Nha Trang is a picturesque coastal city of central Vietnam. Previously known as Kauthara, it was founded by Champa, the ancient civilization that practiced Hinduism and thrived in this region for almost 1000 years. Po Nagar, a 7th century Champa temple, still dominates the local landscape. It was dedicated to Lady Po Nagar, the legendary queen of the Cham people. Modern scholars believe that her cult was inspired by the Hindu goddess Bhagavati / Durga.
The Hong Chong rock formations
Another popular attraction are the unusual rocks of Hong Chong. As it usually happens with such places, the strange rocky formations have inspired numerous local legends of their origins. Today they are considered as a national relic of special status.
The Giant’s fingers
One of the most poular rock reliefs is called “The Giant’s fingers”. According to the local legend, a giant woodcutter stumbled upon a group of fairies bathing in a stream. While spying on them he lost his footing. The broken rocks in the area mark the place where he fell, while the imprints of his fingers can still be seen on the rock.
The language of this myth is interesting. From my experience, the “Giant woodcutter” is usually a reference to the constellation of Orion, in Asia as well as in Christianity. Take for example the famous Vietnamese myth of Chú Cuội, another woodcutter who eventually ended up on the Moon, together with the holy Banyan tree (the Milky Way).
Intrigued by the possible astronomical connections, I used the compass on my phone to check for any possible alignments with cardinal directions. And sure enough, if you stand in front of this rock, and you are looking towards the horizon, you are facing the true east, without a degree of error. Moreover, the three islands could serve as perfect markers for the yearly movement of the Sun. The small one in the middle marks the equinoxes, while the two larger islands mark the solstices.
The giant’s fingers or Naga rock?
I was surprised to hear the story of the giant woodcutter. I saw a couple of photos of the rock before going there, and there was no doubt in my mind that these were men-made imprints, representing the Naga rock. Naga rocks are rock carvings of multiheaded snakes, very similar to this one. The Naga motifs were very popular in Champa art, just like they were in neighboring Cambodia and all other places in Asia that were influenced by Hinduism.
Here is an example from Sri Lanka. On this Srilankan rock, there is an image of an unnamed goddess on the left. Could it be a representation of Durga / Bhagavati?
Hydra constellation as a celestial marker
There are other articles on this blog that deal with the star lore about the Hydra constellation in more detail. Here it will suffice to say that Hydra was the longest constellation known to ancients. The seven-headed water snake first appears in the nights of March, the month of the spring equinox, accending from the heavenly water of the eastern horizon. At the autumn equinox, it descends back into the “water”, marking the arrival of the winter.
Therefore, the ancient stargazer would have had two options here. The first one would be to observe the Hydra rising from the ocean, right after the sunset, sheltered by the very image of the constellation behind his back. In this version, he would be Vishnu-like (and later like Buddha) whose resting pose is nothing but a representation of the horizontal position of Orion during the equinoxes. In other words, an image reminiscent of a fallen giant from the local myth.
Of course, the second option would be to observe the Sun rising behind the natural markers consisting of the three islands on the horizon. The position of these islands, paired with the unusual rocky landscape was probably the reason that the observational spot was chosen in the first place.
Is this theory too far-fetched? Perhaps. But the fact is that giant’s fingers were not shaped by mother nature, which begs the question of why were they carved in the first place. Moreover, some of the other rocks in the area show clear signs of human intervention. For example, this one, looking like some sort of megalithic altar.
Unfortunately, it would be difficult to completely reconstruct this site, as before it has been protected by the state, many of the rocks were moved from their original location and used as building blocks.
Very little is known about the ancient history of Vietnam, but what is certain is that there are ancient megaliths and dolmens scattered all around the country. Some of them are known to archaeologists, but there could be many more such rocks that are still under the radar. For example, I also saw this interesting rock formation at the Ba ho waterfalls, not far from Nha Trang, but couldn’t find any information regarding its history.
Were the ancient people in this region stargazers? Without any doubt. In that case, we can expect to see some traces of their activities, as important activities such as agriculture and hunt depended on the change of seasons. These stargazing narratives were then shaped in myths and the most important dates became religious festivals.
I believe that the rocky landscape of Hon Chong is more fitting for the ancient megalithic culture that would have to predate even the Champa. Only after the 4th century AD, these newcomers and skilled sailors who were practicing Hinduism could have brought the Naga imagery and adapted the already sacred site.
Indeed, the ancient sailing route once connected Vietnam with Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Kerala in India. Kerala was not only the birthplace of the Naga worship but also the main hub for the ancient trade routes for pepper and other spices. These routes existed already from the times of ancient Phoenicians and Egyptians who had also ventured to Kerala to trade.
Needless to say, it would not be only the spices that were exchanged along these routes. Perhaps here lies the reason why the ancient Egyptian version of Orion – Osiris sometimes looks so similar to Vishnu and Buddha.