Palm Leaf Manuscripts of the Cham People in Vietnam

Van Mon, Truong. Studies on AsiaSeries V, 1.1 (Spring 2016): 122-137,156.

cropped-cropped-eap531_1_1-eap531_cccd_1_3_l11.jpgThe records of the Champa civilization, which was located in central Vietnam, go as far back as the second century (192). The Cham were profoundly influenced by Indian civilization and Islam. Although Champa culture remained vibrant until around 1832, much was lost throughout periods of assimilation of ethnic minority communities into Vietnamese society. In particular, warfare with the Vietnamese and the Khmer from the tenth to the nineteenth century left Champa polities on the brink of collapse.1 Currently, there are only an estimated 161,700 Cham people remaining in various provinces and cities in Vietnam. The largest population centers are concentrated in Ninh Thuan, Binh Thuan, An Giang, and Tay Ninh provinces, as well as Ho Chi Minh City.2 The contemporary Cham retain some aspects of Champa culture. They still venerate Champa temples, create Champa styled statues, and study Champa inscriptions. In particular they still value palm leaf manuscripts (agal bac) which are kept and used by Hindu influenced Cham priests (Ahiér) for their religious rituals.

In recent years an increasing number of studies on the Champa and Cham culture have been conducted, resulting in more than 2,300 books and journal articles.3 These studies were mostly based on ethnographic fieldwork, philological examination of inscriptions, or historical documents from China and Vietnam, with little attention to agal bac. Centuries old and produced by the Cham themselves, agal bac are some of the most crucial primary sources for scholarly study of the Cham culture. This research note will explain the key features of palm leaf manuscript heritage to facilitate and promote further in-depth analysis of the historical and contemporary Cham culture.

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