I drove up to Phan Rang this week to observe the Kate festival, celebrated by the Cham in Phan Rang. I've been to Phan Rang many times, although most of my time has been spent in the small villages around Phan Rang. The police have recently restricted foreigners from visiting Cham (or any other minority off the beaten track) villages without police permits. The vietnamese government is paranoid the minorities may pose a threat and rebel--spurned by foreign ideology. The Cham are an impoverished, matriarchal society, who once controlled a kingdom for nearly 2000 years, which rivaled both the Vietnamese and Angkor in Cambodia. Through 1500 years of war with the overlords and kings of Vietnam, they have been reduced to a small homeland in Binh Thuan and Ninh Thuan province, in the most arid and desolate region of Vietnam.
The Cham have two distinct societies within Vietnam--one influenced strongly by Hinduism, and the other influenced by a watered-down form of islam. They former worship the Hindu god Shiva, mixed with worship and/or reverence for ancient Cham kings and queens, who may be deified to a greater or lesser extent. Ancestor worship and forms of animism may also be practiced.
At the Kate Festival, the Raglai hill people from Tay Ninh (one of the minorities that once formed the ancient Champa kingdom) bring the cloths of the god-king idol and present it to the Cham in Phan Rang. When they arrive, parties are held in all the various villages--a different village hosts a party every day, which go on for up to a month. On the morning of the second day of the festival (this year, Monday, September 29), a ceremony is held at the Cham temple-towers to dress the idol of the god-king, hold religious ceremonies and pray.
This year's Kate festival is thought to be the largest ever--partly attributed to the return of Che Linh, the famous Cham singer who was exiled after the war for supporting the south and writing a song about yearning for the former glory of the Champa kingdom.
Che Linh was allowed to return for the first time since the war although his performances were restricted to folk songs only.