In 2011, when the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) embarked upon the task of restoring portions of My Son, a cluster of ancient Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Shiva in the Quảng Nam province of central Vietnam, the reasoning was two-fold. One was to show solidarity with Vietnam that had lost out on large portions of the temple complex during the US bombing raid of 1969. More importantly, though, help from India was deemed valuable for the restoration of a site that is noted to be an exceptional example of cultural exchange, and one that introduced Hindu architecture to Southeast Asia more than a thousand years ago.
Therefore, last week when a four-member restoration team of the ASI discovered an 1100-year-old monolithic sandstone shiva lingam, a representation of the Hindu deity Shiva, it was seen as a moment of great pride by India. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar announced the discovery on Twitter saying it reaffirmed a ‘civilisational connect’ between India and Vietnam and is a ‘great cultural example of India’s development partnership’.
Reaffirming a civilisational connect.
Monolithic sandstone Shiv Linga of 9th c CE is latest find in ongoing conservation project. Applaud @ASIGoI team for their work at Cham Temple Complex, My Son, #Vietnam. Warmly recall my visit there in 2011. pic.twitter.com/7FHDB6NAxz
— Dr. S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) May 27, 2020
The My Son temple complex is known to have been constructed between the fourth and 14th centuries by the rulers of Champa, an Indianised kingdom of the Austronesian ethnic group known as Chams, located across the coast of central and southern Vietnam. According to an official from the ASI, before this, six other shiva lingams had been discovered at the site during the ongoing process of restoration, but the present finding is believed to be the most magnificent one.
For that matter, My Son, is one among the many archaeological remnants in Southeast Asia that are testimony to the strong cultural, linguistic, and religious links that have existed with India since the beginning of the Christian era.
George Coedes, the French scholar of Southeast Asian archaeology and history, was the first to have developed the concept of ‘Indianised kingdoms’ in what he coined to be ‘farther India’. Geographically ‘farther India’ refers to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and the Malay states. While relations between India and ‘farther India’ is noted to have existed since prehistoric times, it was only from the beginning of the Christian era that these relations resulted in the formation of Indian kingdoms in these regions.
“Around the beginning of the Christian era, Southeast Asia was the ‘land of gold’ towards which the Indian navigators sailed,” writes Coedes in his book, ‘The Indianized States of Southeast Asia’. Apart from gold though, other products such as spices, aromatic wood, fragrant resins were also reasons for movement between the two regions.
While it is not ascertained as to how exactly the trading activities resulted in the formation of kingdoms, Coedes notes that possibly individual traders set up their own kingdoms, carrying with them a Brahmanical cultural system, or local chieftains approached Hindu elites to seek validation and in turn adopted their religious customs. Kingdoms such as Cambodia, Champa, and the smaller states of the Malay peninsula, the kingdoms of Sumatra, Java and Bali, as well as the Burmese and Thai kingdoms were all born out of the process of Indianisation.
The Indianised roots in these states is evident from multiple aspects of their lifestyle and traditions.
“The importance of the Sanskrit element in the vocabulary of the languages spoken there; the Indian origin of the alphabets with which those languages have been or are still written; the influence of Indian law and administrative organisation; the persistence of certain Brahmanic traditions in the countries converted to Islam as well as those converted to Singhalese Buddhism; and the presence of ancient monuments which, in architecture and sculpture, are associated with the arts of India and bear inscriptions in Sanskrit,” writes Coedes.
The kingdom of Champa that gave rise to the My Son temple complex
Renowned author and senior journalist Gitesh Sharma in his book, ‘Traces of Indian culture in Vietnam’ writes that ‘the Champa or Cham ethnic group is one among the 54 ethnic minority groups of Vietnam, whose ancestors had established a Hindu kingdom in Vietnam during the third century, which lasted for more than a thousand years.”
While the name Champa is believed to have its roots in ancient literature written in Sanskrit and Pali, it was also the name of the capital of the Magadha Empire in the fifth century BCE under emperor Bimbisara. “It appears that the first Indian settlers to Vietnam were from the Champa region (Bhagalpur in Bihar) and possibly that is why they preferred to be referred to as the Champa community. Subsequently, those who migrated from various places of India viz. Kaliga (Orissa), Amravati (Andhra Pradesh), and Gujarat were also addressed as Chams or Champa,” writes Sharma
At present several aspects of Cham culture have strong links with Hindu and Buddhist belief systems. For instance, they observe the Saka Samvat, a calendar that is believed to have been introduced by emperor Kanishka of the Kushan dynasty in 78 AD. Many of the sub-communities among the Chams, also follow the Hindu tradition of cremating the dead and worshipping the remains every year as a way of paying homage to their ancestors. “The Chams introduced the Indian technique of rice cultivation during the 4th-5th century CE, or maybe even earlier, which they had carried with them from India,” writes Sharma.
The earliest available evidence of building activity at My Son, which was the religious capital of the Champa kingdom, is from the era of king Bhadravarman I who ruled in the fourth century CE. He is noted to have built a hall containing a lingam to worship God Shiva. Almost all the temples existing at My Son are dedicated to God Shiva, known under various local names. Over time the complex developed into a space of religious ceremony for kings, as well as a burial place for Cham royalty. Most of the existing temples in the complex were built in the ninth and tenth centuries.
Speaking about the significance of the recent discovery made by ASI, archaeologist Ravindra Singh Bisht says “it is yet another evidence of the extension of Indian culture in Southeast Asia.” “However, it is not unexpected. Large parts of Southeast Asia were either Hindu or Buddhist in the past. In the course of conservation work in these countries, several such artefacts have come to light, such as inscriptions in chaste Sanskrit, images of Goddess Durga and God Ganesh, apart from Shiva lingas,” he adds.
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