The Chăm Minority in Vietnam

With a population of about 165.000, the Chăm are one of the smaller ethnic minorities of Vietnam. Historically, though they were one of the most important, for they ruled over central Vietnam from the 3rd century until the last Chăm kingdom was annexed in the early 19th century. Nowadays, the relics of their civilization are the major tourist attractions in central Vietnam, from the Chăm Museum in Đà Nẵng to the ancient towers near Phan Thiết.

Austronesian by race and language, Chăm people developed a culture heavily influenced by their powerful Khmer neighbors in religion, society, art and architecture. Their chief deity, however, was their own goddess Pô Nagar. Like Angkor, occasionally Chăm kings professed and patronized Mahayana Buddhism, but the dominant belief of the people was Hindu Brahmanism, though without strict caste restrictions. However, unlike the Khmer, the Chăm were also maritime traders, and in their contact with Muslim merchants in Indonesia, many Chăm converted to Islam.

The ancient Chăm were a very martial and aggressive people, involved in wars among themselves, with the Angkor Empire and especially the Vietnamese. Chăm raiders plundered Vietnamese territory from as early as the 3rd century, when northern Vietnam was under Chinese occupation. Chăm success was always temporary, followed by counter-attack, expulsion and the gradual seizure and annexation of its northernmost districts. In 1472 the Vietnamese conquered the last important Chăm kingdom of Vijaya, centered around today’s Bình Định province. Its native population scattered to Hainan Island, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia.

Today the Chăm in Vietnam, except for a Muslim community in Châu Đỗc, are largely confined to Ninh Thuận and Bình Thuận provinces, the former Chăm state of Panduranga. They are farmers and fishers, with craft villages devoted to weaving and pottery. Most are Hindu, but some are Muslim, following a much milder form of Islam. They live peacefully among each other and have roles in each other’s main festivals. The most important is the well-attended Ka Te Festival in early autumn, held at Poklong Garai Temple, one of the last masterpieces of Chăm architecture. It’s an appropriate venue for a people who have never forgotten their unique Chăm heritage.

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