A Travellerspoint blog

October 2013

Suzdal- A spectacular Russian town in winter's splendor

Tracing the history of eastern Russia from the Vikings to Vladamir(Putin) by Ramdas Iyer

sunny 23 °F

I am often asked the question “What is your favorite place that you’ve visited?” It is almost akin to inquiring about the ranking of my affection for our children. My answer is to always deflect the question back by asking for more details especially with respect to seasons and their impact on sea sides, mountain-scapes, cultural experiences, historical locales and sweeping landscapes.
In that vein I believe that my favorite historical winterscape is Suzdal, the quaint city of medieval Russia. Dating back to 990 AD, Suzdal is one of the oldest towns in Russia and the 'jewel' of Russia's famous Golden Ring of ancient villages. In its heyday, Suzdal's Kremlin and monasteries held untold riches and its leaders fought with the princes of Moscow to make Suzdal the most important principality in Ancient Rus.


Until my recent visit to post Soviet Russia (my first trip was in 1989)I only had a very faint knowledge of Russian history. Since I am fascinated by it, I will attempt to give you a primer for the understanding of ancient Russian history
The ancestors of the Russians were the Slavic tribes, whose original home is thought to have been the wooded areas along the Pripyat River( near Chernobyl). Relatively little is known about East Slavs prior to approximately the 9th century AD. Upon reading on this subject I was amazed at the influence of Vikings for the populating and subjugation of the area of what we call Ukraine, Russia and Belarus today. The Scandinavian Varingians also known as Vikings or Norsemen engaging in trade, piracy, and mercenary activities, roamed the river systems and portages of areas north of the Black sea( See map). According to Norse legends and Kievan Primary Chronicle(850-1110) the first settlement was near present day Novgorod in 882 AD under the leadership of Rurik, a legendary ancestor to proud Russians today. These settlers were called Rus and the state they established by subjugating the eastern Slavs between the 9th and 12th centuries was known as the Kievan Rus. It was ruled by Rurik’s descendents from present day Kiev.( Hence Russia’s constant problem with Ukraine whose capital is Kiev, home to Mother Russia).


The Kievan Rus controlled the Volga trade route connecting the Baltic to the Caspian Sea, and the Dnieper trade route leading to the Black Sea and Constantinople. Those were the critically important trade links at that time, connecting Dark Age Europe with wealthy and developed Arab Caliphates and the Byzantine Empire.. Attracted by the riches of Constantinople, the Varangian Rus' initiated a number of Rus'-Byzantine Wars, some of which resulted in advantageous trade treaties. At least from the early 10th century many Varangians served as mercenaries in the Byzantine Army, comprising the elite Varangian Guard (the personal bodyguards of Byzantine Emperors). During the first decade of Vladimir's reign( the man who converted to Christianity and founded the Russian Orthodox Church), pagan reaction set in. Perun was chosen as the supreme deity of the Slavic pantheon and his idol was placed on the hill by the royal palace. Although Vladimir seems to have gone further than other Scandinavian kings (even human sacrifices were reported in Kiev), his religious reform failed. By the late 980s he had found it necessary to adopt monotheism from abroad.

The Primary Chronicle reports that, in the year 986, Vladimir met with representatives from several religions. The result is amusingly described in the following apocryphal anecdote. Upon the meeting with Muslim Bulgarians of the Volga, Vladimir found their religion unsuitable due to its requirement to circumcise and taboos against alcoholic beverages and pork; supposedly, Vladimir said on that occasion: "Drinking is the joy of the Rus', we can't go without it." He also consulted with Jewish envoys (who may or may not have been Khazars), questioned them about their religion but ultimately rejected it, saying that their loss of Jerusalem was evidence of their having been abandoned by God.

In the year 987, as the result of a consultation with his knights Vladimir sent envoys to study the religions of the various neighboring nations whose representatives had been urging him to embrace their respective faiths. Of the Muslim Bulgarians of the Volga the envoys reported there is no joy among them; only sorrow and a great stench. In the gloomy churches of the Germans his emissaries saw no beauty; but at Hagia Sophia, where the full festival ritual of the Byzantine Church was set in motion to impress them, they found their ideal: "We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth," they reported, "nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it."

Eventually most of them, both in Byzantium and in Eastern Europe, were converted from paganism to Orthodox Christianity, culminating in the Christianization of Kievan Rus' in 988. The Ottoman Emperors until their decline in the 18th century continued to use Christians as their bodyguards. From amongst that elite group rose Sinan, the famous Christian architect of the Blue Mosque and 100 other buildings. My travels from Istanbul to the Black Sea, to Ukraine and to Kazan and Nizhniy Novgorod on the Volga over the past two decades have helped me understand the rich history of the Kievan Rus.


After a thrilling journey on the Trans-Siberian railroad and visiting many Siberian towns in February 2013 , I arrived in Moscow. I had always wanted to visit the Golden Ring cities of Sergiev Posad, Suzdal, Vladimir and Rostov. Being the premier tour circuit of Russia , I was disappointed to find a lack of organized tours in February, in the thick of winter. Involving great expense, I hired a taxi to take me to all the three locations in two days.
My ride from Moscow took me through the 1980 Olympic arena, the impressive alley of Cosmonauts and finally through the ICBM alley protecting Moscow during the cold war, consisting of silos holding the RS-36( SS-18 Satan), which only opened recently for road passage. From the impressive and tear inducing solemnity of the great Sergiev Posad Monastery( photo blog sent earlier), I reached Suzdal at dusk. Suzdal is situated on a sharp bend in the Kamenka River. I could not believe my eyes when I saw the turrets of 40 odd churches in a post card like setting with people travelling by horse drawn sleds on snow covered and unpaved roads. The town was set in the country side with sweeping vistas of snow-fields, which would turn to golden meadows in summer, as can be seen in Google images.

I quickly donned all my winter layers and headed for an extremely slippery walk towards the World heritage Kremlin. All along there were kids sliding, sleighing, skating and slipping on snowy mounds with a brilliant back drop of the famous Church of the Nativity circa 1022 AD. Being a Friday evening there were weekenders from Moscow, 220 Km away, enjoying themselves. Tipple included. I walked until the golden hues of the sun kissed all the monuments before darkness set in around 9:00 PM.

As I was settling down for some dinner I was invited by a group of ten Muscovites to their table. They were childhood friends; lawyers, cooks, teachers, gays (banned by the state by Putin recently; we talked about it) and a broken hearted immigration officer whose former girlfriend was paying more attention to me than him!.I found the Russians to be very philosophical and the educated ones were very spiritually inclined; often clinging on to solace providers like Sri Sri Ravishanker of the Art of Living. Not wanting to sound cliché ,our wonderful gathering for over 4 hours ended up in drunken bawdiness much to my disappointment. Vodka is the bane of Russia.


The next bright morning I set about visiting the ancient Kremlin Complex. Right across the street was the weekend market with over 50 vendors selling pickled gherkins, woolen sweaters, hats, handicrafts, and church paraphernalia. My pictures should illustrate the beauty of the town, markets that surround the monuments. The ancient cathedral of the Assumption was constructed in the Kremlin by the craftsmen of Prince Vladimir Monomahk of Kiev at the end of the 11th century. It was at the same period that the first Suzdalian monastery of St. Demetrius was founded to the west of the Kremlin. To the east of the Kremlin the posad inhabited by craftsmen and traders began to grow. The posad was also fortified with ramparts and walls. All the main parts of the old town (the Kremlin, the posad, the monasteries) are well preserved in Suzdal. Suzdal is one of those rare towns in Russia, which could preserve their old lay-out.
I particularly enjoyed my visit to an outdoor museum holding a collection of ancient wooden churches, houses, wind-mills, barns and assorted structures. It brought sweet memories of a trip made to Soviet Rumania in 1989. While very disappointed with Bucharest the most redeeming features was a similar collection of Rumanian/Romani houses and structures in a vast outdoor park. The Soviets to their credit preserved a lot of historic structures including conducting massive archeological works all over central Asia.


The flourishing of art and culture in the North-Eastern Russia at the beginning of the 13th century was interrupted by the Mongol-Tartar invasion. In winter of 1238 Suzdal was seized and burnt down by the tartars ( Descendents of Genghiz Khan who controlled the eastern part of todays’s Russia until Peter the Great conquered them in 1698). Tatarstan, whose capital ,Kazan is a great city on the Volga was also home to Lenin. My visit to Kazan was also a highlight of my recent trip.
One of the greatest experiences I had was listening to an all male choir inside the 13th century frescoed church inside the World Heritage St. Eusthemius Monastery. I also had a wonderful lunch inside the monastery café.




Posted by Ramdas Iyer 18:39 Archived in Russia Tagged winter church in of world sites heritage russia russian nativity rus stave suzdal vladimir kievan kremile vatangians Comments (3)

My-Son, The Ancient Champa Hindu Kingdom of Vietnam

Spreading and colonization of South East Asia by the early Hindus from India by Ramdas Iyer

I opened the NY Times today and realized that the famous North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap who threw both the French and the Americans out of his country had passed away. Growing up in India during the Vietnam war I remember that many Indians were mostly sympathetic to the American “cause” out of ignorance and also due to the existence of strong US propaganda there. As someone who came to the US out of love for everything American I could not accept the fact until I visited Vietnam in 2012 the extent of our misadventure there.

So this beautiful fall morning I decided to revisit Vietnam through the eyes of an Indian American. I had published a photo blog on Mi-Son Kingdom of the Champa Hindu people last year. Here I will try to elaborate on that text and include some fascinating facts about India and South East Asia from 1BC until the 19th Century.

I am peeved by the lack of knowledge nor interest exhibited by "bulk" tourists who are bused to fragile sights in hordes . While their money is important for protecting the sights the damage caused by touching and trampling cannot be quantified. Above all most of them do not have a clue of why they are even there except to fill a blank afternoon in the itinerary. So here is my contribution to those who wish to learn a bit more about Champa and to indeed fill in the blanks..

The transmission of Indian culture to distant parts of Central Asia, China, Japan, and especially Southeast Asia is certainly one of the greatest achievements of Indian history or even of the history of mankind. None of the other great civilizations - not even the Hellenic - had been able to achieve a similar success without military conquest.


Indian and Chinese kingdoms, the two great powers of Asia where predominantly conducting trade via land utilizing the silk route, from 500BC through 1000 AD). Indian and Chinese influences by land can be seen in Burma, Laos and North Vietnam. Sea trade was predominantly Indian in SE Asia since its navigators traded with the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt and as far as Rome at the height of the Roman Empire. It is believed that it was the Persians who developed the technology for carrying over 600 troops on large ships during Persia’s incursions into Greece around 400 BC. This technology was adapted by the early Indians to begin colonizing SE Asia and establishing Indianized states somewhere around 50 AD.

The first of these “Indianized” states to achieve widespread importance was Funan, in Cambodia, founded in the 1st century A.D. These local inhabitants were the Khmer people. Khmer was the former name of Cambodia, and Khmer is their language. The Hindu-Khmer Empire of Funan flourished for some 500 years. An elite practiced statecraft, art and science, based on Indian culture to the Malay Peninsula in the west. The first organized state to achieve fame was the Hindu-ised Malay kingdom of Srivijaya, with its capital at Palembang in southern Sumatra. Its commercial pre-eminence was based on command of the sea route from India to China between Sumatra and the Straits of Malacca. In the 6 th – 7th centuries Srivijaya succeeded Funan as the leading state in South East Asia.

By the 7th Century a powerful Indianized Buddhist Kingdom, Sailendra, rose in Java( Indonesia)challenging the supremacy of the Sri Vijaya Kingdom in Sumatra. A union of these two Empires resulted in Hindu/Buddhist dominated kingdoms until the early 14th century when the visitations of Europeans Spice traders eventually led to their colonization of SE Asia.
The various Indianized states and empires of this first 1500 years A.D., though founded by Indian colonization and maintaining diplomatic contacts with India, remained politically independent of the Indian kingdoms. The only exception to this was the temporary conquest of Malaya by the Chola kingdom of southern India in the 11th century, but the Sailendra kings of Srivijaya were victorious in a long war against the Chola armies of Peninsular South India. My ancestry for the past 500 years was rooted in the Chola Capital of Tanjore, which until this day is home to refined South Indian culture.
The patronage of Indian arts and culture by the Empires of Sri Vijaya (Sumatra), Mahajapit & Sailendra (Java), Funan( Cambodia),the Pagan( Burma) and the Champa (Vietnam) have given us some jewels of Asian architecture. They include the monuments of Pagan, (built from 1044 to 1287 AD), Angkor (Combodia;,889 to c. 1300 AD), the Borobudur (Java, early ninth century AD), Prambanan (Java 9th century) and Mi Son (Vietnam 4th-10th centuries). Though they were influenced by Indian culture, they are nevertheless part and parcel of the history of that respective country as witnessed by me between 1996-2012.

With this backdrop of a strong Indian political and religious influence in SE Asia we can begin to explore the Champa people and the eventual building of the magnificent Mi-Son Complex near Danang, Vietnam. The people of Champa (Cham people) were descended from Malayo-Polynesian settlers who appear to have reached the Southeast Asian mainland from Borneo and Aceh, Sumatra around the Ist century BC .

About 100 km from Danang, the famous US Air base during the Vietnam war, lies Mi-Son, the holy site of the Champa Hindu Kingdom that was established by Bhadravarman in the 4th century AD. in a Chinese dominated area. The Han dynasty held sway over Vietnam and Cambodia for 1000 years till the 10th century. The Cham rebelled against the Han Dynasty and drove it northwards creating a huge swathe of territory extending a 1000 km from Danang in the central Highlands southwards. Hinduism must have deeply influenced the Cham people who experienced the rule of Hindu kings over a millennium during their gradual move from Sumatra and Borneo into Vietnam.

The rulers of Champa, presided over a small territory between high mountains and the sea. This not only gave them extensive maritime access but also helped them stave any land-based invasion by non-maritime powers in their neighborhood. They were a belligerent lot resorting to fighting often with the Chinese to the north, and the great Khmer kingdoms(Hindu and Buddhist), then dominating Cambodia, Thailand, southern Vietnam and Laos. Due to lack of arable land in their narrow territory, they also resorted to piracy. The 53 plus rulers of Champa dynasty ruled the middle Vietnam for 900 years and built elaborate temples from the 4th century in wood and from the 7th century in stone, until their weakening and subsequent destruction by the 14 th century when the Minh kingdoms of Vietnam grew more powerful.


The Mi- Son Sanctuary dates from the 4th to the 13th centuries AD. The property is located in the mountainous border of Quang Nam Province, in central Viet Nam. It is situated within an elevated geological basin surrounded by a ring of mountains, which provides the watershed for the sacred Thu Bon river. and through the historic heartland of the Champa Kingdom, draining into the South China Sea at its mouth near the ancient port city of Hoi An. Hoi An is another World Heritage site that I visited is preserved wonderfully despite the many wars Vietnam endured. This is the base from where one explores the Champa sites.
The tower temples were constructed over ten centuries of continuous development in what was the heart of the ancestral homeland of the Cham clans who the kingdom of Champapura (Sanskrit for City of the Cham people).They owed their spiritual and cultural identity to the Indian sub-continent. Under this influence many temples were built to the Hindu divinities such as Krishna and Vishnu, but above all Shiva. Although Mahayana Buddhism penetrated the Cham culture, probably from the 4thcentury AD and became strongly established in the north of the kingdom, Shivite Hinduism remained the established state religion.


The main deity for all the temples was lord Shiva with the Mi- son complex dedicated to Bhadreswara; making the founding King Bhadravarman the god king ,by adding the Eswara (God) suffix similar to the Shivite Pandya kings who claimed to be Sundereswara (King Sundara plus Easwar)in Tamilnadu, India.( As a child I have worshiped Shiva at the Sundereswara Temple in Madurai.) They used the sanskritised Pali as the court language with several tablets still pockmarked by machine gun bullets in the complex today. Completely overgrown by forests the French archaeologists uncovered the Mi Son complex in the late 19th century. The Champa kingdom comprised of Amaravati nagar in the north( Mi-Son) and Po Nagar in the south. The Po Nagar Hinduism never really vanished and is still practiced by the minority Champa community of south central Vietnam. There are many Champa built pyramidal towers similar to Gopurams in south India. The worship is not that of classical Hinduism and has drifted to more animist form of Hindu worship seen in Bali.


The story of Mi-Son is exciting and very sad at the same time. Due to its
mountainous ground cover ,it served as a major Viet Cong Base operating inside south Vietnam. A single week of carpet-bombing campaigns by the US Military during August 1969 razed the site from more than 70 temples to its current 20. French Champa experts appealed to president Nixon in vain. In fact the hostile terrain was impenetrable by US forces that they had to finish off the elaborate and finely adorned tall buildings that did not collapse by B-52 aerial bombing with focused helicopter bombing. Upon mentioning this to my cousin Hari in India, the words that came out of his mouth were “An American Bamiyan?”




Although Cham art and those of Southeast Asia were all adapted from the arts of the Indian subcontinent, each Southeast Asian civilization possessed their own grammar and vocabulary to express their aesthetic characteristics and tastes. The ethnic aesthetics of indigenous people filtered the Hindu and Buddhist arts that come from India, resulting in a disparate artistic lexicon and differing artistic sensibilities.

The Champa Kingdom collapsed with the resurgence of Viet Kingdoms( Dai-Viet) in the 10th Century in the wake of the collapse of the Song Dynasty in China. As a traditional enemy, the Viets embarked on a genocide of the Champa people. Between 1200 and 1700AD the kingdom went through several attacks and counter attacks by the Khmer and the Viet including a brief takeover by the Mongols of Kublai Khan. The Champa kingdom seized to exist after 1832 when it formally became a part of the Nguyen Dynasty of Vietnam.

Much to our blessing the original Bhadreswara temple stands. Though started in the 5th century the current structures were renovated in the 10th century .Please see my photographs taken around 7 am on a wet, rain soaked day including a sculpture of shiva with two unexplored 6-ton bombs next to it. This visit to Mi Son was a highlight of my south east Asia trip. I plan on exploring other Champa and Khmer Hindu temples in Vietnam ,Cambodia and Laos in the future. Please note that a good portion of Cham people were converted to Islam by the Indonesians in the past 200 years and only 60 percent of the Cham claim to be Hindus. There is an elaborate Cham festival every year at Po nagar, Vietnam presided by Cham Brahmin priests.!!!!
This again shows that commerce and cultural intercourse changes entire civilizations and continents. Shouldn’t that be the lesson learnt from the Indians for western action in the Middle East. A couple of years ago I read an article in the Wilson Quarterly about how Central Asia and the fringe Islamic countries can become less polarized from the international community with the re establishment of the Silk Route for commerce. China is already successfully attempting that in Central Asia and Africa.
The Indian Hindu community has built over 300 temples in the US. While they are great centers for keeping an ancient culture alive , I would only hope some of the contributions can go back to India to restore the thousands of grand and historic monuments that are crumbling into oblivion daily. The End.
emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

References and further reading sources:

Vestiges of Champa Civilization by Tran Phuong
Encyclopedia of Ancient Civilizations
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Hindu Colonies in the Far East. by R. C. Majumdar

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 07:51 Archived in Vietnam Tagged son india vietnam angkor hindu prambanan pagan colonization champa borobadur my- Comments (4)

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