The Champions of Champa

One family’s mission to preserve the Cham culture

For most Saigonese, the word “Cham” evokes at best an image of the My Son temple complex outside of Hoi An, an iconic symbol of what most people envision as a once noble but extinct classical civilization. Established in the second century AD, the Champa civilization reached its zenith in the ninth century, controlling parts of Central Vietnam down to the Mekong Delta and extending west into present-day Cambodia and Laos.

“My Son tells so many stories ― the Champa civilization; the rise and fall of Vietnam, so to speak; the story of French colonialism with French scholars undertaking archaeology there;  sections of it were destroyed by the [American] war,” says William Noseworthy of the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “In fact, every single place in Vietnam where I have done research, I saw all these different layers of history and the more I got involved, the more I noticed that one of those layers was Champa civilization and Champa culture.”

Driven south by the Vietnamese kings and east by the Angkorian kings in the 12th to 15th centuries, what’s left of the Champa civilization in Vietnam is now concentrated in Binh Thuan and Ninh Thuan provinces (near Phan Rang) and along the Cambodian border in Tay Ninh and Chau Doc provinces in the form of the roughly 167,000 Cham people, classified as one of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minorities.

Cham old women

As with many ethnic groups the world over, the Cham are facing what is possibly their biggest threat to date. “I cannot stress enough that there are many pressures of all kinds that are exerted on the Cham communities in Cambodia and Vietnam: history of oppression, minority status, poverty, unequal representation in administration and education gaps… not to mention pressures of globalization and a rapidly changing environment,” concludes William.

However, one family is doing their share to not only preserve but to restore the glory of the Cham.

The Poet

“The most in-depth and ethnographic reports that exist on the traditional Cham Muslims come from the documents of French colonial officials and scholars,” asserts cultural anthropologist Raymond Scupin. Unfortunately, “these colonial scholars often made judgements of Cham society based on the Western-centred, ethnocentric standards of French society and civilization. Cham culture and society was often depicted by these scholars as inferior and uncivilized as compared with the West,” he writes in Historical, Ethnographic, and Contemporary Analyses of Cham Muslims in Kampuchea and Vietnam.

During that time, noted French scholar Paul Mus allegedly said Cham literature could be summed up in just 20 pages. In response, Cham poet Inrasara put together a 1,200 page defense entitled “Cham Literature – Concepts,” the product of 20 years of research, for which he won the Indochina History and Culture Center Award from the Sorbonne University in France in 1995.

Born in Ninh Thuan, Inrasara has devoted his life to writing and researching Cham poems and folk tales. He has dozens of books and dictionaries to his name, including Tagalau, an annual magazine curated with Cham compositions, collections and research, all with a view of introducing Cham culture and literature to the world. While he also writes on broad world issues, his poetry often reverts back to everyday Cham life and the beauty of the landscape and the people.

I am a child of the wind blowing across the fields of the narrow Central Region / A child of the fiery sun through all four seasons blazing over dry white sands / A child of the roaring stormy seas / And of the pale sleepless eyes of the tower of Champa. ― Inrasara in “A Child of the Earth”

“The Cham were a powerful, early progressive civilization,” says Inrasara. “When that went away, its heritage passed to the Cham people. We’re different from other minorities because we live in the lowlands, side by side with Kinh [ethnic Vietnamese]. A weaker people would’ve been assimilated,” he says with pride. Long a seafaring people, even their colloquialisms reveal a unique mindset. Where Vietnamese Kinh say “Troi dat oi!” (a common exclamation, literally “Heaven and earth!”), the Cham say “Troi bien oi!” (“Heaven and sea!”).

Speaking of the inevitable changes that have come from intermarriage with ethnic Vietnamese and Cham people moving away in search of better work and education, Inrasara notes: “The Cham have long lived peaceful, stable, agricultural lives. After [the open door policies of] 1996, all that got destroyed. People brought back to the villages so many foreign things. Yes there was some good, but the evils were not insignificant…. What’s been lost the most is related to our culture and language. In the past, we used our own books to teach our children and grandchildren. Girls were taught how to treat their husbands and children, how to look after the home. Boys were taught how to prepare their minds to deal with the challenges of life. Now that children go to public school, many have forgotten the old ways.”

The Chamic language has its own written system, and while there are transcribed as well as Romanized versions, the original is derived from the Indian Brahmi script family, retaining many swirls and flourishes from older forms. While the Vietnamese government arranges four sessions of Cham language studies a week for elementary school children, Inrasara is worried that isn’t enough. “Language is living. Spoken language can be lost very quickly. When I go back to my village, I hear half Vietnamese already. I’m afraid that the younger generation will not treasure this part of our culture…. I know that once the doors have been opened, they cannot be closed, but while we have to accept the new, we can’t lose ourselves in the process.”

Many friends have chastised me for wasting time on Cham poetry / How many can read it? Who will remember it? / But I want to squander my entire life serving it / Even if there is only half a dozen people / Even if there is only one / Even if there is no one.” ― Inrasara in “Allegory of the Land”

The Weaver

A 10-year-old girl waits until her mother steps out to surreptitiously take her place at the loom. She fingers the corals that hang as weights off the loom, the ones that go clack clack clack when her mother’s experienced hands pass the shuttle back and forth. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” remembers Inrahani, master weaver and Inrasara’s wife. “I remember making a mess of things and my mom hitting me with the shuttle,” she laughs.

Early Chinese sources suggest that the Cham wove both cotton and silk cloth incorporating multiple colors and patterns. Cham weavers “knew how to mix gold thread into the weft and weave, wrong or right side out, a different pattern on each side” and they “embroidered complicated motifs made more dazzlingly luxurious with gold, silver, pearls,and gemstones”.

Cham weaving is quite literally the thread that binds everyday life. “Red with silver or gold patterns for men. Dark green and other dark colors for women. The colors and patterns are used to show hierarchy. It’s worn by our priests who talk to God. It’s worn by our mothers and fathers when they pass on. So how can it die?” says Inrahani of the importance of this ancient art.

Cham old man making rat traps

As an adult, Inrahani (Hani) became a teacher and later a school principal working under the Department of Education, but she could never quite let go of her passion for weaving. Moving to Saigon in 1990, Hani sold woven handicrafts as souvenirs. “I came with nothing but my two bare hands,” she recalls of those days when she needed to buy supplies on credit. In the years since, she’s established herself as the face of Cham weaving in Vietnam, set to receive an award later this month for being the country’s largest Cham textile producer.

In establishing her base in My Phuoc in Ninh Thuan Province, Hani has also helped to revive the craft in her village. “It was almost lost, maybe only 10 percent left,” she says. “When I was a girl, almost every family did weaving, even in the evenings. But then many people left the villages. You could work at a factory or be a seller or do manual labor like picking coffee or cashews and make more money. It was only the older or weaker ones who stayed behind to take care of the homes and children. The looms were being discarded for firewood. But I knew that if we called them back, they would come. If they could earn even VND 3 million at home instead of VND 4 million away, people would come back.”

In the last two decades, Hani has made it her mission to create a sustainable weaving business. Her Saigon home is piled high with elephant backpacks and turtle-shaped phone holders ― souvenirs ready for export. “You have to use one thing to feed the other,” she says of the modifications she’s had to make, like making the textiles more colorful than the traditional Cham fabrics. She also helped devise mechanical looms to meet the demand. “If we wove everything by hand, we couldn’t make enough. Also, each handmade weaving is like handwriting ― each one is different. But if you’re mass producing, they have to be the same.” Hani has also partnered with Ethnotek, a Saigon-based company which uses locally produced textiles made under fair trade practices in their line of chic travel gear. “A lot of people talked, but my American friend [Ethnotek owner Jake Orak] was the only one who did something about it. They pay us 50 percent upfront which allows us to buy the materials. They are genuinely interested in helping the community.”

With her success Hani hopes to reinvest in the Cham villages. She wants to build a preschool and a library where people can read Cham writings. She wants to build traditional-style Cham houses for visitors to see what Cham family life is like.  She wants to restore all 30 Cham weaving motifs, often taken from everyday life, like flowers, a dog’s paw print or rain drops. “We still have the [Cham] towers which are historical artifacts. I also want to make sure our culture survives ― our food, our arts, our way of life.”

The Cultural Ambassador

Moving to Saigon when he was in third grade, Inrajaka, Inrasara and Hani’s eldest of three sons, found it hard to forget his Cham roots. “No matter where I went or who I met, something always pulled me back. Every time I went back and put on Cham clothing, it just felt like me ― the moonlit nights, the wide open sky, the smells, the people.” At the age of 30, Jaka decided to move back to Ninh Thuan, recently building his own traditional thatch-roofed home with walls coated with buffalo dung, to the surprise of many. “I felt the best way to help preserve the culture had to be to live here and survive here,” he says.

Jaka laments the wave of people who have left to move to the cities, often returning with a totally different mindset. “They bring back social ills ― materialism, fighting, gangs, thievery. For most young people, when they feel like they have the strength to fly, they fly away. I wanted to try and do the opposite: fly back and add my voice to the mix, to make a change to the bad things that have come here.”

More worrying to Jaka, though, is the potential loss of culture. “There are families who feel that teaching the Cham language to their children is not important, that it’s better for business if they learn English or Japanese. The Cham have a saying that ‘those with knowledge sit in the best places and eat first; those without can sit right next to you and you wouldn’t even notice them.’ We used to value knowledge, literature and music above material possessions but now it’s cars and big houses and money,” he says wistfully.

Jaka hopes that his presence back in the village can make a difference. “Sometimes it’s as simple as reminding the children to speak Cham to each other and save Vietnamese for school or writing Internet posts and short plays to show how beautiful the Cham language is,” he says.

In addition to organizing cultural tours to help others understand more about the Cham people and lifestyle, Jaka has also traveled internationally to participate in conferences on minority issues.

“I’ve found beauty in Western culture,” he says of his world travels. “We should enrich each other. But while we have to learn about other cultures, we need to maintain our own. It’s a serious issue because each minority is a different color in the spectrum. If they’re preserved, it makes the world a more colorful place.”

Images by Neil Featherstone.


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