Nha Trang

Ponagar Tower — Remarkable Reminder of a Forgotten Era

Wafts of frankincense welcome you as you enter the temple complex of Ponagar Tower (Vietnamese spelling: Tháp Ponogar). Over 1000 years old, the Tháp Bà, or Lady Tower, stands 12 meters above sea level on a granite knoll 3 km north of central Nha Trang.

The Ponagar Towers were built along the Cai River (sông Cái) between the 8th -11th centuries. Their construction was for worship of the Goddess Po Nagar (The Mother of the Country). She is believed to have taught weaving and agricultural skills to the Cham people.

Getting to Ponagar Tower

Located north of Nha Trang city center across the Cai River bridge, it only takes about 10 minutes by vehicle to the Ponagar site. Taxis and Grab rides are easily available. One could even take a leisurely walk, but a bicycle is a better choice.

  • Opening hours: 6 am to 6 pm
  • Entry: 22 000 VND
  • Guide: 50 000 VND
  • Motorbike: 40 000 VND
  • Attire: Modest covering knees and shoulders

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Meet the Mysterious Lady Ponagar!

Lady Ponagar
Granite statute of Po Inu Nagar in North Tower
[ by Roger Shitaki from Tripadago ]

The highlight of Ponagar Tower, or the North Tower, is a beautiful statue of Yan Po Nagar or Po Inu Nagar. There are many legends around her origin.

One surrounds the Goddess Amuhhekat – the creator of the universe. Po Nagar was the daughter of her trusted aide Angel Chu. The legend credits Po Nagar with building the first Champa Kingdom and appointing its first king.

The second story is set in the 17th century. This is when the Dai Viet expanded their territory south after the first Dai Viet – Cham War. Ponagar is then referred to as Thiên Y Thánh Mẫu. She gives up her royal status to be raised in a local family. She also teaches local people many skills — sculpture, farming, and various forms of art.

Many historians associate ‘The Black Lady’ with the Goddess Bhagwati or Shakti, of the popular Hindu pantheon. Po Inu Nagar is revered as a goddess of culture and civilization. This temple site is a humble reminder of her beneficence in the lives of Cham people.

The Architectural Marvel that is Ponagar Tower

Remnant pillars of the meditation hall
Remnant pillars of the meditation hall
[ by Vietnam-It from Pixabay ]

Ponagar Tower sits on a lush hill overlooking picturesque scenes of colorful fishing boats along the Cai River. Although an entire complex, Ponagar Tower refers to the largest tower, the North Tower. Its terraced pyramidal roof, vaulted interior, and vestibule are quite magnificent.

The towers are built of red brick with decorative reliefs of deities and inscriptions of Cham social structure and spiritual life. Even to this date, it fascinates how the mortarless bricks seamlessly and perfectly hold together.

Interestingly, the original structure was of wood but did not survive a Javanese invasion. It was then replaced by the unique stone and brick temple in 784 CE. The entrance to the complex and the towers all face east.

There used to be a 10-pillared meditation and entrance hall below the top towers. Only the pillars remain and a steep staircase winds to the side of this to the top level. There were eight towers, but only four remain restored after wars and invasions.

North Tower

Durga relief at the North Tower
A rare Durga relief at the North Tower
[ by Roger Shitaki from Tripadago ]

Originally, the North Tower had a gold ‘mukhalinga’ — a phallus with a face painted on it. After many raids and invasions, a stone statue of Uma or Bhagwati took its place. She’s the consort of Shiva, or as we know, Lady Ponagar.

Only this tower has a surviving relief above the entrance. It depicts a rare form of Durga, although some would say it’s an androgynous version of Shiva. She has her foot on the bull Nandi and flanked by two musicians.

The beautiful sandstone doorposts and parts of the wall are covered with inscriptions. A rare old gong and drum can be seen resting in the alcove under the pyramid-shaped ceiling of the antechamber.

Ponagar Tower used to have a golden dome, but it was looted during the Javanese invasion. It still has the famous black granite statue of Lady Ponagar. She’s now dressed in Buddhist attire so you don’t really see her ten arms.

Central Tower

Entrance of the Central Tower
Entrance of the Central Tower
[ by Roger Shitaki from Tripadago ]

The central tower (Tháp Nam) is less ornamental and dedicated to Cri Cambhu, an incarnation of Shiva as the ‘God of Fertility’. It’s pyramidal roof and walls were once covered with silver. It has a stone-carved Linga in the main chamber. Many couples seeking to have children visit the central tower to pray to Cri Cambhu.

South Tower and Northwest Tower

The South Tower before restorations
The South Tower before restorations
[ by Tommy Japan from Flickr ]

The smaller South Tower (Miếu Đông Nam) is dedicated to Sandhaka (Shiva) while the Northwest Tower (Tháp Tây Bắc) is dedicated to Lord Ganesh. You can buy Ganesh statues of varying sizes at the souvenir shop and view a photo exhibit on restoration efforts.

Cham Architecture Seen Through Ponagar

Mortarless Brick at Ponagar Tower
Mortarless Brick at Ponagar Tower
[ by Mr.Theklan from Flickr ]

There are many Cham Towers across parts of southern Vietnam. Each tower has a square foundation. Each tower has four doors out of which three are false doors. The east-facing doors were opened to welcome the Gods and worshippers.

All Cham towers are built in red mortarless brick — a fascinating engineering feat for the time. There are also elegant carvings on some bricks.

On the outside you can see unusual free-standing sandstone sculptures. Unlike typical reliefs of the time, these were bolder allowing the depictions to stand out from the background. These reliefs portrayed daily life and various Hindu gods.

The main structure of the brick sanctuary and shrine is called a Kalan. It acts as a microcosm of the Hindu metaphysical realm. The physical world is the square base, the tower is the heavens, and the pyramidal top is Mount Meru.

Inside is the Kosagrha, or ‘fire house’, with a saddle-shaped roof for storing the belongings of the gods and preparing food for offering. The Mandapa, with large columns, connects the place of worship with the outside world. The Gopura is a gate tower or entrance to a Cham tower.

Ponagar Festival — A Continuity of Ancient Traditions

Cham Music and Dancing - Po Nagar
Dancers performing at the Thap Ba Festival
[ by Roger Shitaki from Tripadago ]

A great time to visit Ponagar Tower is during the annual Thap Ba Festival (Lễ hội Tháp Bà). It’s held from the 21st to 23rd March in the Vietnamese Lunar calendar — or around the end of April to beginning of May. It’s one of the biggest folk-religious festivals in Vietnam.

In 2013, UNESCO recognized it as a national intangible cultural heritage. The traditional festivities and ceremonies are testimony to the historic continuity of Cham culture and its importance to many communities. Festivities include art displays, drama, dance and music, and sacred rituals.

Key rituals include bathing the Ponagar statue and dressing it in royal clothing. This is accompanied by singing, dancing, praying, and releasing colorful flower candles along the river. Popular performances include the ‘Water Berths Love’, ‘The Sound of Saranai’, ‘Apsara’ and drum ‘Ghi-Nang’.

The Cham — The Empire That Ruled the Seas

Cham traditional dance
Cham ladies doing a traditional dance
[by Jereme Couture for Flickr]

The Cham were a formidable empire lost to the pages of history. They were seafarers controlling the silk and spice trade between China, Indonesia, India, and Persia.

From their Indian roots, the Cham carved out their own unique Hindu and Buddhist hybrid culture. Today, most Cham descendants follow Islam except the Bacam (Bacham, Chiêm Tục) who still retain their Hindu faith, rituals, and festivals. 

Quy Nhon, 200 km north of Nha Trang,  was the capital of the Cham Empire for over 500 years. The reign of the Cham kings was strongest during the 9th and10th CE. A thousand-year reign ended with the rise of the Dai Viet under Emperor Minh Mang.

Places such as My Son Sanctuary and Ponagar Tower survived invasions and natural ravages to remind us of this remarkable legacy.

Plan Your Day around Ponagar Tower

View from Ponagar Tower
Scenic view of Nha Trang from Ponagar Tower
[ by mspink from Pixabay ]

There are many interesting, fun, and varied one or half-day tours for you to discover and relax on the one go. With a tour, you don’t need to plan anything. You can find tours on places like Tripadvisor, Kook, and Viator. 

Some of the more popular ones include the other two main religious sites of Nha Trang namely the Catholic cathedral and Long Son Pagoda. Other tours may choose different sites along the way or places nearby. 

If you choose to cycle or rent a bike, the Hon Chong Promontory is about 2 km from the Ponagar site. Tours often end at or include Nha Trang’s top mud spas. Thap Ba Hotspring (Tắm bùn Tháp Bà) is quite popular while the I-Resort Mineral Spa is more upscale.

Boat cruises along the Cai River starting from nearby Ponagar Tower are quite a fun choice. You get to explore the river, handicraft makers along the way, and even lunch in the homes of locals.

Whatever you choose, a day out to Ponagar Tower will never disappoint.

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