by Annie Chuah Siew Yen
Once lords over a great empire known as Champa, the Chams have been relegated to ethnic minority status in the very lands over which they once lorded. Today, they inhabit parts of southern Vietnam and Cambodia.
The Chams are an Austronesian group and the history of Champa begins with their migration to mainland South East Asia. Patterns and chronology of migration suggest that the Cham arrived via Borneo (this assumption is still being debated) in the early centuries CE. What is today the South China Sea was known to ancient navigators as the Champa Sea, named for the great empire that controlled the seas off central and south Vietnam. Existing between the 2nd and 15th century CE, Champa was actually a collection of polities; at the peak of its power, Champa lands included parts of eastern Cambodia and Laos.
Their culture was heavily influenced by Hinduism, mainly Shaivism, represented by a linga with temple carvings depicting Hindu deities. Later, Hindu doctrines were blended with local beliefs and Buddhism.
The Chams have left traces of their existence in the lands they occupied. Archaeologists have identified Cham citadels and temple sites along Vietnam’s coast. Recent explorations suggest that hundreds of ruined sites may line rivers leading into the Central Highlands and beyond, to eastern Cambodia.
I have always been fascinated by lost kingdoms and ancient civilisations. I first came across the Chams when I was travelling in central Vietnam in 2006, and again in 2007. Although most Chams now live in Cambodia, the kingdom of Champa flourished in southern Vietnam and this is where the architectural legacy of the Cham people is located.
The Chams were greatly influenced by Funan (precursor to the Khmer Empire) from whom they adopted the Hindu religion and art. Sandstone pillars and red brick flooring of temples and royal burial sites are features of Cham architecture. The oldest artefacts with these distinct characteristics found together with pottery in Tra Kieu, date to the 2nd century CE.
The people of Champa kept written records in Sanskrit and the old Cham language. They wrote on palm leaves and inscribed on stone steles. Their records on perishable materials are all gone but numerous stone inscriptions have been preserved and transcribed.
Cham culture is believed to have started thriving from the 4th century CE. Its spiritual centre was at My Son, which was established by King Bhadravarman. Over 70 temples – red brick structures – have been excavated here. The buildings within the My Son temple complex were constructed over a period of 1000 years, from the 4th to 14th century CE, making this complex one of the longest-occupied archaeological sites in the world. My Son is located about 70 kilometres southwest of Da Nang and close to Champa’s ancient capitals Simhapura (Tra Kieu) and Indrapura (close to Dong Duong). Within these three locations, more than 30 stelas dated between the 5th to 12th centuries CE have been discovered. The stele inscriptions focus mainly on political and religious topics, written from the perspective of kings to affirm their legitimacy and their relationship with the divine.
My Son was discovered during the construction of telegraph lines in Central Vietnam in 1889 when Camille Paris stumbled upon its ruins. Decades of research revealed it as the religious centre of the long-forgotten Champa Kingdom. Sadly, much of this site was devastated by B52 bombing from 1969 to 1972 during the Vietnam War as the Viet Cong had set up base there. What is left was saved when President Nixon declared the area off-limits on the advice and urging of a Chan art expert, Philippe Stern. Bomb craters still punctuate the monument grounds, and land mines lurk beneath the surrounding jungle. However, many structures have been restored, giving visitors a glimpse into the spiritual life of the ancient Chams.
My Son Sanctuary, the ancient architectural ruins in the middle of a forest near Hoi An, is preserved as a World Cultural Heritage site. Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1999, it is worth visiting for those seeking the exotic, away from mainstream Asian tourist destinations. During my visit in 2006, a ride in an archaic military vehicle, a war relic left behind by the Americans after the Vietnam War, took us through rough terrain to the lush valley, overshadowed by the holy mountain, Mount Mahaparvata (known to the locals as Cat’s Tooth Mountain). Visitors today can now expect easier access – it has been more than a decade since my visit.
Several international organisations have backed restoration projects, painstakingly re-assembling the bombed-out monuments and planning for increased on-site security. Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient (EFEO) of which Henri Parmentier, a prominent archaeologist was a member, was responsible for the establishment of the Danang Museum of Champa Sculpture, which opened in 1919. This museum, though small, has the best collection of Cham art that survived looting and decay. These masterpieces are a wonderful complement to My Son and Po Nager.
My travels in 2007 across Indo-China, approximately along the 18th parallel, took me from Nong Khai in northeast Thailand to Hue in Central Vietnam and back to Thailand, to Mukdahan in Nakhon Phanom, crossing the then completed Thai-Laos Friendship Bridges across the Mekong. Along the journey were pockets of Cham villages and ruins, the most significant being Wat Phu in Champasak in southern Laos.
Between the first and ninth centuries CE, Champasak Province was part of Funan (which influenced early Champa) and then the Chenla Kingdoms before falling to the Khmers. Archaeological research has identified the ancient city as Shrestrapura, a 5th-century CE, pre-Khmer site. The city was at one time the capital of the Chenla and Champa Kingdoms.
Although Wat Phu is considered Khmer, elements of Champa art, culture and architecture are recognisable within the temple complex. The UNESCO site includes Phu Kao mountain and the remains of the ancient cities of Lingapura and Shrestrapura. Wat Phu, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001 was an important Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. During the 13th century CE, it became a centre of Theravada Buddhism and remains so until today.
The final annihilation of Champa by Minh Mang’s troops in 1835 marked the end of two millennia of continuous Champ existence. The remnants of Champa in Kauthara (Nha Trang) and nearby Panduranga were fully incorporated into the Vietnamese realm. The marginalised Cham communities of Indo-China today are the last vestiges of Champa.
During the purge by Minh Mang, large groups of mainly Muslim Chams fled to Cambodia where they were given refuge. They settled around the area now known as Kampong/Kompong Cham and along the shores of the Tonle Sap. However, they struggled to retain their culture and language. The Chams were again severely persecuted, this time by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. It is estimated that as many as half a million Chams were murdered to ‘ethnically cleanse Cambodia’.
In Phnom Penh, a small community of Chams still live on boats and stilted houses but with rapid land development in Cambodia’s capital, they are under constant threat of eviction. Today, there is a small Cham Muslim (some practising a blend of Hindu-Buddhist practices) community in Thailand and in Laos as well.
The majority of the 120,000 Chams who remained in Vietnam retained their Hindu faith but those who later converted to Islam still worship their gods at Po Nagar Cham Towers in Nha Trang during the religious festival of Thap Ba, which falls around April/May. The two major enclaves of Chams in Vietnam are in Nha Trang (ancient Cham city of Kauthara) and the highlands around Da Nang.
In the 8th century CE, the political centre of Champa moved from My Son south to Kauthara. At the site of modern Nha Trang, a temple was built in honour of Po Nagar, the indigenous Earth Goddess whom the Chams believed was the ‘Mother of the Country’ who taught agricultural and weaving skills to the Chams. Later historians identified Po Nagar with the Hindu goddesses Bhagavati, wife of Shiva, and with Durga, the buffalo-demon slayer.
Pirates from Java burned the temple of Po Nagar and carried off the image of Shiva. Cham king Satyavarman pursued the raiders and defeated them in a naval battle in 781. This victory over the ‘dark-skinned savages who feed on cadavers’ was recorded on a stele erected by Satyavarman at Po Nagar. The Chams continued building – the tallest tower was completed in 817 CE. Further expansion continued until the 17th century CE when the Chams were gradually displaced by the Viets.
The building techniques from 8th century to 13th century remain a mystery. Scholars still do not understand how the Cham people placed 20×20 cm bricks in close proximity without any adhesive. This unique feature attracts interest in the towers. My guide drew my attention to the Chams’ ingenuous use of red bricks without any binding mortar in the construction of these octagonal pillars, a technique that still baffles engineers and archaeologists.
The kalan was the brick sanctuary, typically in the form of a tower, used to house the deity. The religious life of the Chams is evident from these extant monuments, which have syncretized elements of Shaivism, Buddhism and indigenous religious practices.
There were once ten towers, each dedicated to a different deity, but today only four remain to provide a fascinating glimpse into the region’s past and the locals’ present-day spiritual beliefs as pilgrims still come here to pray and offer incense.
I spent half a day at this site in December 2019, admiring the temples, wandering around and finally sitting in the shadows of the soaring temple towers. I felt the serenity of the hillock and the greatness of antiquity while pondering over the past splendour of the Cham culture, much of it long lost to the world … but comforted by the thought that I had ventured on the trail of the Chams.