Buried enigmas

08/11/2017 16:43

Discovered just over 30 years ago, the Cat Tien Sanctuary in Cat Tien District, Lam Dong, is regarded as Vietnam's greatest archeological discovery of the 20th century. With its mysterious red brick temple towers, grey sandstone figurines and glistening gilded bas-reliefs of deities, inscriptions and dancers, this site poses unsolved questions about enigmatic religious beliefs.

It's astonishing that this sanctuary was not discovered until 1985, by which time French archeologists had studied My Son in Quang Nam for over a century and generated a lot of research, contributing to that site’s recognition as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Like a gem dropped in the wilderness of the Highlands, Cat Tien left researchers enthralled. It includes a complex of temple towers dating back to the 6th to 8th centuries and spanning over 15km along the left bank of the Dong Nai River, whose bend is known as the Da Don River.

  Ancient inhabitants of the Central Highlands chose a stellar location. The sanctuary's fengshui is perfect: high hills enshroud the basin of the Dong Nai River, which is embraced by the perennial jungles of the South Truong Son Mountains. It must have been an incredible meeting place for inhabitants from the South Central Highlands, South Central Coastal Region and Southeast. Up the Da Don River lies a narrow platform that crosses the territories of ancient Champa across Binh Thuan, Ninh Thuan and Khanh Hoa, where convergent freshwater lakes and the long coastline supported human settlements. Downstream lies the Dong Nai River, which forms boundless Tri An Lake, which then merges with the Saigon River and flows to Can Gio Estuary. Given such a dense network of ancient traffic routes, Cat Tien was connected to the cultural spheres of Champa in the Center and the Oc Eo Culture in the Southwest. The Cat Tien Sanctuary maintained close cultural bonds via maritime routes through major estuaries of the Champa Kingdom and the Phu Nam – Oc Eo Kingdom. It's no wonder that Champa and Phu Nam cultural influences have been found in this archeological site. All of these cultures were under the shadow of Hinduism, as is evident on the contemporary East-West maritime trade route.

Archeologists performed many excavations in the Cat Tien Sanctuary in 1994, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2003 and 2006. A complex of temple towers and tower tombs lie scattered around hilly peaks along the river. Atop the tallest hill, which rises 50m from ground level, stands a temple tower that spans 144sqm and includes a tower and a main hall facing east. The tower is square and 12m long on each side, with surrounding brick walls. The foundation is 1.4m high with bricks set in five tiers. The tower's interior is 6.4m long on each side. At its heart lies a stepped stone pedestal to support a stone linga-yoni figurine that is the largest of its kind in Southeast Asia, measuring 2.1m high and 0.7m in diameter. The yoni is 2.26m long on each side.

The central tower is surrounded by lesser constructions, such as small towers and brick courtyards. According to researchers’ calculations, this tower must have risen 25 to 30m - higher than the tallest construction in My Son Sanctuary. Remarkably, under the brick pedestal of the linga-yoni lay a tunnel dug over 5m deep and filled with sand that hid 166 golden antiques, including 26 rings, four lesser linga figurines, 69 round fragments of gold and 67 fragments carved with inscriptions and portrayals of the gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, sacred Nandi bulls, geese, tortoises and lotuses.

  In addition to the imposing central tower, clusters of temple towers are strewn across lower hills. Tower tombs were also built on hillsides and sealed. These tombs contained linga-yoni figures, funeral items and K’lon boxes holding the cremated ashes of the deceased, in line with the Brahman religion. Archeologists excavated four brick kilns in this region and found traces of furnace residues, charcoal and scorched bricks. This shows that local constructions were made with homegrown materials.

The Cat Tien Sanctuary was founded in an era when Southeast Asian kingdoms were heavily influenced by Brahman beliefs, which were then converted to Hinduism before ebbing away, leaving major heritages such as Champa Towers, Phu Nam-Oc Eo, Cat Tien and Angkor Wat… These vestiges have left us with thousands of historical and artistic treasures, such as the largest stone linga-yoni figurine ever found in Southeast Asia, hundreds of gilded gold leaves on deity statues, animals and offering figurines. There are also bronze plates, sconces, silver boxes, bronze reliefs and pottery.
 The Cat Tien Sanctuary was registered as a National Site of Special Significance in 2014. It has been filed for recognition as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage.

Dr. Trinh Sinh

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