My Son Sanctuary in Quang Nam is one of the most impressive temple ruins in South East Asia. Listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1999, My Son was the religious complex and burial site of the Champa kings, who ruled a prosperous empire in Central Vietnam from the 2nd to the 14th centuries. Here are a few fascinating things to discover on your first visit.

My Son Sanctuary in Quang Nam

Ancient stelae

The earliest records we have of My Son Sanctuary go back to the 4th century, when King Bhadravarman I built a wooden hall on this site to worship the Hindu god Shiva. A stele found in My Son records that the king dedicated the entire valley to Shiva, and implored his successors to maintain the foundations he built.

Over the next 10 centuries, Cham kings continued to build and expand the temple complex of My Son Sanctuary, first with stone and then with red brick structures. Each temple had a stele, inscribed in Sanskrit or Old Cham, which told the story of its founding king and his ancestors. Some 32 stelae were discovered by French archeologists when My Son was first excavated. Some of these stelae can be found still in place in the My Son ruins, and others are housed in the My Son Gallery Museum on site.

Kalan and kosagrha

Though many of the My Son temples have been lost to time, some are still standing and can be identified. The temple ‘families’ in My Son follow classic Hindu architectural principles and geometry. Each group faces East, and is centered around a kalan, or shrine, which houses a garbhagriha, the inner sanctum which only the Brahmans or Hindu priests can enter. Inside the garbhagriha at My Son were usually linga-yoni – the symbol of Shiva and Shakti or male and female fertility.

temples at My Son Sanctuary

 Near the kalan is a kosagrha or “fire-house” which was where brahmans would cook food for the altars, and where religious items were stored for ceremonies. The kalan was connected to the outside world through a gate known as a gopura. Outside the gate was a mandapa – a hall for public worship and ceremonies. My Son B5 is a kosagrha with a remarkable sculpture of the goddess Lakshmi, and the kalan of the C temple group is still standing at My Son C1.

statues at My Son Sanctuary
statues at My Son Sanctuary
statues at My Son Sanctuary

Hindu dieties and motifs

My Son was built in a fertile valley near the source of the Thu Bon River and the sacred mountain the Cham referred to as Mahaparvata. The temples were built of red brick, with distinct tiers, and decorated with sandstone sculptures and bas-reliefs of Hindu gods and goddesses, apsara dancers, mythical animals and the Cham kings themselves. On a visit to My Son, you’ll be able to spot Hindu motifs in the temple ruins, and in the artifacts on site.

Common decorative themes are flames, symbolizing destruction and creation; lotus, the sacred flower of the gods; trees, which are seen as intermediaries between heaven and earth; and leaves, representing enlightenment through life’s stages. There are also many carvings of nagas, the snake god of the underworld, kala, the god of time, and makara, the Indian crocodile that represents life and death.

temple ruins at My Son Sanctuary

Wartime ruins

When the French archeologist Henri Parmentier and his team excavated the E and F temple groups in the early 1900s, these temples were considered among the most graceful and beautiful in My Son. Dating from the 7th century, they followed an ancient Indian style, and can be seen in pictures by Charles Chapeau and drawings done by Parmentier.

Just click on the image to see the tour

During the American War or Second Indochina War, Americans bombed the area all around My Son, which was hideout for guerillas from the National Liberation Front. In a single week in August, the E and F temple groups were reduced to their foundations. Today you’ll see huge bomb craters near these ruins. Only the kosagrha of the E Group, My Son E7, remains standing after being restored by a team of Italian conservationists.

My Son Gallery

Historic photos and artifacts

The My Son Gallery is a remarkable place to begin your discovery of Cham culture and the My Son Sanctuary. Detailed exhibits shed light on the Ancient Cham empire, its trading routes, culture and the development of the temples. There are explanations of the Hindu deities found throughout the ruins, the structure of the temple compounds, and the inscriptions written on the stelae. Exhibits also detail the discovery, excavations, and restorations on the site.

Importantly too, in the gallery you’ll get a chance to view photos of the excavations done by French archeologists at the turn of the century. Detailed drawings by Henri Parmentier show what the temples looked like when they were discovered, including the magnificent temples that were destroyed during the American War. For more insight into the Cham civilization in Vietnam, you may like to visit the Duy Xuyen Museum in Duy Xuyen District and the Cham Museum of Sculpture in Da Nang.

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