Malaysian discovers old world sanctuary in My Son, Vietnam

The writer and his friends and family visited My Son in Vietnam last year. — DR OH SEONG POR

Last October, I joined my old buddies and their families for a free-and-easy tour in Danang, a coastal city off central Vietnam.

A place I was looking forward to visit was My Son, the ancient shrine of Champa Kingdom. My Son is located about 70km southwest of Danang. To get there, we took a 10-seater van and hired a local English-speaking guide who introduced himself as John.

My Son means beautiful mountain in Vietnamese. It’s an apt name considering how the site is situated at a valley surrounded by two mountain ranges at Quang Nam Province.

My Son is a cluster of Hindu temples, stone sculptures and towers built between the 4th and 13th century by the Kings of Champa, a kingdom of the Cham people.

According to our guide, the first temple was built by King Bhadravarman who reigned from the year 380 to 413. Whenever a new king ascends the throne, he is obliged to build a temple to pay homage to the God Shiva.

Over the centuries, more than 70 temples have been constructed within the valley, thus making My Son the largest and oldest ancient holy sanctuary in the South-East Asia, as claimed by John.

In 1832, Minh Mang, the Emperor of Vietnam conquered My Son. Champa Kingdom disintegrated and Cham people finally assimilated to the Vietnamese community.

My Son was left abandoned and later covered by jungle until 1885, when a Frenchman MC Paris rediscovered it. During the Vietnam War, the United States launched massive carpet bombing on the area. As a result, most of the temples were destroyed or left partly ruined, but they were restored by the Vietnam government after the war.

My Son was gazetted by Unesco as a World Heritage Site of the ancient Champa Civilization in 1999.

As I explored the site, I realised that the temples were built in moderate size. Even the towers were not tall and sculptures were relatively small.

All the temples were constructed from reddish bricks or stones, beginning from the bottom foundation till the top roof. The bricks were carefully layered and bonded by some kind of sticky mortar.

John said that the whole structures were hardened by fire after the temple was completely constructed. Looking at the amount of activities and using the available knowledge at that time to work on, I presume that much labour and time went into the construction of the temples.

These unique construction techniques made the temples solid and they stood the test of time. I also noticed some inscriptions on the walls which John said were sacred phrases in ancient language of Sanskrit or old Cham.

There were also many decorative and deity carvings which had been skilfully cut into the bricks. The carvings and architectural designs were greatly influenced by the Indian style and Hindu teachings. They gave different impressions according to the time each temple was built.

There weren’t many artefacts found at the site. I asked John about this and he replied that most of the artefacts were collected either by the domestic or foreign archaeologists who came to the site to study or research.

Some artefacts were transported to museums to be displayed, while some were stolen and sold.

If you examine My Son closely, you can see the vivid traces of war such as bullet marks on walls or towers, and half-ruined structures. Even the surroundings were not spared but covered with bomb craters-turned-ponds.

The long history spanning almost nine centuries of the Champa civilisation was reduced with the destructions brought by war. It is heartening to know that the government has recognised the importance of My Son and has implemented conservation works to restore the ruined temples. Those who appreciate ancient history will find My Son a worthwhile place to visit.

The views expressed are entirely the reader’s own.

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