The Đồng Dương Buddhist temple complex

Đồng Dương temple complex, 9th century C.E., Vietnam, photograph taken c. 1942

Đồng Dương temple complex, 9th century C.E., Vietnam, photograph taken c. 1942

The Đồng Dương archeological site in Vietnam is an extraordinary example of Buddhist architecture in Champa. It demonstrates the remarkable local craftsmanship of sculptors during the 9th–10th centuries in Champa, which is in the modern-day Vietnamese province of Quảng Nam. Archaeological remains—particularly sculptures and reliefs now preserved in museums—show evidence of the rich Buddhist beliefs and culture that existed alongside Hinduism in Champa. The sculptures emphasize royal court women and family relationships in Cham Buddhist narratives.

Map of Champa with Đồng Dương temple, Vietnam (underlying map © Google)

Map of Champa with Đồng Dương temple, Vietnam (underlying map © Google)

Đồng Dương temple was a part of a larger Buddhist archaeological complex that no longer exists due to war and looting in the 1960s–70s and limited preservation efforts since this time; nevertheless, its history can be reconstructed through inscriptions as well as extant monuments and objects.  

History and geography of the Chams

Đồng Dương is the name of the modern town in which the ancient Buddhist monastery is found in Vietnam. The temple was consecrated in 875 C.E. and is associated with Cham culture, which dates to as early as the 5th century. Although the region of Champa and the material culture of the Chams is largely found in what is today the modern country of Vietnam, they were independent from the Vietnamese until the annexation of Champa in 1471.

The Đồng Dương Buddhist temple was built in the capital city of Indrapura by the 9th-century Cham ruler, Indravarman II, who actively supported Buddhism with the construction of this temple during his reign. The archaeology of Champa consisted primarily of Hindu arts and architecture (such as the nearby Mỹ Sơn sanctuary), so the construction of Đồng Dương marks a departure from Hinduism among Cham leaders. It is speculated that Indravarman II’s interest in Buddhism was an attempt to distinguish his rule and to integrate the Cham court and Champa within the larger Buddhist world, which comprised powerful dynasties in India and China.

Plan of Đồng Dương temple complex, marked with three different enclosures (I, II, III), 9th century C.E. The seated Buddha placed on top of a pedestal was discovered in enclosure I. The brown shapes reference some of the extant traces of the original structure.

Plan of Đồng Dương temple complex, marked with three different enclosures (I, II, III), 9th century C.E. The seated Buddha placed on top of a pedestal was discovered in enclosure I. The brown shapes reference some of the extant traces of the original structure.

A marvelous temple construction

Buddhist monks and court elites would have visited the temple when it was active from 875 until 982 C.E. Indravarman II wanted to build the most spectacular temple in the capital city of Indrapura. Today, the only fragment of the former temple that survives in situ is the entrance to the temple. Scholars have reconstructed the temple on paper using old photos and archaeological plans. These show that the temple originally consisted of three brick enclosures within a walled compound: a vihara, a long pillared corridor, and a main shrine.

The vihara constituted the first enclosure and was arranged within an open courtyard. The second enclosure consisted of a hall with pillars that connected the vihara with the main shrine and the central tower. The hall originally had doorways that opened to the east and west. Priests and monks used this hallway for ceremonial preparations, and it also functioned as a space for ritual performance. This intermediary space can be interpreted as spiritually preparing visitors to enter the main sanctuary that contains the shrine

The third enclosure at the Đồng Dương temple houses the main shrine area which consists of a central tower surrounded by nine shrines. Very little of the architecture survives. However, some sculpture was removed from the temple before the Vietnam War that raged from the 1950s to the 1970s, when much of the remaining structure was lost. These sculptural remnants, a life-sized sculpture of the Buddha and two colossal altar pedestals with narrative reliefs, are today preserved in the nearby Đa Nẵng Museum of Cham Sculpture. 

Buddha and his Colossal Altar-Pedestal, 9th century C.E., sandstone, from Đồng Dương temple, Vietnam (Đa Nẵng Museum of Cham Sculpture; photo: Mya Chau, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Buddha and his Colossal Altar-Pedestal, 9th century C.E., sandstone, from Đồng Dương temple, Vietnam (Đa Nẵng Museum of Cham Sculpture; photo: Mya Chau, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Buddha and his Colossal Altar-Pedestal 

In the first enclosure of the Đồng Dương temple was a life-sized sandstone sculpture that depicts a seated Buddha atop a sculpted altar-pedestal. The figure wears a heavy monastic robe that covers both shoulders. His enlarged hands and feet as well as the robe’s thick folds are characteristically Cham in style. The sculpture was used in worship, a process that often involved dressing the image in clothes, fabrics, and jewelry. Honoring the gods also involved applying material such as oils, perfumes, or colored powders on the sculpture. In addition, monks and worshippers would have performed ceremonies in front of the colossal altar, prayed to the Buddha, and reflected on the relief sculptures carved into the pedestal below depicting the biography of the Buddha

The rectangular altar-pedestal is constructed in three sections (222 x 124 cm x 70 cm). The Buddha's Colossal Altar-Pedestal, 9th century C.E., sandstone, from Đồng Dương temple, Vietnam (Đa Nẵng Museum of Cham Sculpture; photo: Mya Chau, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The rectangular altar-pedestal is constructed in three sections (222 x 124 cm x 70 cm). The Buddha’s Colossal Altar-Pedestal, 9th century C.E., sandstone, from Đồng Dương temple, Vietnam (Đa Nẵng Museum of Cham Sculpture; photo: Mya Chau, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The altar-pedestal

This statue of the Buddha sits on top of an altar-pedestal carved with narrative relief panels that depict episodes of the life of the Buddha. Rectangular figural reliefs are carved atop another while a thick decorative border filled with elaborate swirls frame the scenes. Larger standing lions (with mouths open as if roaring) are framed with squared columns that alternate with the smaller rectangular scenes—creating a sense that the pedestal functions almost as an architectural element defended by guardian lions. The lions are similar to those from the Tang Dynasty in China, a result of cultural and artistic exchange from war, trade, and artists travels during the 7th century.

First section and left of the pedestal. Buddha's Colossal Altar-Pedestal, 9th century C.E., sandstone, from Đồng Dương temple, Vietnam (Đa Nẵng Museum of Cham Sculpture; photo: Mya Chau, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

First section and left of the pedestal. Buddha’s Colossal Altar-Pedestal, 9th century C.E., sandstone, from Đồng Dương temple, Vietnam (Đa Nẵng Museum of Cham Sculpture; photo: Mya Chau, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Narrative panels focused on Queen Maya. The Buddha's Colossal Altar-Pedestal, 9th century C.E., sandstone, from Đồng Dương temple, Vietnam (Đa Nẵng Museum of Cham Sculpture; photo: Mya Chau, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Narrative panels focused on Queen Maya. The Buddha’s Colossal Altar-Pedestal, 9th century C.E., sandstone, from Đồng Dương temple, Vietnam (Đa Nẵng Museum of Cham Sculpture; photo: Mya Chau, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The upper panel on the right side of the pedestal depicts standing and seated figures surrounding King Suddhodana (the Buddha’s father), who is seated on a throne. On the panel below, King Suddhodana and Queen Maya, the Buddha’s mother, are seated on separate pedestals.

Moving from right to left on the colossal block, the next panel on the Buddha’s pedestal depicts Queen Maya. She recounts her dream of an elephant entering her right side, which is the miraculous conception story of the future Buddha Prince Siddhartha (the Buddha-to-be) to her husband. In the relief, she holds a stylized tree branch while two smaller figures stand beside her. [1] Her position echoes the common pairing of yakshini with trees, female spirits who represent abundance and fertility in South Asian art such as those found at the Great Stupa of Sanchi. Below this panel is a depiction of Queen Maya in the Lumbini garden, where she gives birth to Prince Siddhartha (the Buddha).

The Buddha's Colossal Altar-Pedestal, 9th century C.E., sandstone, from Đồng Dương temple, Vietnam (Đa Nẵng Museum of Cham Sculpture; photo: Mya Chau, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Buddha’s Colossal Altar-Pedestal, 9th century C.E., sandstone, from Đồng Dương temple, Vietnam (Đa Nẵng Museum of Cham Sculpture; photo: Mya Chau, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In the center section, the reliefs depict the story of the “Great Renunciation,” which marks Prince Siddhartha’s departure from the palace and the beginning of his spiritual journey. Siddhartha sits on a horse with a charioteer, Chandaka, at his side along with three deities. The scene below shows Siddhartha and his teacher seated on a two-legged pedestal in discussion along with three standing figures. 

Detail of worshippers before a (now missing) Buddha sculpture. The Buddha's Colossal Altar-Pedestal, 9th century C.E., sandstone, from Đồng Dương temple, Vietnam (Đa Nẵng Museum of Cham Sculpture; photo: Gary Todd, CC0)

Detail of worshippers before a (now missing) Buddha sculpture. The Buddha’s Colossal Altar-Pedestal, 9th century C.E., sandstone, from Đồng Dương temple, Vietnam (Đa Nẵng Museum of Cham Sculpture; photo: Gary Todd, CC0)

Detail of Mahaprajapati. The Buddha's Colossal Altar-Pedestal, 9th century C.E., sandstone, from Đồng Dương temple, Vietnam (Đa Nẵng Museum of Cham Sculpture; photo: Gary Todd, CC0)

Detail of Mahaprajapati. The Buddha’s Colossal Altar-Pedestal, 9th century C.E., sandstone, from Đồng Dương temple, Vietnam (Đa Nẵng Museum of Cham Sculpture; photo: Gary Todd, CC0)

The next section of the altar-pedestal depicts a group of worshippers in front of a (now missing) Buddha sculpture. They are paying homage to the image of the Buddha. To understand the original state of the now defaced relief, scholars have looked to archival photographs that show an image of the Buddha seated and in heaven. The panel below shows a sorrowful woman with a child clinging to her knees. This figure has been identified as Mahaprajapati, Queen Maya’s sister. [2] The many depictions of women on other reliefs (such as Queen Maya and Mahaprajatpati at the site of Đồng Dương) has led scholars to speculate that Indravarman II had an interest in illustrating the vivid emotions of women as well as depicting women of the royal court.

The Buddha's Colossal Altar-Pedestal, 9th century C.E., sandstone, from Đồng Dương temple, Vietnam (Đa Nẵng Museum of Cham Sculpture; photo: Mya Chau, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Buddha’s Colossal Altar-Pedestal, 9th century C.E., sandstone, from Đồng Dương temple, Vietnam (Đa Nẵng Museum of Cham Sculpture; photo: Mya Chau, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In a rare depiction, a relief on the left side of the pedestal shows a child holding his mother’s hand, which represents the Buddha’s wife and their son, Rahula. This documents the compassionate nature of the Buddha’s wife, and serves as a reminder that although the Buddha was undertaking an important spiritual quest, he was leaving loved ones behind. In the lower panel, Prince Siddhartha interacts with the women of his harem. [3]

While the reliefs reinforce major scenes from the biography of the Buddha, it is clear that the artists and their patron chose to make a strong reference to familial relationships. The narrative reliefs are not meant to tell the full story of the Buddha’s life, but instead depicts particular aspects of the Buddha’s biography with an emphasis on women and family. Life experiences and relationships are the foundation for Siddhartha’s journey to becoming the Buddha. Moreover, it also serves as the literal foundation platform for the enthroned Buddha sculpture.

Cham Buddhist culture and local traditions 

While the devastation of war and looting of archaeological sites in Vietnam occurred in the 1960s–70s, the remains of Đồng Dương art and architecture are preserved in museums across Vietnam, the United States, London, and France. The sculptures would have aided worshippers by resonating with Buddhist stories that are recorded in literary texts within the Cham community. The preservation of Buddhist reliefs and sculptures in a local Cham style at the Đồng Dương temple has ensured that these spectacular 9th–10th century examples of Cham Buddhism can be studied and appreciated in the 21st century.

[1] Nandana Chutiwongs, “Buddhism in Champa: Narrative Reliefs of Two Images Pedestals at Dong-duong,” SACHE Lettre, no. 14 (2011): pp. 12–27.

[2] Chutiwongs, “Buddhism in Champa,” pp. 15.

[3] Chutiwongs, “Buddhism in Champa,” pp. 15.

Nandana Chutiwongs, “Le Bouddhisme du Champa,” in Tresors d’art du Vietnam: la sculpture du Champa V-XV siècle, Guimet musee national des arts asiatiques (Paris: RMN, 2005), pp. 65–87.

Nandana Chutiwong, “Buddhism in Champa: Narrative Reliefs of Two Images Pedestals at Dong-duong,” SACHE Lettre, no. 14 (2011):  pp. 12–27.

Pandya Parul Dhar, “Buddhism, Art and Ritual Practice: Dong Duong at the Intersection of Asian Culture,” in Asian Encounters: Exploring Histories, ed. Upinder Singh and Parul Pandya Dhar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 111–136.

Emmanuel Guillon, Hindu-Buddhist Art of Vietnam: Treasures from Champa, translated from the French by Tom White (Trumbull, CT: Weatherhill, 1997).

Ian W. Mabbett, “Buddhism in Champa,” in Southeast Asia in the 9th to 14th Centuries, eds. David Marr and Anthony Milner (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1986), pp. 289–313.

Trian Nguyen, “Laksmindralokesvara, main Deity of the Dong-Duong Monastery: A masterpiece of Cham art and a new interpretation,” Artibus Asiae, no 1. (1995): pp. 5–38.

Ann R. Protor, “Buddhist Art of 9th century Champa: Đồng Dương,” in Colonial Transformation and Asian Religions in Modern History, ed. David W. Kim (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018): pp. 140–162.

Q V Son and William Noseworthy, “Not just a monastery: The Đồng Dương Complex of Vietnam,” IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environment Science (2021): pp. 1–8.

Cite this page as: Dr. Mya Chau, "The Đồng Dương Buddhist temple complex," in Smarthistory, March 20, 2023, accessed May 20, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/dong-duong-buddhist-temple-complex-vietnam/.