Guarding its SECRETS

Archeologists and scientists remain largely mystified as to how the Champa Kingdom built the thousand-year-old My Son Sanctuary in central Vietnam.

By Jessica Nguyen on June 10,2019 08:34 AM

Guarding its SECRETS

Though little understood, the Cham construction style is indeed a marvel, and researchers were also long stumped by the decorative carvings on the tiles. | PHOTOS: ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

Located to the southwest of central Da Nang city, My Son Sanctuary is a complex of Hindu temple ruins built by Champa kings between the 4th and 14th century.

Spread out over some 2 sq km and surrounded by two mountain ranges, the Sanctuary encompasses over 70 temples as well as numerous steles bearing historically-important inscriptions in Cham and Sanskrit. Dedicated to the worship of the god Shiva, the temples remain relatively intact, with architectural features and primitive yet exquisite carvings still clearly visible.

Researcher Nguyen Ngoc, in his essay on My Son Sanctuary in the “Vietnam Now: Fiction and Essays” collection published by The Vietnam Forum and the Ford Foundation in 2009, wrote that the first person to try to rebuild the Cham towers in My Son after the American War ended in 1975 was Polish scientist, architect, and artist Kazimer Kwiatkowski (1944-1997), known as Kazik. For many the Sanctuary was nothing but ruins, a place to visit out of curiosity and nothing more. But for Kazik, the towers were the pinnacle of art, and he went on to spend the rest of his life trying to preserve them and learn their secrets. Considered a major contributor to the preservation of other historical sites in Vietnam, Kazik’s work helped to place My Son Sanctuary on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Guarding its SECRETS

He first went to My Son when the area was overgrown by the jungle and landmines could be found everywhere. One false step could end in tragedy.

No archaeologists or museums had ever visited the site. People living nearby heard that the Cham people had buried gold there, and dug up and devastated the whole area. Kazik once held up a broken piece of tile from the towers, and with tears running down his cheeks told them: “Here is the gold.”

Kazik spent day after day around My Son site doing his own research on the construction, the materials, and the architecture of its Cham towers. During the day he picked up each piece of broken tile he could find, fitting the broken pieces together, one by one, to rebuild the towers. He told friends who came to visit once in a while that “I don’t feel lonely. I have so many Apsara ladies with me. Really, I know they’re still alive. They’re so lively and pretty, these ageless celestial ladies!”

Over decades of research, the Cham towers never failed to amaze Kazik, as he wrote that “the Cham people put their spirit into stone and soil. They were able to create the grand and sacred My Son on the basis of nature. This is a priceless museum of architecture and sculpture of humanity that will take a long time for us to fully grasp.”

Kazik died in 1997 as he worked to save a historical legacy of a country thousands of miles away from his own.

Hidden secrets

“It seems the Cham people didn’t ‘build’ a tower, they ‘planted’ a ‘tower tree’!”. Visitors to My Son Sanctuary may well agree with these remarks by local archaeologists. The towers have grown from deep layers of the soil for thousands of years, sucking up the nutrients they need to survive, just like living beings. Thousands upon thousands of tiles were piled up into thousands upon thousands of layers, creating majestic, perfectly-sculptured towers that the most talented of sculptors today can’t imitate.

The construction techniques used by the Cham builders are not completely understood. The tiles are special - ground so smoothly they fix together and can’t be separated after a coating of glue possibly made from plants. It seems the Cham people mixed sap with soil before baking their tiles. Later they inserted another type of sap into the spaces between tiles, which would blend with the sap holding the tiles together and produce the living arteries of a ‘tower tree’. It is these marvelous arteries that have helped keep the tower trees ‘fresh’, unchanged for nearly a thousand years, alive, bright red, and shining under the sun.

Guarding its SECRETS

Though little understood, the Cham construction style is indeed a marvel, and researchers were also long stumped by the decorative carvings on the tiles. Just how where these carvings of Apsara ladies made? Were the walls constructed and then carved, or were the tiles carved first and then assembled so as to create the walls? After examining the carvings, experts concluded that the Cham craftsmen carved into the finished tile walls. Unlike the Apsara dancers at the sacred ninth-century temple of Bakong in Cambodia, where carvings were made on sandstone slabs prior to a wall being built, the Apsara dancers on the My Son towers were carved into the finished wall, based on how the lines of carvings are perfectly aligned from tile to tile. This conclusion, however, is still up for debate, and the truth is that nobody is truly certain.

Manifesting a philosophy, secret but lively, the Cham towers are estimated to be nearly 1,000 years old but experts today still don’t know all there is to know about them. It seems that each time archeologist and scientists study the towers, they discover something new. Kazik’s prediction about the My Son Sanctuary holds true to this day: the towers might well remain a mystery far into the 21st century.


My Son Sanctuary is near the village of Duy Phu in Duy Xuyen district, Quang Nam province, 69 km southwest of Da Nang. It’s nestled into a hilly landscape and comprises eight groups of 71 monuments built from the 4th to 14th century, when My Son was the capital of the Champa Kingdom.

The valley of My Son was once a site of religious ceremonies for the kings of ruling Champa dynasties as well as a burial place for Cham royalty and national heroes. It is considered one of the main Hindu temple complexes in Southeast Asia, and is the religion’s only legacy in Vietnam.

The first relics were found to mark the age of King Bhadravarman I (Pham Ho Dat), who reigned from 380 to 413 and built a cathedral to worship Linga and Shiva. Based on epitaphs, it is known that the first temple, made from wood, was built in the fourth century. More than two centuries later, this temple was destroyed by fire. At the beginning of the seventh century, King Sambhuvarman (Pham Phan Chi), who reigned from 577 to 629, used bricks to rebuild the temple that exists today.

Latter-day kings continued to remodel the old temples and build new towers to worship the gods. The techniques used remain mysterious, and little is known about bonding materials and tiles and the construction.

My Son was “discovered” by Henri Pamentier of the Archaeological Service of Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient in 1898, who also directed numerous research and restoration campaigns in the area.

The site was badly damaged by heavy bombing during the American War. In 1999 the Sanctuary was named by UNESCO as a World Heritage and is the only evidence of the lost civilization. It has also been included on a list of the 23 most important national relics in Vietnam.


Book - “My Son - The Holy Land” by Ngo Van Doanh, Youth Exhibition House, 2004

Essay - “My Son Sanctuary” by Nguyen Ngoc, Vietnam Now Fiction and Essays, 2009


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