The Cham People

The Cham are a largely disenfranchised impoverished minority within Cambodia. They live predominantly in isolated villages along the banks of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers; most Cham villages in Cambodia are located in Kampong Cham and Kampong Chhnang provinces in the central part of the country.

Cambodia Map Showing Sre Prey, Phnom Penh, Mekong River and Tonle Sap River

Cambodia Map

Population:  Slightly more than 300,000 Cham people live in Southeast Asia, with 288,000 (2000 census) living in Cambodia, 35,000 (1990 census) in Vietnam, 10,000 in Thailand and other significant communities in Malaysia. The Cham make up perhaps 2% of Cambodia’s 15 million people, though the “traditional” Cham (or Cham Imam Sann) now account for under one third of their number.  Worldwide, Cham sources estimate that in 1980, in addition to the Cham in Cambodia and in Vietnam, there were approximately 3,000 Cham in Malaysia, 2,000 in the United States, 1,000 in Western Europe, 500 in Canada, and several hundred in Indonesia.

Cambodia has 426 Cham villages. Roughly half of them hold 70-100 families each, another quarter have 100-200 families, and the final quarter have 200-1000 families.  The Cham typically live in villages inhabited solely by other Cham, although these villages are interspersed amongst Buddhist villages.  The most recent census found that Sre Prey has 445 families, encompassing 2,027 people (52% female).

Livelihood:  The Cham are predominantly rice farmers (using both wet and dry cultivation), but also cultivate such crops as cotton, maize, tobacco, castor-oil plants, manioc, peanuts, ferns, beans and vegetables. Their cycle of subsistence includes animal domestication, hunting and fishing. In villages along the banks of the Mekong, Bassac and Tonle rivers, the Cham engage in fishing, raising rice, and growing vegetables, especially onions. They trade fish to local Khmer for rice. Some of them are also cattle traders and butchers.  The women in these villages earn money by weaving. The Cham who live inland support themselves by various means, depending on the village. Some villages specialize in metal working; others raise fruit trees or vegetables. The Cham also often serve as butchers of cattle for their Khmer Buddhist neighbors and are in some areas regarded as skillful water buffalo breeders.

Typical Cham Clothing

Typical Cham Costumes

Customs and Language:  Cham dress is distinctive. The main item of clothing for both sexes is a sarong-like garment called a batik, which is worn knotted at the waist. Men wear shirts over the batik, and women wear close-fitting blouses that are open at the throat and have tight sleeves. The characteristic headdress is a turban or scarf.  Women often leave their heads uncovered when they are not at mosque.

Cham society is matriarchal with matrilineal descent. There is also some trace of an earlier clan system. Parents permit their daughters a considerable amount of freedom of choice in marriage. The parents of the girl usually make the marriage overtures to the boy.  A Cham marriage involves little ceremony.  Among the Muslim Cham, the girl’s parents ask the groom if he accepts their daughter in marriage, and he is expected to answer yes. The imam acts as a witness. This simple ceremony is followed by a feast. Residence is matrilocal; the young man goes to live with his wife’s family. Females inherit the family property.

The Cham people speak a language that belongs to the Austronesian family, of the Malayo-Polynesian group. The Cham language is related to, among many others in the Pacific, the languages of the Western Indonesian archipelago which includes the languages of Malaysia, Kalimantan, Sumatra, Java and Bali.  Its earliest inscriptions date to 600 AD.

There are a great many local customs and ceremonies that incorporate Islamic as well as non-Islamic, animist backgrounds in celebration of events.  The most spectacular event of the year is the Malot ceremony celebrated on The Prophet Mohammed’s birthday, at which time infants get their first haircut.  Marvelous cakes are baked, decorated, and displayed at the mosque by the village women.

Fancy Cakes at Ceremony - Each Pretty Bank Note is Worth 25¢

Fancy Cakes at Ceremony – Each Pretty Bank Note is Worth 25¢

 

Friendly relations prevailed between the Cham and the Khmer for centuries even though, because of the Cham religion, little intermarriage occurred. The Khmer Rouge tried, without much success, to recruit the Cham during the struggle with the Khmer Republic. The Cham were singled out for particularly brutal repression under the Khmer Rouge regime, and large numbers were killed.  Overall in the late 1970s, the Khmer Rouge annihilated about half—or 125,000—of all the Cambodian Cham. Thereafter, the People’s Republic of Cambodia (the successor regime to the Khmer Rouge) actively courted the Cham, and in 1987 a Cham was a member of the party Central Committee and minister of agriculture.


Cambodia’s Cham and Buddhists – Their Special Peaceful Relationship

Cham History and Unique form of Islam:

Extracted and modified from Ahti R. Westphal’s University of Minnesota 2012 PhD thesis:  New social architecture & the dilemma of culture in sustainable design: The case of the Cambodian Center for Cham Studies

From the fifth to the early nineteenth centuries, the maritime people of Champa occupied an area of what is now Việt Nam that stretches from Bình Thuận Province in the south to Quảng Trị Province in the North. Cham were historically sea-going traders staking claim to territories surrounding river outlets along the coast. By controlling these rivers that flow out to sea, the Cham were able to control much of the import/export trade to and from the lush interior of mainland South East Asia.

The fifteen major rivers of central Vietnam are in many cases are well divided and isolated from one another by mountains, which geographically inhibited the formation of a unified kingdom during the time of Champa (Tingley, 2009). In comparison to the hydraulic cities of Angkor, which occupied the vast open basin of the great Tonle Sap Lake in neighboring Cambodia, the Cham settlements developed independently of one another and thus varied significantly. Five distinct polities formed and developed mostly along the coast of Việt Nam where the architectural ruins that survived the Vietnam War can still be found today. Archeologists and historians believe that the Kingdom of Champa reached its peak between the 9th and 10th centuries before a steady decline due to pressure from the Việt Nam in the North.

The civilization of Champa as it has come to be known as a contemporary of Angkor to the West was similarly influenced by India in both aesthetics and language. The earliest recorded inscriptions of an indigenous South East Asian language were Chamic in nature dating back to around 400 BC. This inscription was found at Đông Yên Châu in the Thu Bồn river valley near the architectural remains of Mỹ Sơn (Tingley, N. 2009, Thurgood, G. 1999). Much of what we know of Champa is from numerous unearthed stones bearing carved inscriptions in the Cham language. (see photo) Cut into sandstone columns or steles and tablets, the writings mostly tell of trade with India, describe rituals of Hindu religion and the worship of the deity Shiva, and relay tales of war and great battles.

Early Cham writing - stone An unearthed stone column bearing Cham inscriptions, Vietnam

Champa historically traded extensively with the Chinese and in the eleventh century Chinese merchants began to inter-marry with Cham peoples. This relationship was not always peaceful, and scholars believe that at the beginning of the seventh century, the Chinese general Liu Fang took by force “18 massive tablets of gold” commemorating the 18 previous kings of Champa (Hervey, 1883). Philip Taylor describes the Mekong Delta, a major site of Cham trade and cultural exchange, as a place of “intensely commodified relations” (Talyor, 2007).

Islam began to take root in Cham culture even before the defeat of the Cham capital of Vijaya in 1471 by the Việt Da, but it was not until the 17th century when the Royal families of the Cham Lords under Vietnamese governance converted to Islam. This royal conversion influenced a larger scale shift from Cham belief systems based in Hindu Shaivism and Buddism toward the adoption of Islamic practices. However, this shift was not absolute and many traditions and practices associated with the ancient belief systems were retained. Once assimilated to the Islamic faith to varying degrees, waves of Cham migrants began to enter Cambodia.

 The Results:  A Blended and Completely Unique form of Islam:  Cham religion has gone through several shifts over the centuries. Their most ancient beliefs were in a “Mother Goddess.” The “Earth Mother” image is an ancient one that ties the people to the soil, and is an agriculturally oriented icon in an agriculturally-based society.

During the late third century and fourth century, through relationships with Indian traders, there was a conversion to Hinduism, mostly notably, the Hindu gods Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu. Gradually there was also a rise of Mahayana Buddhism. Finally there was a gradual conversion to Islam over a period of several centuries. This likely began at about the time the first Cham immigrated to Cambodia to take sanctuary in the 15th century.  The Cham of Vietnam, who are mainly Hindu, practice a form of Shaioita Brahmanism. Despite the strong, early influence of Hinduism, the lives of the common people of Champa centered around ancestor worship, fertility cults and hero worship.

At some time before the seventeenth century, the Cambodian Cham and some of those in adjacent Vietnam converted to Islam, probably as a result of contacts with their Malay kin who had embraced that religion centuries earlier. Those living in the rural areas mixed Islam with their indigenous culture and animistic elements, resulting in folk Islam. The spiritual center for the Cham Muslims of Cambodia is Chur-Changvra near Phnom Penh.

The final form of Islam practiced today by the Imam Sann Cham is unique in not only in the way it encompasses old animistic and Hindu roots, but the way it is practiced on a day to day basis and its unique ceremonies.  It is an inclusive religion, focused on peace, high moral codes for both its men and women, and seems equally comfortable working with members of all religions and social values.  Function and spirit win out over form.  Yet when offered gifts from missionaries to convert to more standard forms of Islamic practice and to give up their historic ways, their answer has been, “but that would dishonor our ancestors if we practiced our religion differently.”

Sre Prey Area Mosque with Traditional Cham at Prayer

Sre Prey Area Mosque with Traditional Cham at Prayer

It is these traditional Imam Sann (whom we support) who have fewer connections with the outside Muslim world because of their stance regarding their traditions and their interpretation of the Koran, and hence are totally seen as unacceptable by fundamentalist Muslim groups.