Under the Panduranga dynasty, the Cham built temples and towers on Cu Lao hill in Kauthara, to worship Goddess Ponagar, Mother of the land of the Cham people, commonly known as Ponagar Tower. The relic dates from the 8th century to the 13th century. The temple tower area has a particularly important position in the religious and spiritual life of the Cham people. Each work contains the artistic quintessence of Cham culture. With typical historical, cultural, scientific and artistic values, in 1979, Ponagar Tower relic was ranked as a national relic.
Ponagar Tower in Vinh Phuoc ward, Nha Trang city, is a large architectural complex and is distributed on 3 planes: Gate Tower, Mandapa and temple tower area. Due to historical fluctuations, at present, there are 5 architectural works left in two ares: Mandapa and Tower temple.
Mandapa area: there are four rows of big pillars built of fired bricks, including 10 large pillars inside and 12 small octagonal pillars outside. Through research, scientists believe that this is an open-walled and roofed architecture with lightweight materials, because on each big pillar, corresponding to the height of the small pillar, there are “mortises”. Over time, there is now no trace of Mandapa’s roof. The researchers think that this may be the place where the devotees prepared the offerings before going to the temples.
In order to go up to the temples to worship, the devotees had to follow very steep steps. Over time, this path has been eroded, making it more difficult to walk, so the ancients opened a side road, following the hillside to the tower. This new road is less steep, easy to travel with split stone steps.
In the past, in the east of Mandapa, there were two small pillars, lower than the foundation, on both sides of the steps up and down Mandapa (which no longer exist). When renovating the relic, they discovered the steps leading up to Mandapa and to the previous main gate of the relic, which are the source of evidence contributing to affirming Ponagar’s theological axis: Gate - Mandapa - steps leading to the temple tower - Main tower.
Mandapa architecture dates back to the 11th century.
- Temple tower area
According to historical books and field survey results, this temple complex has a total of six temples. In addition to the four existing temples, there are two temples in the back area, but now only the foundation of the old towers remain. The Cham people call the tower Kalan, which is translated into Vietnamese as temple or tower.
The Cham towers here are built according to the square plan. Each tower has four doors in four directions: east, west, south and north. The three doors in the three directions west, south and north are just fake doorways. Particularly the east door is opened and stretched like a vestibule.
Main Tower is about 23m high. According to the researchers, the Main Tower was first built in the years 813 - 817 and through the events of history, the tower was rebuilt around the middle of the 11th century.
The body of the tower is decorated with 5 rows of vertical pillars. The four corners of the roof have four small towers with three roofs gradually shrinking upwards. The roof system of the tower is likened to Mount Meru, the abode of the gods, with five mountains with the highest peak in the middle. The roof system is decorated with mascots such as elephants, geese, goats...
On the stone pillars at the door are steles engraved with Sancrit and ancient Cham characters recording the construction of the tower and the offering of offerings by the Cham kings, lords and royal families to the Goddess and the Goddess' blessing to the people. .
On the arch of the door is a leaf-shaped stone bas-relief depicting the god Shiva with four dancing arms, two flute musicians on either side, Shiva’s right foot resting on the back of the god bull Nandin. The bas-relief is dated to the 11th century and is one of the most beautiful bas-reliefs of Champa culture still preserved in Vietnam.
On the stone pillars at the door are inscriptions engraved with Sancrit and ancient Cham characters, recording the construction of temples and towers and the offerings of Cham kings, lords and royal families to the Goddess and the Goddess’ blessing for her all peoples.
A quote of an inscription: Goddess of Kauthara, whose body glowed with beauty and excellent robes of gold, whose face shone as radiant and beautiful as a lotus flower and whose cheeks were radiant with the light of precious pearls, has always blessed all who knelt before her to pray.
Inside the tower is a square shrine, in the middle is a statue of Goddess Ponagar. According to the inscription, in 918 the worshiping statue was carved in gold, but in 950 the statue was robbed by the Khmer army. Fifteen years later, in 965, King Sri Jaya Indravaman had the stone statue rebuilt as it is today, and the Cham people continued to worship the Goddess. At the beginning of the 20th century, the statue's head and 2 hands were lost. Now the head of the statue has been restored, painted in red and gold and dressed in robes. On both sides are the altars of Aunt and Uncle.
In the tower, on each fake doorway there are small triangles carved deep into the wall. This is the place where the temple’s oil lamps are located.
The tower is 18m high, having the second largest scale in the entire architecture in the Ponagar temple complex. The tower has a relatively strange roof in the architectural complex of Ponagar Tower. The base and body of the tower are still built according to the traditional Cham tower motif, but the roof is reduced to one spire, extending upwards, with a linga pillar at the top. The tower dates back to the 13th century.
This is the place of worship of God Shiva. According to Vietnamese legend, this is called Sir Tower, worshiping the husband of Thien Y A Na Goddess.
The tower is of the smallest size, 7.1m high, with a saddle-shaped curved roof. This may be a sub-architecture in this architectural complex and belongs to the late type, around the 11th - 12th centuries. The tower worships the god Skandha - the son of Shiva, who is the symbol of strength and war. According to Vietnamese’s legend, the tower worships Mr and Mrs Tieu, who are the adoptive parents of Thien Y A Na Goddess.
The tower is 9m high, the only tower that is still quite intact in terms of architecture and decoration. On each fake door, there are decorative patterns of mascots, delicately carved on the background of fired bricks. On the southern false door is the image of the god bird Garuda; on the northern false door is the image of Kala - the god of time; on the western false door is the image of the goddess riding an elephant. The tower has only one floor and the roof is curved simulating the shape of a boat; the gable is decorated with motifs of pointed leaves, bending inward, revealing the two foreheads carved with a god sitting under the canopy of the heads of Nagar snakes. This is the tower to worship Ganesha - the symbol of luck, wisdom and happiness. According to Vietnamese’s legend, the tower worships Aunt and Uncle (children of Thien Y An Na Goddess).
According to inscriptions and archeology, the tower is dated to 817 but has been restored many times, so the last date is around the 13th century.
The mascots worshiped in the Cham temples are Linga and Yoni (one of the symbols of worshiping Shiva). Linga and Yoni are symbols wishing for people and things to always multiply, flourish and develop so that life is always full of food, happy, and reunited.
Behind the main tower is a stele written, compiled and engraved by Phan Thanh Gian - an official of the “Bo Le” (equivalent to current Ministries of Information – Communication, Culture-Sports-Tourism, Eduaction-Training and Foreign Affairs - translator) under the Nguyen Dynasty in 1856, in Han-Nom script talking about the legend of Thien Y A Na Goddess of Vietnamese people.
The second stele was established by 8 mandarins of Khanh Hoa and Binh Thuan provinces in 1871.
The third stele tells the legend of Thien Y A Na Goddess.
The fourth stele introduces the Ponagar Tower relic.
Since 1653, the coexistence and harmony of the Vietnamese with the Cham and other ethnic groups in the area has marked the formation and development of the Vietnamese belief in worshiping Goddesses and Mother Goddesses. Indigenous beliefs of worshiping the Mother of the Cham people have been taken over by the Vietnamese and Vietnameseized to become the Vietnamese belief to worship Thien Y An Na. Her image, worshiping her have crystallized into literature, folk art, and people’s spiritual and religious life deeply and widely. In just over 3 centuries, this belief has developed widely, covering the entire spiritual life of Vietnamese people. The spread of the belief of worshiping Thien Y A Na is very extensive, present in the daily life of the people of Khanh Hoa today.
In folklore, Thien Y A Na Goddess not only exists, is handed down in the people’s mind, but also spreads and affects the daily life and livelihood of the people. The Nguyen kings repeatedly ordained Thien Y Goddess at Ponagar Tower, in temples, as the Upper God with the name Thien Y A Na Dien Ngoc Phi. In addition to the system of shrines to worship Thien Y A Na, in the communal houses and pagodas, people also worship her and consider her as the blessed deity of the land of Frankincense.
For many years now, the technique of building Cham temples and the method of making bricks to build temples has been interested by many people. The construction technique of Cham towers is very unique. The characteristics of tower bricks are porous, light, soft, easy to shape and waterproof, so there is almost no moss-clinging phenomenon; but the bricks are only worn down over time, exposing the black core. Meanwhile, the bricks we use for restoration are heavier, more permeable and retain water. So the question “How did the Cham people produce bricks to build towers?” is an open question.
How were Cham towers built? This is also a question that makes Champa culture researchers diligently research and experiment. There is an opinion that the ancient Cham people piled the bricks to make the tower, then fired to ripen the bricks and stick them together. This opinion is not shared by many people. Because according to research, the towers have very thick walls, from one to two meters thick, but the firing temperature of the bricks is quite uniform. Therefore, scientists believe that the ancient Cham people burned bricks, then built temples and towers, then carved patterns on the bricks.
They recognised that there is still a very thin adhesive layer between the bricks to build the Cham tower. Polish experts, after analyzing the mechanical, chemical composition, mineral composition, said that bricks were fired before building the tower, the material obtained between the two bricks was still attached, unlike the brick substance. So what is that binder? That has made domestic and foreign scholars studying Cham temples and towers busy looking for answers. Finding out from the descendants of the Cham people does not have a satisfactory answer because they also do not remember how their ancestors built temples and towers. Right from the beginning of the twentieth century, H. Parmentier said that the Cham people built towers with a type of vegetable binder with very thin construction link like gluing bricks together. Through research, analysis and experimentation, today scientists think that maybe in the past, the Cham people used resins of plants which were available in this land, such as lauraceae trees or Dipterocarpus alatus trees to bind bricks to build temples and towers (the trees found in Central and Highlands, still used today in daily life such as plastering boats and baskets...), or could use Molasses mixed with crushed cactus juice to create a binder .
So far, despite many different explanations, the method of brick production, brick material, bonding agent, and construction technique of Cham towers is still a mystery that attracts researchers and architects, domestic and foreign tourists.
The architectural works here have existed for more than a thousand years and have been affected by many natural and human influences and wars. From the beginning of the twentieth century to the present, Ponagar Tower has undergone a number of restoration. The first time the French repaired it in the 30s of the twentieth century. The most obvious mark of this restoration is the cement tiled places. After that, in the 90s of the twentieth century, we continued to repair to preserve the ancient towers. The most recent renovation was in 2010 at the South tower.
Relics are always interested by people in preserving and promoting the value of tangible and intangible cultural heritage, becoming the center of Goddess religious activities of the people in the South Central region and the Central Highlands. The Ponagar Tower Festival takes place from the 20th to the 23rd day of the third lunar month with many pilgrims coming to attend the ceremony. Ponagar Tower Festival and was recognized as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2012.
Ponagar Tower relic site in Nha Trang is the convergence of the traditional values of the Vietnamese-Cham exchange process in history, a symbol of national unity, contributing to the cohesive elements of the community of Vietnamese ethnic groups today and is alos an indispensable destination of every visitor when they come to Nha Trang - Khanh Hoa.