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My Son temple, Quang Nam, Viet Nam

Hindu Temples and a Fallen Kingdom in Viet Nam: The My Son Sanctuary

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My Son is a unique Hindu sanctuary located in central Viet Nam. It was the capital of the Champa Kingdom and in use from the 4th to 13th century AD. The site once contained over 70 structures of brick and stone, dedicated mostly to the deities Shiva, Krishna, and Vishnu. Today only about 20 temples remain due to destruction by bombing of the site. Despite the fall of the Champa Kingdom, the Cham culture continues to survive.

The Architecture of My Son - Details and Symbolism

My Son (Mỹ Sơn in Vietnamese), is located in the central province of Quang Nam within a lush jungle valley ringed by mountains. It is found near the source of the Thu Bon river which flows past the site and out towards the South China Sea. Thus, My Son is strategically placed.

The site's temples are split into five distinct sections over 142 hectares. Architectural differences suggest that it took approximately 1, 000 for the site to be completed. Nonetheless, all of the buildings are made up of fired brick with stone pillars and have sandstone bas-reliefs showing scenes from Hindu mythology, except for one - labeled B1, which was made of stone. The architecture of My Son is derived from India.

Researchers state that the central tower, kalan, symbolizes the sacred mountain, meru, - the center of the universe. The square/rectangular base, bhurloka, is a depiction of the human world, created by brick or stone and decorated. The main tower, bhuvakola, rise above this and is constructed by brick with applied columns and an eastern false door.

My Son temple, Quang Nam, Viet Nam

My Son temple, Quang Nam, Viet Nam ( Thomas Hirsch/Wikimedia Commons )

The inside of the structures are plain. There were small niches for lamps and the Shivalingam, representing the spirit world, is in the center of the room. The roofs, suarloka, were originally covered in gold or silver leaf and separated from the towers by a decorated frieze.

The well-planned, symbolic, and complete architectural design presented at My Son demonstrates that it was an important site to the Cham (aka Champa, Chams) people living there. The temples are also examples of the engineering skills of the Cham and their religious and political beliefs.

The Culture Behind My Son: The Kingdom of Champa and Modern Cham

The Champa Kingdom  was founded in 192 AD, at the breakup of the Han Dynasty in China. The Champa ruled what is now south and central Viet Nam from 192 AD to 1697 AD, when it as overthrown by the Vietnamese. They were strong warriors and strategic locations for their settlements, such as My Son, were key for the numerous military conflicts they had against the Chinese, Mongols, Khmer and the Vietnamese.

Naval battle of Champa warriors in a boat and dead Khmer fighters in the water, bas-relief, Bayon, Angkor, Cambodia

Naval battle of Champa warriors in a boat and dead Khmer fighters in the water, bas-relief, Bayon, Angkor, Cambodia ( Wikimedia Commons )

The Cham were not only warriors, they were also well-known for their wealth—gold and silver, gems, spices, aromatic agarwood, exotic animals, and slaves. They traded with China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, India, the Middle East, and even distant North Africa. Some researchers even claim that Christopher Columbus, on his fourth and last voyage, attempted to reach the Champa Kingdom to attain some of this wealth.

All of this trade undoubtedly had an impact on Cham culture and scholars believe that Indian merchants introduced Hinduism to the Champa Kingdom in its early years. As early as 986 AD Chinese documents also show examples of Cham Muslims. Of course both of these religions were combined with the worshipping of Cham ancestors, kings, and deities.

The incessant wars were the cause of the demise of what researchers claim was the only culture of Asia with Oceanian features. Despite the fall of the kingdom, ancient Cham art can still be found as inscriptions and sculpture at the temples My Son and others in Viet Nam.

Decoration on ruins of My Son, Quang Nam, Viet Nam

Decoration on ruins of My Son, Quang Nam, Viet Nam ( Wikimedia Commons )

The descendents of the Champa Kingdom , numbering 400 000 - 1 million people live on the boarders of Cambodia and Viet Nam. Today they speak Cham or Cambodian (which they were forced to use after many were massacred by the Khmer Rouge). The Cham often live in villages of about 200 to 300 people. When the Champa Kingdom fell, the Cham who fled to Cambodia converted to Islam (and are now called Balamon or Utsuls). However, most Cham living in Viet Nam are Hindu (called Bani).

The Destruction of My Son and Recent Conservation Efforts

Unfortunately, bombing destroyed many of the structures at My Son. Craters where the American bombs landed in 1969 are visible today. The great temple of Sanabhadresvara was turned to rubble, with only a drawing of its grandeur remaining in Champa Museum of Da Nang.

Drawing of the Sanabhadresvara temple from My Son Sanctuary, Champa Museum, Da Nang, Vietnam

Drawing of the Sanabhadresvara temple from My Son Sanctuary, Champa Museum, Da Nang, Vietnam ( Wikimedia Commons )

Declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1999, My Son has finally begun to receive the attention it deserves. Some say that it has increased too much however as the number of tourists visiting the site jumped to possibly unsupportable levels since it received this declaration.

Conservation work began at My Son in 1975, following the unification of Viet Nam. National and international attention has been given to the site, and the ruins visible today only exist due to hard work by these individuals.

That being said, there are concerns for safety due to unexploded mines near My Son and the environment encroaching on the temples as well. The Vietnamese government has decided that the touristic and cultural value of My Son are well worth the effort to continue the conservation of one of its most important and intriguing archaeological sites.  

To learn more about the Champa Kingdom and Cham culture, watch this video:

Featured Image: My Son temple, Quang Nam, Viet Nam ( Wikimedia Commons )

By Alicia McDermott

References:

Da Nang Museum of Cham Sculpture, 2015. My Son Gallery. [Online]
Available at: http://www.chammuseum.danang.vn/TabID/65/CID/41/ItemID/104/default.aspx

Diario del viajero, 2011. Las ruinas de My Son en Vietnam. [Online]
Available at: http://www.diariodelviajero.com/vietnam/las-ruinas-de-my-son-en-vietnam

Encyclopedia Britannica, 2015. Champa: Ancient Kingdom, Indochina [Online]
Available at: http://www.britannica.com/place/Champa-ancient-kingdom-Indochina

Hinduism Today, 2014. Vietnam's Champa Kingdom Marches On. [Online]
Available at: http://www.hinduismtoday.com/modules/smartsection/item.php?itemid=5491

Lonely planet, 2015. Introducing My Son [Online]
Available at: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/vietnam/central-vietnam/my-son

National Geographic, 2014. The Cham: Descendents of Ancient Rulers of South China Sea Watch Maritime Dispute From Sidelines. [Online]
Available at: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/06/140616-south-china-sea-vietnam-china-cambodia-champa/

UNESCO, 2015. My Son Sanctuary [Online]
Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/949

Vietnamitas en Madrid, n.d. My son el santuario y ruinas de my son. [Online]
Available at: http://www.vietnamitasenmadrid.com/my-son.html

 

Comments

Being an India it feels good that Indian culture was spread to far east.

I just cannot believe that Indian culture was spread in this part of world. It is an answer to those who ridicule Indian culture

The destruction by US bombing should be a war crime. The USA was informed by European archeologists of the heritage value, but bombing destroyed much of the site. I was saddened to see the damage while visiting in December 2015

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