Located approximately 70km south west of Da Nang, 30km west of Tra Kieu Citadel - the first capital of ancient Champa Kingdom, and 40km from Hoi An, the My Son Sanctuary is in Duy Tan Commune, Duy Xuyen District, Quang Nam Province.
My Son Sanctuary including groups of Cham tower-temples is set in a small valley surrounded by low mountains and hills, and overlooked by the 350m high Chua Mount (God Mount). These mountains belong to the cordillera that lies to the east of the Truong Son Cordillera down to the town of Tra Kieu. The valley is divided into several sections by the The Stream, the biggest in the region. The My Son Sanctuary was indeed protected by natural ramparts. The Cham Kings probe-ably decided to build their Holy City there because of its geographical position.
The best time to visit My Son is during the period from December to June of the next year.
My Son, a World Cultural Heritage Site
Of the 225 Cham vestiges that are known in Vietnam, My Son possesses 71 monuments and 32 epitaphs, the content of which is still being studied.
Even though My Son does not display the same splendors as Angkor, in Cambodia, or Bagan in Burma, it is still a unique and very significant site for the length and continuity of its history, since it bears the marks of a development that lasted more than 7 centuries (from the 7th to the 13th). Just like the old town of Hoi An, My Son has been listed as a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO, in December 1999, which gave an international recognition to the cultural and historic values of the ethnic community of Vietnam.
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The site was seriously damaged, and no monuments in My Son are totally intact today. Still, they are precious remains that allow researchers to study the evolution of Cham art. After seven centuries of development, this art left behind stunning masterpieces. Cham artists must have concentrated all their talent to bring artistic pieces of such everlasting beauty out of the brickwork.
Cham art was deeply influenced by Indian sculpture, but through its development, it managed to emphasize its indigenous features, which give to these monuments all their charm and original-
ity. In the Cham statuary art, we find stoic monks, Epicurean dancers and the vitality of human beings, but also ecstatic moments of quiet serenity. Only the talented Cham sculptors could produce such masterpieces.
History of My Son
We find the first mentions of a Champa Kingdom when the inhabitants of the Tuong Lam region raised a rebellion against the Chinese feudal domination, in 192 AD, in order to establish an inde-pendent kingdom in the territory that lay from the present-day Quang Binh Province to Binh Thuan Province.
From 192 to 758 AD, this kingdom was named as Lam Ap. From 758 AD, it was designated in Chinese documents as Hoan Vuong (Huan Wang). Then, in 875, it was baptized Chiem Thanh (Sino-Vietnamese transcription of Champapura, city of the Chams).
The Champa Kingdom had two holy cities belonging to two main opposing clans. My Son Holy City of the Dua Clan, ruled over the North of the kingdom and was the place for the worship of God Srisan- abhadresvara. The Cau Clan, who reigned over the South had Po Nagar Holy City, dedicated to King Po Nagar. Nevertheless, My Son was considered as the Holy City of the Champa. Each new monarch came to My Son after his accession to the throne, for the ceremony of purification and to present offerings and erect new monuments, which explains why My Son is the only place where Cham art flour-ished without interruption from the 7th to the 13th centuries.
The first constructions date back to the 4th century, under the reign of Bhadravar- man. According to Cham beliefs, the monuments were sacred places, dedicated to gods, and ordinary people were not allowed to go in. Only Brahman monks and members of royalty could take part in the ritual ceremonies. According to the epitaphs (inscriptions) found in My Son, we know that, at the end of the 4th century, King Bhadravarman erected a wooden temple for God Shiva- Bhadresvara. This is why you can read that "The king has dedicated to Shiva-Bhadres- vara an eternal place, surrounded by Mount Sulah to the east, Mount Maha- parvata to the south, Mount Kusala to the west, and Mount (...) to the north. Thereby, he gives him all the lands, the harvest and the people living in this do-main. If the lands and harvests are to be destroyed by some enemies, the inhabitants will not be punished. Justice will be implemented by the God himself."
Later on, a fire destroyed this temple. At the beginning of the 7th century, King Sambhuvarman had it rebuilt and rebap-tized Sambhu-Bhadresvara.
During the period between 758 to 859 AD, under the reign of Hoan Vuong, the capital of the kingdom was moved to the Kauthara region. The Holy City of Po Nagar was built to worship Goddess Po Nagar, but some monuments (e.g. A2, C7 and F3) were still erected at My Son. From 875 to 915 AD, under the reign of
Indrapura, Buddhism took over the religious scene in the kingdom. The temple dedicated to Laksmindra Lokesvana was built in Dong Duong, and at the same time temples A10, All, A13 and B4 were erected at My Son.
At the beginning of the lO"1 century, when Hinduism became the major religion again, My Son was back to its situation as the main holy city of Champa. Most of the temples and monuments on the site (Al, B2, B 3, B5, B6, B8, Cl, C2, C3, C4, C5, C6, Dl, D2, D4) were built during that period, the golden age of Cham architecture.
At the end of the 12,h century to the be-ginning of the 13th century (1192 to 1220), Champa was invaded several times by the Khmers, and numerous temples were burned or destroyed. Under the reign of Jaya Paramesvaravarman II (starting from 1220), when the Khmers retreated, some monuments were restored at My Son, while others were still being built until the end of the 13th century.
Discovery of the Site and Research
After being the spiritual centre of Champa, My Son fell into oblivion for sev-eral centuries and was reclaimed by the jungle. The site was rediscovered in 1885 by a group of French soldiers.
In 1895, C. Paris was the first one to clear My Son Sanctuary. Then, from 1898 to 1899, two French scientists came to do some research on the epitaphs.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a French architect and archaeologist, Henri Parmentier came to My Son to study Cham art and architecture. His first results were published by the EFEO (the French School of the Far East). C. Carpeaux and other scientists also published their research on the architecture, sculpture and culture of the Chams in general and of My Son in particular. Over a period of 40 years, at the beginning of the century, some temples at My Son were restored and consolidated.
The most significant study is probably "The Art of Champa" by P. Stern, published in Paris, in 1942. According to it, Cham architecture can be classified into seven categories: My Son, Hoa Lai, Dong Duong, My Son-Al, Po Nagar, Binh Dinh and Muon.
According to the 20th century census, My Son remained 71 tower-temples, which were divided into: Group A and A' (Chua towers): 19 relics; Group B, C, D (Cho towers): 27 relics; Group E, F (Ho Khe towers): 12 relics; Group G : 5 relics; Group H (Ban Co towers): 4 relics; other groups such as: K, L, M, N, O each one comprised from 1 to two relics.
In 1945, My Son fell into oblivion again. Bad weather and devastating wars unfortunately destroyed most of these master-pieces of architecture. The site was mainly affected at the end of 1969, because of the repeated assaults and bombing of the B52s.
This is how Tower Al, among so many other monuments, was destroyed. Even today the evidence of the war is still visible. Following the on-site investigation, there still remain 31 Cham towers with the wall of lm high and over:
Group A and A' remain 3 relics and a large debris.
Group B remains 8 over 14 relics Group C remains 7 over 7 relics Group D remains 3 over 6 relics Group E remains 3 over 9 relics Group F remains 2 over 3 relics Group G remains 3 over 5 relics Group H remains 1 over 4 relics Group K remains 1 over 1 relic Group L, M, N, O became the ruins.
After the reunification of the country, on April 29,h, 1979 the Ministry of Culture and Information promulgated the decision number 54/VH-Q.D in which My Son Cham Towers were recognized as "Sculptural art relics" need to be protected. The Vietnamese Government made all kinds of efforts to preserve the remains in My Son, in collaboration with numerous associations and experts, Vietnamese and foreign, and scientists interested in archaeological, historical and cultural is-sues. The Vietnamese Government has recognized My Son Cham Towers as a Special National Site since 2009.
Besides the important people who helped in the discovery and rehabilitation of My Son at the beginning of the century, such as Parmentier, Carpeaux and Stern, we can also mention Kazimienrz, head of a team of Polish scientists, who has played a major role in the preservation and restoration of My Son, from the beginning of the 80’s until 1994.
Architecture of the Monuments in My Son
The monuments in My Son were built into groups that basically followed the same model. Each group was comprised of a main tower (kalan), surrounded by towers and auxiliary monuments. The kalan, which is a symbol of Meru Mountain considering as the centre of the uni-verse, where the gods live, is dedicated to Shiva. The surrounding structures in-clude portico tower (Gopura), monument for preparing rites (Mandapa), Hoa Tower (Kosa grha) for storage of ceremonial objects, and some towers to devote to the divinities of directions (Dik- palakas), Grahas, Skanda, Ganesa, etc. Cham tower-temples do not have windows, so they are very dark inside. Windows are only found on the auxiliary structures.
Cham towers and temples are built of bricks associated with sandstone decorations. It is quite noteworthy that no adhesive can be seen in between the bricks, which is amazing since some of the works have survived thousands of years. The technique they used to get the bricks to adhere to each other is still a mystery. Despite the passage of time, the action of the rain, sun and wind, they erode but they stick together. The bricks were baked in order to be not too hard and not too soft. Their average dimensions were 31cm x 17cm x 5cm. The structures were built, and only then did the sculptors carve the decorations of floral patterns, human figures or animals. This technique is unique in Asia.
Every kalan in My Son is comprised of three parts: the bhurloka (foundations), the bhurvaloka (body of the tower) and the svarloka (roof).
The bhurloka represents the terrestrial world (like temple Bl). It is decorated all the way round by engravings of patterns, animals, human characters praying under small vaults, masks of Kala or Makara (monsters), dancers, musicians, etc.
The bhurvaloka symbolises the spiritual world where, after being purified, men could meet the ancestors and the gods. It is built with very thick bricks (about lm), but its height can vary from one monument to the next. The outside is decorated with pilasters, false doors or windows. The false doors, topped with elegant vaults, are finely engraved with representations of praying men.
The doors generally open to the east (direction of the God of Thunder), but some of them are oriented to the west (direction to enter the spiritual world of the Cham kings after leaving the terrestrial world). Inside the bhurvaloka, the space is quite small. The walls are plain and bear no decorations. The altar of the linga, symbol of the god Shiva, occupies most of the space and there is only a small corridor around it for use during ceremonies.
The svarloka usually has three terraces in the same style as the base, and features a main door and other, false, ones. The svarloka is decorated with small sand-stone or brick statues representing mythical animals, which are mounts ridden by gods in the Indian tradition: birds, swans, buffaloes, elephants or lions. There are small decorative towers at the corners of the 1st and 2nd storey. This roof, made of sandstone or brick, can be either pyram-idal (of main tower) or boat-shaped (of auxiliary tower).
Methods used to Indentify and Categorise the Style of the My Son Monuments
Since there are very few stele left with inscriptions, and not all of them are de-ciphered yet, it is a very complex task to determine precisely the age of the monuments. In that respect, the influences of neighboring civilizations (mostly the Khmer and Javanese ones) on Cham architecture left invaluable clues to identify both the age and the style of the monuments. So the method used by re-searchers today mainly consists in establishing comparisons and analogies with the decoration, style and structure of buildings in neighboring civilizations.
The apparition of new Cham architectural styles is more evident with regards to the decorative patterns than in real new models of buildings.
Thanks to Henri Parmentier, the monuments of My Son were classified into groups of letters (A, A', B, C, D, E, F, G, H and K), and then numbered according to their functions. It starts with the main tower, the kalan, (number 1), then the portico tower (number 2), and so on. Even though these categories break up the architectural complex of My Son as a whole, they are remarkably efficient for the study and maintenance of the ruins.
My Son-El Style (First half of the 8th Century)
In the process of finding and defining the relics, which were constructed at the early stage of the construction in My Son, the scientists not only based on the architectural constructions but also based on the works of stone sculptures.
These indigenously marked elements of the works discovered at the Tower El give scientists grounds to affirm that they were built at the beginning of the 8th century, when Cham art was at its heyday. The architectural works of the My Son-El style were remained through the process of constructions My Son Cham Towers the next years.
Artifacts characteristic of the My Son-El style show the harmonious combination between indigenous and external elements, typical of the early period of Cham art.
The monuments built later are a reaffirmation of the cultural identity of the kingdom of Champa. Moreover, such indigenous cultures as Dong Son and Sa Huynh have helped the Cham people to produce an original form of art. Together with the neighboring cultures, they have created a distinct identity of Southeast Asian art in general.
The towers and architectural construction in the first stage from the beginning of the 8th century to the 9th century: Tower El and the Happiness god statue of Ganesha.
Hoa Lai Style (First half of the 9th Century)
During the first half of the 9th century, the Champa Kingdom remained very pros-perous and powerful. At that time, the commercial and economic relations be-tween Southeast-Asian countries and India were almost stopped. Hence, the indigenous arts were no longer directly influenced by Indian art. They entered an independent and wealthy period.
The indigenous arts combines selectively with the beauty arts of Indian and foreign arts which were created a distinct splendid period. Hence, the scientists called Hoa Lai style (or late My Son-El style). The characteristic art of this period shows that many indigenous elements were stressed, pushing back the influence of foreign art. Cham art strongly developed, creating an incredibly attractive, vivid and majestic beauty displayed in decorative motifs.
The anthropological characteristics of this period include: square-shaped face, big nose, large mouth, thick lower lip, and bushy moustaches. The garments consist of a stripy tie-belt with the enlarged lower part and its ends folded into thick waves; big round earrings; a single necklace with tassels or a double plain necklace; many ornamental bracelets worn on arms, wrists, forearms, and legs; the hair is twisted into a three-storied cone.
The main architectural features are a band with vertical patterns between two plain bands along the pillars; big gourd-shaped vault densely decorated with parallel fish- hook-shaped tree branches. Towers built at that time also had pillars adjacent to the walls. All the above elements make the works of this period very impressive, ingenuous, majestic and original.
The Hoa Lai group of towers (in Phan Rang of Ninh Thuan Province) is a masterpiece of Cham art, based on the combination of two aesthetic trends: simple decoration of the My Son-El style and the more intricate decoration of the new style.
The My Son tower complex and the groups following the Hoa Lai style belong to group F (1, 2, 3); A' (1, 2, 3, 4) and C7. Besides, there are some other architectural items such as the lintel, tympan and plinth used in towers Cl, Dl, and others.
Dong Duong Style (From mid-9th Century to Early 10th Century)
Around the mid-9th century, Dua Clan had power, King Indravarman II moved his capital from the South back to Quang Nam, and named it Indrapura. He built a new Buddhist sanctuary in Dong Duong, 40km south-east of My Son in order to serve Maharayana Buddhist rites, which were developing strongly in Southeast
Asia at the time. This large sanctuary con-sists of many pagodas, abbeys, towers and temples.
In My Son, very few towers were constructed during this time and they show clear transformation in architectural style. Diverse decorative motifs were uniformed and used for a long time, a process which differs from the former Hoa Lai style. All the towers had a bold architectural beauty, showing a strong vitality.
The main three peculiarities that make the works of the Dong Duong style recognizable are the human figures imbued with strong national characters, decorations of spanworm-shaped flowers and leaves, and heavy jewels. The Dong Duong style inculcates on the viewers' mind strong lasting impressions and ex-udes mightiness, a queer complication but full of vigor.
It can be said that, never before had people’s innermost feelings been expressed through Cham-styled statues as strongly as during this period. The figure of the powerful Shiva sitting in a slanting position with his face looking downwards, and the statues of Buddha Bodhisattva and monks sitting upright and looking straight, express their meditative thoughts on man's life and destiny. The towers erected in My Son at that period (A10, B4, All, A12, and B2) are decorated with the same kind of designs twisted together, showing a strong vitality. The system of vaults inside the tow¬ers, though heavy, displays the grandeur of the construction of this stage.
Dong Duong is the most unique style of Cham art, which strongly developed, helping the original essence to attain its height and gradually part from the influ-ences of foreign art.
My Son-Al Style (in the 10th Century)
At the beginning of the 10th century, when the influence of Shivaism surpassed that of Buddhism, My Son was strongly reconstructed. Most of the towers, shrines, and auxiliary monuments, which belong to groups A, B, C, and D in My Son, were constructed and restored during this stage.
Changes in the ideology of the Cham royal court exerted a direct influence on the architectural style of My Son towers. The majestic and mighty towers with extravagant decorations built in the Dong Duong style, in the late 9th and the first half of the 10th century, were followed by towers showing more lightness and elegance. This new trend took on the style of arts brought from the outside, especially the Javanese and Cambodian styles.
The monuments classified as belonging to the My Son-Al style are: Al, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, Cl, C3, C5, Dl, D2, and D4. Tower Al was the most important work at My Son. It is a typical example of the new, elegant, delicate and harmonious style.
Al was the main tower (kalan) in the cluster of Chua towers. Tower Al used to be 24m in height. Its foundation was square with sides of 10m long. The tower had two doors, the main one opening to the east and the other to the west. It stood opposite to Tower Bl, in the centre, to form a cluster of towers dedicated to the cult of Srisanabhadrevara, a god honoured as supreme in My Son. All the entrance gates had a mandapa, a two- tier pyramid-shaped structure. The top of this conical-shaped tower was made of stone. There was a relatively large set of linga in the tower.
The roof of the tower was a three-tiered pyramidal structure. On each tier's walls were a small false door and motifs of human figures standing under an arch. These doors and arches brought about the grandeur that can not be found in other towers.
The two false doors on the gables of the tower were decorated with two pyramidal arches, one above the other. The en-trance door was flanked on each side by a mandapa, a tower in miniature, with two false doors. Inside were motifs of human figures clasping their hands in taking a bow under the arches supported by two square pilasters carved with floral friezes. These figures had a gentle and noble look, and their costumes were similar to those found of Tower B5.
The pilasters of the tower were slender. Each of them had a deep opening in the middle, running from the feet to the relief lines, protruding on the four sides of the tower. So, each pilaster seemed to be a double one. Arches were varied in shape and bore no decorations; the eaves are layered with gaps in between. Stone decorations around the tower in-cluded delicately and lively carvings of strange water demons, a reminiscence of the Java style. There were also graceful apsaras (dancers), stone lions squatting in the four corners of the tower; Gagiasimha (lion-elephant) carrying men on its back; demon faces; Garuda statues (holy birds) spreading their wings on the top of pilasters.
Rectangular blocks in the centre of pilasters were richly decorated with floral patterns and separated by hollow stripes. The engravings were delicate, smooth, and graceful, notably the S-shaped gar-lands of flowers and leaves.
The tower was mounted on the two-tier base decorated with stylized lotus flowers. The upper base bore carvings of funny-looking and graceful elephants and lions standing before a lotus-shaped throne. The lower base was carved with elephants carrying humans on their backs. Amid these elephants were small arches shaped like the faces of demons. The inside of these arches was adorned with relief motifs of humans clasping hands and bowing. They all had a cheer-full look. On the two sides of each arch were two round columns. At the bottom was a squatting lion.
Unfortunately, all that remains today from the tower is a stone base and the decorations in the lower part. The model and map of Tower A1 are now on display
at Museum of Cham Sculpture in Da Nang and at Vietnam National History Museum in Hanoi.
Po Nagar Style (in the 11th Century)
The 11th century was the most chaotic period in the Cham history due to foreign invasion and protracted civil wars. When the capital of Champa was moved from Tra Kieu to Do Ban (Binh Dinh Province), the situation became even more terrible. Historical events exerted direct influences on Cham art.
The My Son-Al style, for instance, a tall tree with a far-reaching shade, continued to exert its influence on other structures the following years. Local elements were recovered and foreign ones gradually eliminated. The period after the domination of the My Son-Al style was one of searches for new orientations. The 11th century architecture and sculpture in Champa retained many characteristics of the My Son-Al style. Such characteristics were combined with local identities to produce a strange and mysterious beauty, marking a period of crisis of the Cham art before its decline.
Regarding architecture, the symmetry of structures became less harmonious. Dec-orations on the works disappeared and designs changed for greater simplicity. Spearhead-shaped arches appeared. The slim shape of these arches can be found in false entrances of the Po Nagar Towers (in Nha Trang), one of the biggest and most typical of this transitional period. The sculptural art of this period, also known as the Chanh Lo style, inherited the huge vestiges of the previous styles. The influence of Java art wore out while local traditions prospered. Sculptures of human beings still had smiling faces, pupilless eyes, small noses and thick lips. Two-tiered hats with many overlapping spearhead-shaped designs replaced headwear. Jewels were still gem chains in the late Tra Kieu style. The themes were used repeatedly, showing the poor creativity of this period.
The 11th century buried the charm of the prospering Cham art and led to a new stage. The towers of the Po Nagar style in My Son are E4, F2 and K-group ones.
Binh Dinh style and Muon style (between the 12th and 13th cen-turies)
From the 12th century onwards, many towns, villages and towers of the king-dom of Champa were devastated by fierce wars, which held back the development of all spheres of social life of this nation, including art.
The majority of monuments built at that period are found in Binh Dinh Province. They own a new style much more original than monuments dating back to the 11th century. In this period, these towers were often built on hilltops and decorated with poor patterns, which gave them a mysterious beauty. Their architecture was mainly influenced by Khmer art. Their vaults were mostly kept unchanged. The spearhead-shaped motif of these vaults was similar to that of the Po Nagar style. Overlapping spearhead shapes were sometimes surrounded by smaller ones like those of Tower Gl.
The art of the Ly and Tran dynasties also influenced the architecture of the towers in this period. The art of the Khmer, Ly and Tran dynasties, together with local cultures gave Cham art a tendency towards an illusory beauty which is rather different from the magnificent and lively beauty of the Group A1 of the My Son style, but is closer to the Dong Duong style.
Peculiar decorative motifs of this period are rows of full and round breasts of women, which are carved around the al-tars and walls. These breasts symbolize Urogia Goddess (Urogia means women's breast in the Cham language), who gave birth to the Cham nation.
The towers belonging to the Binh Dinh and Muon styles are rather imposing. Standing on top of hills, these structures have a majestic, cold and solitary beauty. Decorative patterns of animal statues are intricate but those of human ones are poor and rational. In My Son, there are two groups of towers, G and H, which symbolize the styles of Binh Dinh and Muon. According to the remaining stele inscriptions at these towers, group G was dedicated to Shiva, Emperor Sri Param- abrahmaloka and Queen Gingian (they are parents of King Giaya Harivarman), as well as Harivarmesvana, who was responsible for protecting the life of the king.
These groups are the only one in Cham art to be related to the inscriptions of the stele found on the spot, which dates back to 1157, and gives the exact time of the birth of the tower.