Centuries on, Champa mystery endures

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Dang Nang Tu with the model Cham temples he has made. He has been trying to find out how the originals were built in the late 13th and early 14th centuries in Ninh Thuan Province

Dang Nang Tu's garden is a homage to Cham temples.

The 32-year-old native of Ninh Thuan Province, home of the Champa kingdom centuries ago, has built many mini temples in the garden as he pursues his dream of building a temple just like his ancestors.

He said the Cham temple has always been a construction mystery. It is a challenge to researchers and it also has a "supernatural force that draws more people to it." 

While students and researchers of aesthetics, religion and philosophy have interpreted some messages from the temples through their decorations, characters and vestiges of worshipped objects, no one has figured out the materials and method used to build the temples, he said.

The Cham temple may lack the grandeur of old colonial European buildings, its simplicity evident in the common reddish bricks used, but how they were made and connected to each other, with the joints almost invisible, is still a puzzle.

Some researchers believe the bricks of outstanding quality were rubbed smooth and bonded by means of a mortar of vegetable origin.

The child of Champa said the building method is a secret treasure that his ancestors failed to pass along, but he's trying hard to find it as he builds mini temples with soil burned in kilns, using the same process as pottery making. 

He is yet to crack the mystery, but "I've learned a bit after each temple.

"Each of my temples is more charming than the previous one, in the same way that the Duong Long Temple, built in late 12th century in nearby Binh Dinh Province, looks more charming than the Chien Dan Temple built between the 10th and 11th centuries in the upper central province of Quang Nam," he said.

Tu said he started building Cham temples after he decided to do something "abnormal" to escape poverty.

He was born in Bau Truc Village, famous in the whole of Southeast Asia for centuries for its pottery production.

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The Cham used to be a matriarchal community; Tu said men only worked as assistants to women in his village.

Tu's father died soon after he finished ninth grade and he dropped out of school, continuing the old man's job of assisting his mother, famous artisan Dang Thi Phan who brought soil from the village to make pottery and demonstrate her craft in Japan, Malaysia and India years ago.

He carried soil home every day for his mother to work on, and then carried the products around to sell.

But no matter how hard he worked, his family was still poor. So he broke with the tradition to directly make pottery products in the village.

Besides statues, Tu's first temple project was a model of Poklongarai, a cluster of Cham temples dating back to the late 13th and early 14th centuries in Ninh Thuan.

He used to visit the temple regularly as a child when festivals of the Cham people were held, and now he goes there to collect details for his Poklongarai model.

The first model was finished after more than a month, but he destroyed it because he found it ugly.

He was satisfied with the third try, which took him 15 days. He was offered VND2.5 million (currently US$120) for the model in 2006.

Tu said his goal of finding a way out of poverty was accomplished then. He sells small-scale temples for between VND3.5 and 4 million (US$168-192) apiece.

But he said the time spent on the project has triggered a bigger ambition to build a life-sized replica of Poklongarai.

He said he does not want to stop at a little clay object that anyone can make and trade for a few hundred dollars, but wants to create one with spirit that can be considered a piece of art.

Secrets taken to the grave

Tu is not the first person who thinks he has or is close to cracking the mystery of Cham temples. While he might yet receive recognition for his work and findings, another man who made headlines years ago for his efforts in solving the mystery passed away before any official agency bothered to look into his findings. The official apathy to such work is likely to remain another mystery. 

Le Van Chinh, a farmer from the central province of Quang Nam, home to the famous My Son sanctuary, a cluster of Cham temple ruins that have been recognized as a World Heritage by UNESCO, became known for allegedly discovering how the bricks were made and how they were joined together. It was said that the bricks he made were close to the original ones that have stood almost intact for nearly 20 centuries.

But he died in 2005 at 65.

Like Tu (who says he knows nothing about Chinh and has no comment to make on the latter's findings), Chinh had believed that the temples were built and burned as a whole piece, but once he noticed scratches on some original bricks, he turned to the theory that the bricks were made separately in the first place and then rubbed against each other. He rubbed two of them and they stuck, news website VietNamNet reported.

Chinh worked for the Cham Architecture Museum in the province, allowing him to get his hands on ruins from the temples during research done to preserve them.

Following this discovery, Chinh made it his mission to make the brick at home, and his wife had to process hundreds of kilograms of clay every day, filtering impurities, for his experiments.

He believed that Cham people in the old time had added a substance to the clay used to make bricks that helped them remain unbroken when sophisticated decorations were carved on them. The decoration process would only cause some brick powder to shed; and the powder, mixed with rain water, must have caused the bricks to stick harder together, he surmised.

His first batches of bricks either broke easily or stuck together only for a short time.

It was not until 1988, ten years after he embarked on his mission, that he believed he had solved the puzzle.

"The substance was made from the resin of "bời lời" (a plant from the laurel family) and other plants common in the area," he was quoted as saying in a VietNamNet report in 2004.

After burning, the bricks had to be buried underground for some time so that the humidity helped with the adhesion, he said, adding he deduced this by observing temples in the former Champa kingdom of Ninh Thuan and nearby provinces.

Chinh thought he had accomplished his mission and a happy ending was in sight.

"But each time I brought the bricks and knocked on the doors of cultural agencies in Hanoi, they asked me to wait. I waited, month after month, but in vain.

"I did not even ask for money, I just wanted them to assess my work."

Chinh said all the years of working hard had caused no problems, but the official apathy and indifference made him sick, literally.

His passion kept him going, he said.

He invited several provincial officials and managers at the My Son sanctuary to look at his bricks, but they did not dare to say anything specific about the bricks' quality as no government agency had sanctioned them yet.

The local officials did help present his bricks at some local exhibitions, but they were not really appreciated, with people saying that Chinh was only an "amateur" and did not have a scientific thesis to defend his work.

"But I'm only good at practical things and know nothing about making a theoretical argument or that kind of stuff," Chinh said in the report.

His one big supporter, Ho Viet, chief representative of the central office of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, was angry with the indifference of Hanoi offices, so in 2002, he wrote a letter to the minister of culture saying that Chinh's invention should be appreciated for its practical value, and that the builders of original Cham temples were no professors either.

The letter said the government spent more than $20,000 every year for agencies to look for the materials used in Cham temples, and the improper way in which this search was done had only damaged the relics.

The ministry responded by giving Chinh a package of documents to conduct further research, which is not what Chinh needed.

Viet had to accept to be the supervisor of the research to help Chinh finish it.

The research itself got stuck in a lot of red tape and Viet himself was discouraged. But he found a new way to promote Chinh's work, connecting him to tourism companies.

Chinh had finished building two Cham temple models in Da Nang and just received a building contract in Ho Chi Minh City just before he died of asthma complications.

VietNamNet said the former farmer had been drawn to the mystery of Cham temple construction since he was a little boy grazing his cows near a Cham temple around his home.

His interest caused him to apply to work at the Cham Architecture Museum, and at that time, the My Son Sanctuary had started to draw global attention.

But he soon grew tired of inconclusive conferences, so he decided to try and make the bricks on his own.

Chinh and his family lived in poverty, because they spent all the money he had on building and running a kiln for his experiments.

Although he earned himself the nickname "Builder of Cham temples in the 21st century," his wife said he was very unhappy on his sickbed, thinking about his brick project yet to be recognized.

UNESCO experts and European researchers in December 2010 announced results of ten-year researches at local Cham temples, saying they had identified part of the adhesive and the way to make the bricks. But details were not mentioned and there have been no further reports on the subject so far.

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