Under my byline

The India in Indochina

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 3 July 2010

OVERLEAF 75

On a stone pillar in Mỹ Sơn, an ancient, now-ruined temple town in central Vietnam, is a long inscription in Sanskrit. It records that Bhadravarman, a king who ruled at the cusp of the 4th and 5th centuries, donated wealth to the nearby temple of Shiva. After declaring exactly what land and people were gifted, the inscription ends with a royal admonition:

If you destroy it, all your good deeds in your different births shall be mine, and all the bad deeds done by me shall be yours. If, on the contrary, you properly maintain [the endowment], the merit shall belong to you alone. I again declare… he who maintains, the merit belongs to him. He who does not maintain but destroys, will himself be destroyed.

Mỹ Sơn, unhappily, was heavily bombed and mined by the Americans during the Vietnam War, who surely earned themselves no merit by their deeds. The place is now a Unesco World Heritage Site drawing thousands of tourists, as well as restoration experts from Japan, Germany and Italy.

But not from India, says Geetesh Sharma, an elderly amateur scholar and Indo-Vietnam friendship activist. He has written a short, polemical book called Traces of Indian Culture in Vietnam (Banyan Tree, 2009), and in it he explains why he believes that the Cham people of Vietnam — whose ancestors lived at Mỹ Sơn — have their roots in ancient south India (the consensus among researchers, for now, is that it was more likely Indonesia). The text of Bhadravarman’s inscription above is from Sharma’s book, which also laments that official and academic India have so little interest in all this readily available evidence of India’s glorious past in a distant land.

The story of Mỹ Sơn is tragic but also impossibly romantic. Once known as Simhapura, capital of Amaravati, it had a long history as a power centre of the Hindu kings of what is now Vietnam. Sharma says, insightfully, that “It was due to regular worship, building and maintenance of more than a thousand years that MySon [sic] could retain most valuable remains of past architecture, sculpture and steles [commemorative stone pillars] that could not be found elsewhere.”

The last big temple there was built, says Sharma, by a Hindu king in the 1200s. After that, the town was abandoned and eventually swallowed up by the jungle. In 1898 — in what must have been a classic colonial explorer moment — Mỹ Sơn was rediscovered by a Frenchman. A few years later, French scholars counted 70 surviving temples. Now there are just 20, all of which have either received or still need restoration, and a host of scattered but imposing shivlings.

Sharma is right to complain: the Archaeological Survey of India should offer its skilled services, Indian researchers should be much more curious about the shared past of India and Vietnam, and Indian schoolchildren should be given the chance to learn much more about Indo-China, our cultural neighbour. After all, for the government’s ‘look east’ strategy to work it has to involve more than just trade, aid and military agreements. Ordinary citizens can be a powerful tool of international relations.

Ordinary people in Vietnam are already working to save this Indian heritage. Vu Kim Loc, for example, has set up a small museum for his important collection of Champa artifacts, especially jewellery and pottery. He has also co-written a book on Champa material culture — that is, all the things the Chams used and made — which weighs the Indian influence and speculates about how artisans and ideas travelled back and forth. All this useful work gets virtually no recognition or gratitude here in India.

“He who does not maintain but destroys, will himself be destroyed,” says king Bhadravarman’s inscription. In this case the phrase might well be modified thus: “He who does not remember but forgets, will himself be forgotten.” In the long term, which is worse?

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