Story: Dr.Tran Tan Vinh
Photos: Tran Tan Vinh, Ngo Thi Thu Ba and documentary photos courtesy of the Quang Nam Museum

Vietnam’s central province of Quang Nam is considered the cradle of Champa Culture. Champa relics include the ancient capital Simhapura, the My Son Holy Sanctuary, Dong Duong Buddhist Monastery, Bang An Cham Tower, Chien Dan Cham Tower Compound and dozens of vestiges strewn all over this province.

Of the 92 artifacts registered as national treasures by the Prime Minister, eight trace their roots to Quang Nam. These artifacts have been preserved and displayed at the Danang Cham Museum, National Museum of History and Ho Chi Minh City Historical Museum. Two national treasures are stored in Quang Nam: the Ekamukhalingam is in the Display Hall of the My Son Sanctuary, and the Siva Head Statue of Phu Long is in the Quang Nam Museum.

Sacred lingams

Cults of aniconic symbols arose in many cultures worldwide. Hindu lingam and yoni symbols are among the liveliest representations of aniconic cults. While the lingam represents the masculine nature and virility of the God Siva, yoni represents the feminine nature and the power of the God Siva. In Cham temple towers, these lingam symbols stand in key places. The most common form combines lingam – yoni symbols with the yoni placed underneath as a supporting pedestal with grooves all around it and the lingam above as a cylindrical block. Single lingams (without accompanying yonis) vary in size. Some are gigantic, such as Bang An Tower, while others are mobile and have diameters between 30 and 40cm. They are usually placed in a fixed place in a tower compound where religious rituals are hosted.

The ancient Cham used metals like silver or gold to create an outer metal cover, called a kosa, to wrap around the finial of the lingams. Kosa are mentioned in the Mahabharata Epic and defined as “a cover or dispenser of a precious asset”. The most unique characteristics of lingam symbols in the Saivite school are carvings of the face of the God Siva, collectively known as mukhalingam. A mukhalingam can bear one or multiple faces of Siva. A Trimukhalingam bears three faces; a Chaturamukhalingam has four faces; and a  Panchamukhalingam has five faces, etc. The linga excavated in My Son is called Ekamukhalingam because it bears one face of Siva.

These were the most valuable and important offerings in the temple towers that Champa rulers dedicated to the God Siva. During solemn ceremonies, the kosa would be opened to perform a ritual bathing. It was believed that creating a precious kosa to wrap around the lingam would bolster a monarch’s ability to protect the kingdom and preserve the monarchy from disasters.

During times of upheaval, the kosa-lingams were stolen from the temple towers, displaced, destroyed, or seized by antique collectors. Some have been put on auction overseas. Some famous museums around the world, including the Guimet National Museum of Asian Arts (Le Guimet) in Paris (France); the East Asian Arts Museum in Berlin (Germany); and the Asian Civilization Museum in Singapore house some examples.

Two national treasures in Quang Nam

The Siva Head Statue of Phu Long: Vietnam boasts two unique gold (or gold alloy) Siva statue heads that trace their roots to the lingam-kosas of Champa. The first Siva head statue was discovered in the early 20th century in Huong Dinh (Phan Thiet, Binh Thuan) and is now stored in the Vietnam National Museum of History. The second head was discovered by Mr. Nguyen Van Nong in Phu Long (Dai Loc, Quang Nam) in 1997 and is on display in the Quang Nam Museum. The Siva Head Statue of Phu Long is 24cm high and 11.7cm wide with a diameter of 11cm and thickness of 1mm. It weighs 0.58kg. The hairdo of the God Siva depicts tiny plaits kneaded into a turban (jata) with three tightened lengthwise braids. His cap of hair was separated into four apexes that stretch down backwards. Siva’s forehead features a strong hairline and parallel lines of braids. The god’s head leans forward with a high neck. The end of his neck flares, creating a broad loop on which there are four rectangular holes, perhaps to attach the statue’s head to a kosa. Siva’s two eyes are of button shape and in the middle of his forehead lies the third eye. All three eyes show well-crafted eyeballs and pupils. His two thin eyebrows meet in the middle. His nose is straight and high. A smile is planted on the god’s thin lips and his earlobes are long.

My Son Ekamukhalingam: In 2012, a staff member at the My Son Sanctuary found an intact Mukhalingam symbol in Area E near towers E8 and E9 during an erosion survey. The statue was carved out of a yellow-brown sandstone block with big coherent grains. The stone boasts bizarre and beautiful ridges. The Mukhalingam measures 126.5cm high, 41.5cm wide and 41.5cm thick and comprises three round, octagonal and square parts that look identical and of the same height. The round part features a carved head rising above the main part and measuring 21.5cm high and 13.5cm wide. It has a turban of 5.5cm high, a straight and broad forehead, a refined face, curving and protruding eyebrows, benevolent eyes gazing downward, a straight nose, a moustache, two symmetric pouting lips, a cleft chin, upper ears level with the eyebrows, saggy earlobes at chin height and a craning neck connected to the standing edges of the lingam. Carved out of a monolithic sandstone block with a symmetrical shape and structure, this Siva statue is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.

While the Siva Head Statue of Phu Long and the My Son Ekamukhalingam have been declared “national treasures”, Quang Nam boasts many more important sites and relics. These artifacts  help visitors and locals to appreciate the legacy of the ancient Champa culture as they explore the Heritage Route of the Cham people in Central Vietnam.