73. Mỹ Sơn Is Not My Son

Central Vietnam’s Mỹ Sơn sanctuary recalls a medieval era when the Hindu faith directed the course of the ancient Champa Empire.

Detailed carvings surround the base of the central temple of the G group. (JGA photo)

I will never confuse Mỹ Sơn with My Son, although they do have many traits in common.

My son, the man, was sturdy but not indestructible. He was spiritually robust and true but not without some moral ambiguity. (Nor do I deny numerous flaws in my own fabric.) He lived hard and strong and was gone too soon.

Many of the same things might be said about Mỹ Sơn. Ancient Vietnam’s preeminent archaeological site, pronounced mee suhn, roared for a millennium, from the 4th to the 13th centuries, and grew to symbolize the spiritual strength of the Champa culture of the central Vietnamese coast. Yet too soon its bricks crumbled and were consumed by indomitable jungle, only to be rediscovered in the 19th century — and again destroyed by war in the 20th.

A moss-covered stone stairway inveigles visitors to the G group. (JGA photo)

Mỹ Sơn was a Hindu religious sanctuary in a land traditionally true to Chinese Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianist ethics. The audaciously sexual concept of worshipping a lingam as a phallic representation of the god Shiva, to invite fertility, may well have contributed to the centuries of warfare endured by the Champa Kingdom. Today the site, recognized by UNESCO on ít short list of World Cultural Heritage sites in Vietnam, cries out for several hours’ exploration.

A day’s excursion

From the tourist town of Hội An, it takes about 45 minutes to make the 30-kilometer (19-mile) drive to Mỹ Sơn. I paid about US$20 to hire a taxi for the day, and it was an excellent investment: My driver left me at the monument for three full hours and charged me no extra.

Morning light sheds an eerie glow upon the G group. (JGA photo)

The entrance fee of about US$6.50 (150,000 Vietnam dong) included more than mere access to ruins. With help from the Indian, Chinese and German governments, ongoing restoration work is peeling away layers of abuse, many examples of which are now displayed in an introductory museum. Here, maps and diagrams set the scene for a walk through the heritage site itself.

Mỹ Sơn was forgotten, except perhaps in Cham legend, when it was rediscovered by French colonists in thick jungle in 1885. For all the injustices perpetrated by the French upon the Indochinese, the Europeans did a lot to further archeology. Digs determined the site was consecrated to Shiva, and that symbolically the sacred mountain Mahaparvata, overlooking Mỹ Sơn to the south, gives rise to a holy spring flowing through the narrow valley of the sanctuary. The mountain was seen to represent a lingam (male organ), the valley a yoni (female organ), and the spring a drainage for the yoni.

Fierce mythological monsters, similar to those seen in Javanese architectural, protect a temple base. (JGA photo)

Nine building clusters

Of more than 70 shrines unearthed in nine lettered clusters, only about 20 remain in good condition, some of those after extensive restoration work. There were more here prior to the American War, but the sanctuary was laid to waste by U.S. troops when a secret Viet Cong base was detected among the ruins. Numerous bomb craters, many of them now filled with ground water, are scattered around the site.

A shuttle bus delivers visitors from the museum, up a narrow access road to the  site. My driver let me out at a turnabout, from where I climbed a gentle hill to Group H. This was my first place to take a close look at the Cham building style — red clay bricks carefully smoothed and stacked close to one another without the use of mortar. The technique remains obscure to this day.

Cham architectural techniques, stacking smoothed bricks with no mortar, is evident at the Group H restoration site. (JGA photo)

From that small group, I continued walking to the original main temple (“B1”) of King Bhadravarman, who is credited with establishing the site in the 4th century. (The temple was destroyed in the 6th century, rebuilt in the 7th century, but today, only a base of 11th-century sandstone blocks remains.) The ancient lingam exhibited inside wasn’t discovered until 1985.

Indeed, each of the various temple groups featured several smaller out-structures surrounding a central tower facing east, the direction of sunrise. It was linked to a mandapa, or meditation hall, where pilgrims prepared offerings used in rites and ceremonies, sometimes including animal sacrifices.

Sculptures found on site have been restored in a Group D meditation hall. (JGA photo)

Among the most intact is “B5.” Built in the 10th century, it suggests a strong cross-cultural influence affected by the Chams’ maritime trade, as its distinctive boat shape mimics the Malay-Polynesian architectural style of the time. Nearby, mandapas “D1” and “D2” have been refurbished to present small sculptural exhibits.

Stop the bombs!

The 8th-century central temple of the C group (“C1”) was used to worship Shiva in human form. This shrine’s altar is empty; its image of Shiva was moved to Da Nang’s Museum of Cham Sculpture before it fell victim to American attack.

The great temple at Group A suffered severe damage during the American War. (JGA photo)

It was a well-considered decision. Group A, in particular, was almost completely destroyed by American bombs. Its massive main shrine, the only sanctuary with two doors (one facing east, the other west toward ancestral tombs), survived aerial bombings only to succumb to more directed ground attacks. That was the last U.S. attack on Cham cultural sites, as President Richard Nixon acquiesced to a letter of protest from an art expert who emphasized the lack of any tie between ancient Hindu ruins and 20th-century Marxist politics.

I found the well-preserved G group to be the most intriguing — from the carvings of mythological monster-gods around the base of a massive edifice, to broad moss-covered staircases, to steles relating sanctuary rules and stories of the gods unknown to all but experts in ancient script.

Ancient Champa script remains a mystery to all but a handful of archaeo-linguists. (JGA photo)

This blog will not be an intellectual description of the Mỹ Sơn refuge. I’ll leave that to the experts. I’ll merely share some photographs of a síte that thoroughly enthralled me, and hope they inspire exploration by other visitors.

Medieval carvings address the depth of the Champa Kingdom’s Hindu religious heritage. (JGA photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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