The Lost Kingdom of Champa

(Quang Nam, Binh Dinh, Nha Trang and Phan Rang), Vietnam

Champa, an ancient Indochinese kingdom lasting from the 2nd to the 17th century AD and extending over the central and southern coastal region of Vietnam from roughly the 18th parallel in the north to Point Ke Ga (Cape Varella) in the south. Established by the Cham, a people of Malayo-Polynesian stock and Indianized culture, Champa was finally absorbed by the Vietnamese, who in turn were strongly influenced by Cham culture.

Champa was formed in AD 192, during the breakup of the Han dynasty of China, when the Han official in charge of the region established his own kingdom around the area of the present city of Hue. Although the territory was at first inhabited mainly by wild tribes involved in incessant struggles with the Chinese colonies in Tonkin, it gradually came under Indian cultural influence, evolving into a decentralized country composed of four small states, named after regions of India—Amaravati (Quang Nam); Vijaya (Binh Dinh); Kauthara (Nha Trang); and Panduranga (Phan Rang)—whose populations remained concentrated in small coastal enclaves.

India shares a long history with South-East Asian countries like Vietnam and Cambodia. Vietnam, which was earlier known as Champa, actively traded with ports in the Indian subcontinent. Some of these ports were located in the ancient kingdom of Kalinga, which covered most of present-day Odisha and which played a crucial role in trade via the Bay of Bengal.

Thirty miles south of Da Nang city in Vietnam, the sanctuary of My Son, the oldest and most famous of the Cham sites. The Cham built it in a remote valley far out of harm’s way, and its complex of temples, begun long before Angkor in Cambodia, survived well into the 20th century.

In about AD 400 Champa was united under the rule of King Bhadravarman. In retaliation for Cham raids on their coast, the Chinese invaded Champa in 446, bringing the region under their suzerainty once again. Finally, under a new dynasty in the 6th century, Champa threw off its allegiance to China and entered into an era of great independent prosperity and artistic achievements.

The centre of the nation began to shift from north to south; around the middle of the 8th century Chinese sources cease to mention Lin-yi and begin to refer to the kingdom as Huan-wang, a Sinicization of the name of the northernmost province, Panduranga (Phan Rang). In the late 8th century the Chams were distracted by attacks from Java, but in the 9th century they renewed their pressure on the Chinese provinces to the north and the growing Khmer (Cambodian) Empire to the west. Under Indravarman II, who established the Indrapura dynasty (the sixth in Champan history) in 875, the capital of the country was moved back to the northern province of Amaravati (Quang Nam), near present Hue, and elaborate palaces and temples were constructed.

In the 10th century the Vietnamese kingdom of Dai Viet began to exert pressure on Champa, forcing it to relinquish Amaravati in 1000 and Vijaya in 1069. Harivarman IV, who in 1074 founded the ninth Cham dynasty, was able to stave off further Vietnamese and Cambodian attacks, but in 1145 the Khmers, under the aggressive leadership of Suryavarman II, invaded and conquered Champa.

Two years later a new Cham king, Jaya Harivarman I, arose and threw off Khmer rule, and his successor, in 1177, sacked the Cambodian capital at Angkor. Between 1190 and 1220 the Chams again came under Cambodian suzerainty, and later in the 13th century they were attacked by the Tran kings of Vietnam, as well as by the Mongols in 1284. By the late 15th century, incessant wars of aggression and defense had for all practical purposes wiped out the Champa kingdom; one by one their provinces were annexed until Champa was entirely absorbed in the 17th century.

Its end marked the demise of the only culture of mainland Asia with Oceanian features. Cham painting is known only from the inscriptions on the temples. Cham sculptors, under the influence of Indian Gupta art, evolved a very personal style, characterized by forms springing with wild energy. Architecture generally was confined to tiered brick towers.

The shrine of Shiva at My-Son, constructed by Bhadravarman, was worshipped by all the natives of Champa. The linga form, which was a common form of worship at Champa too, was placed in a temple at My-Son, a site which became the centre of a group of temples.

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), while conducting conservation work at the Cham Temple Complex in My Son, discovered a monolithic sandstone Shiva Linga belonging to the 9th century CE.

Then came the Vietnam War and B-52 bombers that had no trouble visiting remote valleys. My Son had become a hideout for Viet Cong, and in 1969, the central temples in each group — including most of the masterworks of the Cham culture — were destroyed.

There are three important groups of temples in Champa – My-Son, Po-Nagar and Dong-Duong. While My-Son and Po-Nagar are Shaivite centres, Dong-Duong is Buddhist in character.

The Brahmanic religion greatly flourished in the Champa Kingdom,with the worship of Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, the latter being the presiding deity in Champa. He was known and worshipped under various names.

Many believe that the Vietnamese traditional dress áo dài was based on Cham fashion, but in reality, it was Nguyễn dynasty that imposed their áo dài onto Cham ethnic groups, creating the modern-day Cham traditional dress aw kamei.