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My Son Sanctuary in a Modern Day: Its Value and Conservation

If the topic of art or traditional culture in Southeast Asia comes up, we cannot ignore one of the most famous aesthetic characteristics of its culture; the “Champa culture”. In the field trip on March 2nd 2017, my friends and I were honored to have Dr. Tran Ky Phuong Ky Phuong Tran- a specialist on Cham cultural history and a curator of the Museum of Cham Sculpture in Da Nang, Vietnam – as our lecturer navigating us to Cham’s world at the “My Son” temple and tower site in the Quang Nam province. Geographically, the Champa kingdom was located close to the sea and it was one of the most important seaports in Southeast Asia. It traded and exchanged products with many of its neighboring countries such as Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, also with two major significantly Asian civilizations, India and China. As a result, the arts of Champa got artistic influences from those countries. Dr. Phuong Ky states that although Cham art and the art of Southeast Asia were all adapted from the arts of the Indian subcontinent, each Southeastern Asian civilization possessed their own distinguished characteristics which are expressed clearly througharchitectural features, especially in the case of the Cham culture.

“My Son” is a complex of over 70 temples and towers with several architectural and sculptural styles which reflect the Champa culture. It was the religious site with the remains of ruined Hindu monuments which were constructed between the 8th and14th centuries. This site is surrounded by mountains like the Holy Mountain “Mahaparvata”, and rivers. It consists of 8 groups of temples and towers which are numbered with Roman alphabets ordered A to H. Each group is also comprised of a main temple and other buildings, such as a storage building, a performance hall and other small and scattered relics. When I first saw those temples, I could not tell the differences among them until Dr. Ky explained some of the distinctions in detail like the motif decorations on the wall of the temples. The Cham people were well known as skilled artisans and talented architects. Their skill is reflected in both the constructing techniques, like how the main Hindu temple making concept was that the temples were made out of wood, brick and stone- and elaborate sculptures on brick and stone depicting the images of deities, priests, dances, plants, animals and sacrifices. Dr. Ky pointed out that we can find flourished carvings on the architectural features that were implemented during the 10th century A.D. while it was not continued in the later period from 11th century on. Another intellectual skill we could found in the “My Son” site is the brick joining technique. Cham people used natural resources and applied them into their construction processes, such as using resin from the Dipterocarpus Alatus tree to joint pieces of the bricks which resulted in the bricks’ surfaces supporting the aesthetic of the architecture. Those aspects of the value of the “My Son” site encouraged UNESCO to inscribe the site as one of the world cultural heritage sites in December 1999.  

Due to the natural disasters and the destruction of wars in 1969, many temples and towers in the “My Son” site were unfortunately destroyed. The Vietnamese government, Italy and the UNESCO partnership cooperated in the excavation and restoration the site which took over 10 years. The restoration of temples and towers in group G was implemented by the Italian team, however, it turned out that they did not carefully mark the restoration marks on the surface of the bricks. Furthermore, in the storage building of the group E complex, it appeared the kitchen was reconstructed by the restoration team without any evidence tracing back to the original conditions. In my opinion, these kinds of restorations might cause some problems for the authenticity of the site in the future if there is no evidence to distinguish the original and the additional works of the treasures. The next generations would not be able to appreciate the true values of the “My Son” site anymore. Therefore the respective authorities should put more effort on the restoration process. Recently, even though “My Son” is no longer a religious site, Cham people from the south still visit it. My Son, rather only remains the status of historic site for both Cham people and outsiders. However the prosperity of the “My Son” site will last long for everyone who once visited this wonderful site as it does to me today.  (R. Sirilak)

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