The Cham kingdoms of south and central Vietnam are among the great civilisations of Southeast Asia. Although extraordinary art and temple complexes were created, surviving Cham art is rare in any media, especially bronze. The central figure of this group of three bronzes is an exquisite gilded image of the compassionate Buddhist saviour Avalokiteshvara (Quan-am in Vietnamese and Guanyin in Chinese). With its elaborate halo and extensive gilding, it is the finest and most intact Cham bronze known.
Buddhism reached Champa via monks who were travelling to China from India and through an active system of international trade. The religion flourished from approximately the eighth to tenth century alongside Hinduism, which was established earlier and remained the dominant royal and state faith. Avalokiteshvara and other bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who delay their achievement of buddhahood to assist others in the quest for liberation, were an important part of the Mahayana Buddhism practised in Champa.
In this image, Avalokiteshvara appears as Padmapani, the lotus bearer. He is identified by the long-stemmed lotus, a symbol of purity, held in one of his four hands and the tiny image of the Amitabha Buddha (the Buddha of Infinite Light) seated in his hair. Other objects held by the figure include a flask of knowledge, a palm-leaf manuscript symbolising wisdom and a ring of prayer beads. One of the smaller sculptures also represents Avalokiteshvara as Padmapani. The other is the saviour Vajrapani holding a vajra, a powerful Buddhist ritual object. Each princely image is richly adorned with intricate upper-torso bands, necklaces, armbands, headdresses and belts, as well as simple wrist and ankle rings.
The acquisition of this exceptional group of sculptures was generously supported by Sally White OAM and Geoffrey White OAM. Both have a strong interest in the arts of the Canberra region and provide philanthropic support nationally and internationally. They suggest their admiration for these Cham sculptures may have had its genesis in a posting to Vietnam in the early 1970s.
Melanie Eastburn Curator, Asian Art
in artonview, issue 72, Summer 2012/13