Mỹ Sơn is located near the village of Duy Phú, in the administrative district of Duy Xuyên in Quảng Nam Province in Central Vietnam, 69 km southwest of Da Nang, and approximately 10 km from the historic town of Trà Kiệu. The temples are in a valley roughly two kilometres wide that is surrounded by two mountain ranges.
From the 4th to the 14th century AD, the valley at Mỹ Sơn was a site of religious ceremony for kings of the ruling dynasties of Champa, as well as a burial place for Cham royalty and national heroes. It was closely associated with the nearby Cham cities of Indrapura and Simhapura. At one time, the site encompassed over 70 temples as well as numerous stele bearing historically important inscriptions in Sanskrit and Cham.
Mỹ Sơn is perhaps the longest inhabited archaeological site in Indochina, but a large majority of its architecture was destroyed by US carpet bombing during a single week of the Vietnam War.
The Mỹ Sơn temple complex is regarded one of the foremost Hindu temple complexes in Southeast Asia and is the foremost heritage site of this nature in Vietnam. It is often compared with other historical temple complexes in Southeast Asia, such as Borobudur of Java in Indonesia, Angkor Wat of Cambodia, Bagan of Myanmar and Ayutthaya of Thailand. As of 1999, Mỹ Sơn has been recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site. At its 23rd meeting, UNESCO accorded Mỹ Sơn this recognition pursuant to its criterion C, as an example of evolution and change in culture, and pursuant to its criterion C, as evidence of an Asian civilization which is now extinct.
The over 70 temples and tombs extant at Mỹ Sơn have been dated to the period between the 4th century and the 14th century AD. However, the inscriptions and other evidence indicate that earlier now defunct constructions probably were present from the 4th century. The complex may have been the religious and cultural centre of historical Champa, while the government was based in nearby Trà Kiệu or Đồng Dương.
The earliest historical events documented by the evidence recovered at Mỹ Sơn relate to the era of King Fànhúdá (Chinese: 范胡达; pinyin: Fànhúdá; Vietnamese: Phạm Hồ Đạt, Sanskrit Bhadravarman, literally "Blessed armour" but also meaning the Jasminum sambac flower), who ruled from 380 until 413, and who spent the latter part of his reign waging war against the population of Chinese-occupied northern Vietnam. At Mỹ Sơn, Bhadravarman built a hall containing a lingam to worship Shiva under the Sanskrit name Bhadreśvara "Blessed Lord", a composite created from the king's own name and the word īśvara "lord" commonly used to refer to Shiva.
King Bhadravarman caused a stele to be erected at Mỹ Sơn the inscription on which recorded his foundation. The stele indicates that the king dedicated the entire valley of Mỹ Sơn to Bhadreśvara. The text ends with a plea from Bhadravarman to his successors: "Out of compassion for me do not destroy what I have given." Drawing upon the doctrines of saṃsāra and karma, 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." Bhadravarman's successors heard his plea, it seems, for Mỹ Sơn became the religious hub of Champa for many generations.
More than two centuries after Bhadravaman's foundation, the temple to Bhadresvara was destroyed by fire. In the 7th century, King Sambhuvarman (Phạm Phạn Chi in Vietnamese, Fan Che as transcribed from the Chinese), who reigned from 577 until 629, rebuilt the temple, reinstalled the god under the name Sambhu-Bhadresvara, and erected a stele to document the event. The stele affirmed that Sambhu-Bhadresvara was the creator of the world and the destroyer of sin, and expressed the wish that he "cause happiness in the kingdom of Champa." The stele also applauded the king himself, claiming that he was "like a terrestrial sun illuminating the night" and that his glory rose "like the moon on an autumn evening."
Ironically, perhaps, Sambhuvarman's reign was marred by one of the most devastating invasions ever suffered by the country of Champa. In 605 AD, the Chinese general Liu Fang led an army southwards from the area of what is now northern Vietnam, defeated the elephant-riders of Sambhuvarman, and sacked the Cham capital, making off with an enormous booty that included over one thousand Buddhist books as well as the gold tablets commemorating the reigns of the previous eighteen kings. Heading back north with their heist, the Chinese invaders were struck by an epidemic that felled a large number of them, including Liu Fang. Sambhuvarman, for his part, returned home to his kingdom, began the process of rebuilding, and made sure to send regular shipments of tribute to the Chinese court, in order through appeasement to prevent a recurrence of the recent disaster.
French scholars investigating Mỹ Sơn at the beginning of the 20th century identified a then still existent edifice distinguished for "its majestic proportions, the antiquity of its style, and the richness of its decoration" as the temple of Sambhu-Bhadresvara constructed by King Sambhuvarman. Unfortunately, the edifice, which is known to scholars as "A1", was practically destroyed by US aerial bombing in the Vietnam War and is now little more than a formless pile of bricks.
King Prakasadharma (Po Kia Pho Pa Mo, as transcribed from the Chinese) ruled Champa from 653 AD to approximately 687. Upon ascending to the throne, he also assumed the name Vikrantavarman. During his reign, he expanded the borders of Champa toward the South and sent ambassadors and tribute (including tame elephants) to China. Inscriptions link him not only to Mỹ Sơn, but also to the nearby urban settlements of Trà Kiệu and Đồng Dương. He began the religious practice of donating "kosas" or decorated metallic sleeves to be placed over a lingam. Unusually for a king of Champa, he was devoted not only to Shiva, but also to Vishnu.
One of the most important steles to be found at Mỹ Sơn is that erected by Prakasadharma in 657 AD. The purpose of the stele was to commemorate the king's establishment of a god identified as the ruler of the world, i.e. Shiva, with a view to overcoming the seeds of karma that lead to rebirth. The stele is important because it sets forth the king's ancestry and is of great help in reconstructing the sequence of Champa's rulers. Among his ancestors, notably, the king claimed a Cambodian king named Isanavarman I. And like the Cambodian kings, he traced his ancestry to the legendary couple of the brahman Kaundinya and the nāga-princess Soma.
Subsequent kings renovated the older temples and constructed additional ones. For many centuries, the building of temples and shrines of varying sizes continued, and Mỹ Sơn served as the religious and cultural center of the Cham civilization in central Vietnam, as well as the burial place of kings and religious leaders.
Most of the extant temples at Mỹ Sơn, such as the Isanabhadresvara, were built in the 10th century AD. Unfortunately, the inscriptions from this period have not survived, except in fragmentary form. At the beginning of the 10th century, the Cham center of power was at Đồng Dương, not far from Mỹ Sơn. By the end of the century, it had been displaced southward to Bình Định Province on account of military setbacks in wars with the Viet. However, Cham kings continued periodically to renovate the temples at Mỹ Sơn and even to build new foundations. The latest significant Cham record at Mỹ Sơn is a pillar inscription of King Jaya Indravarman V dated 1243 AD. By the early 15th century, the Cham had lost their northernmost lands, including the area of Mỹ Sơn, to the Viet.
Following the conquest of central Vietnam by the Viet and the decline and eventual fall of Champa, the Mỹ Sơn complex fell into disuse and was largely forgotten. It was rediscovered in 1898 by the Frenchman M. C. Paris. A year later, members of the scholarly society called École française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO) began to study the inscriptions, architecture, and art of Mỹ Sơn. In 1904, they published their initial findings in the journal of the society called Bulletin de l'École française d'Extrême Orient (BEFEO). Henri Parmentier gave a description of the ruins at Mỹ Sơn, and M. L. Finot published the inscriptions that had been found there.
In 1937, French scholars began to restore the temples at Mỹ Sơn. In 1937 and 1938, the main temple known as "A1" and the smaller temples surrounding it were restored. Other major temples were restored between 1939 and 1943. However, many historical buildings were destroyed during the Vietnam War. United States B52 aircraft carpet-bombed the region in August 1969. The surrounding area is still rendered dangerous through the presence of unexploded land mines.
The majority of the temple sites in the centre of the complex have survived to this day. However, worries persist regarding the structural soundness of the remaining temples, some of which are vulnerable to collapse. Although many statues have been removed to France or to historical museums in Vietnam, such as the Museum of Cham Sculpture in Da Nang, others can be viewed in a temporary museum that has been set up on site in two of the temples, with the funding of benefactors from Germany and Poland.
From 2002 to 2004, the Ministry of Culture of Vietnam allotted around 440,000 USD to maintain the site. A draft plan of UNESCO was funded by the Government of Italy and sponsors from Japan to prevent further degradation. These efforts are also funded by the World Monuments Fund.
All of the remaining buildings at Mỹ Sơn are believed to be religious buildings. They are of the following types:
When he began his studies of Mỹ Sơn in 1899, Henri Parmentier found the remnants of 71 temples. He classified them into 14 groups, including 10 principal groups each consisting of multiple temples. For purposes of identification, he assigned a letter to each of these principal groups: A, A', B, C, D, E, F, G, H, K. Within each group, he assigned numbers to the edifices comprising it. Thus "My Son E1" refers to the edifice at My Son belonging to group "E" that has been assigned the number "1."
Art historians have classified the architectural and artistic legacy of Champa into seven artistic styles or phases of development. Six of the styles are represented at Mỹ Sơn, and two are believed to have originated from there. They are known as the Mỹ Sơn E1 Style and the Mỹ Sơn A1 Style. In particular the temple known as "A1" is often referred to as the architectural masterpiece of the Cham. The six styles of Cham architecture represented at Mỹ Sơn are the following:
Most of the temples at Mỹ Sơn were made of red brick, and only one (the temple labelled "B1") was made of stone. Even the decorative carvings on the Cham temples were cut directly onto the bricks themselves, rather than onto sandstone slabs inserted into brick walls as is observable for example in the 9th century Cambodian temple of Bakong.
To this day, the construction techniques used by the Cham builders are not completely understood. Issues that have not been completely resolved include issues about the firing of the bricks, the mortar between the bricks, and decorative carvings found on the bricks.
The people of Champa maintained written records in both Sanskrit and old Cham. They wrote on perishable materials, such as large leaves, and also created inscriptions in stone. They used scripts borrowed from India. None of the writings on perishable materials have survived. However, numerous stone inscriptions have been preserved, transcribed, and translated into modern languages.
Many of Champa's most important inscriptions are on steles, that is to say on slabs or pillars of stone erected precisely for the purpose of hosting inscriptions. Scholars have found approximately 32 steles at Mỹ Sơn, dated between the 5th and the 12th century AD.
The subject-matter of Cham inscriptions is mostly political and religious. They are written from the perspective of kings or very high potentates seeking to affirm their legitimacy and their relationship to the divine. Many of the inscriptions document a gift to a god, such as a gift of land, of people, or of treasure, or a foundation dedicated to a god, such as the foundation of a temple, an altar, or a pedestal. The inscriptions also provide us with important information such as the name of the country (typically Campadesa in the Sanskrit inscriptions, nagara Campa in the Cham inscriptions), and the names of some of its most important cities: Simhapura ("Lion City"), Virapura ("Knight City"), Rajapura ("King City"), Vijaya ("District"). Finally, a number of the inscriptions allude to or describe interesting historical events, such as the ongoing wars between Champa and Cambodia in the 12th century.