VietNamNet Bridge – Nha Trang’s sun, sand and sea lured me away from other inland attractions when I came to the central coastal city for my honeymoon a couple of years ago.
There are two lines of octagonal pillars on the second terrace of
the temple complex. At the other end lies a steep staircase
leading to the temple towers.
I had been fooled into thinking Nha Trang, the south central province of Khanh Hoa, was just a beautiful beach.
When I recently returned, I discovered the city has more to offer, noticeably the giant Po Nagar Temples complex.
Known as the city’s spiritual heart, this group of temples – just 4km from the municipal centre – is one of Nha Trang’s most treasured historical sites.
Built in the 8th century by the Cham people in the then Champa Kingdom by the Cham people, the site was classified as a Vietnamese national relic in 1979.
When the Vietnamese peopl move southwards to this area in the 17th century, they soon realised the Cham people’s worship of Lady Po Nagar was similar to their worship of the Mother Goddess. The temples soon became a place to worship both goddesses, and a symbol of ethnic integration.
I met Nguyen Tu Xuyen, a local guide and expert on the Po Nagar Temples. He took me to the second terrace of the temple complex which has two lines of five octagonal pillars. Outside of these are 12 smaller pillars, forming the remains of the main gate which leads to the main tower.
The main structure of the towers is square,
while the pyramid-shaped roofs are often three-tiered.
“This was the meditation hall where offerings and rites were prepared and performed prior to the main rituals at the temples,” said Xuyen.
Then Xuyen raised his hand, pointing upwards. I noticed that in front of the pillars, lies a steep staircase leading to the upper terrace where the main towers preside over the entire complex. Located on the Cu Lao Hill, the towers cast a protective eye over the city from their elevated peak.
“There were originally five towers, however one was completely destroyed leaving only four intact. Each tower has a pyramid-shaped interior and is dedicated to a different deity,” he continued.
At first, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what characteristic makes these towers so unusual. But a closer look reveals that the stacked brick towers don’t actually show typical brick joints, instead, the tower facades appear smooth and even.
“They were built without cement according to the Cham building techniques of precisely stacking bricks on top of each other. This effect was achieved as a result of the Cham people using high-quality bricks which were rubbed smooth during construction,” Xuyen said.
Sitting proudly the highest point, the tallest tower is approximately 25m high. From here, visitors can feast their eyes on the beautiful nearby sights of mountains, rivers, sky, sea and fishing villages.
Sculptor Xuan Hung puts the finishing touch to one of his pottery products.
A study by scholar Tran Ky Phuong found that the Po Nagar temples were one of the two major sanctuaries of the Champa courts, which also reflected the phenomena of the Champa cosmological dualist cult.
Phuong’s study Historic Champa States in Viet Nam: Champa Origins, Reconfirmed Nomenclatures, and Preservation of Sites celebrated the typical architecture style of the temples.
“Champa temple-towers were built according to the following pattern: the body of the tower is square, while the pyramid- shaped roof is of three levels with a sandstone ridge. The tower doors are open to the east and west.”
According to Ngo My Chau, head of the provincial Historical Sites Centre, the Po Nagar Temples complex received nearly 700,000 visitors in 2011 and another 570,000 in the first nine months of this year.
Today, visitors to the temples can experience first-hand the traditional dance and music of the Cham people. Tourists are given a taste of the hypnotic Cham dancing Apsara and music behind the tallest tower, which involves fans and ceramic pots. They also have the chance to witness the whole process of traditional brocade weaving andpottery making.
During my stay in Nha Trang, I came back to the Po Nagar Temple because it was the first day of the annual festival to honour the goddess Yan Po Nagar. People from all over southern central Viet Nam – both ethnic Cham and Kinh minority people – join together to worship the deity.
The four-day festival runs from the 20th day of the third month according to the lunar calendar, and features a diverse mix of traditional singing, dancing and worshipping ceremonies.
Each year about 70 delegations from all over the region attend the festival, bringing gifts of food, fruits and flowers to offer to the deity. These offerings continue throughout the three days of festivities.
The most anticipated part of the festival is the lantern ceremony which takes place on the evening of the first day. A mass procession parades from the main entrance of the temple to the banks of the Cai River below. Those in the parade are dressed in traditional costume and each carry two lanterns.
These lanterns are then released into the river, creating a moving tableau of candle-light which follows the flow of the river.
Roughly 7,000 lanterns are released next to the temple, which is also lit-up as the city descends into darkness.
Candles are released to pray for the spirits of the dead, including soldiers who died in battle and fishermen who lost their lives at sea.