New Perspectives on the Ethnic Composition of Champa

Bernard Gay

Proceedings of the Seminar on Champa

download (1)Authors who have published studies on Champa claimed that this country was geographically limited to the plains and small deltas situated between the TrıÏng-SÍn Range and the South China Sea. It is not surprising that all those authors stated that the people of Champa was all Cham ethnic groups who formerly inhabited the lowlands of the region known today as Central Vietnam.

It has been twelve years now that the U.A. 1075 of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris took the task of discovering and translating the mass of manuscripts written in Cham and the royal chronicles and archives of Champa (in Cham and in Chinese characters) housed in French libraries and at Cornell University in the USA. We can affirm that what had been said about the territory and the inhabitants of Champa until the past few years was wrong. In effect, archeological and epigraphic vestiges, texts written in old and modern Cham,1 confirmed by Chinese, Vietnamese, and Khmer texts, and ethnological inquiries, all show without ambiguity that the Cham territory covered not only the lowlands situated between the South China Sea and the feet of the TrıÏng-SÍn Range but also this mountain range and the high plateaus extending westwards. These documents show that the population of Champa consisted not only of the inhabitants of the plains and deltas that is the ethnic Chams, but also ethnic groups of the Austronesian language group (Jarai, Rhade, Chru, Roglai) as well as ethnic groups of the Austroasiatic language group (Mnong, Naa, and Stieng) who inhabited the mountains and highlands. One may wonder, perhaps, why it took almost a century for researchers to realize that what one had believed since the last decade of the nineteenth century was wrong. It may be explained first by the fact that Aymonier who first landed on the coast of Phan Rang on December 21, 18842 met the non-Vietnamese natives who said they were Chams. Aymonier, who had known since his stay in Cambodia of the existence of the ancient kingdom of Champa, situated in central Vietnam, was to apply a concept of citizenship in term of European optics: France=French; Vietnam=Vietnamese, Cambodia =Cambodian which led to the conclusion that Champa was the country of the Chams; but the etymology of the term Cham has nothing to do with that of Champa, from the historical as well as from the ethnographic points of view. Six years later,3 he threw discredit on the chronicles written in modern Cham for he had thought that those manuscripts gave a list of the Vijaya leaders while they actually gave a list of the leaders of Panduranga, which led him to the conclusion that the texts were not credible sources. This is wrong.4 If he had browsed over the manuscripts, he would have found that until its disappearance in 1832, Champa covered a part of the territory now known as Central Vietnam. As all researchers who came after E. Aymonier accepted his view without verification, everybody continued to believe that Champa extended only on the narrow stretch of land between the sea and the feet of the TrıÏng-SÍn range.

It was only in 1975 that the research team on Champa, created by Professor Lafont, undertook the task of checking on what has been written by their predecessors and comparing to Sanskrit epigraphy, texts written in Chinese, Vietnamese, Khmer, and ancient and modern Cham. This led them to realize that not only can we rely on tales written in modern Cham but also that these writings offer a great interest for the knowledge of the history of the Indochinese Peninsula.5 Thus, Po Dharma’s work allows us to renew our knowledge of the borders of Champa as well as its political structure, which is a federal state and not a unitary country,7 the existence of a sociopolitical structure in Panduranga until 1832, and the confirmation of the multiethnic character of Champa. Another factor explains why we had to wait for so long before we perceived the error in restricting the territory of Champa to a coastal stretch of land and its population to the ethnic Chams only. Until the past four years, the historians of Southeast Asia had not been interested in the history of Champa for its own sake. They only studied the history of Champa in terms of the history of Vietnam and only as a complement to it. Consequently, they did not pay attention to Champa’s western frontiers, for the Vietnamese were not interested in these lands, which led them to overlook the people who inhabited the land west of the TrıÏng-SÍn Range. It is not possible, within the restricted limits of an article, to develop all the arguments which prove that the territory and people of Champa were not confined to the lowlands of the region now called Central Vietnam. We, therefore, will not deal with the great historical facts which prove the border and the mosaic of Champa’s population. The first index is an epigraphic document known as the Vat Luang Kau stela, discovered near the Vat Phou Temple, situated near the Bassac. This document shows that in the fifth century, Champa extended to the banks of the Mekong. The expedition led by Doudart de Lagrée, passing by the Bassac in 1883, revealed that the population conserved a distant memory of Champa.8 G. Coedès also mentioned that legends and traditions are unanimous in reporting the Khmer kingdom as contituted at the expenses of the Chams settled in Champassaks.9 It was, in effect, in the sixth century that the territory was conquered by Tchen-La. Therefore, archeology and the documents show that Champa after that date extended less towards the west and the borders were between the Mekong River and the TrıÏng-SÍn Range without exact limits, for they changed according to each period.

The inscriptions on the Kon Klor Temple,10 situated on the high plateaus in the valley of Bla, near Kontum, and dated AD 914, related the construction of a sanctuary by a local chief called Mahindravarman who dedicated the temple to a god, MahindraLokesvara. Sino-Vietnamese texts placed the frontiers of Champa in the thirteenth century west of the TrıÏng-SÍn Range, without further precision. From the fourteenth century onwards, evidence of Hindu religions are more abundant. The inscriptions at the Yang Prong Temple, situated in the Se San basin, show that the building erected by Jaya Shimhavarman III at the end of the thirteenth century and beginning of the fourteenth century was endowed with fields, slaves and elephants. The Yang Mun Temple in the S‰ng Ba basin dated towards the end of the fourteenth and beginning of the fifteenth century and that of Ph-Th„ (near Pleiku) show that Champa extended to the frontier of present-day Laos. Finally, the numerous statues (Nandin, Siva and other Hindu divinities) found in the provinces of Gia-Lai, Kontum, Darlac, and L…m-[Êng allow us to think that “if the whole region was under the religious sphere of Champa, it was because the region was under Cham domination.”11 One may say without fear of error that the western frontier of Champa was on the highlands, west of the TrıÏng-SÍn Range. This was confirmed,for the middle of the eighteenth century, by a text left by a Dutch commercial mission led by Van Wuyshoff, who went up the Mekong River to Vientiane, capital of Lang Xang (Laos).12 Now a question arises. Was this mountainous zone an integral part of Champa or was it only a territory temporarily conquered, subjugated and annexed by the people from the lowlands, opposed to the mountain people as imagined by some authors at the beginning of the twentieth century? When we analyze the texts written in Cham and Sino-Vietnamese documents, we can’t understand why certain people could still believe the highlands were some sort of colonized territory, for nothing in those documents allows us to assume this belief. In effect, in the course of Champa’s history the mountain regions and the highlands have served as refuge for the central authority of Champa in their resistance against the enemies any time the coastal land was invaded.

It was the case in 1282 when Indravarman V and his son Harijet could not stem the Mongolian invasion of Sagatu, and after the fall of Vijaya, installed themselves in the Yaheon mountains in the northwest of the kingdom and raised an army estimated at 20,000 by Mongolian spies. It was always in the highlands that, between 1504 and 1509, in 1822 with Jalidon, in 1826 with the military chief Ndvai Kabait in the high Donnai, then with the Katip Sumat at the end of 1833 and the two following years with Jathakva, the Cham people organized the resistance against the annexation and exactions of the Vietnamese invaders. If this zone were only a territory colonized by the Chams, we may doubt that the inhabitants of the area (Chru, Keho, Roglai, Mnong, Stieng) would accept to offer the area to become a bastion for survival for the Chams and thus risk becoming, in their turn, invaded and destroyed by the enemy while the geography of the region allowed them to oppose the Chams. On the other hand, they would not have participated with so much zeal—and the texts put great emphasis on this point—in the fight against the invaders

Authors who affirmed that the highlands were but a colonized zone and not an integral part of Champa believed in the theory because the Chinese texts mentioned Champa’s fights at various epochs of history against the Man (in Sino-Vietnamese, “Mán” has the general meaning of savage, barbarian) and they inferred that these were between the montagnards and the Chams of the coastal plains. They have forgotten one thing, that is what King Hari Varman I proclaimed in the M˛-SÍn stela, erected in mid-thirteenth century, after the victory over the Cambodians, Vietnamese and Kirata. He included among the Kirata (savage) prince Varicaraya, who was his wife’s brother, as well as all the Chams and montagnards who took side with the latter and fought against him. Consequently, “kirata” does not denote the montagnards as believed by the authors, but “rebels” against the royal authority, irrespective of their ethnic origin. It is the same with the term “Man” which, in local literature in Sino-Vietnamese, denoted the Chams as well as other ethnic groups who opposed or refused to accept the established authority.(13)

One cannot accept that the use of the term “Man” or “Kirata” could be used seriously as an argument to claim that the Chams did not have any sovereignty over the ethnic groups living in the highlands. Moreover, it is less acceptable, as we now know, that neither the epigraphy nor the historical manuscripts or other texts written in Cham distinguished between lowland Chams and the Chams living in the mountains. As a matter of fact, in documents written in Cham, the term “nagara Campa” signifies Champa including both lowlands and highlands and “urang Campa” denotes all the inhabitants of Champa irrespective of their origin, whether they were natives of the coastal plains or the mountain regions. When the Cham texts (the royal chronicles or archives) mentioned an ethnic group by name (Chru, Roglai, Koho, Cam), it was usually to highlight this group’s participation in the fight against an invader (most often Vietnam) or the access to a high position in Court by a member of an ethnic group. Those sources often mentioned with precision that many kings of Champa were natives of the mountain regions, a fact that historians had not mentioned until now, for they had neglected the texts written in modern Cham. Among those kings who were natives of the mountain regions, there was one who was particularly known and venerated, Po Ramo who reigned from 1627 to 1651. Of Chru origin, he started a line of 14 kings who governed Champa until 1786. Another king of Champa was Po Saut who ascended to the throne in 1655. He was the son of a daughter of a Rhade (or Koho) spouse of Po Ramo.14 On the other hand, the royal chronicles and archives mentioned the presence of many high dignitaries belonging to the proto-Indochinese ethnic groups, in the Court as well as in high administrative circles. Finally the fact that Ja Thak Va and the dignitaries of Panduranga in 1834 chose a Roglai chief, Po Var Pali, as King and a Chru as heirapparent while the command of the armed forces were in the hands of a Cham prince, proved the multiethnic character of the country and the recognition of all populations to the same political and social status. Let’s mention also that on the religious plane a dozen of people were deified and appeared in the Kate Pantheon, which is the most important ceremony of the year. This ceremony fell between July and September and gathered on the grounds of the Sivaist temple; all the people of Champa came to glorify the memory of the great figures of Nagara Champa and dishonor the memory of those who were not worthy of their high positions, either by surrendering to the invaders or by giving up territories which were part of the national heritage. At this ceremony, the guardians of the royal treasures, who were all montagnards, displayed the treasures, which consisted of princely dresses, royal armors, and ancient objects of worship, for the veneration of those who attended the festival

What has just been mentioned shows that Champa was not the “country of the Chams” as has been too often written until now, but a multiethnic country where the different ethnic groups enjoyed equal rights. Rights, but also obligations since the montagnards participated on the one side the collection of presents for the Chinese and Vietnamese emperors when the latter sent ambassadors to Champa. As an illustration, let’s mention that in 1018 presents offered to the emperor of China consisted of 67 elephant tusks, 86 rhinoceros horns, cardamon, eaglewood, areca nuts and betel leaves.15 Ivory and rhinoceros horns were supplied only by non-Cham ethnic groups

The research work conducted by UA 1075 of the National Council for Scientific Research in the past ten years has brought, as we just mentioned briefly, new perspectives both on the geographical as well as ethnic composition of Champa. Since those works were undertaken, it has become impossible to accept certain premises that had been current. From now on, historians could no longer talk about Champa as a country occupying solely the coastal land of the South China Sea because the research work of our group has shown that Champa included not only the lowlands but also the mountains and highlands of present-day Central Vietnam. On the other hand, one can no longer believe in the existence of a Champa inhabited and governed by the ethnic Chams alone, as has been written until now, because the recent studies conducted by our group have demonstrated, on the one hand, the multiethnic character of its population, and on the other, the role played by non-Cham ethnic groups, natives of the highlands, in the government of that country.


1. The term “ancient Cham” is used for the language and writing in inscriptions, that of “modern Cham” for the language and writing in use today.

2. cf. letter written by Aymonier on his trip to B¤nh-ThuŒn addressed to the Governor of Cochinchina, 1885, 145 p.

3. “Légendes historiques des Chames” in Excursions et Reconnaissances XIV, 32, 1890, pp. 1451–206.

4. P. B. Lafont. Études Cam III. For a rehabilitation of the Chronicles written in modern Cham, see BEFEO LXVIII, pp. 105–111.

5. Po Dharma, Le Panduranga (Campa) 1802–1835 (2 tomes, EFEO, 1987) shows the interest for the utilization of the royal chronicles and archives of Panduranga for Vietnamologues, pp 183–184.

6. Po Dharma, Les Chroniques du Panduranga, EPHE dissertation, 1978 and Le Panduranga (Campa) 1802–1835.

7. Po Dharma wrote “Contrarily to what has been asserted in some publications, national sources present the country, which is usually called the Indianized kingdom of Champa, not as a centralized state but a kind of federation whose components enjoyed political autonomy, which is more or less effective depending on the period. There were sometimes four or three kingdoms, namely Amaravati in the North, Vijaya in the B¤nh-[finh province and Panduranga in the Phan Rang-Phan R⁄ region. Panduranga seems to have sometimes included Kauthara (region of Nha-Trang) which, in other times, was separated from Panduranga to become a fourth component of Champa. Le Panduranga (Campa), op.cit. p. 56.

8. L. Doudart deLagrée. Explorations et Missions, 1883.

9. G. Coedès “Nouvelles données sur les origines du Royaume Khmer” BEFEO XLVIII, 1, 11912, pp. 209–220.

10. For an inventory of the vestiges of Champa on the highlands, refer to G. C. Hickey. Sons of Mountainns. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982, pp. 91–107. 11. Po Dharma. “Les Frontières du Campa, dernier état de recherche “in Péninsule Indochinoise, Les frontières du Vietnam. Paris 1988.

12. J. C. Lejesne. Journal de voyage de G. Van Wuysthoff et de ses assistants au Laos (1641–1642). Bruxelles, 1966, p. 103.

13. cf. Inventaire des Archives du Panduranga du Fonds de la Société Asiatique de Paris (Pièces en caractères chinois) Travaux du CHCPI, 1984.

14. According to Po Dharma, CAM Microfilm 14(3), CAM Microfilm 17(2), CAM Microfilm 22 (2), Bya Can was a native of Rhade while Durand in “Le Temple de Porome à Phanrang” BEFEO (III, 1903, p. 601) said that she was a Koho native. 15. G. Maspéro. Le royaume de Champa. Paris-Bruxelles, 1928, p. 138.

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