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War-ravaged monastery still awes

Update: February, 28/2012 - 10:31

 

Fair and square: The Square Lake at east side of the Dong Duong site.
Only the lonely: The statue of a male elephant. The female elephant was removed by archaeologists and no one knows where it is now.
Written in stone: An old stone stele carved with ancient scripts.
Standing tall: The Light Tower is the only part of the monastery still standing at the Dong Duong site. — VNS Photos Huynh Van My
The Dong Duong site was severely damaged by bombing during the American War, yet the ruined monastery, which is more than a thousand years old, still retains an air of its former Cham grandeur. Huynh Van My reports.

Near the cross-roads of two national highways in Quang Nam Province lie the ruins of Dong Duong, a Buddhist monastery that flourished over a thousand years ago.

Dong Duong is the modern Vietnamese village closest to the location of Indrapura, the capital of the Champa Kingdom that thrived in central and southern Viet Nam from AD 500 to 1500, according to Associate Professor Ngo Van Doanh from the Research Institute of Southeast Asia.

In his 1994 book, entitled Champa Ancient Towers: Legend and Truth, Doanh considers Dong Duong an architectural gem of the region.

He discusses French archaeologist L Finot, who unveiled the site in 1901 and announced that 229 cultural artefacts had been discovered in Dong Duong. Among them was a 1m-high bronze Buddha statue that Finot called "one of the most ancient and spectacular in Southeast Asia."

Before its discovery by the French, the area was mentioned in geological records from the Nguyen dynasty, including the Dai Nam Nhat Thong Chi: "Dong Duong Village in Le Duong District has two towers standing about 15 truong (45m) away from each other. (Truong is an old unit to measure length and each truong is equal to 3m). One of the two towers is about four truong (12m) high. It was built out of brick with an octagonal top section and a square base. Each side of the octagon is one truong in length."

Doanh reports that the architectural complex measures 1,330m from east to west, prominently featuring a temple in a 300m by 240m fenced enclosure.

The village now belongs to Binh Dinh Bac Commune in Thang Binh District.

Fallen into oblivion

Dong Duong has fallen into oblivion over the centuries. The area was severely impacted by military activity and other forms of human destruction.

The miraculous towers that used to symbolise the spiritual activities in Dong Duong are now just two pillars covered with rough variegated brick and wild plants.

"During 1964 and 1965, the main tower still kept its original shape and children would play around it, but it was destroyed in 1967 by American bombardment and now all that remains are the two pillars," says Tra Tan Vu, a local official.

The site was recognised as a national historical relic in 2001, but Vu said that even the stone stele testifying to its "certification as a historical vestige" has been damaged by weather and war.

"Fortunately, some remaining notes engraved on the main side of the stele have helped provide information about the state of Dong Duong when French researchers arrived here," says Vu.

Nowhere in the Cham relic area can one find as many broken bricks scattered around as in Dong Duong. The bricks are bright red, a colour typical of ancient Cham construction methods.

Vu says there were a total of eight guard towers at the Buddhist complex, used for both protection and worship. The French unearthed precious jewellery and other articles from around the towers.

Trung Tam (Central) Tower stands between the Sang (Light) and Toi (Dark) towers, though all three structures are now just piles of ancient bricks covered by a carpet of dead leaves.

According to local tradition, Sang Tower was named for its many windows that allowed light to penetrate its interior, whereas Toi Tower had only one opening to the outside.

Dong Duong resident Tra Dieu says the site had been of great importance to him ever since he was a young boy in the 1930s.

"When I was just six years old, I followed my father to the ruins and witnessed the work of French archaeologists. The excavators came upon a stone sculpture of a female elephant, and when they dug around its base they discovered gold. The female elephant was carried away after that and no one knows where it is now, but its male counterpart still stands on the spot," Dieu says.

Vu vividly recalls the Ho Phap (Protectors), two rows of colossal statues that lined the processional way which were removed from the site in 1962. According to his description, the guardian statues were about one or two metres high and were the most miraculous sight in Dong Duong.

Both Vu and Dieu say the descendants of the Cham people can be found in the Tra family, who are still well represented in the current Dong Duong population.

The Cham people chose Indrapura as their capital city even though the site was not close to a sizeable river and the land was not fertile. After much study, French researchers concluded that the ancient towers in Dong Duong once heralded a central Buddhist monastery founded by the monarch Indravarman II in 875.

According to Dieu, local people used to consider Dong Duong a spiritual place, but wars and bombs have caused such complete destruction that its sacred aura is difficult to sense.

"Some local people destroyed the monuments themselves to take home bricks and wood to build houses. Others even tried to exploit the gold found underground," he says.

In 1978, a bronze Lokesvara statue was unearthed by Dong Duong villagers and delivered to local authorities. The statue was 1.14m high, weighed about 120kg and was eventually identified as the main statue of the monastery.

"Thus, Dong Duong now has two statues to be preserved as national historical relics. One is the Buddhist statue unearthed by the French in 1901, currently exhibited in the HCM City Historical Museum. The other is the Lokesvara statue now on display in Da Nang's Museum of Cham Sculpture," Dieu happily concludes.

 

Stately ruins: The front of the Sang (Light) Tower. The photo was taken in 2006 when villagers did not plant trees at the site. — VNS Photos Huynh Van My
Restoration effort

For many years, local people and authorities have tried to care for the remaining monuments as proof of Dong Duong's cultural value, in order to appeal for a large scale preservation effort from the government.

At a workshop held in August last year, it was announced that the area would be restored in the coming years.

The workshop discussed the advantages and challenges of restoration and set a time table for implementation.

Some scientists said it was too late to recover the area after years of destruction, but others are confident the work would be successful if done with patience and care.

Tran Ba Viet from the Ministry of Construction's Institute of Science and Construction Technology says compared to other Cham ruins like Simhapura in Quang Nam and Vijaya in Binh Dinh, Dong Duong has the potential to become a globally recognised cultural heritage site. — VNS

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