The Ruins of Champa

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

As promised the day earlier, our driver, hired from Mrs. Ha's tour agency reached the hotel lobby right on time at 5am. I woke up from bed fighting off coldness and sleepiness half hour earlier. With eyes half opened, I looked through the window. A little disappointment set in as I realized our hope for a bright morning sunshine was thwarted. For a second, I thought of going back to bed resuming my unfinished business. Weather came in too early that morning our plan for sunrise at another World Heritage Site in Vietnam turned into a wetland adventure. But still, it was, by itself an adventure to the start of a civilization, the Cham.

At 5am, the streets around Hoi An were almost empty. Very few people on bicycles were seen heading to their workplaces, most probably the market. For us, there would be another one and a half hour ride to My Son (pronounce mee-son) with a moderate speed of around 60 to 80 km/h. Definitely no necessity to go faster when there were only cloud and heavy downpour. Luckily, there was nothing really spectacular along the way except for paddy fields and Vietnamese homes. Honestly, I was able to take a nap till I saw a signage that told me our destination was 30km away from there. However, there was no sign the rain was going to ease off.

As our minivan passed through a local countryside with narrower roads and more paddy fields and river streams, I knew we were about to reach My Son Sanctuary, the sacred ancient home of the Champa Kingdom. When our driver himself had to get the main gate to My Son site opened, we knew we were the first visitors for the day. The driver then stopped in front of the ticketing counter aka Exhibition House for My Son where we were asked to purchase tickets to enter the site. We jumped off the van and each bought a ticket which cost VND60,000 from a ticket guy who just started his work shift at the ticket counter. I thought he must have questioned himself why we were there so early on such a rainy day. Because we had a lot more to do and early means we beat the tourist 'traffic' at the ancient ruins.

Located behind the ticketing counter was the Exhibition House which acts as a mini museum. No information available on leaflets but kinda introductory on what we were about to see at the site of ruins can be found inside this 'museum'.

Uniquely, My Son, as a World Cultural Heritage site, has its own logo, a stylization from the initial abbreviation of "World Cultural Heritage My Son", which is WMS. The letters 'W' and 'M' were to depict a Cham-style tower and the letter 'S' has been creatively stylized to look like a dancing Shiva, a Hindu God and the icon of My Son. The combination of these pictorialization and the soil-like background color, the color of the main materials used in building the towers (the bricks) made up more than just a simple logo.

30 minutes had passed and while waiting for the rain to subside, we had our simple breakfast of bread slice and meat floss. Still no other visitors were seen entering the sanctuary. On the opposite side of the exhibition building, there is a medium-sized hall with a couple of tables and a few chairs. With minimal usage of props and freely available extras, we then staged a low budget political drama a la Vietnam, just to kill time. It wasn't actually a full-length drama but just a scene taken in front of the nicely set Vietnamese meeting hall.

Time flew and we couldn't wait any longer. We rushed into our van and we head into the heart of My Son sanctuary where temple-towers complex can be found.

My Son sanctuary of Quang Nam province is a valley surrounded by mountain ranges. This geographical aspect of My Son was found suitable by ancient Cham people (around 600 to 1200 AD) to erect their religious center. Since Hindu was prominent to Champa Kingdom, My Son was full of monuments belonged to Hindu faith which most of them were sacred. From engineering perspective, the monuments at My Son are unique because the bricks used to build the towers were joined to each other using almost invisible mortar technique. Yet most of the towers are still standing until today. With rich cultural and historical values it holds, in 1999, UNESCO declared My Son as one of the World Cultural Heritage sites.

Five minutes later, our driver dropped us at the furthest point a vehicle can get to. He asked us to meet him at the car park area, just 5 minutes away. We put on our raincoats and we braved the rain to get to the center of My Son, on foot. The first group of ruins we found on the right of the main pathway was those from Group H. Built in 13th century, Group H originally consisted of four constructions - kalan (main temple), mandapa hall, tower-gate gopura, and treasury tower. However, what we saw that day was only part of the kalan's wall. Other parts were mostly destroyed during the wars which Champa Kingdom had involved in.

Unsatisfied, we always wanted more. We continued our quest for the major ruins of Champa leaving Group H behind. Within minutes later we reached a point where a huge wooden building was located. An image with dancers performing traditional Champa dance was seen near a stage located inside the building to the right. A small souvenir outlet was also there, located just opposite. We reserved that for later and made way through a walking trail to another cluster of ruins. It looked like we've come to the main temple-towers. Sitting on a plateau, this particular area was dominated by temples from Group B (between 7th and 13th century), Group C (between 8th and 12th century) and Group D (between 7th and 13th century). The biggest temple structure in whole of My Son is B1 (Group B, ruins #1). It was the structure we were directly facing when we stood in the middle of the entrance to the plains.

Temples from Group B, which were located to the right of the main temple B1, were a combination of Champa and Dong Duong architectures. Statues of Lord Ganesha and Skanda (Murugan), two sons of God Shiva and Goddess Parvati were erected within temples B3 and B4 and that was where all the ancient Cham people head to for religious activities.

On the opposite direction of Group B, lies a cluster of temples from Group C, monuments dedicated to God Srisanabhadresvara. At the temple labled as C1, there should lie the statue of Lord Shiva but it wasn't there anymore as most statues and other important relics were already put on display at Da Nang Museum of Cham Sculpture, in Da Nang city. Group D comprised of towers (D1 and D2) but unsure of their actual purposes during those days.

There was a narrow trail to other smaller and less important groups of temple ruins, most probably of Group A and Group G. I didn't see at all the way to get to the Group E or F. Anyway, we've made it into the heart of My Son heritage by stepping into Group B, C, and D. There was where all the actions took place centuries ago when Hinduism was a major part of Champa Kingdom in Vietnam. 

On our way out of the temple ruins area, we stopped by the souvenir outlet to get something. Since it was raining, each of us thought buying a Vietnamese traditional hat would be a good investment, especially when we had to walk all the way to the parking area. The cone-shape hat ('non la' in Vietnamese) was made of straw and bamboo and very popular in Vietnam. For us, it can be a souvenir item as well as to protect our heads from the rain. At this My Son sanctuary souvenir shop this hat only costs VND40,000. No bargain, no trick.

We then left My Son at around 10am when several buses carrying hundreds of local students who were going to witness the remaining of the civilization of their distant past were lining up the parking queue.

Filed Under: South East Asia

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