My Son Sanctuary Lost Tower-Temples
In a lush green Vietnamese valley surrounded by high mountains are the ruins of an ancient imperial city known as the My Son Sanctuary. It was once the holiest place of the Campa Kingdom. Fleeing Chinese dominance and in search of an independent state, the Cham settled along the coast of central Vietnam in the latter part of the second century. Between the 4th and the 13th century they dominated the central region of the country and developed a unique culture with spiritual origins in Indian Hinduism.
At My Son (sounds like “me sun” and means “Beautiful Mountain” in Vietnamese) the Cham people built a holy sanctuary that remained the religious and political capital of the Champa Kingdom for almost its entire existence. In this beautiful setting surrounded by two mountain ranges, the Cham people built an easily defensible stronghold and pursued their livelihood of wet-rice agricultural farming, fishing and seaborne trade.
Influenced by the Hindu religion early in their development, many of their temples were built to honor the Hindu divinities. While Krishna and Vishnu were two of those divinities, Shiva, the God of destruction, was the most powerful. His image was often placed in a temple separate from other Hindu gods.
Because of its strategic significance, successive kings favored the site and commissioned many fine towers and temples beginning in the 6th century. In this beautiful two kilometer wide valley setting, the Cham craftsmen constructed tower-temples that have survived for thousands of years. Widely known for their brickwork, the Cham tradesmen employed building skills that used baked bricks that were not too hard or too soft and proved to be far superior to bricks made in the 20th century. For mortar they used a thin layer of sugar and honey that can be barely detected today. Using a technique unique to Asia, the structures were built first and then sculptors carved the graceful decorative patterns of leaves and flowers, human figures, lions, elephants, birds, and scenes from daily life as well as scenes from Hindu mythology.
Most of the finest surviving structures are the eight towers that date from the 10th through the 13th centuries, the golden age of the Cham. These sacred places were dedicated to gods. Ordinary people were not allowed inside. Only Brahman monks and members of royalty took part in the sacred ceremonies where the king spoke to god and prayed for the safety and prosperity of his people. In addition to serving as a religious site, My Son was also a burial place for Cham royalty and national heroes as evidenced by the presence of Sanskrit inscribed headstones.
My Son suffered greatly during a period of continuous warfare in the 11th century. Harivarman IV was successful in negotiating a short term peace for the kingdom. Then towards the end of that century, he moved the capital to another site and began restoration of My Son. Despite his efforts the former Champa Kingdom continued to decline during subsequent episodes of warfare. My Son ceased to exist as an entity in the 15th century when worship at the site ended. It was rediscovered in the late 1900s by a French scholar. Thereafter, many scientist and scholars came to My Son study the Cham epitaphs, sculptures and architecture.
Today, only remnants of the Champa Kingdom’s grandeur remain. Of the more than 70 original towers, only 25 still exist in various states of ruin. Some restoration is underway; however, most of the Cham artifacts have been moved to the Cham Museum in Da Nang. Unfortunately, time and element have continued to take a mighty toll on the few remaining relics and vegetation threatens to reclaim the surviving structures. Scattered throughout the grounds are stone pillars that served as monuments as well as lingams, the phallic symbol of Shiva, which sat on female bases.
After the Cham people abandoned the kingdom more than seven centuries ago and integrated into the Vietnamese culture, nearby forests were reclaimed by the jungle and provided a convenient screen for Vietcong soldiers hiding from American invaders during the Vietnam War. As the American military attempted to destroy the elusive target, My Son suffered major collateral damage during daily air strikes in August 1969.
Not only were many of the most impressive towers and temples damaged or destroyed by bullets, the air raids left behind scores of unexploded ordinances throughout the site. Work to rid the site of unexploded ordinances began in 1975 and continues to this day. Craters created by dropped bombs are still visible around the site.
My Son is estimated to be the longest inhabited archaeological site in Indochina and is one of the foremost Hindu temple complexes in Southeast Asia. UNESCO recognized its importance in 1999 as evidence of an Asian culture that is now extinct and added My Son to its list of historically important sites. My Son is small and not nearly as well preserved in comparison to many other ancient historical complexes in Southeast Asia, but well worth the visit. In an attempt to keep My Son’s ancient history alive, restoration of the site continues.
My Son is located about 50 kilometers from Hoi An and about 70 kilometers southwest of Da Nang. Hotels in both cities will gladly handle the details of scheduling a visit. It’s best to arrive early in the day before the hordes of tourist buses arrive. The site is relatively compact and the terrain is flat; however, most of the site in not wheelchair accessible.