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

Antequera Dolmens & El Torcal Mountains of Andulusia, Spain

 

Antequera Dolmens & El Torcal Mountains of Andulusia, Spain

Added to UNESCO World Heritage List in 2017

About the Site:

The site comprised three megalithic monuments: the Menga and vVera dolmens and the Tholos of El Romeral. Pictured above, is the entrance to the Menga Dolmen and below the interior.

These monumental stone tombs were constructed in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. The Structures contain chambers with lintelled roofs or cupolas and are buried beneath their original earth tumuli. They comprise some of the best examples of their kind.

The site, in addition, includes two mountains: The mountains known as El Torcal, below:

and La Peña, de los Enamorados, a mountain known as “Lover’s Leap,” below:

 

 

Nan Madol: Sacred City of Micronesia by Carol Nervig

Nan Madol rises dramatically and unexpectedly out of the Pacific Ocean. This majestic ancient city filled with sacred centers is located off the island of Pohnpei in the U.S. Micronesia. It is the largest archaeological site in the Pacific region. Nan Madol is comprised of an intricate system of waterways that crisscross 92 human constructed islets and structures. The black stone buildings are completely unique in their construction. There is no other architecture of this kind known in the world. The building of Nan Madol was an impressive engineering feat that withstood strong waves and ocean currents. The city’s construction also required divine assistance and spiritual intent when heavy megalithic stones were moved into place. Now, after standing for over 1500 years, the survival of this sacred city is threatened by deterioration.

The site was constructed on an area called, “The Reef of Heaven.” The building took place over a period of one thousand years, between 500 and 1500 A.D. Many of the islets are dominated by megalithic structures comprised of long, naturally prismatic, log-like basalt stones. Some of these rocks weigh 50 to 60 tons. Evidence suggests that some of the islets played an important roles in the religion of a thriving Pacific Ocean culture. Upper Madol, “Madol Powe,” was the priests’ town and Lower Madol, “Madol Pah,” was occupied by high-ranking rulers. Both sections included important sacred sites.

According to Pohnpeian oral history, initial construction of Nan Madol was begun by two brothers, Ohlosohpa and Olosihpa.

These holy men sailed from a land in the west searching for a place to build a sacred center where they could worship a presence called the “honored spirit of the land.” After several attempts they found a suitable location. With the assistance of gods and their companions, they first erected a rock on the reef to serve as a transit for laying the islets’ foundations. Strong waves made building nearly impossible. Finally an important man arrived on a magical rock to assist with the project. He cast a spell and the rock turned into an outer foundation wall that protected the islet structures from ocean forces. This wall has the only gate providing entrance to Nan Madol from the ocean. It is believed that this gate leads to an honored underground city, Kahnimweiso.

Islets

Just beyond the entry gate stands the most impressive of the site’s structures. The islet is called Nan Douwas, which means “in the mouth of the high chief.” It was a place to pray to “the honored spirit of the land,” as well as a refuge and meeting place for tribal chiefs. This islet consists of an immense double-walled stone burial vault that housed the remains of ancient rulers. Its impressive construction contains 13,500 cubic meters of coral fill, 4,500 cubic meters of basalt and has twenty-five-foot high walls. Because of its spectacular appearance, Nan Douwas is the most frequently visited islet.

The main religious center of Nan Madol was the islet of Idehd. Every year, at a time determined by divination and change in the agricultural seasons, the high priests performed extended rituals of homage, supplication and atonement. The rituals ended with the offering of a turtle to the great saltwater eel that acted as a medium between the people and the ruler’s god. The eel’s acceptance of the turtle indicated that, “the honored spirit of the land,” was pleased with human conduct on Pohnpei.

Other islets had important sacred ceremonial sites. Darong was symmetrically constructed around a natural reef pool. Eleven tunnel-like channels ran through the coral fill. These were constructed with carefully cut coral bricks set between rows of basalt columns. It is believe that these channels were used to keep sacred eels, Legends indicate that the pool was also used for seasonal ritualistic clam fishing. A remarkable two-ton pounding stone found on this islet suggests a ceremonial structure of priest’s house.

The islet of Peikapw had two sacred pools. One probably held the turtles used on Idehd. The other was a magical pool where rulers could see all events taking place on neigh boring islands. IN addition, there are two sacred trees and stones said to have once been women who neglected a famous giant god.

Kohnderek was the most important islet for burial rituals. When a person dies their body was perfumed with coconut oil and wrapped in a mat along with flowers, fish bones, and some of their belongings. They were taken to visit all the islets, finally stopping at Kohnderek. The most important funeral dancing and drinking occurred on this islet before the burial on one of the other islets.

Preservation

As the end of the 20th century grows closer, Nan Madol is in danger of destruction from the ravaged of tie and from increased tourism. Immediate preservation needs are the stabilization of the islets’ retaining walls and the walls of the structures, vegetation removal and maintenance and proper management of eco-tourism.

The protection and preservation of Nan Madol was provided for in 2986 in its proclamation as a U.S. National Historic Landmark. The site is being nominated to the World Heritage List of the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO because of its “outstanding universal value from the historical, aesthetic and anthropological points of view.” (See Site Saver, Vol. II, No. 3 on UNESCO World Heritage Sites.)

The state of Pohnpei is passing its own preservation legislation, which will further protect the site’s integrity and aesthetic qualities.

The importance of the site has also attracted a group of private individuals who have formed the Nan Madol Foundation. This non-profit group is dedicated to researching, preserving, and protecting the area. They are developing a master plan for education and economic development.

Tourists are increasing at this unique site. Their numbers are expected to increase exponentially when the National Geographic Society releases its new book Mysteries of Mankind  later this year. Approximately 600,000 copies will be produced, featuring such sacred sites as the Pyramids, Stonehenge, Easter Island, and Nan Madol.

In anticipation of more visitors, the Nan Madol Foundation is working to preserve the site and its culture by building small family-owned traditional-style hotels. They envision a strong educational component for visitors, which will emphasize traditional island arts, crafts, dances, and story telling. By such forward thinking it is hoped that this site can be preserved for future generations before overdevelopment and overuse destroy its integrity.

 

Carol Nervig is a former Peace Corps volunteer who served on the island of Pohnpei. Sacred Sites International first published this story in 1992. It took over 25 years for Nan Madol to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.