The never-ending adventures of a travel writer in Vietnam, Cambodia, New Zealand and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Who are the Cham People: An Unauthorized History of Champa

"In Khanh Hoa are the Fierce Tigers
But in Binh Thuan there are Ghosts"
-an old Vietnamese saying

I’ll be sharing some photos from the Cham New Year in my next post but before I do I think it would be beneficial to write a little bit about who the Cham people are. I have lived a number of years in their homeland, and so both their history and culture have been a particular interest of mine. Having written more than a few chapters on both the history of Vietnam and Champa, I’ve done a lot of research myself. I’ve never come across a very accurate introduction to the Cham (written by other sources), so this may be a ground-breaker.

Po Klong Garai Temple near Phan Rang, Vietnam during the Kate Festival

The Cham people, or rather the kingdom of Champa, was an ancient matriarchal Hindu culture which once occupied approximately two-thirds of Vietnam, and portions of eastern Cambodia and Laos. Evidence of their habitation has been found as far north as Hanoi (pre-dating presence of the Vietnamese), the southern reaches of the Mekong Delta, and west to the banks of the Mekong River.

If we consider the ‘Sa Huynh People’ (a culture that flourished roughly 1000BC to 500AD and is known primarily for their jar burials) to be the ancestors of the Cham, then their oceanic trade routes and cultural influence extended at least as far east as Taiwan and the Philippines, and west to India. While China and Vietnam may fight over the South China Sea in modern times, it is only the Cham people who would have truly made continuous historical use of these islands—over thousands of years.

The Champa kingdom was a contemporary rival of the Kingdom of Angkor in Cambodia and the Vietnamese, who migrated as one or more hill tribes from Southern China. Military conflict and cultural exchange with the Cham did as much to shape the history of Vietnam and Cambodia as did China and Thailand, respectively. While Hanoi just celebrated its 1000 years, many Cham cities, such as Phan Rang, Phan Ri, Qui Nhon, Quang Ngai, and even the Nguyen Dynasty capital of Hue, have been inhabited by the Cham for several centuries longer than the Vietnamese occupied Hanoi.

The Cham were driven from their vast homelands over centuries of war with the Vietnamese and Cambodians. The Vietnamese drove the Cham south, and Angkor drove them east. By the 1800s the Cham were reduced to a small vassal state in what is now Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan Provinces (known as the southern kingdom of Panduranga to the Cham).

In 1832, Vietnamese Emperor Minh Mang of the Nguyen Dynasty perpetrated a brutal holocaust of the Cham and finally stripped them of all autonomy. This gave rise to legends of terrifying ghosts seeking vengeance in the lost kingdom of Panduranga (Binh Thuan Province). Some may argue the Vietnamese have delivered them a new spiteful blow by planning to build their first two nuclear reactors in the heart of the Cham homeland, straddling the ancient Cham city of Phan Rang.

A Cham Holy Man Dancing at the Cham New Year

As a result of successive lost battles, there were several exodus of Cham from their homelands. The Cham were a multi-ethnic kingdom, and each exodus resulted in isolated and lost tribes of Champa dispersed across Southeast Asia. The Historical Cham now have distinct tribes in Hainan Island (China); an assortment of tribes in Central Vietnam, including the Hre, Jarai, Ede, Rai, Raglai, Churu Cham Ro, and their various allies; the Cham Balamon (Hindu) and Cham Bani (Quasi-Muslim) of Binh Thuan and Ninh Thuan Provinces; and the Cham Islam of the Mekong Delta, Cambodia and Malaysia. Other isolated communities also exist.

Unfortunately, little is written about the Cham in Vietnam history books or travel media (domestic or international), due to both a rather profound ignorance of the history of Vietnam and a prevailing racist attitude among both the Vietnamese and perhaps some of the very scholars who have studied them.

Georges Maspero, who wrote the original 1928 definitive (though now perhaps discredited) history of Champa, titled “The Champa Kingdom: The History of an Extinct Vietnamese Culture implied that the modern Cham people were irrelevant and illegitimate heirs of Champa. French colonialists and explorers often recounted how the Cham were ‘even more lazy than the Vietnamese’ and lamented that the Cham seemingly had no desire to attain the glories of the ancient kingdom. Even contemporary scholarship, which focuses on temple ruins, statuary, ancient steles and the antiquated writings of neighbouring civilizations, rarely, if ever consults the holy men and intellectuals of the living Cham community, which possesses a wealth of ignored written documents and oral histories. Sadly this has perhaps led to a needlessly fragmented and misunderstood concept of Cham history and identity. The fact that the communist government has deliberately destroyed or contributed to the destruction of so many Cham temples since 're-unification' (I know of 7 such recently-destroyed ancient temple complexes in my own province of Binh Thuan alone) only compounds the problem. Certainly Hanoi’s efforts to shield minorities from interaction with foreigners has also greatly inhibited a holistic study of the Cham people.

Next Post: Cham New Year, a Photo Gallery. The Cham new year, which is NOT the Kate Festival, is later this month (April). For now, read my other posts on the Cham.

(As always, photos and text here are original and copyrighted. Neither text nor photos may be re-printed without permission.)


Unknown said...

Thank you for the informative posts.

Giao said...

I can understand why Vietnamese communists consider ethnic minorities to be lazy. But why did the French make the same claim about the Cham?

Giao said...

You may want to read Julie Thi Underhill's "Democratic Kampuchea's Genocide of the Cham"

Sad story - existentially

Unknown said...

Thank you for this history of the Cham people. I started a DNA project for the 2300 Adopted Khmer Children in the USA to see if any were related to each other. As part of the testing they are given their ancestral (1000+years) heritage. We are seeing many cultural groups and combination of groups in the results. I wonder what results living persons of the Cham people would look like and if any of our members are part Cham. I am currently reading a novel about the Khmer/Cham conflict in 1177 called Temple of a Thousand Faces, by John Shors There was not alot of back story or history given in the book to base the story on and that was why I was searching for the History of the Cham on google and found this site. Thanks so much for sharing. Here is my project website with the ancestral results

Harry said...

In both cases, it was to blame the Chams for their own persecution. They used the excuse of "laziness" to justify their enslavement the of Chams people.

- Robert Sonnekson

Unknown said...

Hi there! Thank you for your post on Cham history. I am an ethnic Cham and would like more information where you mentioned that Chams pre-dated the Vietnamese in their capital city of Ha Noi. Much appreciated

Adam Bray said...

Hi Rofek, It was archeologists who told me that while digging in Hanoi at several sites, they have found Cham artifacts under the city. If I'm not mistaken, they have even found ancient Cham artifacts under the citadel in Hanoi. You'll have to search for the articles that mention them though--I don't remember where they are online.

Unknown said...

Adam that's amazing! I wonder why there hasn't been any buzz about those findings? Vietnamese government scared much? With this evidence I would think that the history of Southeast Asia is in need of some revision. Would you be able to tell me more about these archaeologists and their findings? I am going to do a google search now...

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