The ancient kingdom of Champa existed on Vietnam’s central coast between the 2nd and 15th centuries. Due to its crucial position on the maritime silk road, Champa enjoyed trade and cultural ties with distant lands. Champa’s culture was profoundly shaped by cultural influences from India.
Hinduism was adopted into Champa quite early. In its home country, Hinduism was dedicated to the Unified Three Gods, which held supreme power, namely Brahma (Creation God), Vishnu (Maintenance God) and Shiva (Destruction God). However, as time went by, Hinduism was transformed and assimilated into the vernacular culture of the Chams, shaping a religion exclusively dedicated to Shiva, known as Shivaism. The Chams likened Shiva to the King of the Chams. They made many limages of Shiva, particularly in stone sculptures.
According to Hindu legends, the primitive embodiment of Shiva was the Linga flame pillar (male genitals, symbolising Yang elements). As a result, Shiva was symbolised into the Linga – the pillar of the universe worshipped in temples. The Linga was usually coupled with a Yoni (female genitals, symbolising Yin elements) to form the Linga – Yoni symmetry to express the creation power of Shiva. The Chams made many diverse Linga – Yoni sculptures, including ones in large sizes
Shiva was also portrayed in humanised forms of various shapes and roles. The predominating form was that of Nataraja (King of Dances). This form is an expression of the absolute prowess and perfection of Shiva. Hindu believe that at the end of each universal cycle, Shiva performs his divine dances to destroy the old depleted universe in preparation for the creation of a new universe. Two popular forms of Nataraja dances are Tandava – Vigorous Dance for violence coupled with destruction and Laysia – Tender Dance for rebirth and procreation. Laysia is performed after Tandava, with corresponding dances by Shiva’s spouse, the Goddess Parvati.
In Indian sculpture, Shiva Nataraja was usually portrayed in bronze in round statue forms, with relatively consistent expressions. Shiva performs his dances within a flame circle, a symbol of the universe His right foot treads above the Dwarf Demon Apasmara, a symbol of Shiva’s victory over fallibility, foolishness and ignorance. His left foot is raised to the left to maintain balance. He has four hands: the rear right hand holds the Damaru Drum, which symbolises creation. His rear left hand holds the flame to symbolise destruction. His front right hand makes a mudra, to express overcoming fears. His front left hand is left open, crossed to the right and facing downward to denote emancipation. In general, Tandava is a dance that sums up Shiva’s operations of the universe to embark on a new cycle: Creation -Maintenance – Destruction.
In Champa culture, likenesses of Shiva Nataraja were usually depicted on sandstone as reliefs or bas-reliefs and placed as decorations on the pediments of Champa temples. Unlike the fierce and violent depictions of Indian arts, Champa images of Shiva Nataraja performing the Tandava dance were portrayed in a gentle and flexible manner. The foot movements were quite soft. Shiva’s hair was braided in the three-layer Jaka – Mukuta style or braided in the crown Kirita – Mukuta rather than hanging loose like Shiva Nataraka statues in India.
Champa statues of Shiva Nataraja featured diverse facial expressions. Shiva was rarely depicted alone, but was usually accompanied by other performing musicians and watched by other deities. Statuettes made between the 8th and 10th centuries and exhumed in Quang Tri, Quang Nam are uniquely realistic. Shiva was portrayed with typical genetic characteristics of the Cham. In contrast, artefacts dating from the 11th to 13th century found in Mam Tower, Binh Dinh are noticeable for their magnificence, with a strong focus on meticulous decorative details that suggests cultural exchanges with the Khmer.
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The most forceful evidence of the diversity of depictions of Champa’s Shiva Nataraja lies in the god’s number of arms and hand movements. Shiva was depicted having four, six or eight arms, except for some cases with up to 10,16 or 28 arms. Regardless of the number, his hands were always depicted as moving in a circle, which embodies the eternal cycle of the universe. The most popular form was the mudra coupled with arms holding belongings, in which the two upper arms were always raised above his head and the remaining two hands made Uttarabodhi mudra to symbolise enlightenment. Other hands might hold belongings. These belongings differed depending on origin and stage. Sometimes, Shiva held a trident, symbolising Creation – Maintenance – Destruction and a sword to symbolise emancipation. Sometimes, he held a variety of belongings such as a lotus, rosary, Naga snake, Parashu axe or Damaru drum. Sculptures of Shiva reveal that this god dominated the spiritual life of the Chams.
By Huu Vy