towers (known in Vietnamese as Tháp Chàm and in the Cham language as Kalan) for Hindu worship, most often of Shiva. These towers share a common origin and function with the better-known Khmer prang, both stemming from the religious towers built by the Funan people. Like these other structures, there is commonly a shiva lingam shrine found inside.
The evolution of Cham towers stems from Indian religious architecture and adapts many of their stylistic motifs, with the parts of the tower and designs found upon it representing different worldly and supernatural elements. Like Buddhist stupas and their Khmer prang counterparts, Cham towers were a symbolic representation of Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain representing the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.
Cham towers are built of an iconic red brick that, once put into place with a local organic resin, was able to hold the structures together entirely without mortar for centuries. Many towers are adorned with intricate carvings along their exteriors. These carvings are etched into the individual bricks themselves before they are placed onto the structures instead of carved onto the building after completion.
My Visit to the Chien Dan Cham Towers
Among the Cham Towers remaining in Vietnam, those at Chien Dan are some of the most distinctive, consisting of a full set of three towers dedicated to the Hindu Trimurti (Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva). And so, on my third trip through Vietnam to see the northern collection of Cham towers, the Chien Dan Towers were second on my list for the day, following a quick jaunt south of Tam Ky to the towers at Tháp Chăm Khương Mỹ.
The road to Chien Dan was a simple one to follow after leaving the early Cham ruins at Khuong My. A simple loop around the western outskirts of Tam Ky to the northern end of the city and I was once again on Highway Q1A heading north toward Da Nang.
A short while later, the featureless road gave way to a clearing on the left side. A torn sign in mixed English and Vietnamese welcomed visitors to the Chien Dan site and pointed the way into a smooth grey parking lot that was completely empty.
At the far end of the parking lot were arched gates leading into the main Chien Dan complex. The iconic three Cham towers were far in the distance. Unlike the previous ruins at Khuong My, there was nobody selling tickets during my visit. Although, other accounts I’ve read say tickets are 20,000 VND (~0.90 USD), the same price as at the Khuong My Cham Towers.
Entering through the open right gate, the area between the parking lot and the towers is dominated by the excavated brick foundations of ancient buildings. Although these were likely temples and auxiliary religious buildings related to the Cham towers themselves, there was no information at the site explaining them.
Chien Dan Museum
Located at the Chien Dan site just to the north of the ruins is a repository or small museum. This open-air building was used to store many of the important relics onsite rather than moving them to the Cham Sculpture Museum in Danang, where most of the archaeological finds from other nearby sites, including Khuong My, Dong Duong, and My Son, are kept.
Approaching the museum, several larger sculptures are on display outside. These include 2 gajasimha statues and a segmented lingam (symbolizing the three primary Hindu gods) standing within a yoni. Nearby is also a replica of the Chien Dan Inscription placed on a stone base.
The museum itself is only a small, single room housing a number of sandstone carvings found onsite. These carvings used to adorn the kalan towers and other religious buildings surrounding them.
Among these are carvings depicting Brahma (the Creator), the bull Nandi (mount of Shiva), Garuda (mount of Vishnu), and numerous carvings of humans praying, dancing, etc. In the center of the room are lotus-themed capstones that would have once been at the top of the kalan towers.
In all, the entire museum can be seen in only a few minutes.
The Chien Dan Kalan Towers
The restoration work done at Chien Dan was immediately noticeable after coming from Khuong My, which has not undergone any restoration. While the Khuong My towers look quite rough due to many centuries of erosion, particularly along their eastern sides that face the Pacific Ocean, the Chien Dan towers appear in much better condition.
Approaching the North Tower first, its damage compared to the other two towers was evident. The interior of the tower is completely empty. At the western wall is a niche made from removed bricks that looks like it once held a small idol for worship. Looking toward the ceiling of the tower, the entire roof structure is supported by a wooden platform.
Exiting the North Tower, the Central Tower had more of its original decoration, including a large segment of the sandstone base on the south side of the entrance. This segment of the base depicts apsara dancers on the right side and male warriors on the left side.
Unlike the North Tower (or the South Tower), the interior ceiling of the Central Tower is still entirely intact. Looking up from the inner sanctuary, the ceiling gradually narrows in a pyramidal fashion until there is only a small square letting sunlight in from the top.
Going inside the Central Tower, there are broken fragments of sandstone strewn about the sides of the inner chamber. However, none of these bear any of their original decoration (if any existed) and there is no clear indication as to what they were a part of.
The entrance to the Southern Tower is surrounded by two standalone sandstone carvings on its northern side and a largely intact part of the sandstone base on the south side.
Inside the Southern Tower is a broken carving of a figure in a lotus position (meditation) pose. However, the head has been broken off, making it unclear if this is a depiction of Shiva (more likely) or Buddha (possibly a more recent addition). However, immediately to the left of the carving is another carving of a bull figure (Nandi), indicating the center figure is indeed Shiva.
Around the other wall inside the sanctuary were other pieces of carved sandstone, similar to those in the Central Tower. However, none of these depicted the same detail as the meditating figure or the bull figure. Looking up, the ceiling of the South Tower is also supported by a wooden platform like the North Tower.
Leaving the South Tower, and looping around to the rear of the kalans, much more of the original decoration remains on these sides. Like the towers at Khoung My, the entrances of the Chien Dan towers face east toward the Vietnamese coast. This means that strong winds blowing in from the ocean would cause much more damage to the east (front) sides of the towers, while doing relatively little to their west-facing rear sides.
Finishing a loop around the towers, I had seen everything scattered around the small Chien Dan archaeology site. A short walk back toward the road where my motorbike was parked, and I was on my way to the most remote of the local Cham ruins: the Buddhist citadel at Dong Duong.
How to Get to Chien Dan Cham Towers
GPS Coordinates: 15.61609, 108.44259
The Thap Chien Dan Cham Towers are located on Highway QL1A 5km (3.1 miles) to the north of Tam Ky and are best reached by private transportation. However, Tam Ky is not much of a tourist town and many visitors will most likely be approaching from Hoi An (32 km away) or Danang (60 km) in the north.
The location of Chien Dan makes visiting the ruins a little tricky. On one hand, they are right on a major national road between two relatively large towns (Tam Ky and Da Nang), but the archaeology site is far enough out of Tam Ky that there’s no convenient way to get there.
While there are taxis and car hires in Tam Ky, they are much more widely available (and in English) in Danang and Hoi An, which both have a much more developed tourist infrastructure. A motorbike hire in Hoi An or Danang will cost about VND 150,000-300,000 (USD 7-14) per day, while a basic car is approximately VND 350,000-700,000 (USD 15-30) per day.
Tourist buses may also frequent the QL1A road, providing the opportunity to hop on and off – albeit infrequently. But many of these buses have since shifted their routes to the new divided Cao Tốc Đà Nẵng – Quảng Ngãi highway about 3 km to the west, limiting this option even more.
Alternatively, there are tours available which can also include nearby Cham ruins like the Khuong My towers, the Dong Duong citadel, or the more famous My Son Sanctuary.
Hindu creator god and member of the Trimurti.
Austronesian ethnic group native to Southeast Asia that once controlled the Hindu Champa civilization in the region of modern Vietnam. Today, the Cham people are a minority in Vietnam and largely practice Islam.
An Indianized Hindu kingdom in ancient Vietnam known for constructing Tháp Chàm, their iconic Cham Towers dedicated to Shiva and other Hindu deities.
Hindu monument built by the Cham people of ancient Vietnam.
A projected decorative rim surrounding an architectural feature, just as a corner, ceiling, or door, or where elements like these intersect.
A humanoid bird associated with the Hindu god Vishnu as his divine mount or vehicle.
A culture adopting Indian culture, religion, and social structures.
Austroasiatic ethnic group native to Southeast Asia and the majority inhabitants of the modern nation of Cambodia.
Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which ruled much of Southeast Asia from their capital at Angkor.
A domed pillar made of stone and representing a phallus, crafted to worship and symbolize the Hindu god, Shiva.
A mountain in southwestern Tibet considered the dwelling place of Shiva and associated with Mt. Meru in Hindu-Buddhist traditions.
The metaphysical mountain said to represent the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.
A bull associated with the Hindu god Shiva as his divine mount or vehicle.
A projecting vertical wall decoration or support that resembles a rectangular pillar but is built into the wall.
A Khmer Hindu tower representing Mount Meru and taking the form of a lotus bud. Thai architecture later adopted the design into their Buddhist temples.
Hindu destroyer god and member of the Trimurti.
Buddhist monument used to enshrine sacred relics or memorialize important figures. Its dome, bell, or otherwise tower-like appearance is an architectural representation of Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain said to represent the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.
Hindu preserver god and member of the Trimurti.
- Chien Dan Museum informational signs. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Quảng Nam (Vietnamese: Bộ Văn hóa, Thể thao và Du lịch, Quảng Nam). Quảng Nam, Vietnam.
- Ciccone, Timothy M. “Chien Dan Towers, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam.” Asian Historical Architecture, 2019, https://www.orientalarchitecture.com/sid/1357/vietnam/quang-nam-province/chien-dan-towers.
- Trân Kỳ Phuóńg. Cham Ruins: Journey in Search of an Ancient Civilization. GIOI Publ., 1993.
- Dulich24.com.vn. “Tháp Chiên Đàn: Du Lịch Tam KỲ.” Dulich24, Công Ty TNHH Dulich24 Việt Nam, 2013, http://dulich24.com.vn/du-lich-thanh-pho-tam-ky/thap-chien-dan-id-4449. (Translation)
- Williams, Benjamin. “Architecture Profile: Cham Towers, the Hindu Temples of Ancient Vietnam”. Paths Unwritten, 24 Mar. 2021, https://pathsunwritten.com/vietnam-cham-towers/.
- Williams, Benjamin. “Cultural Profile: Champa, Indianized Sea Traders of Ancient Vietnam”. Paths Unwritten, 28 Sep. 2020, https://pathsunwritten.com/vietnam-champa-culture/.