Disovery of Mỹ Sơn Linga Could Herald New Era of Indian Historical Research in Vietnam: Dr Harisha

The connection between India and Vietnam goes back to over 2000 years. A few weeks back the unearthing of a Shiva Linga dating back to the 9th century during restoration work at Vietnam’s Cham temple complex, Mỹ Sơn, created a buzz which is understandable given that while this is not the first excavation, it is the first in which the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has been involved.

The Europeans have had a head start, and while the ASI came a little late into the scene, it is creating greater confidence of Indian influence. “They are doing to wonderful work. They know the pulse of the situation better because they are really very well connected with Indian-ness, Hinduism, its principles, the words, the shabdhas, the etymological meaning,” says Dr Harisha, Director Swami Vivekananda Cultural Center, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Linga found by ASI at UNESCO Heritage site Mỹ Sơn, Vietnam in May 2020

The current excavation lead by Mr Jalihal of Karnataka has been ongoing for six months. The ASI members stay at Da Nang, 45 km from Mỹ Sơn sanctuary, where 77 Shaivaite temples are located. The current unearthing has drawn much publicity because the ASI is involved, and “they are known for their systematic work”.

In the home of Dr Harisha, is a photograph of a 6.5 to 7 feet Sarasvati which was found in one of the provinces in Central Vietnam. It was discovered 3-4 years ago by a worker digging the sand in a river. Believing it to be a Buddhist statue, he handed it over to a monk, who reported the find to the Government. “This is the oldest Sarasvati statue found in Vietnam but it did not make headlines," he says with a sardonic smile.

He was speaking to eminent historian Chitra Madhavan in CSP’s webinar on Sacred Spaces, Sounds and Mother Earth. Dr Harisha says India’s ancient connection with Vietnam needs to be studied and documented from the Indic lens. Video of SoftTalk 5: https://youtu.be/Y1Za4DfqrL8

In modern day Vietnam, the influence of India is felt mostly through Yoga and Ayurveda, for which there is a huge demand. The Ayurvedic way of life, because of the geography, sees the Vietnamese getting up as early as 4.30 am and coming out into the streets and breaking their fasts by 7.30 as it was in the India of old.

While the imprints of India’s influence in Japan, Cambodia or Indonesia are well documented, little is known of the extent to which it has shaped Vietnamese culture, says Dr Harisha. The Central part of Vietnam, at the heart of the Champa civilisation, housed one of the oldest ethnic communities of Vietnam, who continue to practice Indian rituals and customs today from their marriage customs to the burial of the dead, both by Hindus as well as Muslims. The decentralized Nation comprised of four states named after Indian regions —Amaravati, Vijaya, Kauthara and Panduranga. The food of the region bears close resemblance to the food of North East India, with less oil and spice, but is eaten with bowls and chopsticks and not in plates. Additionally, Ayurvedic and the indigenous medicine systems have had an influence on the food habits, says Dr Harisha.

“The Brahmaputra culture has to an extent been marginalised in Indian history itself as compared to the Ganga or Cauvery belt Hindu culture. So, if you really give importance to the land of Seven Sisters we can appreciate the influence on Vietnamese culture,” he adds.

There have been two streams of influence from India to Vietnam - one from the Vedic or Hindu culture and the other from Buddhism, (with Buddhism being a part of Hinduism in the larger sense)  says Dr Harisha. “Our Buddhist masters from Kanchipuram in South India and other areas, have travelled to the outskirts of Vietnam 2000 years back. The Theravada school (earlier known as Savakayana) came directly from India to Vietnam. Mahayana Buddhism came to China and then to Vietnam along with Tantric Buddhism. So all three are aligned in the local traditions.”

A monastery was established in the northern part of Vietnam which is like a gateway to South China by Vinitaruchi and other Buddhists from India and was a trade and learning center, leading to the travel of Buddhist work from Vietnam to China, he adds.

Dating of this influence is also done from the time of the great kings of South India including the Cholas and others prior to that. “Basically the worship of Armugham or Shanmugha and Ganapthy, Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma and Saraswati, these Gods and Goddesses, has been portrayed in Cham architecture. There are many layers to this influence and it started around 1st Century AD and it lasted upto 14th Century, that is for around 13 centuries of the Christian era.” Dr Harisha says the influence of Indian gurus has been critical, especially that of Shaiva Siddhanthis who came in large numbers here, and whose names are found in inscriptions here.

In Vietnam, like in Angor Wat, ancestors are equated with Gods and this is not normally not done in India, says Dr Harisha. “Normally, we will not mix ancestor worship or Pitru aradhana with the worship of Devas. Here sometimes they make mukhalingas, where the linga will be Shiva, and the mukha could be of King Jayavarman. The making of the mukhalinga has influenced some of the Vietnamese kings too. In the linga, the face will be that of a Viet not an Indian.”

Tara, the Buddhist Goddess, has a prominent presence in Vietnam. Dr Harisha lives in Hanoi, the current capital of Vietnam, which has many Tara related influences. He says that in Vietnam, Tara is a revered Buddhist goddess and Buddha is worshipped as Himalayan Buddha. “The features of the Himalayan Buddha are different, as he is depicted as being lean or krisha as we say in Sanskrit (very thin) due to Yoga. Due to Yoga practice and Vairagya his bones and ribs can be seen in the icons’ chest part. That kind of Buddha is known as Himalayan Buddha and is found in large numbers in Vietnam.”

Also present is Avalokiteshvara or the compassionate Buddha. “Buddha has different facets. One in which he is very motherly, the Karuna murthy. Then he is the Vairagya murthy, but still has compassion for the world. Therefore he is represented with many heads which are not like Ravana’s heads. They are vertical. One head over another head over another, like Shiva’s jata. They also have thousands of arms or bahus.”

One aspect of this representation is that one pair of hands is folded above the head. “Buddha is doing namaskara and giving people karuna or love. These aspects are found in Indian Buddhism. I have talked to the Buddhist monks of this country, for example, Thich Duc Thien, the most venerable Vice President of the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha and he says that Buddhism in Vietnam primarily comes from India, and secondarily from China.”

Dr Harisha says that for a long time scholars maintained that “Chinese influence was prominent and the Indian influence of Theravada Buddhism was a much later influence. Now that theory is not accepted in the Buddhist scholary circles in Southeast Asia, especially in Vietnam. However, more material has to be brought out.”

Asked if the temples are under worship or in ruins, he says Hindu temples related to the ancient culture of the Champa, are not under worship, except for one in Ninh Thuận, earlier known as Panduranga. “That icon is influenced by Champan Hindu architecture and that Goddess has been absorbed into the local deity, i.e. she has been converted into a kind of localized worship.”

There are other influences, between 16th to 18th centuries when the Chettiar business community of South India as well as businessmen, both Hindu and Muslim, from Mumbai came to North and South Vietnam, especially Saigon, present day Ho Chi Min City. “The Chettiar community came and established the Subramaniam Swamy or Murugan temple, which has a main temple for the goddess. French photographers have shot the temple chariot festival or rathotsava in the early 19th century to early 20th century period. The chariot was made of silver. Due to political changes, these things are not celebrated so much now. Many Chettiars came here and settled down and got married to Vietnamese people, resulting in a change in social structure.”

Dr Harisha says the influences are layered and a kind of syncretism has occurred in Vietnam which has to be studied by Indian historians, sociologists and anthropologists. “A methodology has to be developed to study the South East Asian cultural and social changes keeping the Hindu interest in mind.”

There are more than 45 to 50 inscriptions available related to the Champas. The oldest and most ancient Sanskrit inscriptions, other than the ones found in India, are in Vietnam, says Dr Harisha. “Most of our Sanskritists are not aware about this point.”

Some of the inscriptions have been issued by the Champa Hindu kings are in Champ language which is influenced by the Brahmi script. Today few people in Cham community can understand old Cham language although the Center has found some of them and in tandem with Indian scholars the inscriptions are being studied afresh. Most of the inscriptions relate to dana shasanas or grants inscriptions, genealogy, family trees, etc.

Some of the inscriptions are housed in museums. The museum in Danang, known as the Champa Museum is related to Hindu sculptures. Established 104 years ago, the two-floored museum was established by the French. The Government has an agreement that any discoveries made in South and Central Vietnam connected to Cham and Indian civilisations will be housed here for research.

In all museums in Ho Chi Minh City and in Hanoi, there is a separate section for Hindu and Buddhist sculpture, says the scholar. Hindu deities like Uma and Ganesha can be seen here. “The Cham Ganesha is very famous and has contributed in its own way to Hinduism. He doesn’t wear a kirita, he has a jata (hair braid) and the third eye is prominent. More light has to be thrown from the Indian perspective.”

Ganesha at Cham Museum

Most of the icons are made of the commonly found sandstone, which is very durable. But the figurines outside the temples are made of a special kind of brick. “The bricks are locally made and the Mỹ Sơn office has a description of how they are made, including for the 77 Shaivaite complex,” says Dr Harisha.

The discernable nuances of Hinduism have to be studied by Indian scholars who are sensitive to the culture, he says. “The Garuda of Vietnam and the Garuda of Angor Wat are different. Those minute nuances have to be given importance. The Pashupathas came and went, but their rise and decline needs to be studied. We have to go from general to particular right now.”

Hinduism faded away in the region gradually. Today the Vietnamese form 99 per cent of the population. The rest are small ethnic minorities. Initially there were fights between the Viets and the Champas, resulting in many perishing. There were also subsequent aggressions by the Chinese on both the Viet people and the Champs.

The third influence were the Muslim invaders from neighbouring regions, which according to Dr Harisha was when Hinduism started to fade from this region in the 13th to 14 century. “The ensuing fights and other influences led to the people of Champa Hindu kingdom getting converted into Islam. However, the Champa Muslims don’t follow the Islam of Arabia or of Indian Muslims. They are more akin to the Hindu tradition.”

Due to the changing political scene, kingdoms of the Cham kings and their people started to shrink from the 14th century. “By the 17th to the 18th century, they were just a response not a major voice,” he adds.

In modern day Vietnam, unlike in some neighbouring countries, Indian roots don’t find significant mention in school textbooks. The Vietnamese Government is ‘religion neutral’ says Dr Harisha, and so no religion is given prominence. He has studied school textbooks with the help of his friends and says that the “Champ culture is mentioned in passing as a Goddess related culture. There is also mention of Khmer in the textbooks as they had a role in Vietnam too, but there is no teaching of Hinduism as a subject in school.”

The ethnic minorities in Vietnam have their own distinct languages. They have their own birth to death rituals, what Indians call Samskaras as well as folk wisdom or Janapada widom. Dr Harisha quotes the example of one ethnic community featured in the Vietnam Ethnology Museum which worship trees as their deity. While the worship of trees is common to many cultures, the tree mentioned here extends to the three lokas. “This reminds me of the concept of Skhamba where the whole world is like one tree and it is an inverted tree as mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita.”

The possible influence of Indian culture on Vietnamese ethnic communities, other than the Cham, is a subject of immense interest to Dr Harisha and other Indian scholars. He is in the process of putting down his thoughts in a book to be completed by next year. He expressed hope that historians at ICHR including Dr Chithra Madhavan would engage in this valuable endeavour.