Prof. Dr. Trinh Sinh

Magnificent carvings of dancers and goddesses evoke the magic of Champa dances

Champa kingdoms bequesthed their rich heritages well along the Center of our country. Their temples were boastfully carved on the skies. One of their temple complexes is now a world heritage – My Son. Another heritage that offers historians a glimpse through historical accounts is dances and orchestras. It’s not a coincidence that Champa dances and chants once accompanied a Lam Ap monk to get adopted in Japan. A Japanese historical record denoted that monk Phat Triet from Lam Ap promoted the elegant court music, Bodhi ddance and Bat Dau dance to Japan in the 8th century.

Statue of the Goddess Srasvati, Chanh Lo, Quang Ngai - 12th century

The kingdoms of Champa bequeathed their rich heritage to Central Vietnam. Their temples were skillfully
built to reach into the sky. The My Son temple complex is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. But Champa’s dances and music are an equally impressive legacy.

According to Japanese accounts, in the 8th century the monk Phat Triet from Lam Ap introduced elegant court music, the Bodhi dance and the Bat Dau dance to Japan, where these Champa arts were appreciated and adopted.

Some time later, Champa dances and chants followed the “courtesans of the Hundred Maids Palace” to the capital of the Dai Viet (at the time in Hoa Lu, Ninh Binh) after the victory of Emperor Le Dai Hanh in 982.
The Complete Annals of the Dai Viet’s History noted that in 1044, Emperor Ly Thai Tong led his troops into
Kandapurpura, the capital of Champa. Upon his return he brought court maids who excelled in “Heavenly West (an old reference to India) dances and tunes”. The influences of Champa dances and chants on Vietnamese culture may stem from this era. Many music researchers feel thatBac Ninh’s quan họ singing was somehow influenced by the melodies, scales and majors of Champa folk songs. Decorative patterns in pagodas and towers made during the Ly and Tran dynasties such as on the marble pedestal of Phat Tich Pagoda, the foundation bricks of the tower in the Royal Citadel, and in Thai Lac Pagoda feature carvings
of dancers and orchestras of typical Champa style.

Dancers. Mam Tower, Binh Dinh 13th century

Today, we can guess at the magic of Champa dances through stone carvings of Champa dancers. The portrayals of ancient Champa women are divine, as in the carving of the Goddess Uma on Mam Tower, Binh Dinh, made in the 13th or 14th centuries. The goddess wears a high cap, earrings and bead bracelets, while her slender waist and breasts are left bare. Her rapturous four hands seem to sway gracefully. A statue of the Goddess Srasvati found in Chanh Lo, Quang Ngai dates back to the 12th century and depicts a lovely stance: her hands approach her hips and her feet are pointed outwards. It seems all her physical weight is supported on her toes, giving the statue a lively gait. Her curvaceous arms and legs have soft curves. The natural beauty of Champa women is apparent from the statues’ full busts, slim waists and curved hips. Thanks to the sculptors’ talent, senseless stone is transformed into a young woman in motion. Champa stone carvers gave the goddess a multilayered cap, tasselled earrings, bracelets, etc. Her figure-hugging dress was also carved with four pointed stars.

The marble pedestal of Phat Tich Pagoda

As well as statues of dancing goddesses, there are statues of dancers called Apsaras. According to myth,
Apsaras were fairies living in the paradise of the God Indra. They were the embodiment of beauty and dancing talent. Champa stone carvings depict a huge orchestra of accompanying musicians and dancing Apsaras like the royal one carved in My Son during the 11th century. Dancers had full bosoms and wore caps and dresses with a frontal flap, their feet pointed upwards. Their hands are shown raised over their heads or one hand held overhead and the other laid on their chest. Musical instruments shown in the orchestras include Sanarai horns, Ghinang drums and cymbals. A set of seamless dancers on a carving in Quy Nhon that dates back to the 11th or 12th century perform beautiful hand gestures: their left hands are raised and their right hands laid on their bosoms. Their two hands are juxtaposed to create a full soft circle. Their feet are pointed outwards, with one foot raised in a prancing stance.

Perhaps a pair of Apsara statues in Tra Kieu from the 7th to 8th century best capture the beauty of Tra
Kieu women over a millennium ago. The two statues are identical. The left hand of one is broken and the other is intact. The sculptors succeeded in portraying typical Champa beauties with wide noses and thick lips. The women are curvaceous but not chubby. Their outward pointing legs are decorated with equidistant swathes of ribbons that hug their thighs, hips and bellies. Around their necks are three necklaces. It seems three was a divine number in Champa: they have three bracelets and three circles on their hats. Under their bracelets and decorative dresses lie bare flesh deliberately revealed by the sculptors. Apsara statues are typically associated with slim waists and graceful gestures. There are thousands of Apsara statues in countries influenced by ancient India, but few can rival the Tra Kieu maidens in terms of their beauty and vitality.

Statue of the Goddess Srasvati, Chanh Lo, Quang Ngai 12nd century

Some statues of Champa dancers depicted outside a royal orchestra are also exquisite. One example are
the 13th century Apsaras on Mam Tower in Binh Dinh. They wear tube-shaped jewelry on their wrists, arms
and ankles. Their prancing feet turn outwards and are perhaps the most unique feature of Champa dances.
These multiple-handed dancers were also found carved on decorative Bodhi leaves.

Champa artisans created many imposing temple towers using only terracotta bricks. Their magnificent
towers adorn the blue skies of Central Vietnam. These ancient artisans carved their dancer statues in
sandstone, which is easy to carve and boasts a rough texture and grey color that complements the red
terracotta bricks. Is it just by luck that some of these sandstone sculptures have survived? Statues of Champa dancers have held countless generations in awe of their eternal beauty.