Historical profile on the Cham Towers of Vietnam, ancient Hindu monuments built throughout the coastal domain of the maritime Champa Kingdom.
Name: Cham Towers
Culture: Champa Kingdom
Era: 700-1200s CE
Region: South and Central Vietnam
Description: The Cham Towers of Vietnam are elegant brick monuments placed primarily along the coastal plain of southern and central Vietnam.
Purpose: Cham Towers were erected by the ancient Champa nation to worship the Hindu gods.
A quick glance at Vietnam is not likely to turn up too many ancient sites for the casual tourist to see. Of course there is the historic citadel at Hue, modeled after China’s famous forbidden City and even a number of Vietnam War-era bunkers and bases to see. However, it seems to be lacking the truly ancient monuments that neighbors like Cambodia, China, and Thailand boast.
That is until you hear about the strangely obscure Cham Towers. These 1000+-year-old monuments that were made by a minority people to worship foreign gods. The Cham people built their civilization on the maritime trade routes and placed their temples accordingly. Now their ruins can be found on scattered hilltops along Vietnam’s southern coastline.
What Are the Cham Towers of Vietnam?
The Cham Towers in Vietnam are brick structures that were built between the 7th and 13th century CE by the religious Cham Kingdom as a place to honor and worship their gods. The Cham Kingdom land was annexed by the Vietnamese in 1832, but the brick towers still remain.
There are about 50 Cham towers remaining in Vietnam today. High concentrations of them can be found in Binh Dinh and Quảng Nam Provinces. These include several Cham Tower sites where Cham Hindus still practice their religion today.
Who Built the Cham Towers of Vietnam?
Main article: Cultural Profile: Champa, Indianized Sea Traders of Ancient Vietnam
The Cham Towers were built during the beginning of the first millennium, between the 4th and 13th centuries. This was a period when the legacy of the Kingdom of Champa was strong and prominent in the area.
The Kingdom of Champa
The Chams used the sea to their advantage and controlled the trade of silk and spices between China, India, Persia, and Indonesia. The Cham people originally travelled to Vietnam from India.
They were a powerful kingdom with strong Hindu beliefs adopted from India. That’s why most of the Cham towers were built to honor Hindu deities.
The people of Champa mixed Hindu beliefs with their own to create their own type of mixed religion. One such Cham belief is that the Cham people are descendants of a goddess named Po Nagar, known as Mother of the World. They believe she created the earth along with everything on it.
Champa was strongest between the 9th and 10th century CE. After that, there was a steady decline of the Champa culture as Vietnamese polities put them under pressure.
The Kingdom of Cham lasted over a thousand years, and Quy Nhon was its capital for over 500 years from the late 10th century until 1471, when it was overthrown by Vietnamese from the north. The area was later annexed by the Vietnamese Empire under Minh Mang in 1832.
There are fewer Cham Towers now than back then, as many of them were razed to the ground by enemies and some just deteriorated due to weathering.
Design Elements of the Cham Towers of Vietnam
Cham towers are built on square foundations and consist of a base, tower, and roof. For each tower, there are four doors, one facing in each direction. However, three of the four doors are false doors. The east door is believed to be facing the direction of the gods and is extended as a lobby. The east door would be opened to welcome the gods into the tower.
The Cham Towers are mostly built of red brick, which is why many of them still stand today. Many of the red bricks have decorative carvings in them, and mortar was not used to bind the bricks together.
Freestanding Sandstone Sculptures
Sandstone sculptures representing different Hindu and Buddhist deities can be found in the Cham Tower complexes.
The Cham people were extremely skilled in carving sandstone in “relief”. This is an art form that involves carving the sandstone while leaving enough of it to provide a background for the carved details to stand out.
The kalan is a brick sanctuary in the form of a tower that houses the shrine to the deities. The structure of the kalan represents a microcosm of the Hindu metaphysical realm, with the base of the tower representing the physical world, the tower’s body representing the heavenly realm, and the pyramidal design at the top representing Mount Meru.
This area has large columns on either side of the path. This area is the link between the outside world and the place of worship.
This building typically has a saddle-shaped roof. Kosagrha translates to “fire-house” and is a building used to house the belongings of the deity and to cook food for the deity.
The gopura is a gate-tower that serves as an entrance into the Cham Tower complex.
Origin and Purpose of the Cham Towers of Vietnam
Like their Khmer neighbors, the origin of Cham society and architecture stems from the China-India coastal trade routes that proliferated in the early 1st Millennium BCE. In large part, this is from the earlier Funan culture in the Mekong Delta. A handful of Funan monuments can still be found in the Mekong Delta and are hardly distinguishable from later Cham Towers to the casual observer.
The earliest Cham temples were built out of wood, but were destroyed presumably by warfare. Beginning in the 7th Century CE, The Cham people began to build the cores of their newer temples out of brick, the kalan or towers. Auxiliary buildings such as lodging, and the earlier versions of mandapas were still built out of wood. Eventually, these outer parts of the Cham temples also were constructed with brick.
The Cham Towers that remain in Vietnam today were built by the Cham people between the 7th and 13th century CE as a place to worship Hindu gods, primarily Shiva. Because of this, many common elements can be seen between these Cham temples, as well as echoed in their Khmer equivalents, including the lingam-yoni and statues of Shiva’s Mount, Nandi the bull.
Legacy of the Cham Towers of Vietnam
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the Cham Towers is their relative anonymity, particularly when compared to their counterparts in neighboring countries. Everyone in Southeast Asia knows the jungle temples at Angkor, the crumling stupas of Ayutthaya and Chiang Mai, and the vast plains of Bagan, but few hear about the ancient Hindu towers domineering over the southern Vietnamese coast.
The truth is that the Cham Towers are not promoted in Vietnam in the same way that other countries do with their similar ancient monuments. For instance, I had been in Southeast Asia for over three years actively seeking ruins in the region before I ever even heard of My Son, the most famous of the Champa ruins.
I think this is due in part to the ethnic history of the country. For centuries, the Chams and the Dai Viet (Vietnamese) ethnic groups and their respective kingdoms were warring over the territory. Seeing the name of the country, anyone can guess who won.
The Cham people were slowly integrated in to the greater Vietnamese population as their territory shrunk to a few small pockets. And while the Vietnamese government has placed these ancient Hindu temples under protection, they are not popularized in the same way as even the handful of historical Dai Viet sites found around the country.
The Cham Towers are magnificent buildings that are a reminder of cultures and kingdoms from almost 2000 years ago. Some Cham Tower sites are protected as historical landmarks. Work has been put in to restore and preserve many of the broken Towers and monuments.
These vestigial monuments reinforce the ancestral Hindu (and occasionally Buddhist) beliefs that have long held a presence in Vietnam and neighboring Southeast Asia as far back as the First Millennium CE. They also leave questions regarding the building methods used to erect them. With no evidence of mortar or any other substances between the bricks.
The only writings that have survived to this day are those on steles. These are pillars or slabs of stone that were used to host inscriptions that don’t degrade like wood, paper, or leaves.
Notable Examples of Cham Towers in Vietnam
Bang An Tower
Quảng Nam, Vietnam
GPS: 15.88471, 108.23352
This unique single tower outside of Hoi An has an octagonal body.
Po Nagar Temple
Khánh Hòa, Vietnam
GPS: 12.26532, 109.19579
This complex originally had seven or eight towers. Today, there are four remaining. This tower was constructed and used for worship by the Panduranga dynasty between the 7th and 12th centuries.
Tháp Bánh Ít
Bình Định, Vietnam
GPS: 13.86859, 109.13529
Tháp Khương Mỹ
Quảng Nam, Vietnam
GPS: 15.54799, 108.50578
Tháp Chiên Đàn
Quảng Nam, Vietnam
GPS: 15.61609, 108.44259
Bình Định, Vietnam
GPS: 13.78616, 109.21122
Located in the city of Quy Nhon, less than 1 mile away from the coastline. The taller of the two towers stretches 20 meters high, and the other is only slightly shorter at 18 meters (65 ft and 59 ft).
Tháp Dương Long
Bình Định, Vietnam
GPS: 13.92515, 108.99068
Tháp Phú Diên
Thừa Thiên Huế, Vietnam
GPS: 16.49567, 107.74621
Tháp Pô Klông Garai
Ninh Thuận, Vietnam
GPS: 11.60086, 108.9461
Tháp Po Sah Inư
Bình Thuận, Vietnam
GPS: 10.93501, 108.14663
Capital of the Khmer Empire, located near modern-day Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.
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.
Early period (6th-9th Centuries CE) of independent Khmer states before being united into the Khmer Empire by Jayavarman II.
Early mainland Southeast Asian culture (1st-6th Centuries CE) which grew along the Mekong Delta coast with influence from the China-India maritime trades routes. Funan was among the first regional cultures to adopt an Indianized society.
A culture adopting Indian culture, religion, and social structures.
Monotheistic offshoot of Judaism founded in the 7th Century CE and based on the teachings of Mohammad.
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.
Low-lying river delta making up much of southern Vietnam where the Mekong River meets the Pacific Ocean.
The world’s 12th longest river, which flows from the Himalayas through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, into the Pacific Ocean.
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 Khmer Hindu tower representing Mount Meru and taking the form of a lotus bud. Thai architecture later adopted the design into their Buddhist temples.
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.
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Hi Ben, I enjoyed reading this. In 1992 I spent a month bicycling in Vietnam and got to visit the My Son Cham ruins. I did not know there were so many other Cham towers in Vietnam until your article. Looking at your map, I must have bicycled near some of the others without realizing it. Thank you for your informative posts.
So many of them are hardly known about or promoted now, I can’t imagine how they must have been in the 90s. Other than My Son, I think Po Nagar is probably the best known, simply because of its location in the middle of the tourist town Nha Trang. I didn’t even hear of Po Nagar until I was already in the bus station to leave the city in 2014.
That said, while whoever manages the archaeological site doesn’t seem to promote them much, they seem to be doing a good job in preservation. Although the reconstruction of some of the individual monuments at My Son seemed a little haphazard, although I haven’t seen those end results yet.
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, Carla!