Indochina, a region that comprises most of Mainland Southeast Asia, has been both an entrepot and battleground of influences from two ancient superpowers in Asia, India and China as the region’s name suggests. Coined in the early 19th century, the term has been used to describe what is now Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The latter three were then collectively called French Indochina during more than sixty years of French colonialism in the region. However, the tug of war for domination between Indian- and Chinese-influenced local powers was probably the most evident in Vietnam.
Between the seventh to twelfth centuries, most of what is now central and southern parts of Vietnam was under the control of Champa, a collection of polities ruled by the Cham people whose traces in the region date back to as early as the second century AD. Like the Khmer to their west, the Chams were also predominantly Hindu. Numerous temples were erected in the span of centuries, many bearing distinctively Cham architectural elements and style different from those in India, the birthplace of Hinduism.
On the other hand, the northern part of today’s Vietnam was the realm of Dai Viet, an empire of the Viet people which was ruled by successive dynasties for centuries. The Viet themselves were closely related to the peoples from southern China, and influences from their ancestral land were palpable in many cultural aspects in the empire, from the use of Chinese script to the layout of their palaces. In fact, northern Vietnam was part of Imperial China for more than a thousand years until the Viet gained independence in the 10th century. Prior to its absorption into China under the Han dynasty – the second dynasty of Imperial China – in the second century BC, the region together with some parts of today’s southern China was called Nanyue, or Nam Viet – from which the modern name Vietnam is derived.
While the Viet society was largely agricultural-based, the Chams were known as seafarers. During its peak, Champa was among the major players in Southeast Asia’s spice and silk trade with China, making contacts and relations with other powers in the region inevitable. The Sailendras, a Buddhist royal dynasty from Java who built the magnificent Borobudur, raided the coasts of Champa in the eighth century. However, historical accounts suggest that the relations between the two were mostly conducted amicably, involving a special trade partnership among others. By the tenth century, Indo-Javanese architecture had developed in Champa, signified by Tantric Mahayana Buddhist themes which were similarly employed in contemporary Javanese art. In the 14th century, the Cham king Jayasimhavarman II married a Javanese princess, Tapasi. This was followed by the marriage between a ruler from Majapahit (an eastern Java-based Hindu kingdom) and a Cham princess, Dvaravati, decades later.
I vaguely remember Champa from school textbooks many years ago. At that time the name Angkor for some reason was stuck in my head longer, and quite erroneously. On a school trip to Borobudur during my junior high school years, I talked to a Thai visitor and confidently exclaimed “Angkor!” I learned my mistake that day. However, like their neighbor to the west who built Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm among other monuments, the Chams were also avid builders who constructed impressive and finely-sculpted Hindu-Buddhist temples.
In the late fourth century, the Cham king Bhadravarman built a hall containing a lingam – suggestive of the worship of Shiva during his rule – in what is now a forested valley where My Son Sanctuary compound is located. A stele recorded the king’s decision to dedicate the entire valley to Bhadresvara – another name of Shiva – and his grave warning to his successors not to destroy what he had given. Using the doctrines of samsara (endless cycle of death and rebirth) and karma, he further warned that if one destroyed his foundation, all of his/her good deeds in the person’s different births would be the king’s, and all the king’s bad deeds would be that person’s. On the contrary, if he/she maintained the endowment, the merit would belong to him/her alone. These words were so powerful and revered that My Son continued to be Champa’s religious center for many years.
In the sixth century when Sambhuvarman was king of the Chams, he rebuilt the temple of Bhadresvara which was previously destroyed by fire. In addition to that, he also began the construction of a highly-ornate temple whose tower rose to more than 20 meters above the ground, today known simply as A1. Over the centuries, successive kings added more edifices in the already temple-studded valley, further affirming My Son’s importance for generations of Chams. Among the most unique architectural styles developed by the locals was kosagrha, a structure topped with a saddle-shaped roof used either as a storage for precious items dedicated to the deities, or as a kitchen for the gods. However, the use of red brick for construction was very much consistent throughout the centuries.
Another consistent thing about Champa was their rocky relations with their neighbors. The constant enmity between Champa and Dai Viet resulted in several wars, including one in the 10th century when Indrapura – at that time capital of Champa – was sacked by the troops from the north. In the 11th century when Champa’s seat of power had already moved to Vijaya, Dai Viet launched another successful offensive. However, it remained capital of Champa following the relinquishment of several districts in the northern part of the kingdom to the Viet. Several years later, a new Cham king ascended the throne. He restored the temples at My Son, maintained peaceful relations with Dai Viet, but provoked the Khmer.
In the sixth year of the new king’s rule, Vijaya was sacked by the Khmer, an event which was repeated more than 60 years later when King Suryavarman II – the one who commissioned Angkor Wat – occupied the Cham capital. The temples at My Son were once again destroyed. Four years later, a Cham ruler successfully defeated the Khmer, and almost 30 years afterward it was Champa’s turn to ransack Angkor. This protracted hostility between the Chams and the Khmer inspired the sculptors who worked on Bayon to immortalize this chronicle on the walls of the Angkorian temple.
A major event in history which marked the decline of Champa occurred in the 15th century when Dai Viet successfully defeated their long-time rival from the south. The Viet marched on since then to eventually control the entire eastern coast of Indochina and become the dominant ethnic group in the region (today more than 85% of Vietnam population are ethnic Viet). As the power of Champa waned, My Son’s importance gradually diminished, and at one point it was abandoned altogether.
As James and I walk down the pathway that cuts through a dense forest which surrounds the ruins of My Son, my mind goes to the time when the long abandoned temples were rediscovered by a French government employee, Camille Paris, in 1889. The entire complex must have been covered by thick foliage. Despite this, many structures at My Son withstood the elements and remained standing when they were rediscovered, including A1. In 1937 the French began restoring My Son in earnest until 1943, a few years before the Vietnamese struggle for independence began to intensify.
Restoration work at My Son was put on halt as the entire country was engulfed in long conflicts against the French, then themselves – involving the Chinese- and Soviet-backed North Vietnam and South Vietnam which was backed by the West. However, the true tragedy to the invaluable heritage site happened in 1969, when the U.S. carpet-bombed the region. A1 was mercilessly reduced to rubble, so too were other centuries-old edifices in its vicinity. As I explore the temples at Group B and C, a large crater now enveloped in grass serves as a poignant reminder of the irreversible damage the bombing has caused to My Son.
The war has become a relatively distant memory, and in 1999 My Son was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Restoring the temples to their former glory might seem to be a herculean task, if not completely impossible. But their timeless beauty and elegance should give us purpose to safeguard other cultural heritage sites of the world – many are threatened by war, greed and ignorance. When they are lost forever, it’s a loss to humanity of which creativity that had enabled those who lived long before us to create such inspiring monuments is an important part.