Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ancient My Son Temples and the Cham Empire

My Son was the imperial city of the Cham dynasty which ruled central and south Vietnam from the 4th to 12th century. The My Son Sanctuary is a holy valley of impressive Hindu temples that belonged to the royalty of the Champa people, and in their time, were the hub of spiritual activity but have since fallen into a state of atmospheric ruin. At the height of it's power, My Son was the Vietnamese equivalent of Cambodia's Angkor Wat and originally included over seventy temples, towers and monuments — although made of brick, the Cham structures have not stood the test of time.

After the fall of the Champa empire to the Viet people in the the fourteenth century, the the jungle slowly began to reclaim the site. Ignored and largely forgotten, My Son was discovered again at the turn of the twentieth century by a Frenchman, and by the 1930's French scholars and archeologists began to restore the My Son temples. They were able to identify a total of seventy-one temples, with various groupings of temples belonging to different eras of development of the Cham kingdom. 

By the 1960's, the temples had already fallen into disrepair when the Viet Cong used My Son as a base. Unfortunately for world history, much of what remained of My Son in the twentieth century was bombed out of existence by American bombers during the American Vietnam War. The temples that had been so lovingly restored by French archeologists and local people were quickly devastated by the fighting. 

Of the original seventy-one temples, fifty-six were obliterated by the war, so now only fifteen still remain. Evidence of the conflict can still be seen around the site — bomb craters still exist like open wounds, and all that is left of the largest temple of the complex is a pile of rubble. The area has, however, been cleared of leftover explosives, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. However UNESCO excavations and restoration work only started four years ago, so the crumbling temples of a forgotten age have just begun to be rescued from years of jungle growth.

On our return to Hoi An from the thick jungle air of My Son, we stopped by a local family who milled rice husks into a watery rice flour that produced delicious rice crackers. The Banh Trang were made by steaming the liquid rice on a heated cotton lined skillet, and then rolling the cooked crepes off the skillet with a wooden dowel. 

The finished rice paper crepes are then placed onto a bamboo matte and left to dry in the sun. The dried rice crackers can be then grilled on an open fire and served warm, or filled with a fresh rice paper crepe and served hot from the skillet with soy sauce. Sounds strange, but they were very tasty. The amazing feature of this family is that every part of the rice is used — the outer husks fuel the fire — and also, the fresh rice crepes are layered and then cut into ribbons for rice noodles! Then there's also rice wine, rice soup, or Congee, and rice cakes — so much joy from one little grain of rice.