The Cham are a people of Malayo-Polynesian stock, deeply influenced by Indian culture. They ruled central and southern Vietnam for 11 centuries. It was no easy task. The Khmer threatened from the west. The Đại Việt attacked from the north. From the sea came pirates from China and across the Indonesian archipelago.
Yet the Cham held their ground. They built temples, palaces and mausoleums. They grouped these structures into a kalan or sanctuary. Their greatest architectural achievement lies in a valley surrounded by mountains. From the 4th to the 10th century, this was the religious and political capital of the Cham. Its name is Mỹ Sơn.
The sacred river
King Bhadresvara built the first temple at Mỹ Sơn in honor of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. It would eventually house 70 temples and function as an important learning center. The Cham kings employed an army of artisans to add stone murals to the temple walls, inscribe and erect stellae as well as dot the grounds of Mỹ Sơn with a wide variety of temple guardians. Meanwhile, the Cham fleet traveled far and wide.
During times of prosperity Champa’s trade influence stretched all the way to North Africa in the west and Japan in the East. A Muslim geographer wrote, Champa “produced ivory, camphor, nutmeg, mace, cloves, agarwood, cardamom, cubeb, and other substances”.H Rodrigues, “The Kingdom of Champa” from Mahavidja, 22 April 2016
Not all times were prosperous in the kingdom of Cham. Periods of independence alternated with suzerainty. The Cham endured attacks by the Mongols and the Javanese. The Khmer besieged Champa and the Cham returned the favor by sacking Angkor Wat.
But it was their northern enemy, the Đại Việt, who swept down from their base in Hanoi to force the Cham to abandon Mỹ Sơn. By the 15th century, Champa was all but wiped out. It was finally absorbed during the 17th century into what we now know as Vietnam.
In the sanctuary
On the day we arrive at Mỹ Sơn, the Cham ghosts sleep. It’s hard to imagine the thousands who must have lived in this place, now that the jungle presses in on all sides. The early morning sun can hardly penetrate the thick air.
Archeologists have divided Mỹ Sơn into excavation sites labelled alphabetically — Groups A through N — and our path is designed to build visitor expectations. We begin with the structures in the farthest state of decay: the outline of a foundation and a wall or two. The farther we get, the more substantial the buildings become though always constructed from the same red brick carefully cut to fit together without mortar.
Time and nature have taken their toll on the old Cham kingdom. The jungle is eager to reclaim its ancient territory. But the Americans have done their part, too. During the American War (as the Vietnamese call it), the Viet Cong used Mỹ Sơn as their base. The Americans did their very best to blast this place to kingdom come. There are signs for bomb craters and exhibits of unexploded ordnance all over Mỹ Sơn.
Eventually, we make our way to Group B. The structures here are grand, multi-storied and windowless. In the cool dark shade we catch a glimpse of Shiva or his phallic symbol, the linga, seated on top of a yoni, its female counterpart. These buildings were once temples, shrines and reading rooms.
They are constructed in fired brick with stone pillars and decorated with sandstone bas-reliefs depicting scenes from Hindu mythology. Their technological sophistication is evidence of Cham engineering skills while the elaborate iconography and symbolism of the tower-temples give insight into the content and evolution of Cham religious and political thought.UNESCO, My Son Sanctuary [accessed 15 May 2021]
I don’t see any bas-reliefs at Mỹ Sơn. To me, the Cham towers look like burnt brick Roman temples shorn of all their statues. There are many possible explanations for this sober look. For one, the Cham did not decorate their buildings during construction (as the Khmer did) but waited until after completion.
For another, the Americans bombed the hell out of the place. Luckily, before those payloads could drop, the French had already hauled away the best pieces and put them in a museum in Da Nang.
The École Française d’Extrême Orient founded the Museum of Cham Sculpture in 1915. The museum exhibits works from all over Vietnam where the Cham built significant settlements. The sculpture is exquisite. Densely carved pedestals, sinuous apsara, and the entire Hindu panoply of gods, including Shiva in all his manifestations. While a sculpture museum might sound like a dusty place, it’s not. The museum is modern and cool, a delightful departure from the humid Vietnamese autumn.
Serendipity has brought us full circle in the kingdom of Cham. We’ve traveled the length of the sacred Thu Bon River from the Cham capital at its source to Hoi An at the mouth. We stood on what was once the northernmost post of the Cham kingdom and among the remnants of their highest culture in a museum in Da Nang. We saw the destruction wreaked by the Cham in Angkor Wat. It’s fitting that our last stop in Vietnam would be Hanoi, the capital of the Cham’s archenemy, the Đại Việt.