Temple of the naughty monkey

No 1, Vol.6, January – February 2016

Champa religious sculpture features monkeys with human-like traits

Following national highway no. 1A, passing Tam Xuân 1 commune, Núi Thành district, Quảng Nam province, you would see the Khương Mỹ complex of Champa temples, covered by the traces of time.
The group includes 3 triple-roofed sandstone towers with pointed tops. The northern tower is the smallest and is partly ruined. The middle one is bigger and better preserved. The southern tower is the biggest and best-preserved. Culturologists think that Khương Mỹ is dedicated to Vishnu.

If one stays for a while at the towers to contemplate a thousand years of now peaceful, now turbulent weather and history covering the seemingly forgotten temples, one can enjoy the mysterious sandstone sculptures of the ancient Champa.
Among the multitude of reliefs on the walls of the Chăm temples, many depict lively, mischievous and cute monkeys. A peculiarity is that all the monkeys’ sexual organs are vividly expressed.
Here, three monkeys carry baggage on their shoulders and heads. There, another tired three: one with its back bent down, hugging a gourd, a middle one picking up something, and a left one sitting on a rock, its chin resting on its hand. In another scene, three monkeys beat drums and cymbals and dance jubilantly, perhaps celebrating a victory.

The most remarkable scene, perhaps, is the funny one depicting a little monkey, its penis being bitten by a tortoise, while another monkey stands by their side, scratching its head with one hand, the other pointing at the tortoise.
In 2007, at the Khương Mỹ site, archeologists excavated 17 unique sandstone sculptures, among which some depict monkeys. These sandstones are now on display at the Champa Sculpture Museum of Đà Nẵng.
Culturologists think that the monkey is the Chăm totem. Among Chăm architectural remains in Quảng Nam province, Khương Mỹ temples have the most images of monkeys; in many postures, expressing the most nuanced of feelings, all highly stylized.
Quảng Nam province has many other Chăm spiritual sites, such as Mỹ Sơn complex, Bằng An tower, Chiên Đàn complex, An Phú vestige, and 26 other scattered Chăm relic sites.
The sculptures at Khương Mỹ, according to Chăm culture experts, seem to be related to the epic poem Ramayana, a story about the fight of prince Rama (an incarnation of Vishnu) and his army of monkeys against Lanka King Ravana to free his wife Sita.n

Photo & text by Mai Hong Lam
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