My Son: Chariots of the Gods or the Emperor's New Clothes?
How were the ancient buildings of the Hindu sanctuary at My Son put together apparently without mortar yet they have lasted millennia? How can it be that the bricks used in the restoration have already weathered more quickly than the originals?
‘There is a great mystery,’ Mr Dung, our guide, thundered. ‘How did the Cham people build without mortar? Look closely … and yet make something stronger than anything we can make today.’ ‘No one knows’, he added shaking his head. ‘No one knows.’
‘Look at the artistry’, he roared. ‘The intricately carved designs match perfectly from one fired brick to the next.’
My companion who’d been moaning about the heat and tedium of it all suddenly had her interest piqued by these Chariots of the Gods style mysteries. Yes indeed, there is no doubt the Cham builders and artisans were both great artists and technically advanced but was something else involved?
As my companion ruminated on interstellar and divine solutions I considered other possibilities suggested by archaeologists. Maybe the Cham people partly hardened the bricks, put them in place and then fired them, only carving the completed wall. Maybe they used tree resin instead or maybe the mortar has now decayed and no one’s letting on because there’s no fun in that.
I find such speculations deeply interesting. It’s the stuff that fuels my enthusiasm for cultural history and fires my imagination. It’s a mystery, but of the earthly kind, and it’s something to try and get to the bottom of. Visiting astronauts from other worlds aren’t necessary to get me going but I think I understand the problem. It goes without saying that ruins have been literally ‘ruined’ and lost to us in some massive way. To appreciate them you need a wild imagination coupled with a genuine interest in ancient culture or all you’ll see are some crumbling walls and piles of rocks that someone else reckons are old.
In the case of My Son, it hasn’t just been the ravages of time at play. In 1969, during the American War, the Nixon administration targeted My Son from the air because it was a Viet Cong haven (some dispute this but most don’t) and blew most of it to smithereens. At other times canon fire on the ground completed the job.
The 70 or so well-preserved Hindu towers and attendant structures were hammered. And I mean hammered. The site is pockmarked with deep craters as big as houses. Between them a weird feel of English downs has developed; the now undulating, misshapen crater surrounds bound and fixed by returned vegetation.
Doubtless it’s because My Son is both a site of great cultural importance and a recent theatre of war that more tourists flock there than to any other Hoi An-based cultural site. In the mornings large busloads arrive almost in convoy and by the time the sun is high in the sky hundreds of tourists can be seen crawling over the ruins like ants on a dying insect, clambering into high positions to have their photos taken doing that odd ‘V’ thing or doing star jumps in front of narrow bridges.
In the midst of this our tour group of 50-odd snaked through the site expertly led by Mr Dung bellowing in the 36 degree heat. ‘The Cham people turned up in central Vietnam around the second century from Java,’ boomed Mr Dung.* ‘The Hindu temples at this religious centre, My Son, were constructed from the 700s to the 1300s. The Cham people worshiped Shiva who they saw as their founder and protector, the god of destruction and reconstruction (or transformation as the less dramatic version has it). They also worshipped Vishnu (preservation and protection) and Ganesha (beginnings).’
And so it went on with, it must be said, considerable panache and operatic projection on Mr Dung’s part. We saw a sacrificial alter – only sacred cows’ milk and blessed mountain water were used by the vegetarian Cham people – in one of the few towers that’s almost still intact.
Many of the buildings are still beautifully intact in small part yet have been completely obliterated in the main, a poignant indicator of what’s been lost. A large section of the site cannot be visited as it still hasn’t been cleared of UXOs (unexploded ordnance).
Throughout, the walls had many statues embedded but they’d all been decapitated by the French at some point in a crazed, criminal frenzy of colonial trophy-taking – mainly to furnish a room in the Louvre. Some had modern replacement heads that had been amateurishly rendered from something that looked suspiciously like stained cement but was probably sandstone with none of the precision or craft of the originals. Nevertheless, those with heads looked happier than those without.
We wandered through the site, our sodden shirts stuck to our backs, in and out of a wondrous rainforest which was worth the visit in itself. After the Cham people were driven south and out of central Vietnam in the 15th and 16th centuries this same rainforest enveloped the sanctuary completely and it was lost until rediscovered in 1885 by French archaeologists. ‘No one, absolutely no one, knew it was here,’ Mr Dung muttered, in a rare moment of restraint, looking towards the burning sky in bewilderment.
And we kept on moving, from one group of rubble to the next, but it was all starting to feel the same. Towards the end of the tour Mr Dung let slip that his dad had been a Viet Cong boy soldier, one of those actually hiding in My Son in the ‘60s and that he himself is a result of the baby boom that immediately followed the cessation of hostilities. Dad now holds the rank of Colonel.
My companion said, ‘I’m bored. I need him to tell me more about the everyday lives of the Cham people, not just this rarefied stuff. Why did they come here? Where and how did they live? If I hear there was no human sacrifice again because they’re vegetarian Hindus I’ll scream. I wouldn’t recommend this to a friend, would you?’
Would I promote it to a friend? My Son isn’t for everyone. Many will only see rubble and wonder what the fuss is about. Indeed for them the Emperor’s naked but no-one will say so. The ‘Wow!’ factor of Peru, Egypt, Greece and of course nearby Siem Riep certainly isn’t there. But at the very least it’s a cheap trip out of town and a jaunt through magnificent rainforest and, for those with a genuine interest in the past like me, it’s well worth it although an hour or two should do the trick.
If you go by bus most tour operators have a river boat trip return option. But if you don’t like crowds and the midday heat you can go at other times by motorbike or car but take a guide to help you make sense of it all. And, if you‘re in a smaller group than we were, you might be able to get answers to my colleague’s questions about the Cham people’s domestic life. My question for Mr Dung would have been: ‘If the Champa Kingdom in Vietnam began in AD192 as a non-Hindu state, who converted them to Hinduism during the 4th century?’ It sure wasn’t the locals.
*not all authorities agree on Java as the sole point of origin – what is mostly agreed is Chamic languages are a sub-group of Malayo-Polynesian and closely related to Malyic and Bali-Sasak languages
Hours | 6.30am – 5.00pm (My Son); Breakfast Tour 4.30am – 9.30am; Morning Tour 8.00am – 1.45pm; Morning Tour with boat 8am – 2,30pm
Address| Sinh Cafe, 587 Hai Ba Trung
Website | www.thesinhtourist.vn
Email | [email protected]
Telephone | +84 235 3863948 – Fax: +84 235 3916620
Cost | Entry: 150,000 vnd; Bus and Guide 100,000 vnd; River Boat extension with lunch 149,000 vnd
Revised and updated May, 2018