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The Chams in Vietnam: a great unknown civilization

The Chams in Vietnam: a great unknown civilization

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By Anne-Valérie SCHWEYER

Keywords: Cham, Champa, Vietnam, history, civilization

The Chams are still a not well known population. For Oscar Salemink, Vietnam today considers the Chams and the highlanders as tribal populations seen as the barbaric reverse of the neo-Confucian civilisational ideal. But the Chams have managed to preserve their culture and their beliefs.

This article traces back their history, characterized by a very ancient presence on the territory of present-day Vietnam and by multiple interactions with local populations. It highlights the contribution of the Chams to the construction of Vietnam and the interest of developing a new historiography.


figure 1: Map from Jeremiah Greenleaf, 1842 :  « East India Isles ». Access to Wikimedia https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1842_Greenleaf_Map_of_the_East_Indies,_Borneo,_Java,_Sumatra,_Thailand,_Vietnam_-_Geographicus_-_EastIndies-greenleaf-1842.jpg in Mai 2021. The distance between the western coast of Borneo and the southeast coast of Vietnam is about 1,000 km.

An ancient and vibrant Cham presence

For almost 19 centuries, the Chams (written Cams in their original script and spelled "Chams" in Vietnamese or in English, where the script has been adapted to the pronunciation) have been known through historical and archaeological documents. However, this people, bearers of a great civilisation in Vietnam, remain unknown.

They probably migrated from the coasts of present-day west Borneo to the coasts of present-day Central Vietnam (figure 1), near the sites of the proto-historic civilisation of Sa Huynh, as early as the 3rd century BC. Good sailors and probable traders, the Chams apparently knew how to make themselves accepted by the indigenous populations. On the other hand, they did not accept the tutelage that the Chinese tried to establish: the official Chinese Annals accuse them of having murdered their local governor in 192 CE. This entry in history shows them as an ethnic group scattered in tribes in villages, suggesting a distribution by families or clans, led by a chief. These clans were able to keep the Chinese at bay, at a time when the Chinese were imposing themselves on the Viet populations in the Red River delta.

There are few traces of their presence until the 5th century, when the first sculptures and the first inscriptions written in Cham or Sanskrit in a Brahmi script borrowed from the Indian world are recognised, attesting to selected contacts with the Indianised world. These first testimonies show a Cham presence along the coasts of present-day Vietnam, in the numerous river deltas between the provinces of Quang Tri and Phu Yen. The Chams were farmers and traders of the plains, speaking an Austronesian language close to Malay. Their organisation was structured by borrowing political and social models from the Indian world. One can recognise the Sanskrit vocabulary of royalty, with the râja and his court, and that of religions from India, with the borrowing of Hindu deities - Shivaism and Vishnuism - or Buddhism. Local deities - protectors of the Cham's land - and ancestors are certainly honoured throughout the territory, but the only monuments that have come down to us are the brick towers that proclaim the praises of Indian deities. For a long time, therefore, the Cham kingdoms were studied through the prism of the Indian world, the Sanskrit language and the Indian gods. Today, we know that this supposed influence must be qualified by studying the propaganda carried by a cultured and literate elite that based its power on borrowed models in the face of a population whose daily life was inhabited by omnipresent but voiceless local spirits.

camap map

figure 2: A diachronic map of the Cham territories on which the settlements in the valleys along the coast can be seen. The names of the ancient regions are indicated in red. The names of the modern Vietnamese provinces are shown in the inset on the right. © Anne-Valérie Schweyer.

Champa was a country of confederated kingdoms whose map has evolved over time (figure 2). The different kingdoms/territories that made up Champa were not fixed, but evolved according to the ambitions of men who claimed the title of king. Thus, thanks to the temples (figure 3) and inscriptions (figure 4), we can follow the evolution of these territories: in the 6th century, King Bhadravarman claimed the region around the Thu Bon river and founded the sanctuary of King Bhadreshvara at My Son. This foundation will remain the symbol of the country protected by the Hindu gods. In the 7th century, new lineages emerged around the present-day Hue region. In the 8th century, it was further south that a new lineage claimed royal power around the Phan Rang region. The Panduranga territory was to manufacture the cult of the goddess Po Nagar as "goddess of the country" to demonstrate its integration into the Cham country. Both, goddess Po Nagar and god Bhadreshvara will remain the pillars of the Cham identity. Until the 9th century, the different kingdoms constituting the Champa were created. In the 10th century, under the aegis of a king of kings called Indravarman, both the Thu Bon River region and Hue experienced extreme vitality. In the 11th century, the wealth generated by the trade of riches from the highlands (animals sought after for their supposed medicinal powers, such as the elephant for its tusks or the rhinoceros for its horn, precious woods such as aloe wood or eagle wood, gold, silver, rattan, wax, honey, oxen, cinnamon, cardamon, hemp, cloth and slaves, in exchange for salt, dried fish, ceramic jars, bronze pots and gongs...) allowed many kings (up to eleven identified at the same time thanks to inscriptions) to let their royal ambitions flourish.


figure 3: Cham temples in Ninh Thuan province. Left: Po Klaong Garay temple. Right: Po Romé temple.
© Anne-Valérie Schweyer.

cham inscriptions

figure 4: Cham inscriptions.
Left: stele of Lai Trung. 10th century; centre: inscription of Po Nagar in Nha Trang. 13th century; right: inscription of Po Romé. 17th century.
© Anne-Valérie Schweyer.

Apogee and decline of the Cham kingdoms

The period from the 11th to the end of the 15th century can be called the "Great Champa", with the blossoming of a culture and civilisation that encompassed all the kingdoms and was widely recognised outside. But these rich kingdoms eventually attracted Viets (finally freed from the Chinese yoke) from the Red River delta and Khmer who tried to take part in the Chams' trade networks.

From the 12th century onwards, other kingdoms developed, such as that of Vijaya (in present-day Binh Dinh), which favoured political and commercial alliances with the Khmers. Dissensions between Cham kingdoms weakened their cohesion. The Mongol invasions caused a temporary rapprochement between the Dai Viet and the Champa during the second half of the 13th century, but this was broken up by the continuous raids of both. At the end of the 14th century, a Cham king, called Che Bong Nga, shook the Viet capital and almost imposed a Cham tutelage on the Viet territory. But the military means used in these attacks – with the help of war elephants, spears and other hand weapons ­– were not sufficient to allow a lasting takeover. It was with the Chinese Ming invasion that the Dai Viet had access to canons and gunpowder, which considerably altered the balance of power. When it was finally able to free itself from the Chinese presence, the Dai Viet, better structured on the Chinese Confucian model and more offensive, wanted to reduce the Cham presence on the commercial networks and, to do so, attack the Cham kingdoms. The main capital Vijaya (in present-day Binh Dinh) was conquered and razed to the ground, and its population massacred, in 1471. The Dai Viet occupied and colonised the former Cham territories of present-day Quang Nam, Quang Ngai and Binh Dinh provinces, and the remaining principalities were gradually conquered, colonised, and transformed into Vietnamese provinces - the last state of Panduranga was integrated into Vietnam in 1832.

The Champa, a confederation of Austronesian populations, orchestrated economic exchanges between the lowland kingdoms to the east and the Montagnard populations to the west. It was not determined by fixed boundaries. On the contrary, its borders fluctuated over time, along the North-South axis according to the conquests and reconquests against the Dai Viet, and towards the West, according to the alliances made with the Montagnard populations, which supplied the markets with the riches of the highlands.

The Vietnamese use the modern notion of nam tiên or "march to the South" to describe the gradual and inevitable nibbling of Cham lands by the Dai Viet. But this notion must be questioned, on the one hand, because there is no evidence in the texts that the Viets had the will to destroy the Cham kingdoms from the 11th century onwards – they did not have the means to do so –, and on the other hand, because the will to unify Vietnam under a majority ethnic label is an ideological creation of the end of the 20th century, which makes no sense in the polyethnic spaces of ancient and modern times.

Champa, which had been cut off from two-thirds of its territory since the conquest of the Dai Viet king, Le Thanh Tông, in 1471, was reduced to two principalities covering the south-east of present-day Vietnam. The old historical Cham country was divided by the Viets into three vassal kingdoms. However, the remaining Chams represented an unstable population that frightened the Viet authorities who issued anti-Cham decrees in 1499 and 1509.

From the end of the 15th century, the Southern Champa (or Panduranga) inherited the Cham crown. It was the last territory to be annexed by the Viets, until the final disappearance of the Cham State under Minh Mang. However, the small Cham state managed to retain its independence until the end of the 17th century and to maintain commercial activities with the Malay world, Chinese merchants, Europeans and the Japanese. Without their kingdoms, the Chams had to reinvent themselves: they remained loyal to the king of Panduranga and the spirits of the soil. In addition, Cham populations remained in the territories of the former kingdoms, perpetuating their culture. One could thus propose an evolutionary map of a large 'cultural' Champa made up of all the populations living in the plains and highlands who have forged social and economic links (mainly, but not exclusively, the Jarai, the Ede, the Churu/Cruw and the Raglai, Austronesian populations like the Chams), and who formed, between the 16th century and 1832, an independent Cham state.

Conversion to Islam and opening to new networks

King Po Romé (1627-1651) was the first king of the Chams from a highland ethnic minority: he was Churu. He reflects the process of interaction between the lowlands, the historical settlement of the Chams, and the highlands, the origin of the wealth on which the Champa based its development. There was a transfer between the gradual occupation of Champa under the tutelage of Hué and the conversion to Islam with its opening up to Malay networks: this made it possible to compensate for the successive defeats of the Chams and to enlarge their economic and social space. King Po Romé is said to be at the origin of the ancestor worship practices materialised by the kut, which has become very important. The so-called Po Romé tower is the last brick tower built in honour of the Hindu god Shiva. At least until the construction of the modern Po Patao At tower near Phan Ri in 2019 (figure 6).

Po patao At

figure 6: Modern temple of Po Patao At, near Phan Ri, Binh Thuan province. © Anne-Valérie Schweyer.

Islam in the 17th century is not presented as a faith, or even a new magical power, but is taken for its mobilising power. For example, Malay support framed the Chams in the counter-offensive to retake the Kauthara from the Viet in 1692. But this was a failure. 1692-93 saw a major diaspora to the Khmer country. During the Tay Son revolt (1771-1802), other Cham royal families, including that of King Po Cibri, fled to Cambodia.

The Viet presence intensified after the 17th century; the Viet administration became more present. The collection of more than 550 original manuscripts from the Chams administrative archives preserved in Paris has been called the Archives Royales du Panduranga (figure 7). They come from a repository containing objects that belonged to Cham kings, but also administrative documents of the last Cham state. They show the increasing influence of the Viet administration on the Cham state of Panduranga in the 18th century until 1832. Panduranga then became a Viêt province and integrated into a new state in whose functioning it took no part. The territory underwent the arrival of a non-native population, occupied by different populations (Chams, Catholic Viets, Buddhist Viets, Montagnards) who did not mix. The Panrang country became a controlled country, a process confirmed by the French colonisation.


figure 7: Manuscript 148 from the Royal Archives of Panduranga indicating the rattan and betel tax to be paid by the Churu to the Chams. 19th century.
Courtesy of the Société asiatique, Paris.

In 1802, the first Nguyen emperor, Gia Long, was favourable to the Chams, but, on the contrary, Minh Mang annexed Panduranga: the last kingdom of Champa disappeared from the political scene in 1832. The loss of Cham territories was not accompanied by an irreparable loss of Cham culture. Indeed, before the hunt under Emperor Minh Mang to minimise the importance of the Chams, which went hand in hand with the writing of the myth of the origin of the Nguyen dynasty, the Champa had remained a recognised state. The lack of a definitive decline of Champa has been masked by our poor knowledge of the dynastic chronicles of states such as Cambodia, Champa or Southern Laos between the 16th and 19th centuries, whose texts tend not to correspond very closely to the events described in the Nguyen histories.


figure 8: Annual Kate festival at the Po Klaong Garay temple. Here, a libation to the god Shiva to whom the prosperity of the community is entrusted.
 © Courtesy of Agnès De Féo

Orphaned from their territory, the Chams have managed to preserve their culture and their beliefs. They represent an essential part of the construction of Vietnam and we dare to hope that their civilisation will not die despite the strong diaspora that has scattered the Chams outside the country of their roots over time.

Anne-Valérie SCHWEYER
CNRS Research Fellow
Contact : anne-valerie.schweyer@cnrs.fr



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