Thap Ba Festival

Thap Ba is the temple dedicated to Holy Mother Thien Y A Na, a Cham goddess whose real name is Po-Yang Ino-Nagar-Kaut-Hara or the Mother of the Cau (Areca) Clan (the Cau Clan used to live in the region which is now the southernmost part of Central Viet Nam).
Situated on a hill about 20 meters high, next to the Cai River estuary, and looking down the emerald sea, along (the old) Highway 1A, this tower-temple belongs to Vinh Phuoc Ward, Nha Trang City, Khanh Hoa Province. Lying amidst a natural scenic setting, Thap Ba can be listed as one of the finest architectural works of the Cham that have survived time. Since 1979, this vestige site has been recognized as a national-significant relic.
The site contains 5 architectural works which date back to 10th – 13th centuries: Mandapa is the place for preparing votive offerings, and the four towers called Thap Ba Tower, South Tower, South East Tower, and North West Tower. Each tower has its own beauty. Thap Ba Tower is also called Po Nagar Tower because this is the main place for worshipping the goddess. Made of brick, the tower is square in shape, 22.8 metres high, with 3 stories; the lower storey is larger than the upper one.
In the main shrine stands the statute of the Goddess, with 10 arms, 8 of which in the upper part are holding sacred objects; a pair of hands in the lower part are placed on the knees, the left palm turns upside down; the right palm opens wide and perpendicular to the wrist in the “mudra of blessing”. Many researchers hold that this is the statute of Goddess Uma, the wife of God Shiva, which has been made into an indigenous Cham goddess. It is very much different from the Uma statues in other places, which show the breast full of milk and slightly sagging, and six wrinkles on the belly suggestive of many times of childbearing. The statue of Po Nagar is one of the most typical works of Cham sculpture.
When the Vietnamese settled in this region, the cult of Holy Mother was incorporated into the cult of Uma. Hence the Thap Ba (Holy Mother Tower) Festival.
This Cham Goddess Po Nagar has become Vietnamese Goddess Thien Y A Na Ngoc Dien Phi worshipped in the main shrine of Thap Ba. In 1856, Phan Thanh Gian composed a stone inscription on this Goddess with details consonant with the spiritual concept of the then Confucian scholars. The Goddess was granted honours by the emperors of the Nguyln Dynasty, from King Gia Long to his successors.
The Thap Ba festival is held every year from the 20th to the 23rd day of the 3rd lunar month. It draws people from Nha Trang City, Khanh Hoa Province, and pilgrims from other localities such as Ho Chi Minh City, Da Lat, eastern provinces of the South, Ninh Thuan, and Binh Thuan, including Cham and Chinese communities. As Vietnamese people play the major role in organizing the festival, the rituals have been modified to some extent to conform with the Viet ethnic religious belief. For example, the ceremony of ablutions for the statues, lingas, yonis is now combined with the ceremony of changing the clothing; Buddhist monks assume the role of former Brahman priests; and incense sticks are also burnt, besides the eagle wood of the Cham. The mua bong (ritual shamanistic dance) is part and parcel of the festival.
The ceremony of ablutions is carried out on the 20th day of the 3rd lunar month. When the chief officiant has finished the ceremony of praying and offering eagle wood and fruits, the selected girls begin to take the clothing and head-gear off the statue and give it a bath with water well boiled with various kinds of aromatic flowers and leaves. The bath towels must be entirely new so as to show purity. All the actions must be gentle, careful and respectful. They use cotton pads dipped in water to dab the Goddess’ face gently so as not to let a single drop of water fall onto the eyes of the statue. After the bath, the statue is dressed with a new costume, and a head-gear usually made of valuable cloth, sophisticatedly embroidered, and ornamented with glistening gold threads. The washing is also conducted for other statues, the linga, yoni and other worship objects in the temple.
On the morning of the 22nd day of the 3rd lunar month, Buddhist monks bring flowers, joss-sticks, cakes, glutinous rice and vegetarian food to the main shrine as votive offerings. Here, they pray for “peace for the world”, “security for the state and the people”, “favorable weather conditions”, and “bumper crops”.
The “sacrificial” ceremony is held at midnight of the 22nd of the 3rd lunar month. Aside from the usual offerings, a slaughtered pig with a bowl of its blood and some of its hair is also prepared. The chief officiant and his assistants are selected from the notables of the village. After the “sacrificial” ceremony comes the “shadow dance” (ritual shamanistic dance) performed by dancers from Cu Lao village. Now, a Cham ensemble from Thuan Hai is also invited to give performances. The “shadow dance” is an expression of the believers’ reverence and gratitude towards the deities.
Like a ceremony in honor of deities of the Viet people, the main official ceremony takes place early on the morning of the 23rd of the 3rd lunar month. This ceremony requires a chief officiant, subordinate officiants, masters of ceremonies and the ceremonial attendants to carry out the offering of flowers, eagle wood, and wine. The ritual oration is read solemnly to the accompaniment of the ritual musical band.
At the foot of the hill where Thap Ba is situated is the Cai River. In the east is the estuary with hundreds of boats. The provincial highway is linked with the city by Xom Bong Bridge. During festive days, colourful lanterns, and electric lights decorate the trees from the hill foot, house gates and alleys up to the temple yard. If view from the other side of the bridge, or from the estuary and through the reflective water surface, the site here is fanciful. A stream of people, starting from Ha Ra Bridge, go through Xom Bong Bridge to the temple. In the sacred atmosphere of the festival, festival participants seem to be more benevolent, both the pilgrims who come to Thap Ba to pray earnestly for the good and tourists who want to enjoy the pomp and magnificence of the festival.

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