The Cham Towers of Thap Doi

On the way back to Quy Nhon town from Banh It, we stopped off a second Cham temple complex, this one located in a tidy, green park within the city of Quy Nhon itself. The so-called ‘twin towers’ of Thap Doi do not have the glorious location of Banh It, being located on low-lying land about three kilometres from downtown Quy Nhon, but the architecture is impressive enough in its own right to justify a visit here. The garden parkland setting with its lush lawns, palm trees and tropical shrubs also adds considerably to the appeal.

These twin towers are unusual in that Cham towers are not normally found together in even numbers. They are also odd in how close they are to each other: for such sizable brick monuments (they two towers are each around 20 metres tall) they appear to be sitting right on top of each other. The other unusual thing about these Cham towers is their roofs. Unlike the terraced or tiered roofs which are normally associated with Cham towers, these ones have a steeply sloping pyramidal roof.

Thap Doi
Thap Doi towers, in their parkland setting

These roofs are mostly made of red brick but traces of pale, white sandstone are also visible. This stone was used for ornamental decorations on the roof. The most impressive of these are the garudasa kind of Hindu mythological bird, which was the vehicle of the god Vishnu. The garudas are mostly located on the corners of the roof, and the birds appear to be peering down at visitors to the temple. With their exaggerated beaks and powerful , they are easily the most captivating sculptural detail, and yet more proof of the outstanding artistic talents of the ancient Cham. The outside of the temple also features stylized columns, a false door and embossed lines in the brickwork. The main entrance to the temples is also notable for its large, pointed arch over the entrance, which is a common feature of Cham towers.

The interior of the towers is not as interesting as the outside. However, one of the them has a linga and a yoni, the representation of the phallus and the womb in the Hindu religion. The linga is also a symbol of the god Shiva, whose cult was extremely widespread and powerful in the classical period of South-East Asian archaeology. In our travels we had encountered lingas within the cella of temple everywhere from Central Java to Angkor in Cambodia. A god with a warlike aspect, his cult seemed to grow in importance in South-East Asia as war and competition between various kingdoms intensified.

While Thap Doi was not as enervating an experience as Banh It, with its hilltop setting and sense of isolation, it is still a well-preserved and unusual site. It is also one of the easiest Cham towers of Vietnam to reach, being located within a modern city. It is worth checking out before heading out to the one of the beaches for which Binh Dinh is probably best known among travelers.



The Cham Towers of Bahn It

In 2017 we returned to Vietnam for the first time in 11 years, wanting to head from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi again, but this time stopping off at less-touristed places. The first stop on our trip north was the coastal city of Quy Nhon, which is said to be home to three hundred thousand people. Around twelve hours out from Ho Chi Minh City, we finally reached the train station, stepping down at a run-down provincial railway station in need of a coat of paint. From there we haggled for a taxi ride into town; we had a booking at a small, private guesthouse in the centre of town. We eventually managed to hire a motorbike from the guesthouse owner after several minutes of communicating back and forth using a translation app.

There were two different Cham towers we wanted to see that day: the Tham Doi Cham towers within the city limits and the Banh It towers out in the countryside around Quy Nhon. We decided to go to the Banh It towers first and stop back at the Tham Doi towers on our way back into town. The ride out to Banh It was fairly straightforward, leading us around fifteen kilometres from central Quy Nhon, out through its satellite communities and the country villages beyond its perimeter. There were a number of interesting traditional homes along the way, demonstrating beautiful tile-work and woodcarving on the exterior. After about half an hour, we neared a small river with an old bridge across it. This river runs down from the former citadel of the Champa kings (now little more than a memory) to Quy Nhon Bay. Crossing the river there, you will see the Banh It towers picturesquely located on a large hill overhead. As so often, we were immediately impressed by the dramatic sense of place the Cham had in choosing temple sites. The site was both aesthetically striking and strategically chosen.

Banh It is not a major tourist site, but it does attract a steady trickle of local visitors. Arriving in the car park at the foot of the hill, there were a couple of cars there, with the visitors apparently up on the hilltop. The car park was surrounded by scrubby forest and there was a tinkling sound of religious music in the air; we wondered if there were some sort of religious ceremony being conducted at the temple that day. Before climbing up the hill, we first bought tickets to the temple, which cost 12,000 dong, including motorbike parking, and were sold by guards in uniform. I asked them about the music and they said it had nothing to do with the Cham towers; there was a Chinese-Buddhist temple nearby and the music was drifting in from there.

The walk uphill is quite steep, with the hillsides now being covered in dense, thorny shrubbery. On the way up you pass one of the four towers, which serves as a gopura for the whole complex. It is one of the elaborately roofed towers for which the Cham are famous, yet it is more of an entrance gate than a focal point of the sanctuary, so we kept climbing. On a wide terrace below the peak, there is another satellite tower. Built, like most Cham towers, of red bricks, this tower is surrounded by shrubs and even has vegetation growing out of the cracks in the brickwork. There was also a lot of graffiti carved into its insidewalls, making us wonder if they would be better off fencing the tower off to the general public. Like the other towers on the hill, it was thought to have been built in the 11th century, when Binh Dinh province was the heartland of a Cham kingdom.

From there we went up to the top level of the tower, which has two impressive Cham towers, each very different from the other. The first of these was the main tower, which rises to a height of 22 metres. It features an elaborate, tiered roof with ornamental structures in the shape of pagodas in the corners. There is a large pointed arch over the door, with softens the box-like shape of the main temple. The exterior was one covered in magnificent bas-reliefs of dancers, but these have now been removed to the Museum of Cham Art in Danang. In contrast, in the corners you can still see some leaf and floral motifs, which were common to Champa Dynasty architecture of the 11th century. Inside the temple, there is a powerful stench of guano and you will hear bats squeaking overhead in the cave-like gloom of the temple interior. In the centre of the cella is a reproduction of the magnificent Hindu sculpture which was the main image at the temple; the original is now in the famous Guimet Museum in Paris. Though it is only a reproduction, the image has still been offered joss-sticks and other offerings, showing that the temples are still active places of worship today. For the visitor, it helps to evoke a former Shivaite kingdom with links to Cambodia, Indonesia and even India.

Bahn It
The repository of Banh It, with a barrel-shaped roof

Alongside the main temple is another remarkable, brick structure. In the literature, it is usually described as the repository. This is a style of temple building which was really unique to the Chams and has no obvious equivalent in the other Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of ancient South-East Asia. Its most remarkable feature is the roof, which is sometimes described as barrel-shaped. The sides of the structure are covered in reliefs and carvings, including embossed lines and stylized columns. There is a similar structure at the great Cham sanctuary of Mi Son and also at Po Klong Garai further south. It was presumably used as a storing place for ritual objects used in religious ceremonies at the site. The barrel-roofed silhouette of the structure makes it unusually photogenic and a great contrast with the more block-like main tower. Needless to say, the views from the site are expansive, giving a panoramic view over the territory of the former Champa.