In May 2020, an archaeological discovery from the site of My Son in Quang Nam province of Central Vietnam highlighted the shared cultural civilisation between India and Vietnam. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), while conducting conservation work at the Cham Temple Complex in My Son, discovered a monolithic sandstone Shiva Linga belonging to the 9th century CE. This discovery takes us back to the ancient Kingdom of Champa in Vietnam that drew major influences and inspiration from India.
India shares a long history with South-East Asian countries like Vietnam and Cambodia. Vietnam, which was earlier known as Champa, actively traded with ports in the Indian subcontinent. Some of these ports were located in the ancient kingdom of Kalinga, which covered most of present-day Odisha and which played a crucial role in trade via the Bay of Bengal.
There was a wide network of trade contacts between Kalinga and South East Asia. Kalinga, especially, facilitated close maritime contact with the ancient land of Champa, whose coast lay on one of the major trade routes between India and China. According to the records of the Chinese monks Fa-Hien and I-Tsing, there was regular maritime contact between the coast of Bengal and South East region, between the 5th and 7th centuries CE. The Kingdom of Champa or the Cham Civilisation occupied major portions of what is Central Vietnam today, between the 9th and 17th Century CE, after which it was merged with the Vietnamese territories. The kingdom is said to have been founded in the Annam region of central Vietnam in 192 CE.
Not much is known of the early history of the Champa. According to legends and other sources, Champa of Vietnam is linked with the Champa in India, which corresponds to the modern-day town of Bhagalpur in Bihar. Champa in Bihar was the capital of the Anga republic, one of the 16 Mahajanapadas (7th-4th Century BCE) of the later Vedic period.
Tale of Two Champas
According to the Mahabharata, Karna is said to have been given the territory of Anga by Duryodhana, and legend has it that either Champa or Munger, another nearby settlement, was his capital. Champa was a significant political and cultural centre of the time. In fact, in the ancient text, the Vayu Puran, Vietnam was referred to as ‘Anga Dvipa’. According to the Jataka tales, it is believed that the people of Champa in Anga established another Champa in Vietnam.
Cut to the Common Era and, according to Chinese annals, between 192 and 758 CE, the region was known as Lin-Yi. In 758 CE, the name ‘Huan Wang’ was being used. It was in 875 CE that the area was known as ‘Chiem Thanh’, the Sino-Vietnamese transcription of ‘Champapura’ or ‘City of the Chams’.
The kingdom’s territories started from Annam but later encompassed Hindu principalities toward the south. By the 8th Century CE, Champa is believed to have stretched from the area of Annam in the north to the Donnai Basin in the south of Vietnam. At its peak, the Kingdom of Champa is said to have comprised almost two-thirds of the whole of Vietnam.
Historian R C Majumdar, in his book Ancient Indian Colonies In The Far East, Vol. I. Champa, 1972, notes that in the 2nd Century CE, there was a kind of regeneration in the growth of the Chams in Vietnam. A rock inscription from the village of Vo-Canh in Vietnam talks about a Hindu king Sri Mara, who established a dynasty in the 2nd Century CE. According to the Chinese chronicles, king Sri Mara was a Shaivite by faith. This dynasty ruled over the region, later known as Kauthara, in the 2nd or 3rd century CE. He is associated with another king called Kiu Lien, who is also said to be the founder of this kingdom in local history.
There are no records to verify that they were the same king, but some scholars identify Kiu Lien as Sri Mara. It is said that King Fan Hiong, who succeeded to the throne of Champa between 270 and 280 CE, was a maternal descendant of Sri Mara. After a few kings ascended the throne, there came a king called Fan-Hou-Ta in the year 380 CE. Some sources identify him as King Bhadravarman.
A descendant of Sri Mara, Bhadravarman was one of the most important kings of the Champa Kingdom and was the first king to use the Indian suffix ‘varman’ in his name. Majumdar in his book notes that there are around five inscriptions attributed to Bhadravarman and says, “On paleographical grounds, these inscriptions have been referred to the 5th century CE, and this agrees well with the reign-period of Fan-Hou-Ta.”
Historically, the Kingdom of Champa consisted of five major territories– Vijaya, Panduranga, Indrapura, Amaravati and Kauthara. Indrapura was the capital of Champa from the 9th century to the beginning of the 11th century CE. Inscriptions from Po Nagar provide the earliest references to few of these Champa territories. Po Nagar is a Cham temple complex from the 8th century CE. It is located in the principality of Kauthara, near modern Nha Trang in Vietnam. An inscription dated 784 CE makes mention of Kauthara while another one dated 817 CE refers to Panduranga. An inscription from 1600 CE at Po Nagar states the territories of Amravati and Vijaya.
Bhadravarman ruled over the provinces of Amravati and Vijaya and probably a few parts of Panduranga. He left behind a great piece of architecture, which stands as a reminder of his legacy to date. This is a Shiva temple he built, called Bhadreshwarswami, at My Son, and it became the spiritual centre of the Chams. It is during his rule that the people of Champa were introduced to elements of Indian culture.
A number of dynasties with Indian influences ruled Champa across the centuries. The Panduranga Dynasty reigned from 757 CE to 860 CE, followed by the Vhrigu Dynasty, from 860 CE to 985 CE. Prithivindravarman was the founder of the Hindu dynasty of Panduranga, who occupied the throne in 757 CE. Vikrantavarman III (820-860 CE) was the last king of this line and the Panduranga Dynasty ended with him.
The next to rule was the Vhrigu Dynasty that ruled Champa for more than a century (860-985 CE). The first notable king of this dynasty was Indravarman II. An inscription of 875 CE from Dong-Duong (Indrapura) issued by Indravarman says that he became the king of Champa through the grace of Lord Shiva. According to the inscription’s legend, this family originated from the Indian sage Vrigu, who was sent to Champa by Lord Shiva himself.
For the next few centuries, Champa continued to flourish greatly under different Hindu kings. However, there were brief invasions during the 10th and 11th centuries from the neighbouring Kingdoms of Annamites and Kamboja (Cambodia). The people who lived in Tonkin and northern Annam were the Annamites. It was during the end of the 13th century that the Annamites succeeded in the conquest of Champa.
In the Cham–Vietnamese War of 1471 Champa suffered serious defeats at the hands of the Vietnamese. This was a military expedition launched by Emperor Le Thanh Tong of the Le Dynasty (1428-1789). It is widely regarded as the event that marked the downfall of Champa. The forces of the emperor attacked the kingdom’s largest territory, Vijaya, and defeated the Cham army. By the 17th century, Champa was reduced to the principalities of Panduranga and Kauthara at the beginning of the 17th century. Kauthara was annexed by the Vietnamese in 1653. The last remaining principality of Champa, Panduranga, survived until 1832. It was later incorporated into the Vietnamese province of Binh Thuan.
The Kingdom of Champa was a political, economic and cultural force in the ancient and early medieval periods of Vietnam. And trade relations between Vietnam and India are believed to have been a major part of the Indian influence on the kingdom. The Jain scriptures, Uttaradhyayana Sutra, mentions the maritime contact between Kalinga and Champa. It is said that pilgrims as well as traders of Champa, since the time of the Jain Tirthankara Mahavira (6th century BCE), used to come to Pithunda (a port of Kalinga) as it was a port town as well as a centre of Jain religion. Champa also established political and cultural relations with the Pallavas (3rd to 9th century CE) of South India from the 7th to 9th centuries CE, which is attested to by the Vo-Canh inscription of Vietnam.
Not many know this but Pallava King Nandivarman II, from the 8th century CE, was originally from Vietnam. During the 8th century CE, in India, King Parameshvaravarman (r. 728-731 CE) ruled over the Pallava kingdom. However, when he died in 731 CE, there was no heir to ascend the throne. As a result, a delegation of nobles and military leaders was sent to the Kingdom of Champa, where the distant relatives of the Kanchi Pallavas ruled. A young boy named Pallavamalla was selected and crowned as King Nandivarman II. He ruled the Pallava Kingdom for the next 64 years.
One cannot escape the many influences from India in the religion, culture and society of Champa. Drawing greatly from the Indian social structure, society in Champa was also divided into four caste-based groups i.e. Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra. Sanskrit learning also began in an early period in Champa. It gradually became the official and instructional language. Brahmi text was also used in inscriptions. Manusmriti, the codebook of the Law of India, formed the basis of the Champa legal system and other South-East Asian countries.
The Brahmanic religion greatly flourished in the Champa Kingdom, with the worship of Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, the latter being the presiding deity in Champa. He was known and worshipped under various names.
Hinduism was a dominant faith at Champa until its conquest by the Vietnamese armies in 1471. There still exists a small community which practices Hinduism, called the ‘Balamon Cham’. A major part of their population resides in the Ninh Thuan province of Vietnam. Buddhism was also an important part of the religious faith in Vietnam. The reign of Indravarman II of the Vhrigu Dynasty is notable for a great Buddhist foundation, a monastery, the ruins of which have been located at Dong-duong, south east of My Son. This is the first evidence of the existence of Mahayana Buddhism in Champa.
Indian also strongly influenced the art and architecture of this kingdom in Vietnam. Some scholars believe the architecture and design of the Champa temples were greatly influenced by the architectural art of the Dravidian schools, the Pala Bengal School and the Kalingan art form of Eastern India. The special architectural features of the Cham temples include storied roofs of several stages in gradually diminishing proportions.
The Cham temples usually consist of three shrines. Kalen, a highly-decorated brick structure, is considered to be the counterpart of the shikharas and vimanas of Indian temples. According to Majumdar, the origin of the temple style of Champa might bear similarities to the rock-cut temples of Mamallapuram, Badami and Kanchipuram of Tamil Nadu in India.
There are three important groups of temples in Champa – My-Son, Po-Nagar and Dong-Duong. While My-Son and Po-Nagar are Shaivite centres, Dong-Duong is Buddhist in character. The shrine of Shiva at My-Son, constructed by Bhadravarman, was worshipped by all the natives of Champa. The linga form, which was a common form of worship at Champa too, was placed in a temple at My-Son, a site which became the centre of a group of temples. Of 130 epigraphs discovered in Champa, 92 inscriptions have been dedicated to Shiva and he was mentioned under various names.
The ASI discovery of a Shiva Linga at the Cham Temple Complex in My-Son not only throws light on the long Indian-Vietnamese association but also highlights the sanctuary of My-Son itself. A treasure of architectural remains, My-Son is a cluster of abandoned and partially ruined Hindu temples in Central Vietnam, constructed between the 4th and the 14th centuries CE by the Cham or Champa Kings.
My-Son Sanctuary dates from the 4th to the 13th centuries CE. It is located in the mountainous border Duy Xuyen district of Quang Nam Province in Central Vietnam, in a picturesque setting, surrounded by a ring of mountains. The ASI, which started restoration work at the temple complex in 2011, had previously discovered six Shiva lingams at the site, but the one discovered in May 2020 is believed to be the most magnificent.
While My-Son Sanctuary is a UNESCO World Heritage Site today, the valley here was once a thriving religious site of royal ceremonies for kings of the ruling dynasties of Champa. It was also a burial place for Cham royalty and national heroes. The site was closely associated with the significant Champa cities of Indrapura and Simhapura. It is said that My-Son once had more than 70 temples as well as numerous steles bearing important inscriptions in Sanskrit and Cham.
The My-Son Sanctuary, along with other sites in Vietnam, represents a significant chapter in the history of South-East Asia today. It is a reminder of the ancient links between the lands of India and Vietnam.
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