The forgotten Hindus of Vietnam’s Champa Kingdom
This was first published in the June edition of Hinduism Today.
The Cham Hindus of Vietnam are an almost forgotten people, remnants of the Cham dynasty which endured in the region now known as central Vietnam from the 7th century well into the 19th. Yet they are 60,000 strong, and they have kept their traditions alive for centuries, far from India’s shores. Builders of cities named Indrapura, Simhapura, Amaravati, Vijaya and Panduranga, these Hindu people and their culture continue to flourish to this day. When we speak of the Champa people, it is not a trek through history; we are speaking of a living culture with roots going back thousands of years.
While today the Cham are Vietnam’s only surviving Hindus, the nation once harbored some of the world’s most exquisite and vibrant Hindu cultures. The entire region of Southeast Asia, in fact, was home to numerous Hindu kingdoms. The many magnificient temples and artifacts, from Angkor Wat to Prambana, remain as potent testimonials to their splendor and accomplishments. These grand edifices still stand, though the societies around them no longer worship there or practice the lost traditions.
Champa was a formidible Hindu kingdom, renowned for its immense wealth and sophisticated culture. Its major port was Kattigara. Nearly 2,000 years ago, Claudius Ptolemy wrote of Cattigara and outlined it on his map of the world. Modern scholarship has confirmed Cattigara as the forerunner of Saigon (modern day Ho Chi Minh City).Cattigara was, in fact, the main port at the mouth of the Mekong River, a name derived from Mae Nam Khong, the Mother Water Ganga.
- Swaminathan, author of a blog called Ancient Sanskrit Inscriptions in Strange Places, wrote, “The first Cham king that history knows is Sri Maran, identified as a Tamil ruler. The fact that a Pandyan king ruled Vietnam was missed by many historians. Translated into Tamil it is Thiru Maran. Several Pandyan kings by these names are spoken of in inscriptions and Tamil sangam literature. The oldest Sanksrit inscription discovered in Vietnam mentions the name of Sri Maran. The inscription is known as the Vo-Canch inscription.”
Another early Champa king was Bhadravarman, who ruled from 349-361CE. His capital was the citadel of Simhapura or ‘Lion City,’ now called Tra Kieu. Badravarman built a number of temples, conquered his rivals, ruled well and in his final years abdicated his throne and spent his last days in India on the banks of the Ganges River.
Historic Champa was divided into five regions. Indrapura (present-day Dong Duong) served as the religious center of the kingdom; Amaravati is the present day Quong Nam province; Vijya is now Cha Ban; Kauthara is the modern Nha Trang; and Panduranga is known today simply as Phan. Panduranga was the last Cham territory to be conquered by the Sino-Vietnamese.
Few know that Christopher Columbus, on his fourth and last voyage, had attempted to reach the Champa Kingdom and actually believed he had reached Vietnam. In ancient days well-worn trade routes had linked Europe with India and the entire region of South and Southeast Asia, and for countless centuries the wealth and wisdom of India had flowed to the markets and institutions of the world. By the 1400s, however, political instability had disrupted direct trade links with India and the West. Columbus was convinced that by sailing west from Spain he could circle the globe—a concept ridiculed by most Europeans, who still believed the Earth was flat—and thus find a new trade route and reestablish the long-lost link to the wealth of the East. His planned route would take him south along the Vietnamese coast, past the Cape of Kattigara and on to Malacca; he believed this to be the route Marco Polo had followed from China to India in 1292. Reaching Cariay on the coast of Costa Rica, he thought he had found Vietnam and was very close to one of his coveted destinations, the famous gold mines of the Champa Kingdom. Fortunately for Vietnam, he was mistaken.
Another Vietnamese Hindu kingdom was Funan, which flourished between the 1st and 6th centuries ce. Its capital was the Oc Eo Citadel. While exploring sea passages to India in the year 250 ce, two Chinese envoys, Kang Dai and Zhu Ying, described Funan as “having its own taxation system, ruled by a king in a walled palace.” Professor Louis Malleret has unearthed much evidence of significant seaborne trade between Oc Eo, Persia and Rome.
Vast Temple Complexes
In ancient times the Champa built vast temple complexes that remain standing to this day. Primarily dedicated to Lord Siva, these structures honor Lord Siva as the founder and protector of the Champa Dynasty. The most important of these is known as My Son, a Hindu religious and literary center. Originally, this temple complex featured 70 structures, of which 25 survive. Sadly, the main tower was severely damaged by American bombers in 1969 during the Vietnam War.
The Sivalinga was the primary form worshiped at My Son, its aniconic form also representing the divine authority of the Siva-empowered king. Today the Cham people continue to worship this form of Lord Siva.
The site of the ancient Son Tien Tu pagoda, atop Mt. Ba, is still considered to be one of the most spiritual and sacred places in all of Vietnam. There, on a three-meter-high granite rock, is the ban chan tien, a footprint belonging to a God who “set his footstep on soft land at the dawn of humankind.” Located nearby is the recently opened Archaeology Museum of the Oc Eo Culture, designed to replicate a large Sivalingam and yoni. Its walls are lined with seated Ganesh murtis.
Many Hindu artifacts of significant historical value have been found in Vietnam. In 2001, 320 gold plaques were discovered. Decorated with various Hindu divinities, such as Garuda, Narasimha, Kurma and Durga, these plaques have been identified as the earliest known Hindu iconographic images ever discovered in Southeast Asia.
Starting in the 1940s, many valuable Oc Eo artifacts have been unearthed, featuring statues and reliefs of Buddha, Ganesh, Vishnu, Durga and Siva in both His human and aniconic Linga form.
Many Vietnamese Hindu artifacts have been misidentified as Buddhist icons. One such example is the Bien Hoa Vishnu, which bears all the markings of Vishnu and is identified as such by the Sanskrit inscriptions on its back. This sculpture, dated to 100 CE, was commissioned by Prince Vijaya Klaun Nauk Champa in gratitude and as a symbol of Vishnu’s blessings for his conquests over the Chenla. Lost for centuries and rediscovered 100 years ago, the Bien Hoa Vishnu has been worshiped ever since as Buddha by the local community.
In June, 2013, Vietnam’s prime minister officially identified 30 National Treasures of Integral Import to the Nation. Among these are several Hindu artifacts, including murtis of Vishnu and Surya from the Oc Eo culture and of Durga and Siva from the Champa. The 5th Quang Nam Heritage Festival, held June 21, 2013, featured a Vishnu sculpture dated 3,500 to 4,000 years ago. If this dating proves accurate, this sculpture would be the oldest known identifiably Hindu artifact in the world.
Language and Script
The Vo-Canh inscription, among the oldest known Sanskrit inscriptions discovered in the region, is one of many discovered in modern times. The Da Rang River, the largest river valley in central Vietnam, boasts several such Sanskrit inscriptions, including one at its mouth. These riverside inscriptions often lay hidden beneath the waterline, only to be revealed during the dry summer months.
The Cham script is a descendent of the South Indian Brahmic Grantha script. Many Hindu stone temples of the Champa include both Sanskrit and Chamic stone carvings. The various Cham communities use slightly modified versions of the script, although the Cham Muslims prefer to use the Arabic alphabet. During French colonial rule, both groups were forced to use the Latin script. Though the Cham script is still highly valued, and despite efforts to simplify the spelling, today few people are actually learning it.
While the Brahmic-based Cham language is still spoken by nearly 250,000 people, at one time Sanskrit was common for the educated. Interestingly, the spread of written Sanskrit in India seems to have nearly coincided with its use in Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The evidence speaks of an ongoing vibrant Sanskrit-based Hindu civilization that was never handicapped by narrow ethnic or national limitations but rather was nearly global in scope.
The Cham People Today
Today the Cham are spread throughout East Asia. They are predominantly Sunni Muslim in Cambodia, Shia Islam in China, and Buddhist in Thailand. A small number of the Vietnamese Cham (also known as the Eastern Cham) follow Islam and a relative few follow Mahayana Buddhism, but the majority are Hindu. These are called the Balamon (Brahman) people. It is claimed that 70% of the Balamon people are classed as kshatriyas.
Having survived the loss of their kingdom, the colonial tyranny of the French, the Vietnam War (during which an unknown number emigrated to France), Communist rule and economic mayhem, the Cham Balamon people and traditions are surprisingly intact. Their temples are still standing. Their festivals are still celebrated and the traditional Hindu ceremonies and worship continue. Life’s passages, such as graduations, weddings, births and deaths, are still observed in accordance with the Hindu traditions. Along with the Balinese Hindus, the Cham Balamon represent the only remaining non-Indic populations of indigenous Hindus surviving today.
But the Cham are not immune to the problems of modern times. The young are focused on material well-being, with little time or commitment to ancestral ways. Although there are a few courageous efforts to protect and promote the rich traditions of Cham Hinduism, there is a long way to go.
The Cham Muslim community has been more successful in this respect. Strong cultural and financial ties have been developed between the Cham Muslims, as motivated Islamic preachers travel among the Cham, inspiring faith, activism, unity and common cause between the Cham Muslims and the Umma, the overall global Islamic community.
Interview with Cham Elders
During my exploration of Vietnam’s persistent Hindu culture, I was fortunate to connect with Phu Trim. His nom-de-plume is Inrasara, rooted in the name of Indra the King of the Celestials. Inrasara is a Cham Balamon leader, scholar, author and elder. He has written many books and is a recognized expert on Cham culture. I also was assisted by Jaka, another Cham scholar and leader, and by his son Inrajaya, whose photographs accompany this article. My interview with them sheds light on their culture and people.
What is the origin of the Balamon people? The research has not come to a clear conclusion yet. Now it is said that we come from somewhere in Java. It is known that we built our culture from 3,000 to 5,000 years ago in our land.
Tell us about the Balamon religion. It is hard to decide if Balamon is a religion or just a system of beliefs. Though our ancestors have left us with the Hindu sculptures, yet history might have burned down all the textbooks. We have now only books or texts to show beliefs, stories of the kings, God and the performing of rituals.
What is your most important festival? It could be said it is our New Year, called Rija Nagar, or “the nation’s festival.” It is most important since it has common value and is celebrated by Ahier (Hindus) and Awal (Muslims), together with its very beautiful and philosophical dances.
Are the Balamon traditions and culture popular among the young people? Since there is no clear belief system, we can say that it is not popular, though the lifestyle, by which I mean artistic, joyful and spiritual, is seen as popular.
What connections do your people have with India, past and present? Our kingdom at its very early stage, 192 CE, adopted Hinduism as its religion and had the trading connection ever since. But about a thousand years later, as the merchants stopped coming to Southeast Asia, its influence fell, replaced by the growing power of Islam. The Indian researchers and friends who have come to Phanrang to see the culture have said much Indian influence can still be seen today, especially in some of the beliefs and the Hindu temples.
Do people still worship at the ancient Hindu temples? Yes, we have four temples that are still worshiped in nowadays: Po Inu Nugar, Po Rome, Po Klaung Girai and Po Dam. As for My Son heritage, we have lost our land and so have not reached there since long ago, but that is still the holy ground that people would love to visit.
What are the biggest challenges facing the Cham people? Keeping our culture, language and traditions alive is generally the challenge from hundreds years ago, as the influence from Vietnam grows greater. Now not many young people know how to read or speak properly, or clearly understand our beliefs.
What are the most treasured artifacts of the Cham? The temples, or the small wooden frame kept by the three highest priests that represent the temples, are the most important. They are used when we need to perform rituals while we cannot reach the temples because of warfare.
Are there any official efforts to protect and promote Cham dance, music and art? There are none that officially teach or study Cham history and traditions. Anyway, the need is high since long ago. Now we have the Cham brand of the Vietnam Association of Ethnology, focusing on fostering social activities for Cham in Saigon. Also we have Cham language classes, and the Cham UNESCO formed that focuses on studies. They are reaching out to more and more people, though the impact is still small in scale.
What important projects are you part of in relation to the Cham Balamon people? (Answer from Jaka) I have many personal projects that have brought impact and changes to the community, especially the Cham website to connect young people and share articles on Cham studies at www.gilaipraung.com. To name a few: teaching Cham language, traditional songs, Cham youth camps, write and perform small Cham-spoken plays.
Is the Balamon religion Hinduism? Yes, we can say so.
Who is your favorite God and why? For our forefathers and ourselves it is Siva, the true holy sage, the destroyer of untruths who enlightens all followers.
What is the long-term vision for your people? As long as the language and culture are alive rather than vanishing, we shall be able to play a part in building a beautiful and colorful world.
Looking to India
Hinduism continues to thrive in India, yet today it is only among the Balinese and Cham Balamon people that this once global expression of Hinduism survives unbroken. Vietnam, with its ancient and impressive Hindu heritage, has age-old ties with India. The Cham Balamon people continue to practice their venerable Hindu traditions and express a keen interest in visiting India to see the holy sites and meet with other dedicated Hindu activists.
In India, Hindus have developed many organizations and projects to preserve the traditions of their ancestors and to empower their youth with the wisdom and time-tested methodologies of their priceless heritage. The Cham Balamon are engaged in a similar struggle. Sharing the Hindu heritage and ethos, holding the same dharmic outlook, the Vietnamese Hindu community is confronted by the same challenges being faced in India.
Today, as members of a global Hindu community, we are becoming more and more empowered by the technologies of this information age, which allow Hindus throughout the world to support each other in common cause. Our culture is worth preserving—and as Hindus, we know dharma is not optional. Dharmic based Hindu civilization, wherever found, is a testament to that which is best in humanity. As the 21st century dawns, the Hindus of Bali, Vietnam and the world look to India as both the epicentre and foundation of Hinduism. It is my hope that the Hindus of India and the world will rise up to the occasion. Surely then will dharma prevail.