By Tung Nguyen
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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