Dancing Shiva-Stone Sculptures

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.

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Statue of Shiva shed light on the culture, arts and history of Champa

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.

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The Kingdom of Champa was heavily influenced by the culture of 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.

Interested in Cham religious festival?

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

The Kate Festival – A Celebration of Cham

On a hot September morning, we find ourselves in the shadow of Po Rome, one of the many Cham towers that dot Vietnam’s central coastline. The eight-meter brick tower located on a hill outside the town of Phan Rang was built in the 17th century in honor of a wise Champa king but today, it’s the epicentre of the Kate Festival (pronounced “kah-tay”), one of the most important Cham religious festivals of the year. One of Vietnam’s 54 minority groups, the seafaring ancestors of the Cham people most likely migrated from Borneo sometime during the second century AD.

It’s early yet, but bamboo mats cover almost all the space around the tower and spill onto what little grass there is. There are offerings including fruits, rice and meat which are laid carefully
Just as it looks like there cannot possibly be room for another family, someone slides over and another mat is put down.

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Kate is primarily a religious ceremony in which local deities are worshipped, including a ritual changing of their godly-clothing. This happens within a small area within the tower itself, but only a select few, mainly the Brahmanist-influenced priests of the Cham people, are allowed entry.
While Kate is said to have traditionally lasted a full month, it is now usually condensed to just three days. Yesterday, the first day of Kate, we rose with the chickens to join the colorful procession of white-clad priests, Cham laymen and curious onlookers, all heading towards the local soccer stadium repurposed for the opening ceremonies, umbrellas providing meagre shade against the blazing sun. Even at this early hour, the bleachers are filled with spectators, so the crowd forms a human wall surrounding the young men and women from the villages performing traditional dances accompanied by folk music.

“Cham people live all over Vietnam, but even if we’ve been away 10, 20, 30 years, we have to come back for Kate,” says Hung, a third year agriculture student who’s returned from Saigon especially for the event. Young Cham typically leave the village for bigger cities because there are no universities nearby. After graduation, they often join other Cham adults in urban centres where work opportunities are more plentiful, meaning that mostly the very young and very old are left in the villages, putting the Cham way of life in danger of disappearing.
It’s for this reason that the Kate Festival has so much meaning, because it showcases many of the religious, cultural, linguistic and traditional elements of Cham society.

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Acclaimed Cham poet Inrasara, however, is fearful that without preservation efforts, these elements may soon be gone forever. “What’s been lost the most is related to our culture and language. Language is living. Spoken language can be lost very quickly. I’m afraid that the younger generation will not treasure this part of our culture…. I know that once the doors have been opened, they cannot be closed, but while we have to accept the new, we can’t lose ourselves in the process.”

The priests at Kate are decked mainly in white, highlighted with beautifully woven scarves and detailing, with threads of red, silver and gold. Inrahani, a master Cham weaver, explains: “ The colors and patterns are used to show hierarchy’. It’s worn by our priests who talk to God. It’s worn by our mothers and fathers when they pass on. So how can it die?” she asks of the importance of this ancient art. “We still have the [Cham] towers which are historical artefacts. I also want to make sure our culture survives – our food, our arts, our way of life.

“That’s the story for so many ethnic minorities,” says Jake Orak, founder of a bag company called Ethnotek, which partners with Inrahani to include Cham textiles in some of its designs. “They’re either being pushed out or put on display. Ethnocide faces the biggest threat when there’s no support. It’s really important for us to restore demand, to bring business to these places where the people are trying to get by on agriculture or by conforming.”

Even the Kate Festival itself is under pressure to conform often re-packaged as a “Cham New Year” to better sell to tourists, obscuring the true religious and cultural nature of this meaningful festival. However, those able to participate in this peaceful, colourful event should consider themselves fortunate that they’re able to witness centuries-old traditions of one of Vietnam’s minorities.

This year, the Kate Festival will be held from October 13-15 in the small town of Huu Duc, just a few kilometres outside of the coastal city of Phan Rang.