Monday, December 29, 2014

Maymyo—Myanmar’s Historic Hill Station

                                                           by Jim Goodman

       Pyin U Lwin is just an hour’s drive from Mandalay, but it is a very different kind of city.  The immediately evident contrast is its altitude, about 1050 meters, on an elevated plain northeast of Mandalay.  This is the gateway to the Shan Plateau and a road and railway line continue from here to Lashio.  Temperatures are cooler and in winter months can be quite chilly at night.  Both the architecture and the ethnic composition of the population differ from Mandalay or any other town in the plains.
Pyin U Lwin, behind Kandawgyi Lake
       During colonial days the town’s name was Maymyo, a hill station to where the government in Yangon shifted its headquarters in the hot dry season.  This followed a tradition already set in Britain’s India colony, where Darjeeling was the hill station when the colonial capital was in Calcutta and Simla for when the capital moved to Delhi.  Consequently, British-style homes, gardens and buildings dominate.  And, due to the legacy of imperialism, besides Burmese and indigenous ethnic minorities, the population includes Indians, Chinese and Nepalese.  In addition to Therevada Buddhist temples in the Myanmar style, houses of worship in Pyin U Lwin include Chinese Mahayana Buddhist temples, Hindu temples, mosques and churches.
       Until the British conquest of Upper Burma, only a small Shan village existed here.  The surrounding land is not very suitable for rice cultivation, so it didn’t attract settlers.  Its transformation took place because the British needed a base to establish their authority in the Shan Plateau.  With their capture of Mandalay, the last capital of the independent Kingdom of Burma, the British had completed their three-stage conquest of the country.  But the arrested king, a weak and inexperienced monarch, didn’t exercise much authority over the autonomous Shan princes northeast of Mandalay and the British had to send expeditions there to make the Shan acquiesce to the new order of things in the new colony.
British-style home
       Leading this first foray into the Shan areas was Colonel James May, commander of the Bengal Regiment temporarily stationed here in 1887.  When the British decided in 1896 to make the base permanent and build a town around it they called it Maymyo—May’s town in Burmese.  Because of its cooler climate and easy access to the plains, Maymyo became a favorite retreat for British civil servants and other colonial residents, who built homes and public buildings in a neo-Tudor English style.  Trains from Mandalay brought up elegant furniture, silver tea services, pianos, fragile chinaware, saris for wives of the Indian and Nepalese soldiers, bandages for the hospitals, books for the schools and Bibles for the churches.  Pony carts waited at the station to take people and their goods off to their homes.
       Street names like Charing Cross Road, Downing Street, Church Road, The Mall and Club Road reflected the British attempt to recreate a homeland environment.  While Maymyo was more crowded during the summer when government offices shifted their operations here, it had a permanent population of civil servants, retired servicemen and local businessmen, like the employees of the Bombay Burmah Trading Company that ran the teakwood business.  For them, Maymyo was a bit of England, set apart from the tropical plain and its very Oriental environment.  Here they could send their children to English schools, attend services in Anglican churches, take walks along avenues lined with pine, eucalyptus or bougainvillea, play golf or polo and dance and sip cold drinks at the Club. 
       Life in Maymyo was a lot more comfortable than in the sweltering cities of the Irrawaddy Valley.  Over time other businesses developed here, particularly fruit and vegetable cultivation, sericulture and silk production, coffee, cattle ranching and sweater knitting.  Visiting entrepreneurs would lodge at the Candacraig, drink coffee by the fireplace and dine on roast beef and vegetables at precisely seven p.m. every evening.
       The town was also an education center in colonial times.  St. Joseph’s Convent, with its rose brick, cottage-like buildings, had the best reputation.  But the British could also enroll their children in St. Mary’s, Saint Michael’s or Saint Albert’s Schools, all fine establishments.  Parents believed, not without reason, that the cooler temperatures and absence of the enervating heat of the plains were more conducive to good studying. 
All Saints Anglican Church
Purcell Tower
       Throughout the colonial era one of the main constituents of Maymyo’s population was the Anglo-Burman community.  These were the offspring of European men and local women.  Most were the children of British men and Burmese women, but the term also included those whose mothers were Shan, Karen, Mon or others of the country’s ethnic minorities, as well as those whose fathers were from other European countries, especially Holland, thanks to the activities of the Dutch East India Company in the 18th century, and even the Middle East. 
       While somewhat looked down on by both the British and the Burmese, the Anglo-Burman community was officially recognized by the government as a distinct ethnic group and in fact became a privileged group within the ethnic hierarchy.  Local attitudes were very different towards the Anglo-Indian community in India, despite the similar origins, whom both the British and the Indians despised.  The Burmese felt the same prejudice, especially after many Anglo-Indians began arriving in Burma to work for the railroad and customs departments. 
colonial-era store still in use
       Close association with the British colonial regime put the Anglo-Burman community in great peril when Japan invaded the country in 1942.  Those who could manage their escape fled to India, as did the Anglo-Indians and the Chinese.  But many were unable to exercise that option and were forced to stay.  In Maymyo, a change of generals failed to stem the Japanese advance and the British fled.  When the victors took over Maymyo they discovered its large Anglo-Burman community.  Assuming these people were automatically British sympathizers the occupiers incarcerated most of them in concentration camps, after conscripting some of the women to be servants and mistresses.
       Those whose features more strongly resembled those of local Burmese escaped this fate.  In addition, some escaped thanks to the aid of Burmese friends who sheltered and concealed them.  Grateful for this assistance, and disgusted by the hasty and unprepared British evacuation in 1942, after the war many Anglo-Burmans renounced their European names and manners and began deliberately assimilating into the Burmese way of life.
the mosque in Pyin U Lwin
       For the other Anglo-Burmans, who had fled and returned, or who stayed but clung to their identity, the future proved pretty grim.  British rule was coming to an end and with it their preponderance in the bureaucracy.  After 1948 it was clear that independent Burma wanted more pure Burmese in its administration and to expunge the colonial way of running affairs.  U Nu’s government began orienting recruitment towards indigenous Burmese, with a view to ultimately replacing the Anglo-Burmans.  After Ne Win’s military took over in 1962 Anglo-Burmans began losing their jobs.  Emigration, already initiated with the withdrawal of the British, accelerated.  Today, the community barely survives.
Maymyo pony cart
       Besides Eurasians, the colonial demographic legacy also included Indians and Nepalese, descendants of the military units deployed here, and Chinese, some from Yunnan and some from the Guangdong and Fujian communities that set up commercial enterprises throughout Southeast Asia.  They are still here.  A Hindu temple serves the Hindus among the 10,000+ Indians and 5000 or so Nepalese and a nearby mosque serves the Muslim members of the Indian and Chinese communities.  The Nepalese are descendants of the Gurkhas, mercenaries from the hill tracts of central and eastern Nepal contracted by the British armed forces to maintain the peace on the Shan Plateau.
       The town still has a bit of a military feel to it.  Myanmar’s Defense Services Academy, its West Point equivalent, lies just a couple kilometers outside the town on the main road from Mandalay.  Statues of three of the country’s greatest kings stand in front of the compound gate, above a sign that reads, in English, “The Triumphant Elite of the Future.”  That might sound a bit ominous to anyone familiar with just how the triumphant elite has accomplished its triumph until now.  But the military presence in Maymyo itself is slight, only noticeable on holidays, though a lot of residents fancy wearing camouflage jackets and other military clothing so abundantly available in the markets.
       From the Academy, the road into Maymyo is actually quite pretty, with poinsettias flanking the road and a parkway filled with flowerbeds dividing the lanes.  After a final roundabout it suddenly enters the downtown commercial part of Maymyo on its southwestern side.  British-style buildings begin lining the main street, while just a block into the urban area stands the distinctive Purcell Tower.  Some say the clock tower was a gift of Queen Victoria, coinciding with a similar tower bestowed on Cape Town, South Africa.  Others say the tower came later and was named after the man who made the clock.
commercial district
nuns on their morning round
       The town’s imposing mosque is just up the street from the tower.  The main market area is off to the right.  Besides the usual array of produce stalls and shops the area is also the site of an important Buddhist temple.  Monks and nuns pass this way on their morning begging bowl rounds.  Itinerant fruit-sellers augment the market scene at certain seasons, such as February-April, when strawberries flood the town, along with strawberry jam, juice and wine.
Buddhist temple in the central market
       In 1989 the government dropped Maymyo as the town’s name in favor of the current Pyin U Lwin.  Except for Station Road, the government also replaced the English street names with Burmese names.  Local residents continue to refer to it as Maymyo, perhaps recognizing that, although the British and the Anglo-Burmans are gone, the town really hasn’t changed its look and character much.  It’s still filled with colonial-era architecture.  The biggest of the formerly British-owned mansions are now hotels catering to an ever-increasing flow of tourists.  You can still have coffee or tea and English pastries at the Golden Triangle Café near Purcell Tower and hear the chimes as the clock strikes the hour.  Restaurants offer the same choices available in colonial times—Burmese, Indian, Chinese and English meals.  And the pony carts, like little stagecoaches from the American Old West, remain the main mode of transportation from one part of town to another, the only place in Myanmar to retain their use.
Nan Myint Tower, Kandawgyi Gardens
       The peak of tourist season is the three-month hot, dry season, March to April, the same time of year colonial officials habitually left Yangon and Mandalay to come to Maymyo.  Besides enjoying the ambience of the hill station they also pay the all-but-obligatory visit to the National Kandawgyi Gardens.  When the British built Maymyo as a place reminiscent of home, they didn’t forget their love of gardens.  In 1915 British botanists began construction of the Gardens on a plot of 176 hectares on the southern outskirts of Maymyo.  Altogether they planted 482 species of trees, foreign and domestic.  The Gardens opened soon afterwards and became a popular venue for the English to have a picnic.
visitors at Kandawgyi Gardens
       It remained well maintained and popular with local residents long after the British left.  Even today Burmese tourists come to Pyin U Lwin to see the famous gardens, rather than to appreciate the colonial architecture and heritage of the town.  The garden grounds include a big lake, with a paya perched on a small island, broad lawns filled with patches of different flowers, pathways to separate groves, glades, teahouses and pavilions.  On the lake’s northwest side, the Nan Myint Tower offers a view of the entire garden area, Pyin U Lwin to the north and nearby hills in all directions.  The park’s other main features are the wooden walkway over a swamp and a nursery in the western part, with 250 species of orchid.
Kandawgyi Gardens in autumn
       Sundays and holidays the gardens are full of local Burmese, but at other times it can be hardly crowded at all.  But if one seeks a more solitary excursion into Nature, in a bit wilder setting, one can take a taxi to Anisakan village, on the Mandalay-Lashio Highway 8 km back towards Mandalay, and hike through the forest down a steep hill forty minutes to the last cataract, fifty meters high, of the Anisakan Falls.  A yellow paya stands on the ground beside the pool and it must have been some task to bring all the building materials down the slope.
       If that’s too strenuous an excursion (it’s about two hours back up the slope), just touring Pyin U Lwin on foot will provide pleasant and interesting exercise.  It’s a walk through a chapter of Myanmar’s history.  The faces in the markets and the various religious buildings are reminders of the town’s ethnic mix.  Its shops, houses, former colonial estates, churches and schools, the very English clock tower and the pony carts all evoke the colonial era more effectively than, for example, crumbling British-era buildings in Yangon.  Other cities in the country the British occupied.   Maymyo they built for themselves.
the waterfall below Anisakan village
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Saturday, December 13, 2014

Shifting Royal Capitals of Pre-Colonial Burma

                                                          by Jim Goodman

       Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, lies virtually in the center of the country on the east bank of the Irrawaddy River.  It was the last capital of independent Burma before the British conquest in 1885 and the removal of the capital to Yangon in the south.   The city had served as the administrative seat of Burma’s final kings only since 1860, three years after it was built.  The location was not very far from previous royal capitals, all of which lay within the heartland and principal power centers of the Burmese nationality throughout Myanmar’s history.  The Shan dominated the areas to the north and the Mon, until the mid-18th century, had their own states in the south. 
       Bagan, capital of the first Burmese Empire, lies downriver to the southwest.  From the 10th to the 14th centuries it held direct control over most of the Irrawaddy Valley and exercised its authority as far east as the edge of the Khmer Empire in present-day Thailand.  When it collapsed after the Mongol invasion it broke up into smaller rival states that fought each other, as well as Shan and Mon rivals, disappearing and re-appearing, expanding and contracting, over the next several centuries.
       Sagaing, on the west bank of the Irrawaddy 20 km downriver from Mandalay, took an early turn as capital in 1315.  Today the site is a temple and stupa-studded group of low hills, with a small administrative and commercial center along the shore.  With over 500 monasteries and more than 6000 resident monks and nuns, the town today is primarily a Buddhist retreat and meditation center.  Connected by bridge to the other bank, Sagaing is popular as a quiet day-trip for Mandalay residents seeking respite from the congestion of the big city.
Burmese warrior, Bagaya Kyaung
       If tranquility, supplemented by good scenery, is the goal of the day’s excursion, it doesn’t take long to achieve that in Sagaing.  The hills are still heavily wooded, dappled with white or gold stupas popping up above the tree lines, each summit crowned with a temple compound.   Paths lead from the shoreline up to each of these, passing through the quiet forest, with views at the top of the river and bridge, distant Mandalay, the plains to the west and the stupas and monasteries on Sagaing’s other hills.
       Whatever palace or fortifications Sagaing might have had in the past have disappeared.  Its run as a royal city lasted just under fifty years.  Its own king moved the capital across the river to Inwa.  This was an altogether more defensible location, for a canal connected a tributary with a bend in the Irrawaddy, making the new capital’s site an island.  Even today the only way to access Inwa is by a small ferry. 
the walls of Ava
      The new state saw itself as Bagan’s successor and tried to re-establish the former empire.  After some initial success Inwa, or Ava as it was later known as to the West, got bogged down in a debilitating 40-years war with the Mon in the south towards the end of the 14th century.  The following century components of the state broke away and in 1527 the Confederation of Shan States captured Ava and made it their own capital.  Just 18 years later, however, the Burman state of Toungoo, further south, which had seceded in 1510, captured Ava and annexed its territory.
       Under Bayinnaung the kingdom expanded to include most of contemporary Myanmar, as well as northern Thailand.  But after his death in 1581 the kingdom soon lost all its possessions, only to revive under one of his sons and re-establish itself in 1599, this time putting its capital in Ava.  The Toungoo Dynasty lasted until 1752, when Mon forces captured Ava.  A few years later Alaungpaya, a Burmese lord from Shwebo, 115 km northwest of Sagaing, rallied Burmese and Shan and launched a campaign against the Mon.
Inwa village girls
       After five years Alaungpaya captured the Mon stronghold at Bago (formerly known as Pegu) and established the Konbaung Dynasty on a firm footing.  His capital originally was his hometown Shwebo.  A moat and some of the city walls still remain there.  But after his death in 1760 his son transferred the capital to Sagaing for a while and then to Ava again in 1765.  Upon his death the next monarch King Bodawpaya shifted it to Amarapura in 1783, eight kilometers northeast.  His successor Bagyidaw returned to Ava in 1821, then went back to Amarapura in 1837 after an earthquake leveled most of Ava.   
       Altogether Ava served as a royal capital of one state or another longer than any other city since Bagan.  Today, though, little remains to suggest its former glory.  Parts of the city walls still stand, as well as one of its 19th century towers, two outstanding temples and several stupas.  Part of this is due to the fact that Ava was never a very big metropolis to begin with, certainly not on the scale of its nearest rivals in Angkor or Ayutthaya.  Its kings lavished money on palaces and stupas, but until its last turn as a capital, not on temples.  Also, except for its walls, the buildings were mainly built of wood and what survived the earthquake was mostly dismantled and removed to furnish the buildings in Amarapura.
Bagaya Kyaung
       Not everything was removed, though, nor did it become a completely abandoned place.  Villages of stilted houses made from wood and split bamboo, with thatched roofs, exist today in parts of the island.  Whether their ancestors stayed behind after the Court and government left permanently for Amarapura or were outsiders who moved into the deserted area afterwards, today they work farms on land where palaces once stood, catch fish in the river and canal, revere and maintain existing old stupas and send their children to school at Bagaya Kyaung Monastery, one of the premier attractions of a tour around the site of the ancient city.
       Boats drop visitors off at a dock near the northern gate.  Here the pony-carts wait to take them around, the usual way to explore the sights.  The leisurely ride takes two to three hours, depending on how long you stop to examine details.  It begins with the biggest remaining section of the brick walls that once surrounded the royal city.  Some of the foundations and an old brick stupa lie in the vicinity, flanked by rice fields.  The pony-cart ambles along a dirt road past more fields, occasional small stupas, ponds and groves and soon arrives at Bagaya Kyaung.
manuscript case inside Bagaya Kyaung
       Constructed in 1834 of strong teakwood, utilizing 267 posts as support, with sloping red roofs and a slim, five-tiered central steeple, the building was sturdy enough to withstand the earthquake a few years later.  Many of the pillars and sections of the wooden railing around the base of the main temple feature outstanding carvings of birds, elephants, lions, warriors, kinnarees (half-bird, half-woman), Buddhas and other imagery and embellishments from the Buddhist tradition.
       Within the temple a seated Buddha image rests on a large, ornate, gilded chair.  Elegant, carved and lacquered manuscript cases, one atop a low table, one mounted on wheels, stand near the altar.  In the mornings village boys attend school in one of the side rooms.
Maha Aungwe Bazan monastery, Ava
       Ava’s other extant temple, the Maha Aungwe Bazan monastery, went up in 1821, at the start of King Bagyidaw’s reign, when he shifted the royal residence back to Ava from Amarapura.  His chief queen, Meh Nu, sponsored its construction as a residence for the royal abbot.  Unlike most structures at that time, rather than wood the compound was built with brick and stucco.  The overall pale, dull yellow color is in contrast to the dark brown and bright red that characterizes Bagaya Kyaung.  It suffered some damage during the earthquake, but did not collapse and in 1872 the Court in Mandalay ordered its renovation.
Nyanmin watchtower, Ava
       The earthquake affected the old royal palace more and today only the two-story Nyanmin watchtower remains.  Standing 27 meters high, of the same pale yellow brick and stucco as Maha Aungwe Bazan, it tilts slightly and from its upper level one has a view across the island and as far as Sagaing.  Parts of the city wall foundations, the remnants of a fort on the southern side and several old and new stupas complete the list of Ava’s historical vestiges.  The rest of the island is a picture of typical rural life, of self-sufficient farmers growing their food, making buildings of local materials and weaving their own cloth, much as they did when Ava was a Kingdom.
       Amarapura’s second turn as royal capital proved to be shorter than its first.  Following the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852, in which the British seized the rest of Lower Burma, augmenting the acquisition of Arakan and Tenasserim it had won after the first war three decades earlier, the Court deposed the ruling monarch and appointed King Mindon to rule.  In 1857 he inaugurated the building of yet another capital, this time at Mandalay and in 1860 transferred the administration to the new site. As with Ava after its post-earthquake evacuation, timber from the royal palace in Amarapura was used to construct the new one in Mandalay. 
temple in Amarapura
       Today Amarapura is practically a southern suburb of sprawling Mandalay, but a quiet and attractive suburb nonetheless.  Weaving goes beyond household requirements here and Amarapura is a major supplier of hand-woven textiles to the Mandalay markets.  Villages on its perimeter specialize in Buddha images and temple furnishings like stupa crowns.  A couple of dilapidated buildings remain around the former palace area, but most of the remains of the old city are stupas and monasteries, none very ancient and most relatively new,
      No two stupa shapes are alike, though, and besides the customary white or gold color, Amarapura stupas can be, wholly or partly, red, yellow, 
painted stupe in Amarapura
blue-green and light green.   The temples tend to have wide fronts and a proliferation of statues, most of them lying on the north and east sides of Taungthaman Lake.  This picturesque body of water is adjacent to the old city site and in the dry season is often active with boats and fishermen on the water and farmers working on the shore.
       Spanning the southern portion of the lake is Amarapura’s most famous relic—U Bein Bridge.  Using 1060 wooden posts taken from the demolished royal palace in Ava, it starts from the Maha Ganayon Kyaung monastery, the residence of a few thousand monks on the west bank, and runs 1.2 kilometers to the other side, terminating a short walk from one of the area’s finest temples—Kyauktawgyi Paya.  It is the longest teak footbridge in the world and still in regular use, with five covered rest houses at regular intervals.  Monks from the temples at either end cross the bridge in the morning with their begging bowls, fishermen cast lines from it and villagers carry goods or push their bicycles across it all day, but especially in the late afternoon.
U Bein Bridge, Amarapura
       How much more active it might have been when Amarapura was still the capital is a matter of speculation.  It’s nice to imagine royal processions marching across the bridge on state holidays or perhaps military units dashing over it en route to a battle site, but there are no eyewitness accounts from the past to verify such a vision.  But in1860 the bulk of the city’s population had relocated to Mandalay, leaving only the people of Taungthaman village and the monks with any need for it.  Though heavy monsoon rains could fill the otherwise shallow lake to a level as high as the bridge, its solid initial construction has assured its durability from the beginning.
Kyauktawgyi Paya
villager on the U Bein Bridge
       Mandalay’s layout and architecture followed the forms established by previous capitals.  Its royal palace was modeled on the ones at Ava and Amarapura.  A moat surrounded its rectangular compound, as at Shwebo and Ava.   Its temples and towers featured the slim, multi-tiered steeple like that used at Ava’s Bagaya Kyaung.  Stupa shapes copied those erected in prior centuries.  And the temples and stupas scattered across heavily forested Mandalay Hill resembled one of the similarly speckled hills of Sagaing. 
       Mandalay, of course, unlike its predecessors, continued to grow long after its termination as a royal capital.  It may be too congested now for some to enjoy its attractions undisturbed.  If so, or if you are curious to see the original models for these sights, three former royal cities, quiet, interesting and atmospheric, lie just a short distance downriver.
Thaungtaman Lake beside Amarapura

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Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Chăm Legacy of Quàng Nam, Vietnam

                                                          by Jim Goodman

Chăm temple ruims at Mỹ Sơn
       Qung Nam province lies roughly in the center of Vietnam, adjacent to Đà Nng and south of the Hi Văn Pass.  In ancient times Đèo Hi Văn marked the boundary of the extent of Chinese influence.  Qung Nam did not become part of a Vietnamese state until the late 15th century.  Before that it was home to an Austronesian people known as the Chăm, who established several independent states along the coast of central Vietnam.  Qung Nam was the site of two Chăm capitals.  The first was Sinhapura, at what is now Trà Kiêu, on the Thu Bn River southeast of Đà Nãng, established after 446 in the wake of a Chinese invasion that looted and destroyed the previous capital near Huế.  The second was Indrapura, now the village of Đng Dương, founded in 875 and vanquished in 1044.
       While very little remains of Sinhapura other than a bit of its walls, or of Indrapura besides a small remnant of its main temple, vestiges of Chăm monuments remain at four sites in the province.  The most famous is Mỹ Sơn, a World Heritage Site since 1999, a Chăm royal sanctuary a little west of Trà Kiêu, founded in the late 4th century and containing the ruins of religious monuments erected up to the 14th century.  Other towers, at Khương Mỹ, Chiên Đan and Bằng An, date from the 10th and 11th centuries, the last period of the state of Amaravati.    
Tháp BằngAn
       The Vietnamese state the Chinese conquered in the 2nd century BCE only included about the northern third of what is today Vietnam.  The Chinese claimed jurisdiction all the way down to the Hi Văn Pass, but the territory south of Ngh An was very lightly populated, mainly by non-Vietnamese people, and only nominally administered.  It was also subject to periodic revolts and in 192 CE the southernmost district of Tượng Lâm, corresponding to today’s Quảng Trị and Thưa Thiên Huế provinces, declared its independence as a state the Chinese called Lin-yi.
       Over the next several centuries it would expand north, contract now and then, be known from the 8th century as Huan-wang, and by the time of Vietnamese independence in 938, be identified as Champa.  The new state distinguished itself by modeling its government and society on Indian models rather than Chinese.  Central Vietnam is very narrow compared to the Deltas of the north and the south, so agriculture could not be a state’s major economic input.  The Chăm were also seafarers.  Regular contact with proto-Khmer in the federation of ports known as Funan led them to adopt the Indian civilization then spreading in Cambodia and southwest Vietnam.     
Chăm warriors, Tháp Chiên Đàn
The king identified himself as an incarnation of the Hindu god Shiva.  The first monument erected at M Sơn, established in the late 4th century when the capital was still north of the Hải Văn Pass, was dedicated to Shiva.  This first tower and subsequent ones were made of wood and all burnt down in a 6th century fire.  Subsequently, the construction materials were brick and stone.  The baked bricks were fitted together with glue made from a local resin and some of the exterior carvings were done directly on the brick surface.  Columns were generally stone, as were most of the free-standing sculptures.
Mỹ Sưn stele of Chăm life
       The shapes of the buildings, exterior designs, sculptures and motifs reflected heavy Khmer influence.  The revered deities were mostly Hindu—Shiva primarily, but also Vishnu, Laxmi, Surya, Indra, Krishna, etc.  In sculpting these gods Chăm artisans followed the Khmer styles, themselves derived from Indian models with precise, written instructions on what a particular deity was supposed to look like.  The rules allowed for a bit of stylistic variation, which made Chăm sculptures slightly different from Khmer, especially in the depiction of real and mythical animals.  Examples of this are the monkeys in a Khương Mỹ frieze, elephants at the base of one of the Chiên Đàn towers and the mythical beasts at Bằng An.
elephants at Tháp Chiên Đàn
       While most Chăm kings identified themselves as Hindu, the founder of Amaravati in 875 was a Mahayana Buddhist, as were his immediate successors.  While the state religion subsequently reverted to Hinduism, for a brief period Buddhist themes dominated Chăm art.  Surviving sculptures, such as the bronze Tara and the reliefs and Buddha images from Đồng Dương in the Đà Nãng Chăm Museum, exhibit a high quality of technique.
       Whether officially Hindu or officially Buddhist, the Chăm state of Linyi-Huanwang-Amaravati never had friendly relations with its northern neighbors.  The original state expanded north into contemporary Quảng Binh and periodically raided the southern districts of Chinese-occupied northern Vietnam.  This continued
Avalokitesvar, Quảng Binh, 10th c. 
 after the Vietnamese won back their independence in 938.  The Vietnamese retaliated in a major way in 982, capturing Indrapura, but eventually the Chăm recovered and resumed raids.  In 1044 King Lý Thái Tông led an expedition that destroyed Indrapura.  His forces also captured all the Chăm Court’s entertainers and dancers and took them back to their capital Thămg Long (today’s Hanoi).  Chăm dancers then became part of the Lý Court’s entertainment. 
       Amaravati ceased to exit as a state, but the Vietnamese only annexed the area north of Đèo Hải Văn.  Control of Quảng Nam passed to the nearest Chăm state south—Vijaya.  Its kings continued to erect monuments in Mỹ Sơn now and then, until the Vietnamese conquered Vijaya in 1470 and annexed its territory from Quảng Nam to Phú Yên.  They did not attack the Chăm monuments, unlike the Khmer in earlier wars with Viyaya, but without state power behind them anymore these fell into neglect and decay.
       The Chăm people practically vanished from this part of Chăm territory.  Many fled south or west, while those who stayed behind submerged themselves into the growing Vietnamese population, hiding or abandoning their ethnic identity.  The monuments their ancestors left behind remained basically ignored until their discovery by French archaeologists at the end of the 19th century.  To them it was the discovery of a “lost” and unknown civilization and excavating and cataloguing the monuments, assembling and translating the stone inscriptions, particularly at sites like Mỹ Sơn, soon commenced.  
Mỹ Sơn ruins
       Mỹ Sơn contained nearly seventy monuments of one kind or another, some of them mere heaps of collapsed components.  Besides recording everything that lay in place, archaeologists also had to determine which pieces belonged to which structure and what it was supposed to look like when it was first erected.  Finally they were able to begin the even more painstaking work of reconstruction in the mid-1930s.  The work had to cease in 1943 because of the war situation and could not resume afterwards because of the ensuing battle between the colonial forces and the Việt Minh. 
       Following the end of the war and the separation of the country into two parts, the government in South Vietnam did not take up restoration and reconstruction in Mỹ Sơn.  The sanctuary returned to its former condition of neglect and gradual decay.  In the 60s the armed struggle against the Saigon government intensified and prompted the Americans to intervene.  National Liberation Front guerrillas, the Viet Cong as they became known, established control over most of the countryside and set up bases in remote areas everywhere, including around Mỹ Sơn.
gajasimha, half-lion, half-elephant, Tháp Bằng An
       In August 1969 American planes carpet-bombed Quảng Nam’s Chăm heartland.  The bombs practically obliterated the remains of Đồng Dương and destroyed much of the Mỹ Sơn sanctuary, including some of the restored works.  It was one of the war’s great cultural tragedies.  Even today there are unsafe, no-go zones in the vicinity, suspected of being littered with unexploded ordinance and land mines.  The bombing did not destroy the guerrillas, of course, and they simply moved bases and carried on with their ultimately successful campaign.  
       Fortunately, the smaller Chăm tower sites, being near the coast, were not targeted and today look pretty much like the original French photographs.  The smallest is Tháp Bằng An, a few km west of Hội An.  A single, bullet-shaped tower with an appended entrance section, it is the only Chăm tower on an octagonal base.  Much of its external decoration, like the friezes on the arch above the doorway and the designs along the columns, has eroded.  But in the yard stand two large stone statues of the gajasimha—a mythical beast half-lion and half-elephant.
Tháp Chiên Đản
     About 50 km south on Highway 1 the triple towers of Tháp Chiên Đàn lie just west of the road.  They have lost most of their domes and vegetation is creeping up the walls, but many of the stone relief carvings have survived around the bases—dancers, musicians, warriors, elephants, etc. The towers rise behind a large courtyard, which must have originally held other buildings, judging by the remains of the foundations.  Off to the right stand a large gajasimha, a stone lingam and a mounted stone slab inscription fragment.  Next to these is a small museum, housing objects found during excavations around the towers, such as 
Khương Mỹ Krishna
segments of friezes, a carving of Durga and other sculptures.

       A little further south, just past the turn to Tam Kỳ, Tháp Khương Mỹ also comprises three towers.  Vegetation has covered their upper sections, but some of the decorative elements are still in good shape, like vegetal patterns on the pillars, a carving of court life and a frieze of monkeys.  Khương Mỹ’s best statues—of a multi-armed Shiva mounted on Nandi and of Krishna holding up a mountain to protect cattle from a storm—were removed to the Đà Nẵng Chăm Museum.
       All these sites attract scant attention.  The emphasis is still on Mỹ Sơn.  That’s understandable, considering Mỹ Sơn has such a large collection of monuments.  Restoration is still going on there and recently an entire section previously closed for reconstruction finally opened to visitors.  Mỹ Sơn is not a Chăm equivalent of Angkor, but it was never intended to be.  It was not a royal city, but a sanctuary, where kings commissioned religious monuments to make merit, not to impress the urban populace as at Angkor, and had their tombs built.
       It’s about a half hour drive from Hội An, a little more from Đà Nãng, in a secluded, wooded valley about ten km west of the ancient capital Sinhapura at Trà Kiêu.  Best to go early morning, before the tour buses arrive and listen to the birds as you take the quiet walk down a long stone path to the site of the first, and biggest, collection of ruins. 
Chăm tower andCat Tooth Mountain
external sculpture,Mỹ Sơn
The French excavators divided the monuments into eight groups and gave them the rather unimaginative names of Groups A, B, C, D, E, F, G and H, with numbers added to identify each building within a group.  Actually the groups are in just five locations.  The first set encountered after coming down the walkway comprises Groups B. C and D.  This is the most interesting site, where the ruins are not as ruined as at other sites, and the massif looming in the distance behind them, Cat’s Tooth Mountain, which to the Chăm symbolized the holy mythical Indian peak Mt. Meru, is clearly visible.  
assembly hall, Mỹ Sơn
       Towers, temples, stone linga, storehouses and assembly halls are all represented, with some of the external decorations and carvings in fairly good condition.  In addition, one small building houses several statues, steles, stone inscriptions and remnant temple decorations.  Group A, on the other hand, a little southeast of this site, is less well endowed.  Fewer buildings remain standing, carvings are scarce and lots of columns and stone blocks lie on the ground.
       Leaving Group A and turning northeast you come to Group G, a single compound east of Groups B, C and D.  Bomb damage is more evident here than natural erosion, which is also a factor further up the same road to Groups E and F, which lie adjacent to each other.  The last site, Group G, lies all by itself past the cafes northwest of Groups B, C and D and comprises just a part of a tower wall. 
Chăm dancer, from a Chiên Đàn frieze
       A normal walk through all the sites takes about two leisurely hours, though I found myself returning to the B-C-D site for another lingering, appreciative look before leaving.  On the way out I discovered a small stage just before the exit and happened to be in time for the park’s entertainment show.  It began with Chăm folk dances, with rural themes and props like water jugs, baskets and farm tools, followed by soloists on Chăm instruments.
       The rest of the program featured ancient Chăm dances.  Performers dressed in costumes resembling those of the carved dancers on the temple friezes.  The themes were very Hindu, too, as three girls lined up behind each other and waved their arms so that they appeared from the front as one girl (one goddess) with six arms.  All of the choreography seemed to be inspired by Chăm temple art.  It was like a live version of the sculptures, a fitting conclusion to a morning excursion into ancient history.
performance of ancient Chăm dances at Mỹ Sơn

                                                                                * * *
            Mỹ Sơn is one of the stops on my cultural-historical journey through Vietnam.  See                                                                 for details