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Lost in ruination

My Son Sanctuary has decayed over its centuries-old history, but fresh efforts are being made to show off the unique Indian influence in the region

The light breeze and perfect natural setting of the one-time Hindu sacred land of the Champa kingdom in central Vietnam wafted my curiosity about how this site began, when India started being interested in this country and how everything that used to be so much alive in the old days ended up abandoned in the ample jungle.

An Asian traveller wears a Vietnamese conical hat at My Son. Photos: Prangthong Jitcharoenkul

In contrast to the reality that anything affected by India is rarely seen in any part of Vietnam today, I realised while wandering through the Hindu ruins at My Son Sanctuary that the history of Indian influence in central Vietnam might go back much longer than thought.

Centuries ago, commercial exchanges were strengthened after the discovery of the monsoon winds, which pushed India's trade activities with Europe and the entire region of Southeast Asia for countless years.

To India at that time, Southeast Asia had been considered the Land of Gold. The main trading items from Southeast Asia were gold and spices, while Vietnam figured prominently in this commercial exchange and products such as gold and minerals had attracted many Indian traders to this land.

A traditional Champa dance at 9.45am every day is a bonus if you arrive at My Son early.

Even though the world's political instability disrupted the trade links by the 1400s, Indian influence and interaction in this region, particularly central Vietnam, eventually went beyond commercial needs.

Far from India's shores, footprints of these strong cultural exchanges are evident in the Champa remnants in Quang Nam province's mountainous border Duy Xuyen district. They have shed more light on the fact that the local community in central Vietnam had contacted and adopted views, beliefs, cultural and religious practices from the Indians arriving in Vietnam.

Located about 40km from the ancient town of Hoi An, a cluster of abandoned and partially ruined Hindu temples is located in an enchanting natural landscape.

Clear streams run between structures.

The complex site is in a narrow lush valley, overlooked by Cat's Tooth or Hon Quap Mountain and surrounded by high mountains, which are the source of the holy Thu Bon River flowing through the heartland of the Champa kingdom. The geography gave the site a strategic significance in its heyday.

After buying an entrance ticket, I walked for a few minutes and reached a tram station from where visitors are taken to the relic areas by open-sided electric trams on a journey of about 2km. I was dropped off at the farthest point the vehicles are permitted to go. Even so, I needed to walk a bit to reach the main restored temples.

Besides the improved convenience this tourist attraction provides, the fresh air on the tram trip made my day.

WAR VICTIM: My Son Sanctuary, right, was mostly destroyed by intense US carpetbombing in 1969.

The architecture and design of the surviving structures at My Son were developed unceasingly over 10 centuries from the fourth to the 13th centuries. They were built by the kings of the Champa kingdom and infiltrated with the sacred beliefs of Mount Meru, the mythical sacred mountain of Hindu gods at the centre of the universe. 

The earliest temples were built of wood, but later were destroyed by fire from an unknown source. The subsequent kings rebuilt the temples from the same materials, with close-fitted bricks and almost invisible mortar.

RECOGNITION: Below, Hoi An was named as a Unesco world heritage site in 1999.

French archaeologist Camille Paris rediscovered the Hindu temple complex during the French occupation of Vietnam in the 19th century. However, Henri Parmentier, also from France, was the first person who extensively conducted studies of My Son and published major studies on the Cham arts.

Parmentier documented 71 temples and categorised the temples into alphabetical groups -- namely A, A', B, C, D, E, F, G, H and K groups, each consisting of multiple Hindu temples.

Unfortunately, American B-52 heavy bombers damaged many tower temples in August 1969 during the outbreak of the Second Indochina War (called the Vietnam War in the United States and the American War in Vietnam) after they found out the National Liberation Front or the communist Viet Cong, who were allied with North Vietnam and fought against South Vietnamese armies and the United States, used the site as their strongholds.

TOURIST TRAIL: Above, Group A, also called Pagoda Tower by the Chams, and Group B are the most important complexes at My Son Sanctuary.

As a result, there are very few Hindu temples left intact.

The huge brick monument standing 28 metres high which used to be at the centre of Group A was also destroyed during the Vietnam War. It was typical architecture for the golden age of the Champa kingdom. This was the only temple with two main doors opening to the east and west, and it is surrounded by six small temples. Sadly, Group A is in very poor shape today.

The disappeared main temple once served as the place for the Champa royals to worship Hindu divinities such as Vishnu, Krishna and, above all, Shiva.

The Hindu temple complex was recognised as a national site in 1979. It became a special national site 30 years later. In 1999, Unesco recognised its charm and historical evidence and listed it as a world heritage site under two criteria: its evidence of an Asian civilisation that is now extinct and its cultural integration with the local community.

WAR WOUNDS: Left, bomb craters are still visible to visitors today throughout the complex.

The Cham ethnic group is believed to be the Balamon or Brahman people. Even though Mahayan Buddhists penetrated the Champa kingdom, Hindu god Shiva remained the state religion until their very last days when the kingdom was invaded and annexed by Vietnamese emperor Minh Mang in 1832, ending Champa rule in southern and central Vietnam.

The Champa civilisation has become almost forgotten since then.

Today the surviving Cham offspring are scattered across East Asia. While some became Sunni Muslims living in Cambodia, many chose to reside in China as Shias. A small number moved to Thailand and follow Buddhism, but few Chams now remain in Vietnam.

The site is at risk of severe climatic conditions, flooding and high humidity. To preserve this historical site for future generations, conservation and restoration work on Cham monuments at My Son will be carried out shortly following an agreement signed between Vietnam and India a few years ago.

Among the recorded number of 250,000 visitors to My Son per year, I observed that very few Asians make their way there. There are people who complain that the temples at My Son are not as impressive as those at Angkor Wat built by the Cambodian Khmer empire. They miss the point.

In contrast to the hustle of Danang and Hoi An cities, My Son offers a tranquil break to trace its old history of external influence, the war and loss.

I guarantee that a mixed feeling of spirituality and adventure in the right balance here will put you at ease.

ANCIENT: eight groups of 71 standing monuments remain at the complex but very few are intact after the Vietnam War.

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