Friday, December 21, 2018

Ninh Thuận, Vietnam: the Chăm Who Stayed

                                                             by Jim Goodman

King Pôrômê as an incarnation of Shiva
       After the indigenous Vietnamese themselves, and the Chinese who conquered and administered them for over a thousand years, the most important players in the country’s history were the Chăm kingdoms in central Vietnam.  For much of its history Vietnam was divided into three distinct parts; geographically, culturally and politically.  The northern third was Vietnamese, the Mekong Delta was Khmer and the narrow strip between the mountains and the sea in central Vietnam was Châm.
       An Austronesian people who began migrating into Vietnam from the 3rd century, the Chăm eventually established five different states along the coast.  The northernmost Chăm got involved with raids on Vietnamese settlements even while the Chinese were still there.  After Vietnam won back its independence it responded to a new wave of assaults by attacking and destroying the capitals of the states that sponsored them, extending its own frontiers to the Hi Văn Pass above contemporary Đà Nng. 
Ninh Thuận Chăm dancers in Nha Trang
       The Chăm inhabitants fled further south to Vijaya, a still strong Chăm kingdom with its capital near present-day Quy Nhơn.  For the next few centuries Vijaya was involved in wars with the Khmer, the Mongols and the Vietnamese.  They beat the Mongols as allies of the Vietnamese, but afterwards resumed hostilities and in the late 14th century sacked the Vietnamese capital three times.
       The next century, though, Đăi Việt, as the nation was known, had a new dynasty. Its greatest king, Lê Thánh Tông, responded to a new set of Chăm provocations by leading his armed forces down to Vijaya and conquering it in 1472 and obliterating its existence.  Most of Vijaya’s soldiers died or were captured.  The civilians scattered to the hills of today’s Phú Yên province or further south to the last two Chăm kingdoms in Kauthara, now Nha Trang, and Panduranga, in Ninh Thuận province. 
weaver on the backstrap loom, Mỹ Nghiệp
       The Chăm were both farmers and seafarers and among the latter many converted to Islam.  Kauthara was about equally divided between them.  Violent faction fights broke out in the early 17th century, only quelled when an ethnic Churu chieftain became King Pôrômê of Panduranga and used his army to put down the fighting in 1627.  Kauthara later launched another invasion of Phú Yên in 1651, attempting to annex it while Đai Việt was busy with its own civil conflicts in the Red River Delta.  But the Chăm had once again underestimated their foe and a vigorous Vietnamese counter-attack took the capital and put an end to the kingdom.  
       Kauthara’s population all fled.  The capita city was deserted.  The Muslim Chăm went to Cambodia, Indonesia and Siam.  Hindu Chăm moved south to Panduranga, the last Chăm state outside Đai Việt’s borders.  It was never as rich or as martial as the others.  Ninh Thuận and BìnhThuận, the next province south, are the most arid places in Vietnam.  Panduranga was far from the Chăm-Vietnamese conflict zones and mostly stayed out of Vihaya’s wars.  It did, however, in the 12th century, attack and drive out Angkor’s Khmer army from Vijaya. 
weaving from the side on an upright Chăm loom
ancient style image on a Bầu Trúc vase
       After Đai Việt’s annexation of Kauthara, Panduranga became the last bastion of Chăm political control, culture and arts.  Its ruler King Pôrômê had just been caught in a skirmish around Kauthara and killed during the Vietnamese assault on Kauthara.  The victorious Vietnamese of the Nguyễn Lords’ realm then installed a couple successive client kings while they turned their attention north with an attack on the territory of their rival Trịnh Lords.
Hòa Lai towers
       Meanwhile, a local lord named Pô Sot took Panduranga’s throne in 1657 and for the next 35 years the frontiers were quiet and relations with Đai Việt peaceful.  But in 1692 Pô Sot ordered his army to seize Kauthara, hoping to incorporate it back into Panduranga.  The new young Nguyễn Lord Nguyến Phúc Chu sent military forces down that repelled the invasion, seized Panduranga’s territory and announced its annexation.  The following year a plague broke out in Panduranga, killing Pô Sot, whose younger brother Pô Saktiray succeeded and then organized a revolt that drove out the Vietnamese. 
       The Nguyễn Court opted to make a deal.  It canceled outright annexation.  Chăm rulers would be vassals of the Nguyễn Lords, but have full authority over Chăm residents of the state.  Resident Vietnamese officials would oversee state policies and be in charge of Vietnamese settlers.  Reconfirmed twenty years later, the agreement remained in force until Emperor Minh Mạng abrogated it in 1832. 
carvings on Hòa Lai's North Tower
       Vietnamese settlers who moved into Panduranga did not displace the local Chăm but instead cleared unoccupied land.  Unlike the fall of Kauthara and other Chăm states further north, no mass dispersal of the indigenous population took place.  Descendants of Panduranga’s 17th century inhabitants are still living in Ninh Thuân and Bình Thuận provinces, as well as in the hills of Phú Yên.  They are a minority there and the entire population of the Chăm in Vietnam today is only around 165,000, including the Muslim Chăm in the Mekong Delta, mostly around Chău Đốc. 
       Yet Chăm culture has continued, both that of the majority Hindu Brahmin Chăm and the smaller Muslim community the Bani Chăm.  While not every ancient tradition and practice has survived, the core elements have.  The Brahmin Chăm still venerate the Hindu deities, as well as their own mother-goddess Po Nagar and various nature spirits.  The Bani Chăm follow a less strict form of Islam, do not read Arabic and so do not study the Koran, and only their priests observe the Ramadan fast.  They have retained their pre-Islamic veneration of spirits associated with natural elements like the rain, the mountains and the sea, and sometimes join with the Brahmin Chăm in agricultural rituals, such as the Rain-Praying Festival at the beginning of the Chăm year.
warrior carving, Hòa Lai North Tower
entrance tower, Poklong Garai

      Both Brahmin and Bani Chăm are matrilineal and this is the primary distinction between them and their Vietnamese neighbors.  This system was so infuriating to the Lê Court’s Confucian kings and mandarins that it banned marriage between Vietnamese males and Chăm females.  In the Chăm’s matrilineal system, of course, the husband goes to life with his wife’s family and the inheritance goes from mother to daughter.  The rites of passage for girls in adolescence is a much grander ceremony than the equivalent one for boys, even among the Bani Chăm, where the boys’ rite involves circumcision.
Poklong Garai temple complex
       Among the other ancient customs still practiced by the Brahmin Chăm are the funeral rites.  Cremation is the mode and the manner and associated rituals are the same as those in the Indian Hindu heartland, except at the conclusion.  The Chăm cut nine pieces of bone from the forehead of the corpse and place them in a metal box.  After the fire has consumed the corpse and the ashes have been thrown in the river, the mourning family takes the box with the forehead bone pieces back to the village cemetery and ritually deposits it under a stone stele called kút in the Chăm language.
       Most Chăm are farmers and live in houses indistinguishable from those of their Vietnamese neighbors.  Both men and women wear headscarves, though the emerging generation seems to eschew this custom.  Besides basic agricultural activity, a couple villages still maintain their traditional crafts.
       A little south of Phan Rang, the provincial capital, is Mỹ Nghiệp. a village specializing in weaving.  Women here use two kinds of looms.  With the backstrap loom (̣a.k.a. loin loom), which can be tied to any post, tree, bench or even the rear of a parked tractor-trailer, they sit on the ground or floor and weave cloth about 50 centimeters wide and of variable length.  Afterwards they stitch two lengths together to make the final product wide enough for blankets or curtains.
the face of King Poklong Garai
mini-towers on the upper tiers
       The other is a narrow standing loom, about 2-3 meters long, which the weaver operates by sitting to the side of it rather than behind.  This they use to make narrow strips of cloth for belts, sashes, headscarves, etc. 
       Between Mỹ Nghiệp and Phan Rang is the ceramics specialty village Bầu Trúc.  On most any day one can see lines of freshly made pots drying in the yards.  Most of the production is for everyday use, so rather plain and ordinary.  But shops also sell more decorative items, with some artistic flair, from miniature models of Chăm towers to vases embossed with relief figures of Chăm goddesses.
Dancing Shiva at Poklong Garai
       In the vicinity of Phan Rang, three sets of ruins from the heyday of historic Pandurang still stand, all in relatively good condition. The oldest, built in the 9th century and standing next to Highway 1A 14 km north of Phan Rang, is Hòa Lai.  Originally it consisted of three towers, but during the American War one was bombed to smithereens.  Of the remaining two, the south tower has lost some of its decorations, but the northern one is practically intact.  The arches over the entrance and false doors feature carvings of vegetation, while low-relief sculptures of warriors, mythical animals and the head of an elephant adorn the exterior walls.
       Local Chăm people believe the Khmer built the Hòa Lai towers, though Western researchers found no evidence to support this belief and consider them early Chăm creations.  Nevertheless, the Chăm do not revere them and hold no ceremonies there.  The other two, however, Poklong Garai and Tháp Pôrômê, see frequent devotee visits and are the venues for the late summer Ka Te Festival, the most important event in the Chăm calendar.
       Poklong Garai, built in the 13th century, sits on a mound called Betal Hill, five km northwest of Phan Rang.  It is the best preserved of all Chăm relics.  It is named after a Chăm king who ruled from 1151-1206.  He was a real person, but the details of his life have been mixed with legends.  He promoted irrigation works across his semi-arid kingdom and is even more famous for the way he dealt with a Khmer invasion by challenging them to a tower building contest.  The Chăm won and the Khmer went home.
Brahmins at prayer, Chăm Culture Museum painting
       People believe that the largest of the three towers was the one built to win the contest, or at least the model for it.  But records say the complex went up in the reign of Chê Mân in the late 13th century.  By then Poklong Garai had become a Chăm protective deity and within the main tower the central worship object is a lingam with the face of the king.
       The main tower, with three tiers, rises over twenty meters from a square base ten meters per side. At the corners of the upper tiers are tiered mini-towers with tops shaped liked bulbs and terracotta leaves protruding from their corners.  It’s a much more ornate building than the Hòa Lai towers.  Over the entrance is a stone Dancing Shiva, one of the finest examples of Chăm sculptural art.  Small figures of devotees also sit in niches of the upper walls. 
       The entrance tower, about a third as high, in the same style but not as well decorated, stands east of the main tower.  In between them is the mandap, a rituals building on a rectangular base and with a saddle-shaped roof.  In the lot below the hill the Chăm Culture Museum features exhibits of handicrafts like textiles and pottery, musical instruments, swords, daggers, ritual items and men’s and women’s clothing.  Photographs of various cultural activities, and paintings depicting the past, compete the displays
playing the Chăm type of clarinet
Ka Te Festival, Chăm Culture Museum painting
      In a rural area about fifteen km southwest of Phan Rang is the province’s third Chăm relic—Pôrômê Tower.  Also atop a small hill, this 17th century monument, dedicated to the deified King Pôrômê, was the last brick tower the Chăm constructed.  It follows the Poklong Garai style, but is only eight meters high and less ornate. Around the mini-towers, though, are a few carvings of devotees in prayer and bulls looking skyward.
       Inside the tower is a stele bearing the image of a multi-armed King Pôrômê and beside it a smaller half-body stone image of one of his wives. Another wife image stands outside.  Pôrômê also was known for great irrigation projects and the main ditch built in his reign is still in use.  At the mid-April New Year, local Chăm perform the rituals devised during its construction and then carry out its renovation.
the upper tier of Pôrômê Tower
staircase to Pôrômê Tower
       At both Pôrômê and Poklong Garai the major annual event, held for three days late October, is the Ka Te Festival.  Nearer to Phan Rang and accessible via a good road, Poklong Garai draws bigger crowds, but at both places the essentials are the same.  The first day Brahmin priests perform a variety of rituals and bathe and clothe the images in the towers.  Then the people return home for ancestral rites, followed by three days of feasting, singing and dancing. 
       Chăm power and glory have long vanished.  But Ka Te draws more celebrants every year.  The obvious conclusion is that Chăm culture, traditions and customs, and above all Chăm consciousness, continue unabated right through modern times.

top of the main tower at Poklong Garai

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Phan Rang and its Chăm relics are part of the three-week historical-cultural journey of Delta Tours Vietnam.  See the itinerary at 

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