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The Chams: Survivors of a Lost Civilisation

The Cham are perhaps the oldest and least-known people of Indochina. Inheritors of a proud tradition that stretches back almost two thousand years, Champa was the first Indianised Kingdom in Indochina. Its founding predates both the beginnings of Cambodia in about 550 AD, and the first major expansion of the Vietnamese south from the Red River delta of Tonkin in the mid-10th century.

Our earliest records of Champa are Chinese, dating from 192 AD. In these dynastic annals the people of Lin-yi, or Champa, are described as having 'dark skin, deep-set eyes, turned up noses and frizzy hair', trends which are still often recognisable in the modern descendants of the Chams today. The annalist records that the Chams dress 'in a single piece of cotton or silk wrapped about the body. They wear their hair in a bun on the top of their head, and they pierce their ears in order to wear small metal rings. They are very clean. They wash themselves several times each day, wear perfume, and rub their bodies with a lotion made of camphor and musk'.

At the peak of their power, about 12 centuries ago, the Chams controlled rich and fertile lands stretching from north of Hue, in central Annam, to the Mekong Delta in Cochinchina. Yet today Vietnamese cities like Da Nang and Nha Trang dominate these regions. Only mysterious brick temples, known familiarly as "Cham Towers", dot the skyline around Thap Cham and Po Nagar, Cha Ban and My Son, whilst in Cambodia the name of an eastern province and its capital, Kampong Cham, remain as mute testimony to the passing of a kingdom. The question arises, what happened? And where are the Chams - those that survive - today?

The origin of the Chams, like that of most peoples, is lost in the mists of time. Unlike most other inhabitants of Southeast Asia north of the Malay peninsula, they are an Austronesian people, more closely linked with the islands of the Malay-Indonesian world and the Philippines than with the mainland. We can surmise - but no more - that at some distant time they migrated by sea from the Indonesian Archipelago and settled in what is now central Vietnam.

The bases of what we know of early Cham society would seem to bear out this hypothesis. Unlike their Viet and Khmer neighbours, whose societies are based on intensive rice cultivation, the Cham seem to have had little time for agriculture. Champa's prosperity was based on maritime trade - and more than probably on a degree of piracy. Champa's principal exports seem to have been slaves (mainly prisoners of war) and sandalwood. This latter commodity, which was of great importance to the intensely religious societies of early Southeast Asia, brought considerable riches.

Silver Tower, Quy Nhon.
Reinhard Hohler / CPA
Silver Tower, Quy Nhon.

Much of this wealth seems to have been expended on building "Cham Towers" - exquisitely decorated, brick-and-sandstone keeps and temples dedicated to the first major religion of Champa, a form of Shaivite Hinduism which was introduced from India by sea during the early centuries AD. Even today, despite the ravages of time, these symbols of Cham civilisation remain impressive, not least for their masterful masonry. Layer upon layer of hard-baked brick are fitted together apparently without mortar, and yet so precisely that it is all but impossible to insert a knife blade between any two sections.

The most important and extensive Cham tower complex was raised at My Son, Champa's pre-eminent religious centre, about 50 kilometres west of Da Nang. Simhapura, the political capital - known today as Tra Kieu - was located nearby, about half-way between Da Nang and My Son.

Tran Ky Phuong, Director of Vietnam's excellently-appointed Cham Museum in Da Nang, explains that although there are many Cham temples and towers scattered throughout coastal southern Vietnam, the main reason there is no single major site comparable to Angkor or Pagan is because 'the Cham were traders. As such they did not have a strong attachment to the land'. Yet it was this very proximity to the sea which brought Hinduism to the Chams - their first world religious tradition - just as it would bring their second, Islam.

Arab merchants reached Guangdong in southern China as early as the 7th century AD, and it seems clear that they stopped along the central Vietnamese coast en route for provisions and trade. The first concrete evidence of such intercourse - and of an Islamic presence in Vietnam - is a 10th century stone pillar inscribed in Arabic which was found near the coastal town of Phan Rang.

As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, from Aceh to Sulu, Islam seems to have spread peacefully through commerce and intermarriage. The egalitarian message of the new religion may have appealed to the poorer classes, Hinduism being most closely associated with the Cham aristocracy. Be this as it may, the Cham Kingdom was destined to lose its independence before the new religion could effect a full conversion.

With the emergence of the powerful Cambodian Kingdom of Angkor in about 800 AD, and the renewal of Vietnam's territorial expansion to the south just over a century later, Champa found itself hopelessly outnumbered and caught in a politico-cultural vice between Khmer Buddhism and Vietnamese Confucianism. This vice gradually tightened with the Vietnamese, in particular, pushing the Chams south towards the Mekong Delta.

In 1471 the outnumbered Chams suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese. 60,000 of their soldiers were reportedly killed, and another 60,000 carried into captivity. Champa was reduced to a small sliver of territory in the region of Nha Trang, which survived until 1720, when the king and many of his subjects fled to neighbouring Cambodia rather than submit to Vietnamese conquest. The Cham Diaspora dates from this period, and the diverse Cham communities later established in Cambodia, Thailand and Laos can trace their common origin to this catastrophe.

Today there are about 77,000 Chams in Vietnam, living mainly in the coastal provinces of Thuan Hai, Khanh Hoa and Phu Yen, as well as in the Mekong Delta province of Chau Doc. Although sharing the same linguistic and historical tradition, they remain divided into two quite distinct religious communities, the Hindu Chams and the Cham Bani, or Muslims. The latter are easily distinguished by the men's preferred headgear - a crimson fez with a long golden tassel, or white Muslim prayer cap.

Cham drummer calling the faithful to prayer.
David Henley / CPA
Cham drummer calling the faithful to prayer.

The two groups live peacefully side-by-side, as they do with their Viet neighbours, but there is no marriage between them. This rigid taboo is deeply rooted in the past, as is underlined in an epic poem of the Cham, Araya Cham Ni, which relates the tragic outcome of a love affair between a Hindu boy and a Muslim girl. In a nominally atheist society, it is a reflection of the continuing power of religion that such spiritual differences continue to divide a people which has survived Viet conquest, French colonialism, and American intervention in Indochina.


Text copyright © Andrew Forbes / CPA 2001.

This article was originally published in the Bangkok Post.

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Stone carving of a Cham dancer.
David Henley / CPA
Stone carving of a Cham dancer.



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The Cham Museum or Bao Tang Cham was founded in 1915 by the École Française d'Extrême Orient. It holds the finest collection of Cham sculpture in the world. Many of the artefacts clearly indicate the Hindu beliefs of Champa, including sandstone altars, linga, garuda, ganesha, and images of Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu.

In broad terms, Cham art can be divided into two periods. Before the 10th century it was emotionally expressive, reflecting contacts with seafaring cultures from Indonesia, especially Java. From the 10th century onwards Cham art fell increasingly under the influence of Cambodia, and became more formalistic.

A recurring image in Hindu-Cham art is that of Uroja, the universal mother figure who gave birth to Champa. Uroja, which means 'breast' in the Cham language, was represented by the breasts or nipples which form a common motif in Cham art. Also common is the Shiva lingam. In sum, the bases of Cham art combine Javanese, Khmer, and Viet elements with an indigenous Cham brilliance.

The Cham Museum, which is located in southern Da Nang near the intersection of Tran Phu and Le Dinh Duong roads, is open daily from 8.00 to 11.00 AM, and 1.00 to 5.00 PM.

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