Story: Yen Chi
Photos: Nguyen Ba Ngoc, Minh Tran, Quynh Anh

Discover the artistry of the ancient kingdom of Champa in the My Son Sanctuary

The My Son Sanctuary overwhelms visitors with its exquisite beauty. Located nearly 70km from Danang City and 45km from Hoi An’s Old Town, these temples were the religious and cultural hub of the ancient Kingdom of Champa, the capitol of which was located nearby. Built  between the 4th and 13th centuries, at its peak, the compound contained over 70 temples and the mausoleums of kings and high-ranking priests.

Ancient Cham craftsmen and workers used baked bricks and sandstone to craft a gigantic and unique architectural gem. Until now, the sophistication of the sandstone and brick reliefs carved on site hold researchers enthralled. Scientists remain unsure how the Cham joined their bricks together so securely that they have withstood the test of time.

Deeply influenced by Hinduism, My Son exemplifies a Southeast Asian adaptation of Hindu architecture. The compound boasts many architectural flourishes inspired by Buddhism. As of the 10th century, Mahayana Buddhism exerted a profound impact on the Cham. However, the key objects of worship at My Son were the God Siva and the Linga (a symbol of Siva) – the patron god of all Champa kings. Bhadrésvara, the founder of the first clan of kings in Amaravati in the late 4th century, was also worshipped here. His cults were combined with the cults of Siva to form the mainstream god-king cult of the Champa people.

In the My Son Sanctuary, temple towers are divided into clusters, which correspond with their dates of construction and follow a single rule. Each cluster of temples includes a tower – main hall (Kalan) surrounded by lesser towers or collateral structures. The Main Hall symbolizes Mount Meru, the hub of the universe, a gathering place for deities and the worship hall of Siva. Surrounding temples were dedicated to guardian gods of the heavenly directions. Other buildings included tile-roofed temples where pilgrims prepared and stored their offerings. The main temples have no windows, which are only found in surrounding temples.

A complete temple tower at My Son comprises three main components: the foundation, the tower and the roof. The foundation represents the mundane world; the tower represents the spiritual world where mortals make contact with their ancestors and deities; and the roof symbolizes the heavenly world of three stories narrowing to the finial.

For centuries, the My Son Sanctuary was forgotten. It was not until the late 19th century that the site was rediscovered and studied. During decades of warfare, many constructions were devastated by bombings. While most of the temples were left in partial ruins, they remain invaluable vestiges of the past and allow us to learn more about the evolution of ancient Champa arts.

The undeniable charm of Champa sculpture and architecture results from various elements. As well as being influenced by Hinduism, local designs and the artists’ creativity combined to create vivid artworks. In 1999, UNESCO registered the My Son Sanctuary Site as a World Cultural Heritage Site that is “a typical example of cultural exchanges” and “the only evidence of a lost Asian civilization”. Today, My Son is in no danger of disappearing. This site is a priceless treasure for Vietnam and humankind as a whole.