KINGDOM OF CHAMPA

Professor Bolt's Photos of the My Son Ruins, with Excerpts of 1997 Journal

The Kingdom of Champa dominated southern Vietnam culturally and politically for about one thousand years.

It was 19th century French archaeologists who first began to collect and preserve artistic evidence of Cham culture, and the best Vietnamese museum displaying Cham cultural life and art is the Cham Museum in Da Nang. Today this modern city is also closest to My Son, the most significant Cham region tourists visit and scholars continue to study.

The museum is full of statues, friezes, altars, and other items removed from Cham sanctuaries and cities, including My Son. The museum opened in 1916 in an open-sided building, and it contains today the most comprehensive collection of Cham art in the world.

The oldest items in the Da Nang museum are from My Son (4th to the 11th century) and Tra Kieu (4th to the 10th century). Other art is from Binh Dinh Province (11th to the 15th century). There are images, in sandstone and other material, of elephants, lions, and Hindu deities.

Shiva was founder-defender of Champa and is depicted as either a vigorous man or a lingam. The latter is shown in photos taken at My Son. The best known and most distinctive image, however, is Uroja, the universal "mother" of Cham kings. This icon is represented by the breast and nipple, and many are present in the museum's collection. Other items include massive altar pedestals with friezes of dancing girls and flute players.

 

The following is the My Son excerpt from Professor Bolt's 1997 journal.

My Son is about a two-hour drive from Da Nang, over countryside scenes of rice culture and brick factories. The roadway features pavement and both improved and unimproved dirt track sections. As we turned in our final approach to the former Cham sanctuary, two buffalo were in the road, confirming the fact that we were entering a very remote area. Our driver stopped alongside the dirt track at one of several family businesses, modern sanctuaries from the heat. This proved to be a place with toilets, food and water, and covered parking. Our guide explained that we were in the hamlet of Duy Phu, named for the nearby mountains. My Son is located in a small valley surrounded by mountains and was therefore a strategic as well as religious site for the Cham people.

 

 

We next walked a short distance to join four other tourists (we had spotted them before in Dan Nang!) for our jeep ride up the mountain to the site. Then we walked again, using several bamboo bridges (they call them monkey bridges) to get into the Cham site itself. Our guide, Trieu, was suddenly energized by our arrival and proved to be well prepared for his introductory "lecture," placing us in the shade of some of the ruins as he stood in the sun and talked about this important cultural and political site.

 

Our visit at My Son was from 9:30 to about 11:45 a.m. My Rough Guide to Vietnam calls My Son "Vietnam's most evocative Cham site," and all of it for a $2 admission. Some writers, but not the British authors of my guidebook, call this the Vietnamese equivalent of Cambodia's Angkor Wat. It was, however, one of the major sites on my 1997 study tour of Vietnam. It is isolated, quiet, seedy, and peaceful. But it also requires your imagination to "see" it as the Cham people did. Over many centuries, they were builders, inhabitants, and worshippers in My Son.

Today, the temples and their towers are in ruin, vegetation is growing unimpeded, Sanskrit stelae are all about, and numerous lingam are visible. This was a living site of the Kingdom of Champa, built between the 7th and 13the centuries and enlarged to about seventy buildings later. My Son was for the Cham gods and god-kings primarily, but they were attended by servants, priests, and dancers.

 

It was not until French archaeologists studied the ruins and classified its art and artifacts (in the late 19th century) that the world took notice of My Son. And it is still understood as they organized it -- into groups or areas designated A, B, C, D, etc. The towers and temples are brick, assembled without mortar but with a resin mixed with mollusk shells and crushed brick.

Time and the elements have taken their toll, but it was also the war which left this sacred place as I observed it. Our B52s bombed parts of the site trying to defeat the VC based there during the sixties. The largest and tallest tower (designated by the French as A1) was left totally destroyed. Although Trieu said nothing about it, the Rough Guide advises tourists not to stray from the paths through the ruins, as unexploded mines may still be in the area.

We walked through areas B, C, and D, noting the remaining evidence of Cham art and architecture. My photos, plus the cards I bought, show some examples of what remains, but much was carried off earlier to museums and elsewhere.

 

Two long windowed meditation halls in Group D are now small museum galleries; the one we entered (D1) contains some of the best artifacts we saw at My Son -- including my photo of several lingams.

 

Some other structures can be entered, and one can judge the appropriate size of rooms, height of rooflines, and peer out of a few window openings. One must imagine, however, the offerings and other ritual materials used in the temples.

On outer walls there are a few statues of deities, and I recall seeing carvings of elephants. Several bases for statues long ago removed to museums are still on the site, as are the lingams which sat on the "female" bases, also present on the site. Buffalo now reside on this site, using water from streams and former bomb craters in the area.

 

 

Although the heat and humidity were almost unbearable, this was a most interesting and enjoyable walk back into Vietnam's history. It was all that I had anticipated and more!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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