My Son Sanctuary (Hoi An, Vietnam)
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The My Son Sanctuary complex of religious monuments originally comprised of more than 70 structures of which 25 remain in varying degrees of ruin. The Cham people erected monumental towers on square or rectangular foundations. They comprised of three elements:
- The base represented the world of humans
- The tower body represented the world of spirits
- The tower head (typically lotus shaped) represented the realm between the two worlds. The structures were usually built of baked bricks and sandstone.
In the 4th century, in the King Bhadravarman’s time, after the construction of Tra Kieu, the religious center of Cham kingdom was set in My Son to welcome royal members, aristocrats and host important religious rituals. Continually developing through nearly nine centuries, My Son witnessed the glorious, prosperous as well as declining time of Champa kingdom.
The builders of My Son derived their cultural and spiritual influences almost exclusively from India in the form of the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Shiva was the central figure of worship – his images abound among what remains of the Cham monuments.
The building techniques are less certain. The thin red bricks used in their construction indicate a very high level of skill. Various theories have been put forward to account for the unerring accuracy of the brickwork. One suggests that they were stuck together by some form of vegetable glue. Another proposes that the towers were erected with the bricks in a dried state and were fired in situ by piling wood against the edifice to create an enormous outdoor ‘kiln’. For anyone who has closely inspected the remarkable regularity of the joint and bonding courses, both seem unlikely explanations.
Unfortunately, the US forces believed that My Son was a Viet Cong field headquarters (an assumption open to doubt). They therefore designated the site a free-fire zone resulting in heavy shelling and the destruction of many of the towers.
The process of decay has continued since, and what remains is in a poor state of repair. The site’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Area has reinvigorated interest in its conservation and has already attracted significant resources to that end, notably from Italy.
Despite its neglected appearance, My Son is worth a visit. It is in an attractive valley, well away from any other buildings, in the mists of a wooded area. It’s usually quiet, peaceful, and very evocative. Even in their ruined state, the towers are impressive, and the scale of the endeavour makes its religious significance obvious.
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