In 1889, Camille Paris, an official of the French post office in Vietnam, made an extraordinary discovery in the forests of Quang Nam: the forgotten temples that were once the religious heart of the Champa kingdom. This find prompted the scholarly society École Française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO) to send a group of  archeologists to investigate the ruins, led by Henri Parmentier.

Group G temple ruins at My Son Sanctuary

The archeologists uncovered 71 temples hidden in the jungle, and categorized them into 14 temple groups. Photographs, art, and archeological diaries published by the French archeologists show what a magnificent find My Son was, and how the ancient Cham temples appeared before they were destroyed by war.

The story of My Son Sanctuary is one of the great discoveries of Asia, and adds a new dimension to any visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Read on to learn more.

history of my son sanctuary
Camille Paris and one of his maps of Quang Nam
old maps of Quang Nam

Camille Paris was an archeologist, cartographer and ethnologist who lived in Vietnam for 20 years. He wrote about and photographed the country extensively. Paris found the temples of My Son while setting up a telegram line between South and Central Vietnam. The French named the site ‘My Son’ (beautiful mountain) after a nearby village. The work to unearth, study and inventory the temples of My Son would take several years and many excavations.

One of the most well-documented excavation campaigns was between 1903 and 1904, when Parmentier was joined by fellow Frenchman and archaeologist Charles Chapeaux. The two set off in March 1903. Their campaign was met with countless drawbacks, including sweltering heat, wild animals and flora that grew back almost as fast as it was cleared.

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Henri Parmentier and Charles Chapeaux in My Son
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The men set up camp at the base of the sacred mountain the Cham people referred to as  Mahaparvata. They built a four-meter hedge to protect themselves and the workers from wild boars and tigers. The archeologists first uncovered the temples Camille Paris found, and soon discovered more temples in the surrounding jungle.

Chapeaux kept a journal where he wrote down the highlights of the campaign. In March, the magnificent A1 towers were discovered. A well-preserved statue of Ganesha was discovered in July. In August, a terracotta jar filled with precious jewels was found buried at the base of the C7 tower. The E and F towers, the oldest in My Son, were uncovered in September. In October of 1903, a gloomy storm season began in Quang Nam, making it difficult for the men to work. On February 7, 1904, the excavation site was officially closed.

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Photos of the excavation campaign in 1903
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Later in 1904, Henri Parmentier published his descriptive inventory of My Son in the EFEO bulletin, including detailed drawings of the temples, and a wonderful set of photos that shows My Son during the excavations. His team also published the Cham inscriptions found on 32 stone stelae in My Son, written in Sanskrit and Old Cham between the 5th and 12th centuries, telling the story of each temple. Many of the most precious statues from My Son were put on display at the Cham Museum of Sculpture in Da Nang. The findings of the French archaeologists paved the way for the first restorations of My Son, which began in 1937.

During the American War, the area all around My Son was used as a guerilla base by revolutionary forces, making it a target for the Americans. In a single week in August 1965, My Son was heavily bombed in aerial raids, and many of the incredible temples and statues that had stood for centuries were reduced to their foundations.

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Drawings of A1 towers by Henri Parmentier
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After the war ended, the Vietnamese government recognized My Son as a national monument and began to look for ways to restore and preserve the temples in the forest. Thanks to the surviving art and photographs from Henry Parmentier and his time, restoration experts from Poland, Japan, Germany, Italy and India have been able to reconstruct parts of the temples to give us a sense of how they appeared during the Cham era. In 1999, UNESCO inscribed My Son Sanctuary in its list of World Heritage Sites, and today visitors can experience this magical heritage site on a visit to Quang Nam.

Temples in groups C and B still remain standing

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