John E. Palmer Den Haag, The Netherlands

By Nancy & Leonard Becker

Photo taken by and copyright by John Palmer

John E. Palmer of Den Haag, the Netherlands, was one of the first Site Savers we met when Sacred Sites International was founded in 1990. We learned about Mr. Palmer when we saw his etchings and photographs of ancient sacred sites exhibited in a gallery in Northern California.

John Palmer was part of the Earth Mysteries Art Movement which began in Great Britain in the late 1960s. These important, though unfashionable, artists investigated sacred geometry, archaeoastronomy, myth and folklore, combined with experiences at sites to form the inspiration for creative celebrations of their ancient heritage.

Palmer found that meeting the enigmatic remains of the early beginnings of European human culture, such as the great megalithic monuments, instilled unforgettable impressions on his life and work. This stimulated the study and wider recognition of the symbolism and the intricate, multi-faceted purposes of many ancient sacred sites and engendered site saving efforts.

He is the leading expert on the Blue Stones in Europe which are better preserved in the Netherlands. These stones are geometrically shaped flat stones embedded in the ground. They were sacred centers of towns and also served a judicial function. He spent several years lobbying officials to remove a misleading marker embedded in the Schoonhoven Circle. His work on Blue Stones was published in the newsletter of Sacred Sites International and in the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Ancient Earth Mysteries by Paul Devereux.

A notable example of John’s site saving efforts is the Gozée Menhir (see photo above), located in Belgium. When he first encountered the menhir, or standing stone, he found it “for sale” and its companion stone destroyed, Subsequently, he began writing to authorities to protest the sale of cultural patrimony. This led him to seek legal protection for the remaining stone which was ultimately implemented by the Minister of the Region of Wallone on July 30, 1992 for its historical and archaeological value.

Palmer is currently working on protecting the ancient barrow sites located in The Netherlands. Sacred Sites International has begun writing to the Minister of Culture to inquire about the numbers of barrows located in The Netherlands, the number that may have been destroyed to date because of archaeological excavations, the number of barrows that remain and their condition.

All contents of this newsletter are Copyright © 2015 Sacred Sites International.

Susu Jeffrey Coldwater Springs, Minnesota

My mom believed children should be outdoors except to eat, sleep and go to the bathroom. We had mashed potatoes and politics every night for dinner. My dad was a one-term congressman and a main author of the “G.I. Bill of Rights” in 1944.

My mom was intolerant of lying; she worshiped the sun and loved the water, looking at it, especially swimming in it. My dad taught me how to talk with trees. I have inherited water activism.

It started out with my first nonviolent civil (dis)obedience arrest at Seabrook (NH) nuclear power plant, spring 1977. Today we are breathing Fukushima fallout. It’s in Pacific waves and Midwest rain…and corn. Cancer rates are epidemic.

So after 70 years of watching little squirts of progress here and there, teaching, reporting, writing a few books of poetry, I’ve come to focus on Coldwater Springs. Coldwater is the last natural spring of size in Hennepin County (Minneapolis), 10,000 years old, still flowing at more than 80,000 gallons a day. The first time I saw Coldwater in 1995 it grabbed me by the heart. It was flowing at 130,000 gallons a day then. I remember hearing myself whisper what place is this? Clearly, a magical place.

Coldwater is eligible for Dakota Tribal Sacred Site status and Native American Traditional Cultural property designation except the National Park Service (NPS) doesn’t accept the findings of their own 2006 Ethnographic Study. NPS claims they own” Coldwater. They say “We begin history here in 1820” when Euro-American soldiers were shown to, and took over, this ancient spring.

Coldwater is part of the Dakota Oyate (nation/people) emergence landscape, just north of the great confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. A 9,000 year old bison spear point was found here in the b’dota, the meeting of waters. Where Coldwater Waterfall and Coldwater Creek empty into the Mississippi the bedrock is 451-million years old. Coldwater is also the Birthplace of Minnesota, where soldiers who built Fort Snelling lived (1820-23) and a civilian community developed to service the  fort.

The 27-acre Coldwater campus became a fenced, secretive Cold War research facility 1950-91. In the mid-1990s citizens opposing a highway reroute along Minnehaha Park “discovered” and began researching the land. More than 800 police busted our Minnehaha Free State encampment of Earth First!, Mendota Dakota people and local environmentalists. Many arrests, trials, two books and one documentary film later, the NPS has clear cut the land, leveled the top of the gorge for a mini prairie, measured the flow as it gradually declines, and watched the land become a dog park.

What happens to the land happens to the people.

Charles Miller, Michelle Berditschevsky, David Schooley & Patrick Orozco, Northern California

By Nancy & Leonard Becker

Mount San Bruno Photo By: Bastique

Mount San Bruno Photo By: Bastique

Attorney Charles Miller was the unifying advisor who guided two groups towards the protection of two mountains located in California: Mount Shasta and San Bruno Mountain. We met Charles shortly after founding Sacred Sites International in 1990 when he was working for an environmental law firm in San Francisco. He asked Sacred Sites International to be an official “Interested Party” as Mount Shasta applied for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. The sacred Panther Meadows and spring were threatened by a ski development and the sacred spring is still used by Winnemem Wintu for sacred ceremonies.

Michelle Berditschevsky

Michelle Berditschevsky

We worked with a coalition of Native Americans and members of the Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center, spearheaded by Michelle Berditschevsky. In 1994, Mount Shasta was designated by the National Historic Register as a Traditional Cultural District, thus strengthening the legal protection of 130-square-miles of Mount Shasta. This was later extended in 1999 and expanded in 2005, to protect the sacred landscape at Medicine Lake Highlands.

Charles Miller also invited Sacred Sites International to work with him in another coalition for protecting San Bruno Mountain. Sacred Sites International commented on Environmental reviews and launched Letter-Writing Campaigns to key decision-makers.

Miller initially worked with David Schooley the founder of San Bruno Mountain  Watch who was seeking to protect the mountain from encroachments from proposed housing developments. A number of unique endangered species had been discovered on the mountain: the Mission Blue, San Bruno Elfin and the Callippe Silverspot butterflies and as well as a number of rare and endangered plants like the Silver Bush Lupine which is the preferred plant for the Mission Blue Butterfly.

Patrick Orozco, Pajaro Valley Ohlone

Patrick Orozco, Pajaro Valley Ohlone

Patrick Orozco of the Pajaro Valley Ohlone Council of California Indians was instrumental in the protection of San Bruno Mountain as he represented the Ohlone descendant community in preserving what is one of the largest and oldest undisturbed Ohlone shellmound and burial sites left in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Mount San Bruno Mountain was designated a State and County Park to protect its unique habitat of plants, butterflies and cultural resources.


Lama Tovuu Baldan Baraivan, Mongolia

By Mark Hintzke, Founding Director Cultural Restoration Tourism Project

In 1998 I was invited to Baldan Baraivan, Mongolia, at the request of 97-year-old Lama Tovuu. He had studied at Baldan Baraivan as a young boy and witnessed the destruction of the monastery and the atrocities of the communist regime when monks and lamas were put to death or sent to Siberia. Lama Tovuu was sent to a labor camp but sometime in the mid-20th century, he escaped and returned to his home in Mongolia where he survived by becoming a shepherd, but never forgot his religion.

In 1990, when free elections heralded the tolerance of religion, Tovuu returned to Baldan Baraivan free once again to practice Buddhism. He and a small group of elderly monks began to teach some young boys from the area. Tovuu, supported by some younger monks, put together an ill-planned campaign to have the monastery restored. Through unusual circumstances I was sent a, low-quality Xerox, a copy of a document pleading for the restoration of this monastery.

But, Lama Tovuu lived to tell me of a dream he had earlier that year.

Less than a year later I found myself sitting face- to-face with Lama Tovuu, in his ger (yurt) at the opening to the Baldan Baraivan valley. He spoke about how the spirituality had been stolen from the younger generations who were unable to grow up and live in a Buddhist community. The lama had been sick and near death through most of the past winter and many of those around him thought he would soon pass on. But, Lama Tovuu lived to tell me of a dream he had earlier that year. He said he saw a man from the West who was going to come and rebuild this monastery. Somehow, being suspected as the person from the lama’s vision did not help my feelings of anxiety.

But, with his complete passion and devotion to Baldan Baraivan, he convinced me that this project was worth undertaking. When I reached out to say good-bye, I realized that his tears were falling softly on my hands. My interpreter said that the lama’s tears were tears of joy because he was now confident that he would one day gaze upon the restored temple.

Although Lama Tovuu passed away  in  the winter of 1999, the work continued under the supervision of Tovuu’s 22 year-old pupil, Guree. The Cultural Restoration Tourism Project that I founded went on to restore Baldan Baraivan with the help of volunteers from around the world. Even so, it is Lama Tovuu who deserves the thanks for making this restoration project possible.

Visiting The Hopi Mesas with Eugene Sekaquaptewa

By Mary Lou Skinner Ross

The final day of the study tour, a visit to the Hopi had a character all its own. There is a power and beauty of the mesas, plains and land that is somber, difficult, monotonous, hypnotic and ancient. The wind blew for us most of the way, hiding much with dust, battering and tearing at our bodies. People and places that withstand such forces move one to deep respect. The brief exposure to the wisdom of our Hopi guide was significant. Our visit to a Hopi school was moving as we learned about the Hopi teaching their children to survive in two worlds, holding the values and ways of the past, and honoring them, as well as choosing to understand the new technologies and ways that will affect the lives of all. The rhythm of the people and the sacred earth is deliberate. To truly honor and absorb the experiences of sacred places we must let the land be our guide. We must allow sufficient time to be attentive in our experiences.

Mary Lou Skinner Ross was an elder in her 80s when she participated in one of the first Sacred Sites International Study Tours. She was a retired health educator with the U.S. Public Health Service. She was the author of a book, “Thoughts While Ironing,” and she was deeply concerned about respecting and preserving the environment and all living things

Eugene Sekaquaptewa, Hopi, Arizona

We first met Eugene Sekaquaptewa in 1991 when we visited the Hopi Mesas on a Sacred Sites International study tour to Northern Arizona Indian sites. He was from a progressive family and we learned about his parents and their lives through reading the life story of his mother, Me and Mine, as told to Louise Udall. Eugene’s family believed in education and he became a teacher, as did his brother, Emory, whom we also met.

Eugene walked in both the Hopi and the “white” worlds; he was a leader of his medicine lodge with the Eagle Clan.

He taught us to recognize ceremonial kivas and respect them by not walking on or near them. He also showed us the eagles his clan kept for ceremonies. A highlight of our tour was when Eugene took us to the Bacavi-Hotevilla school where all the students had computers and they were also schooled in the traditions of Hopi.

We went back for one more visit with a Sacred  Sites International member from Ireland. Eugene talked about Hopi dry farming and invited us to his home. He said he liked what we were doing at Sacred Sites International. It was the last time we saw him. He died several years later of complications from diabetes. We remember him fondly for his quiet, patient way of being with us and for his blessing on our work at Sacred Sites International.

By Nancy and Leonard Becker

Bulu Imam, Hazaribagh, Jarkhand, India

A Site Saver and His Family’s Story

I was born on August 31, 1941, in the small town of Hazaribagh, India which is surrounded by jungles. I spent my early childhood with our tribal people in the jungles where i developed my deep love and knowledge about the tribal folklore. I also developed an understanding of the deeper spiritual significance of tribal life and its meaning even though it can never be experienced or understood in the same sense by non-tribal people. For our people, the bears and tigers and wild deer are brothers and sisters. The elephant, because he is so big, is considered a symbol of strength. Everything is deeply associated with the environment that we live in, the forests surrounding the village, wild animals and birds, the fields and rivers, and the various kinds of fruit trees in the village. These things give us food, medicine, shelter, and out of them our folklore and songs and dances are woven.

From them our laws and spiritual beliefs have grown, and without them we are nothing. Our children grow up learning about these things from us, and our stories are our history and literature and these, form the sacred book of knowledge for us even if it is not all written down. We can not allow this priceless knowledge to be lost and we cannot allow this environment to die without losing everything that is connected to it in such a deep way.

When we saw that the government did not care about preserving and protecting our environment, but rather, looked at our environment as a forest or mineral resource to be exploited, we became hurt and angry. All our people are not educated like I am, so it was my work to do the fighting against the destruction being done by the government under the pretext of developing the tribal people.

We have been influenced by Christian missions for over a century and have looked at the missionaries as an ally against the government’s policy. But some of our elders became aware of the missionary’s motives of also exploiting us in a different manner. They brought us schools and education and new values and ways of living in an urbanized environment that we are not used to. They also made us learn their religion and study their language and history. IN this way we found our old traditions given new forms and meanings. In this way, the missionaries were no better than the government. The land is sacred to us because of who we are. Our ancestors tell us our creation stories that say we were the first people on the earth. This idea forms the foundation of our religious beliefs.

My greatest inspiration was my own mother. She was an example of tolerance and sacrifice and endured pain happily to help others.  From her i learned the meaning of the willing acceptance of pain. Our strength as a society is our ability to weep and toil. This is our elders’ vision of the higher reality surrounding us everywhere in nature. Greedy modern materialistic societies are blind to this because of their sense of self-gratification. From my mother I learned a superior vision of the earth as a mother – a nourisher, a provider. We do not see nature as a hostile environment to be either feared or exploited. To us it is Mother.

When I reached the age of forty I was an art teach in a local polytechnic school on a very modest pay with a large family to support; it was hardly imaginable I could take on the addition burdens of my community. But, when we were driven to protect our valleyt from the miner’s machine – the strength simply came. We could not bear to see our burial grounds and sacred groves uprooted. I gave up my teaching job and became a full time environmental activist, even though it was far from easy. But, we had as a family, a new and inspired strength, and a purpose which or life did not have before.

My mother died in 1989 leaving us alone to continue the fight with the government against the destruction of our entire region. Jharkhand is very large area with hundreds of villages, several thousand square kilometers of forests containing all kinds of wildlife. Dozens of rivers and hill streams had to be saved. In these villages and hills lay the scattered remains of our ancestors and the rock art that they painted and left for us in the caves from the ice age. When we think of these things we feel strongly that we can never allow our sacred places to be destroyed for any reason whatsoever. In these places we see the presence of our people, our ancestors, our roots.

When we found that archaeological importance was being given to our sacred sites we were elated, because outsiders cannot understand the sacred relations we have with these places and the surrounding sacred landscape. To us the hills have human forms, the trees of the forest are living beings, the wind’s voice is of a near one. All these constitute our sacred sites and give meaning to our culture. We cannot accept that a sacred grove or a megalithic site can be relocated. Like a flower, megaliths are products of their environment; their meaning is in their location. When we want to show our children our place in the world, we need to have some mapping points. This gives us an idea of where the spirit is. We need to be able to tell our children, “Look at that Mother Hill and worship it;” or, “Stop by the megalith outside the village and be silent for there you will feel the presence of our Ancestors, and our presence when we are gone…”

This then is why we gave up the normal materialistic longings of an educated family and all of us turned inward to protect our roots. We feel very happy our projects to save our region and protect its cultural heritage have been so well received. Many people call us the “Bulu tribe,” and in a way that is perhaps how all tribes started.

Aunty Pua and Uncle Ned Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii

Aunty Pua and Uncle Ned, Lahaina, Hawaii

Aunty Pua as she was affectionately known, was born in 1914 in Honaunau on the Big Island. Her great-grandmother was a chanter at the famous City of Refuge where ancient Hawaiians took refuge after breaking a kapu (taboo). According to her son, Ed Lindsey, this is where she got her spiritual strength.

Aunty Pau was always with her husband, Uncle Ned, a Lahaina boy, who she met at the Maui County Fair. They had five children who they raised on Maui. Their children were instilled with the values of their parents: malame (to take care of) and kokua (to help).

Once their children had grown, Aunty Pau and Uncle Ned assumed the role of Hawaiian elders, or Kupuna. Aunty Pau was a contributing member of the Lahaina community, giving counsel on issues, until her death in December of 2003, at age 89.

Akoni Akana, Founding Director of the Friends of Moku'ula, Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii

Akoni Akana, Founding Director of the Friends of Moku’ula, Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii

Aunty Pua was a kupuna who held herself with dignity while standing up for what she believed in.Her words and actions reflected her strong belief in the rights of Native Hawaiians to a sovereign Hawaii. She was a leader in Na Kupuna O Maui, a group that encouraged Hawaaiian elders to get involved in issues effecting Native Hawaiians.

We fondly remember having lunch with Aunty Pua and Uncle Ned, both in their 80s, and hearing their tales about recently occupying a house on land that should have been returned to Native Hawaiian control.

Aunty Pua and Uncle Ned assumed the role of advisors and worked closely with Akoni Akana, who was the Native Hawaiian advisor to Sacred Sites International and to others who re-discovered the ancient sacred island of Moku’ula in Lahaina. Aunty Pua was one of the first Friends of Moku’ula who urged the restoration of the ancient grounds of Hawaiian royalty, when naysayers said it couldn’t be done.

These elders are also the guardians of sacred cultural knowledge, ceremonies and stories.

The Friends of Moku’ula were successful in getting the Native Hawaiian sacred land returned to native hands.

Upon the founding of Sacred Sites International in 1990, we met Keali’i Reichel – the well-known Hawaiian singer – when he was a curator at the Maui Historical Society’s Bailey House Museum, located on the island of Maui. He suggested we meet Akoni Akana when he learned of our interest in preserving sacred sites. Akoni was working as the Cultural Resource Director at Maui’s Ka’anapali Beach Hotel which was named as “Hawai’i’s Most Hawaiian Hotel.” This unique hotel required its employees to find a cultural project, research it and make it their own.

We arranged a meeting with Akoni and he immediately invited us into his circle of hoaloha (friends) and shared his “gut-level feeling” that there was something more to the baseball field at Lahaina Park, located in the town of Lahaina. He began researching archives for original Hawaiian language newspapers and talking with kapuna. Over time, the history of the place revealed itself. The park had originally been called Moku’ula and had been the site for the Pi’ilani court, the 16th Century ruler of Maui. In the 1830s it was the residence of King Kamehameha III. Akoni learned that the site still contained a buried mausoleum housing royal bones. Oral histories recounted that the sacred site was guarded by Kihawahine, the mo’o kia’i or lizard guardian who lived in Mokuhinia pond.

Sacred Moku’ula was the powerful piko or center from which the Hawaiian Kingdom maintained its legitimacy, its cultural and its spiritual traditions. Over time, the royal mausoleum contained the iwi or bones of many royal Hawaiians which added to its mana, or power.

Akoni eventually went on to be the Founding Director of the Friends of Moku’ula whose mission was the restoration of the site including the original wetlands where Mokuhinia pond was located. (These wetlands were later diverted for use by the sugar cane industry and the site was buried under landfill.) They hired an archaeologist who surveyed the site and uncovered planks belonging to a wooden dock where Hawaiian royalty would have launched their canoes. Remains of the royal mausoleum were also located beneath the baseball field.

Akoni and his organization had to fight for repatriation of the Native Hawaiian land that had become Lahaina Park. To garner support, Akoni went on a national speaking tour that included the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society.

Ultimately, Akoni went before the County of Maui’s Planning Parks and Land Use Commission where a letter from Sacred Sites International was read before the Commission. The  letter testified to Moku’ula’s unique historic and sacred qualities and urged the legislative body to return the land so that it could be protected. In 2002, the Friends of Moku’ula were granted a lease to some of the land and revenues to an adjacent parking lot.

Plans were drawn up and fundraising began for a complete restoration of the site – its mausoleum, boat dock, former dwellings and surrounding wetlands that encompassed Mokuhinia pond. But, by 2011, Akoni, who had diabetes, was in failing health and by March he was gone. He had passed the torch to his assistant, Shirley Kaha’i who became the Project Director. We traveled to Maui to meet with Shirley who agreed to be our new Native Hawaiian Advisor. Shortly thereafter, the unthinkable happened, we lost her to a heart attack.

Blossom Feitiera, Director, is exploring the future of Moku’ula with the Native Hawaiian community. Regardless of what Moku’ula ends up looking like, the vision, wisdom and tenacity of Akoni Akana lives on.

By Nancy & Leonard Becker


Debre Berhan Selassie Church, Gondar, Ethiopia

The Church of Debre Berhan Selassie – Photo by Bernard Gagnon – November 2012

Debre Berhan Selassie Church and Monastery is located in northern Ethiopia in the town of Gondar. It is part of a larger UNESCO World Heritage Site known as Fasil Ghebbi, Gondar Region, inscribed in 1979 for its Outstanding Universal Value.

King Fasil (Fasilides) officially founded the town of Gondar in 1634 as the capital of the Ethiopian Empire. The World Heritage Site is home to royal palaces, historic libraries, monasteries and churches dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, built by King Fasilides and his successors.

The church of Debre Berhan Selassie is a modest stone building surrounded by an exterior stone wall.  It is particularly well known for its interior filled with extraordinary examples of Ethiopian Christian Church art painted in what is known as the second Gondarine style.

Interior of The Church of Debre Berhan Selassie – Photo by A. Savin – February 2018

The biblical scenes are vividly remarkable and the interior paintings cover the walls and ceilings in richly applied red, blue and golden hues. Subjects include the Holy Trinity – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, seated above Christ on the Cross.

The Holy Trinity – Photo by Sam Effron – October 2008

Be sure to locate the symbols of the four Evangelists surrounding the Trinity. These are painted in a charming Medieval style: the lion on the lower left represents Saint Mark; the oxen on the lower right symbolizes Saint Luke; the winged bird on the upper right illustrates Saint John; and, on the upper left, a winged man stands in for Saint Matthew.

The upper sections of the church walls are covered with panels that depict familiar biblical figures and stories.

Frescoes of Saint George Slaying the Dragon, The Assumption of Mary, and other biblical Subjects – Photo by Bernard Gagnon – November 2012

Pictured below is perhaps the most endearing sight – the ceiling of the church is completely covered by the faces of cherubic angels peering down at visitors.

Ceiling Painting – Photo by A. Savin – February 2018

My Son Sanctuary, Vietnam

By Tung Nguyen

My Son Temple, Stele, Lingams and Yoni -Photo by Bernard Gagnon (1992)

My Son Temple, Stele, Lingams and Yoni, Photo by Bernard Gagnon (1992)

Deep among the forest and mountains of the central part of Vietnam lies one of the most significant sacred sites of Southeast Asia – My Son Sanctuary of the ancient Champa kingdom. About 70 kilometers (43.5 miles) to the southwest of the bustling city of Da Nang, My Son valley is home to a temple complex with about 71 standing structures, 32 epitaphs and a wide array of cultural artifacts from a long-lost kingdom. My Son served as the religious center for the worshipping of Hindu deities, especially Shiva. It also was the site for Cham kings to carry out important rituals and was a burial site for kings and religious leaders. 1 Like other Cham temples spread throughout the territory of modern-day Vietnam, the temples and towers at My Son are the combination of the cosmology of Hinduism and the Cham’s technical as well as cultural ingenuity. My Son’s towering structures, built from fired clay bricks and adorned with extremely detailed carvings and sculptures, have withstood hundreds of years of weathering and wartime destruction. This is a testimony to the unique and impressive building technique of the Cham. The site is still considered sacred by the Cham people, who are currently a recognized minority in Vietnam, and to a certain extent the larger Vietnamese population. Although the site was recognized as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1999 and is being preserved continuously by the Vietnamese government, My Son still faces the issues of pollution, deterioration and misinterpretation.

Temple A1 Drawing after Henri Parmentier (1871-1949) The site was studied by Parmentier and his successors from the École française d'Extrême-Orient

Temple A1 Drawing after Henri Parmentier (1871-1949) The site was studied by Parmentier and his successors from the École française d’Extrême-Orient

The creation of My Son was imbued with religious and cultural beliefs. One can say the geographical position of My Son is a reflection of Cham cosmology, one that is heavily influenced by Hinduism coming to the Indochina Peninsula as early as the 4th century CE. My Son Sanctuary was built in a valley encircled by three sacred mountains: the Kucaka Mountain to the north, the Sulaha Mountain to the south and the Mahaparvata Mountain to the west. 2 The Mahaparvata was considered particularly sacred and was compared to the holy Mount Meru of Hinduism. To the north of My Son is Thu Bon River, or Mahadani River in Cham language, which was believed to be an avatar of the goddess Ganga. Surrounded by such natural elements, in addition to the tranquility of the forest, My Son was considered an ideal location for a Hindu sacred site. It was here in the valley of My Son to the west of then Champa’s capital city of Simhapura (“The Lion City”) that King Bhadravarman (reigned from 380 CE – 413 CE) built a wooden temple to worship the deity-king Bhadresvara, 3 whose power was represented in the form of a lingam. After a fire destroyed the temple in the 6th century, King Sambhuvarman (r. 577 CE – 629 CE) rebuilt the site with fired bricks and renamed it Sambhu-Bhadresvara. Since then, My Son had been one of the largest and most important sacred sites of Champa. Throughout the history of the site, generations of Cham kings and religious leaders had maintained it. They also carried out religious rituals and burials, as well as added more temples and towers to the original site. Thus, over several hundred years, from the 7th century CE to the 13th century CE, My Son Sanctuary became a temple complex with a rich history and a collection of architectural styles from different periods.

The storehouse known as "B5" (background) is the outstanding surviving exemplar of the My Son A1 style– Photo by Doktor Max – Summer 2007

The storehouse known as “B5” (background) is the outstanding surviving exemplar of the My Son A1 style– Photo by Doktor Max – Summer 2007

While the environment surrounding My Son had a certain spiritual meaning for the Cham, their religious and cultural values are exhibited more heavily in the structures within the temple complex. Structures and carvings are spread across the valley and separated into distinct groups – evidence of the continuous expansion of the complex through several dynasties in Champa’s history. Despite the grouping and the apparent differences in style, most of these temples bear similar characteristics that reflect the dualist Hindu worldview of the once thriving civilization.

Map of Temple Groups – Photo by Khuong Viet Ha

Map of Temple Groups – Photo by Khuong Viet Ha

Each temple group contains a main temple, complemented by towers and auxiliary structures. They were mostly designed on the east-west axis, with the main gate usually pointing east as homage to the rain god Indra. An agricultural civilization like Champa would generally consider rain to be beneficial and a sign of prosperity, thus explaining such design in holy places. The main temple can be divided into three parts that resemble the holy mountain Meru in Hinduism: bhurloka (the base) resembles the realm of the ordinary and is decorated with patterns, humans and animals on reliefs; the bhurvaloka (the body) resembles the rise to the spiritual world and has columns and vertical pattern decoration; svarloka (the top) has finely-carved decoration of mythical creatures and holy men, which resembles the spiritual realm at the summit of Mount Meru. Another similar characteristic between temple groups is the presence of a set of stone monuments – a cylinder called a lingam mounted on a square pedestal called a yoni. The lingam is an icon of the masculine power of Shiva, while the yoni symbolizes the creative power of the goddess Parvati. 4 It is symbolic of the dualist worldview of the Cham as they believed in the creation of life through a combination of masculinity and femininity in the universe.

Lingam and Yoni – Photo By Shankar - 2016

Lingam and Yoni – Photo By Shankar – 2016

It is impossible to talk about My Son without mentioning the technical ingenuity that created it. All of the temples and towers in My Son were built with red-fired bricks that vary in thickness depending the part of the structure they were used for. The materials used to manufacture these bricks created a substance that absorbs water but also releases it quickly under dry conditions. Thus, although light and spongier, Cham bricks were far superior to modern bricks in terms of quality and durability. 5 Despite the massive size of the structures, there are no visible signs of mortar between the bricks. This creates a homogenous exterior that adds to the grandeur of the structure. Once masons built a structure, carvers and sculptors would then decorate the external surfaces. The continuous stability of the standing temples is a testimony to the quality of Cham masonry.

All of the buildings are made of red bricks with stone pillars and have sandstone bas-reliefs showing scenes from Hindu mythology, except for one - labeled B1, which was made of stone. – 2016 By Shankar S.

All of the buildings are made of red bricks with stone pillars and have sandstone bas-reliefs showing scenes from Hindu mythology, except for one – labeled B1, which was made of stone. – 2016 By Shankar S.

My Son Temple Bodhisattvas. The temples at Mỹ Sơn are made of a reddish brick. Decorative carvings have been cut directly into the bricks. Photo by Tycho December 22, 2017

My Son Temple Bodhisattvas. The temples at Mỹ Sơn are made of a reddish brick. Decorative carvings have been cut directly into the bricks.
Photo by Tycho December 22, 2017

As magnificent as these temples were, no man-made structure can stand the test of time forever. When the Champa Kingdon fell at the end of the 13th century, My Son Sanctuary fell into a state of disrepair. The site was later rediscovered in 1898 by the French and scholars and other experts began to study and somewhat maintain it. My Son temples suffered heavy damage from wars, especially during the Vietnam War – 1959 to 1975. With peace after 1975, efforts have been put into preserving what is left of the site. As a result of continuous promotion and nomination, My Son was recognized as a World Heritage site in 1999. However, the site faces three major issues, namely pollution, deterioration and misinterpretation.

Temple Damaged by U.S. Bombing During the Vietnam War Photo by Pierre Dalbera

Temple Damaged by U.S. Bombing During the Vietnam War
Photo by Pierre Dalbera

Pollution is mainly caused by the increasing influx of tourists and traffic into the main temple area. It is estimated that about 350,000 tourists visited My Son in 2017. As of 2013, private cars, buses and minivans were allowed to freely enter the main area of the site. 6 The concentration of traffic inside My Son, especially during rush hours, created a risk of significant air pollution, faster ground deterioration, as well as deterioration in the integrity of the structures. To combat these risks, the site’s management board implemented several traffic control methods, including a separate parking zone outside of the main temple area, electric shuttles to the site and tourist guidelines on site protection. However, as the number of tourists continues to rise, stricter planning and stronger implementation are needed to properly maintain the quality of the natural beauty that made this site a holy place.

A more immediate threat to My Son is the deterioration of its integrity. Due to its position inside a valley surrounded by three mountain ranges and a large river, My Son is susceptible to annual flooding during the monsoon season. A solution to this issue came in a joint preservation project sponsored by the government of Italy in 2003. Following a proposal by French architect Pierre Pichard from the École Française d’Extrême-Orient, a drainage system was installed to improve the site’s ability to resist heavy rains and flooding. 7 The original drainage system built by the Cham was also discovered and integrated where possible to the new one. 8

The structures also face severe deterioration due to a long period of disrepair and weathering. Early restoration efforts in the 1980s, aided by Polish preservation experts, could only temporarily improve the integrity of major structures. This was because the construction techniques and materials used by the Cham were not entirely clear due to lack of information remaining from the original builders. Another project, from 2003 to 2013, was funded by the Italian government and continued research on the brickmaking and masonry techniques employed by the Cham in the past. All of these activities aim to stabilize and restore the structures as close as possible to their original design.

Corbelled Arch disintegrating – Photo by Bill Bradley, 2010

Corbelled Arch disintegrating – Photo by Bill Bradley, 2010

Finally, every heritage site needs an accurate and educational narrative that serves to further the cultural understanding of it. However, as Champa has long cease to exist and the Cham are only a minority in Vietnam, the responsibilities of maintaining and narrating the history of My Son now rests in the hands of the dominant Kinh people. Because of this, there is a risk of misinterpretation and bias in the presentation of Cham cultural and religious values. There are plans to implement eco-tourism that incorporates modern Cham guides to enhance the tourist experience of the site. These plans will improve the integrity of My Son and preserve Cham cultural identity through more accurate narratives.

My Son has been a sacred site since its creation. Over the centuries, it expanded beyond the original temple to become a complex that exhibited not just the technical ingenuity but also the worldview of a people. Like many other heritage sites across the globe, My Son faces issues like deterioration, pollution and misinterpretation. A lot of challenges still lie ahead for the preservation of My Son. It is my hope that the conviction to preserve the site with cooperation between governments and international organizations, and proper site management, will mean that future generations can fully appreciate the cultural and spiritual beauty of My Son.

Tung Nguyen is an Anthropology student at the University of California in Berkeley and a cultural enthusiast from Vietnam whose focus is the preservation of cultural heritage in Southeast Asia.

UNESCO, Safeguarding of My Son World Heritage Site 2003-2013 Project Completion Report, Vietnam, 2013.

© 2018 Sacred Sites International