Discovering Indochina–Mỹ Sơn and Hội An, Vietnam

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Mỹ Sơn (pronounced mē sōn) is the kind of place that fascinates many: a lost ancient temple complex. It was used from the 4th to the 14th century, then largely forgotten. It was rediscovered in 1898 by the Frenchman M.C. Paris. This is where we are headed today. It is about 60 km south of Hội An. We are taking a private bus.

Here is an example of the views we expect to find:

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As we head south, I took a few photos out of the window, so you can get an idea of the countryside here.

The thing that is seen the most are rice fields, verdant green.

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Typical houses in the country–small, they look fairly prosperous.

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Chinese-style graves in the family’s rice field. The ancestors are happy.

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After an hour or so, we arrive at the Mỹ Sơn World Heritage Site. Other buses are already there.

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We get off the bus and walk down a dirt road for a bit.

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Then we arrive at a place where there is a shop for drinks and gifts, and a sign that lays out the areas where the relics are to be found. There are several groups of relics, dating from 7th century CE to the 13th. The oldest building was a wooden temple to worship Siva Bhadresvera (a local form of Siva) built around 400 AD that burned down in the late 16th century. More than 70 architectural works have been found at this site. The fact that kings continued to build new temples over hundreds of years says something about the significance of this location to the Champa, also of the importance of Hindu gods to the culture. During this time period both Buddhism and Islam came into Champa, but it is still the Hindu gods that were being worshiped at their most important temple complex.  Each temple complex was built by a different Champa king, and besides Siva, the complex celebrates that king.

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There is a performance hall in this area, too. They have an ongoing schedule of shows each day for visitors. We are here at the right time for the 9:45 show.

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In it we are greeted with what is said to be native (Champa?) costume, dance and music. The picture behind the players is of the main mountain peak in the cluster of mountains that surrounds the valley in which these temples were built. This mountain is their holy Siva mountain, and is the reason for the location of the temples.

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We left before the performance was over, because it was too difficult to see from the back of the hall. Down the hill, on the path into the temple complex, there was a group of workmen doing something.

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They were trying to move a rectangular concrete pillar into the complex. I guess this will be used on a temple restoration.

They are using an ancient approach, one that would have been used by the Champa to move stones: rolling it on rounds cut from trees, and using wooden poles to move, guide and stop it. We can see that much work is needed to move one stone a few feet. Though I am sure that the Champa workmen did this more effectively, since they did it more often and probably learned how to do this kind of work fairly well, this is a lot of work for each stone that had to be brought here.

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The area is lush with greenery. Small streams run though it.

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We get our first look at these ancient temples.This is Group C.

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Here is a map of some of the buildings in the complex. Each of these sections (B, C, D) was constructed at a different time by a different Champa king.

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None of the structures is complete. There are vines and plants on most. I imagine that this might have been what they looked like to the original discoverer more than 100 years ago. 

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This mountain is the main reason for the location of Mỹ Sơn, which means "Beautiful Mountain" in Vietnamese. This is the holy mountain Mahaparvata, the local home of the Hindu god Siva, from which run streams into the lake and into the Thu Bon River, as did the river Ganges in India which springs forth from Siva’s locks.

When Carol first heard about this, she said, “It’s all about the mountain!” Since we live in Tiruvannamalai because of Arunachala, this is a sentiment we know about.

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The buildings are all made of brick, not stone like the temples in India. Scientists still do not know how the bricks are stuck together. There is no mortar, like you would usually find. Some think that perhaps it was some kind of tree sap, or some other mineral compound that was used, but the scientists still just do not know.

On the outer walls of these buildings there are carvings of, I think, goddesses and gods. This is in Group B.

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The carvings were done after the bricks were in place. Now the years are wearing them away.

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I think this may be Siva, standing under a decorative arch supported by two pillars, all carved into the bricks.

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Here is another figure carved into the wall. Delicate carving is seen in the arch above the figure.

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Another example of the decorations on the outer wall of a temple. This uses bricks laid vertically and at angles, along with short stone posts.

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Another figure. I think this is a goddess figure, from the hat or hair.

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The chamber inside these structures is pretty simple, mainly just walls and sometimes niches for figures. In the center of this one we find the base for a Siva lingam. 

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Here it is again, from closer up. The square form of the base was common in India at this time, too. There is a square hole in the center, where the lingam would have fitted. Square holes with fitting posts are typical of the stone construction that was done by the Champa.

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This looks like a lingam base, but on top is a sitting form of Siva.

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This is a 10th Century lingam on the grounds, near building B4.

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Looking through a stone doorway.

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An entryway into one of the temples. Stones make up the door frame and lintel at the top and bottom. Above the stone lintel is a triangular brick arch. This was also typical of the construction here at this time.  This is in Group D.

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Another temple. The door posts are carved stone.

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Two of the buildings on site are used as museums, showing some of the carvings retrieved from this site.

This looks like a many-armed Siva, with two small worshiping figures. If you look closely you will see the long earlobes that are typical of holy figures in Southeast Asia, especially Lord Buddha. The earlobes are elongated, to indicate the Buddha is all-hearing and also as a reminder of the heavy earrings that weighed them down before Siddhartha renounced material things to seek enlightenment. They also stand for long life. On this carving they show that it was made after Buddhism was well established in the Champa empire.

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These two stone figures remind me of the figures often on the walls of a Siva temple. They represent the Ego that thinks it is holding up the wall, even though it is the bricks (or stones, in an Indian temple) that are really doing the job.

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Here is one of three unique forms of Siva lingam found in the Champa culture. This is a jatalinga. A jatalinga is a lingam upon which has been engraved a stylized representation of Shiva’s chignon hairstyle.

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An elephant, not sure if it is meant to be Ganesh.

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A god, probably Siva, sitting in a meditation position.

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I think this is also a form of lingam, with lotus blossom petals.

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Another stone lingam. I am not sure of the timeframe. The kings built these lingams as an important part of their projects to add buildings to the complex.

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A row of goddesses, carved into the bricks of a wall.

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Another dancing god. Since the top of the sculpture is obliterated, I cannot be sure what god this is.

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Where there is Siva, there surely must be Nandi, his vahana (vehicle).

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This is section D. There were quite a few visitors this morning. This is usually the case. This is a popular site for tourists.

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Walking to the next section of the complex, I cross another stream.

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This area is not open to visitors. The French are doing a major restoration here.

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The collapse of the buildings here is not due to the ravages of time, but rather, we were told, to the carpet bombing from US B 52 bombers in 1969.

This is Group A.

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An elephant with a rider peeps out through the vegetation.

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A god with an elaborate decoration above.

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A lingam base stands inside what look like a temple demolished by bombing. The jungle greenery covers the broken walls. I imagine from this how much all of these temples were covered when rediscovered in 1898.

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The three-segment lingam below is another one of the unique forms of Champa lingams. A segmented lingam is divided into three sections in order to represent the three aspects of the Hindu godhead or trimurti: the lowest section, square in shape, represents Brahma; the middle section, octagonal in shape, represents Vishnu, and the top section, circular in shape, represents Shiva.

The third type of Champa lingam, not shown here, is the mukhalinga, a lingam upon which has been painted or carved an image of Shiva as a human being or a human face.

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A group of people led by a guide comes into this section of the temple complex.

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Entering Group E, said to be from the 8th century.

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Two buildings in Group E are under restoration, or are being protected from further damage. This one is surrounded by so many poles and supports that it is hard to see the original structure.

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In this area are two stelae, stone tablets. These were installed by the king when this section of the complex was built. This is only one of several of these stelae that are within the complex. In general each stele extols a particular Hindu god, and praises the king who had built the temples of that particular section of the complex.

The oldest stele, dated around 400 CE was erected by King Bhadravarman, the inscription on which recorded his basic idea. The stele indicates that the king dedicated the entire valley of Mỹ Sơn to Bhadresvara (Siva). The text ends with a plea from Bhadravarman to his successors: "Out of compassion for me don’t destroy my gifts." Drawing upon the doctrines of samsara (that one will be reborn after death) and karma (that the goodness or badness of one’s acts in this life will determine the conditions under which one is reborn), he added, "If you destroy [my foundation], all your good deeds in your different births shall be mine, and all the bad deeds done by me shall be yours. If, on the contrary, you properly maintain the endowment, the merit shall belong to you alone.

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The script is different than anything I’ve ever seen.

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Here is a Siva statue, headless.

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Then a visitor lends Siva his head.

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Here is another building. Maybe it is covered to slow down the deterioration from the elements. I see no signs of any restoration work.

 

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Below, a stone pillar and lintel piece, laying near the temple. I think these will be used when restoration is done.

Note the round ‘key’ on the bottom of the post. This would have been used to fit it into its base.

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Here are some bottom pieces with their matching holes, in which the keys would have been fitted. This construction approach would create a very strong structure.

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The backside of the covered structure. I am not sure, maybe this is a face of god?

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Another segmented lingam standing in front of the covered building.

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Near this section of the compound is a square water tank, a well. These square wells are typical of the Champa, and many still exist today and continue to be used.

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Looking back at the group I just left. The buildings that are covered with roofs and supports are behind the temple covered with a mound of greenery seen in this photo.

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A wooden bridge and a path back to the center. A bridge like this and this path could have been here during the last thousand years, you just don’t know.

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At the shop I get a cold Coke and Carol gets a White Fungus Birds Nest drink. She said that is was OK. I am not sure I am very big on fungus drinks, though.

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For sale in the store are Champa-style ceramics. Shown here is a Ganesh, and a row of segmented lingams.

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Then we walk back to our red bus, to return to Hội An.

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After the Mỹ Sơn visit we are going to lunch, but not to a restaurant today. Rather we are going to take a boat trip and picnic on an island.

Carol climbs on board.

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Riding on the boat.

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The skipper of the boat is the man on the left. On the right is our guide, Quan. He drove the boat for a while, too.

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Some kind of dredging boat, or perhaps mining the bottom of the river.

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We get to the island and Quan hops off and ties us up.

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We all climb out of the boat onto dry land.

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We have some company for our picnic; a water buffalo.

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Chairs and tables are brought off the boat. We have a nice little picnic setup.

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The boat skipper brings out a BBQ grill. He is also our cook for today.

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Drinks and a few beers are passed out, and we enjoy ourselves while our food cooks.

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We have four courses from the grill: shrimp, chicken, fish, and pork. Plenty of good food to eat!

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Then we pack up and head into Hội An.

On our way back we see a number of boats. This one is typical. A working boat of some kind.

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Getting closer to Hội An we start to see riverside resorts, part of the tourist infrastructure that now is around Old Town.

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A residential neighborhood on the riverfront near Old Town.

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We are coming in. See all the boats here? Many are waiting for tourists who want tours on the river.

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In the background is a street with hanging lanterns. This must be Old Town. We land, get off the boat and walk back to our hotel for a rest until dinner.

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For dinner, we walk again into Old Town. Quan has set up a special Vietnamese treat for us tonight, at the request of some of our more adventurous travel mates.

Here is a plate of luscious greens. These are to be eaten with the special course tonight …

Note: Squeamish eaters, warning, stop reading this post right now. Do not page down.

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Below, the special course. DOG MEAT! These animals are grown specially for this. And this is a treat to locals. For example we are told that a group of (rich) public officials, to celebrate, might get together to drink beer and eat dog meat.

It was not bad. I was surprised that it was fatty. This must not be any of the street dogs we know from India.

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They also eat cat, too. It is called, idiomatically, “Small Tiger” in Vietnamese. One needs to be careful when ordering beer here. A popular brand is Tiger Beer. The bottles come in two sizes, large and small. If you want a small beer, be careful ordering a “small Tiger,” You don’t know what you might get.

I am fascinated by the Hindu ruins we saw today. This changes any idea that I might have had about the history of Hinduism in Southeast Asia. I know that I have to study this to better understand.

Note that in the articles on Vietnam, I am seeing many things I do not understand. I feel like in order to do a good job with these posts, I have to better know what it is that I saw. So each of these articles has hours of research behind it, while I try to educate myself on some new aspect of life and history of Indochina. I do hope that you readers appreciate the results of this work, and that these articles remain interesting, and not too dry from all the information that I am adding.

Related Posts

Earlier parts of this series can be found here: Hanoi , Day 1,Hanoi, Day 2, Hue, Hội An

If you enjoyed this post, you can find other travel articles here:Touring and Travel in India

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