My Son & The Champa Civilization

In the hills above Hoi An are the My Son (Beautiful Mountain) sanctuary.  In a short 1 hour bus ride through the Vietnamese country side we arrived.    The Champa people arrived to Coastal Vietnam before 300 AD.    They followed coastal trading routes up from Java island.  As there influence and population grew they developed a kingdom with a  capital palace at Tra Kieu.

Once of the temple complexes in My Son

The Champa Kingdom setup its temples in a small valley in the Mountains at My Son (which means beautiful mountain).  While Northern Vietnam was unifying in 968AD, the Kingdom of Champa haD already flourished for nearly 500 years.  They remained independent from Northern Vietnam and frequently fought battles against the Northern Vietnamese Dynasties, China, and the Khmer.

A temple in the My Son

From 300AD to 1471AD, over 1000 years, the Kingdom of Champa remained independent and flourished.    It was the longest continually developing kingdom in Southeast Asia, and the continued to build temples and buildings during that 1000 year stretch.  At My Son, they built over 70 temples.  Most of the temples at the My Son Sanctuary predate the temples at Ankor Wat by centuries. There were over 10 temple groups in the My Son Sanctuary. Several temples remained off limits during restoration.  My Son has been labeled and preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Our guide was funny, knowledgeable, serious: “The French discovered this sanctuary while hunting.   They sent a survey crew and mapped the complex.  The also took the heads of many of the statues for the Louvre.  Vietnam as asked for the heads back and they gave us a very good answer: ‘No.'”.

Some of the intricate carvings were reminiscent of those we saw in Prambanan and Borobudur.

Intricate sandstone carvings.
Intricate brick carvings

“By the 1960’s they had uncovered nearly 70 structures, but the American Bombs destroyed just about all of them. Only 20 are standing today, almost all of those have been restored.”  As we wandered the complex we saw bomb craters. “The Vietcong had set up a base here during the war, and the United States bombed it. Destroying most of the complex – some of it beyond repair.”

Two bomb craters from the Vietnam War

One of the marvels of this complex was the brick work. “These are original bricks.  They have done scientific analysis and still don’t know exactly how the bricks were made or how they were stuck together.  There is no mortar visible.”

This temple has been restored.  Looking carefully mortar can be seen between the bricks. This is an unrestored temple.  Bricks are together without any mortar apparent.
Amazing detail, but even more amazing is that these bricks have stayed together for 1800 years with no mortar and no upkeep.

“When they restore a building, they use new brick.  Why?  Because they don’t know how the old bricks were stuck together.  When they first started restoring buildings in 80s, they used cement.  This made things worse as cement caries many chemicals that accelerated the degradation of the site.  When the Italians and UNESCO came in they started using tree resin to bind the bricks together, which may have been how the Champa did it.”

Original bricks behind, newly created bricks for restoration in front.
Temple with new and old

“The black bricks are original.  The newer bricks are orange.  The original bricks were black because they have been burned.  We think that at various stages of construction, the Champa burned the constructed bricks under high temperature, we don’t know for how high or for how long.  The older bricks are blackened.”

Seeing this ancient site that was obviously filled with so much technology and innovation led Alyssa to ask a question: “Why didn’t they write this down?”  There was a hall filled with documentation, however it was in Sanskrit.  The guide showed us a stela while lied upon a tomb of a Champa King.  “It’s in Sanskrit, it goes from right to left, but no one as translated it.”  [I searched this up, and in 2012 there was a massive effort to translate what they could from the Champa Kingdom (click here).  However it is mostly about rituals and not technology.]

Sanskrit writing on a Stela above a tomb

“If this place was rediscovered in the 1800s, where did the Champa people go?” Asked Alyssa.  “The Chinese forced them out in 1471.  They fled to Southern Vietnam along the Mekong Delta.”

It was a small complex and we felt like we got to see everything at a slightly rushed two hour tour-guide pace.  Our guide stated they like to finish tours before the afternoon because: “There are thunderstorms in this valley.  We don’t know exactly why, but there a lot of thunder and lightning.”

Perhaps the gods are angry.

More facts about the Champa Kingdom (Click Here)

Early Civilization Timeline

On this alter, a mixture of honey, water, and milk would have been poured and collected for the king and for offerings.
Inside a temple
Columns were not brick, but carved stone.
Posing in temple.  The lighter bricks are restoration work and the darker bricks are original.

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