A brief history of Champa, an ancient Indianized civilization of coastal Vienam built upon the coastal India-China trade routes.

The coastal areas of Southeast Asia contain the busiest maritime trade routes on Earth. The commercial and cultural importance of this trade route cannot be understated, and its importance to trade and cultural exchange extends back over 2000 years. Wedged between the ancient cultural giants of China and India, these trade routes spawned many of the early civilizations in the shorelines and archipelagos of Southeast Asia, including Funan, Srivijaya, and Champa.

Champa was an early Indianized state along the Vietnamese coast that grew out of the Funan civilization and other seafaring traders. This collective of independent kingdoms inhabited by the Cham people shared a common culture, religion, and language. Champa bordered and was a powerful rival to the Khmer Empire until the Chams were conquered by the Vietnamese in 1471 CE.

While not as well-known as their contemporaries, such as Angkor, Ayutthaya, and Srivijaya, Champa was a powerful collective force along in maritime Southeast Asia, particularly in modern-day Vietnam. The Champa Kingdom was heavily steeped in Hinduism, leading to a deep Indian influence in Cham culture, traditions, and history.

Champa was founded in the 2nd Century CE and lasted over 1600 years until 1832, when the last of the Cham territories were dissolved by the conquering Vietnamese. Today, the Cham people live as an ethnic minority in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Who Are the Champa People?

The people of Champa, also known as the Cham people of Cham ethnic group, are an Austronesian ethnolinguistic group native to the eastern coast of Southeast Asia. They are closely related to the peoples of the Malay archipelago, and the initially Cham population in Vietnam is thought to have come from Borneo.

The central-northern coast of modern Vietnam was previously known as Lin Yi in Chinese (Lam Ap in Vietnamese), which was settled as an extension of southern China. Many of the Cham people in the north assimilated with the Han-Chinese and carry their genetic traits, while South Asian Indian genes can be found in the southern Cham people.

This was because many South Asian merchants came to the southern parts by sea, and took Cham wives. Much of the heavy Hindu influence in Cham is attributed to these marriages.

Origins of the Champa Kingdom

Near the end of the 2nd Century CE, the central area of the Vietnamese coast was settled by the Chinese. This place was known as Lam Ap (Lin Yi in Chinese) and became one of the earliest kingdoms of Champa. This kingdom was located just west of Hue, which would curiously become the historic capital of the Vietnamese nation as well.

Initially, much of the coastal territory was inhabited by indigenous tribes. These were remote peoples left to their own devices until the South Asian Indians settled more widely. Once they had, four states were formed, named after regions of India: Amaravati (Quang Nam); Vijaya (Binh Dinh); Kauthara (Nha Trang); and Panduranga (Phan Rang).

Because of their separation along the coast, the Champa was less of a unified kingdom and more of a collective of these states. These places were united by a shared language, similar cultures, and general alliances.

Name Origins

The name Champa has roots in Sanskrit, an old Indian language. Champa is formed from campaka, which stems from a beautiful and fragrant flowering tree called the Magnolia Champaca.

Culture and Beliefs of the Champa Kingdom

The Mỹ Sơn Sanctuary in Quảng Nam, Vietnam was the crown jewel of Champa architecture.
The Mỹ Sơn Sanctuary in Quảng Nam, Vietnam was the crown jewel of Champa architecture.

The Champa Kingdom had a strong influence from India from the merchants who came to port, and from the beliefs of their neighbor, Funan. Because of this, Hinduism was the main religion for a large portion of their history.

Around the time that Hinduism was brought to the forefront of Champa, Bhadravarman became king and united the seaside nations. He created a linga, a stone pillar built to worship Shiva, and he called it Bhadresvara. This was a combination of his name and that of the Hindu God’s Shiva.

While Hinduism was the main religion of Champa for most of its history, Islam was also popular. These groups lived in separate villages, and intermarriage was not allowed. To this day, the intermarriage of the two religions remains rare.

Hinduism in Champa

Chams that adhered to Hinduism were referred to as Balamon Chams. The term Balamon stems from the Hindu term Brahman, which they believe is the major metaphysical force that unites all of life in existence.

Stemming from their Hindu beliefs, the Chams (like their Khmer neighbors) began to excel in religiously themed carvings and artwork. Some of the major symbols of the Shaiva Hindu religion can be found in the relics of Champa.

  • Linga: A dark pillar made of stone, crafted to worship Shiva.
  • Mukhalinga: A linga with the carved image of Shiva as a human being, or a linga with a carved face supposedly belonging to Shiva.
  • Jatalinga: A linga with a stylized interpretation of Shiva’s trademark hairstyle.
  • Segmented Linga: A totem pillar with three different sections of carvings to represent three gods of the Hindu faith; Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.
  • Kosa: A woven basket of precious metals created to be placed atop the linga.

These elements were extremely important to the Champa kings, and many would build them, naming the relics after themselves. While a great number of these relics have not survived into the present day, the best modern collection exists at the Cham Museum in Danang, Vietnam.

The Cham Towers

The Chams' Tháp Chiên Đàn (top) and the Khmers' Prasat Prang Ku (bottom) may appear similar but are from different cultures.
The Chams’ Tháp Chiên Đàn (top) and the Khmers’ Prasat Prang Ku (bottom) may appear similar but are from different cultures.

Perhaps the most evident relic of the Champa civilization is their iconic Cham Towers (Tháp Chàm in Vietnamese). On the surface, the Cham Towers do bear a striking resemblance to the Khmer prangs found through the Angkorian domain in Cambodia and Thailand — and they played the same function, most often hosting a Shivalinga shrine within.

This similarity is understandable, considering both monument types stem from architectural ideas introduced by the Funan Kingdom. Some of these early Funan towers can still be seen today in parts of Southern Vietnam and Cambodia.

The majority (though not all) of the Cham Towers are built on hilltops and along the coast. They are most often made with red bricks placed together without mortar. Cham Towers were decorated with Hindu iconography, including the elements mentioned above.

While the tower themselves are awe-inspiring, perhaps the most impressive feature of the towers is that the relief carvings born on their surfaces are carved on each individual brick prior to being set in the structure. This is as opposed to carving the relief as a whole on the completed tower.

To date, 25 Champa tower sites have been identified. Archaeologists speculate that there are many more to be discovered along inland rivers leading away from their native coastal areas. However, Cham Towers have a long history of being torn down and their brick repurpose for other structures.

Islam in Champa

Later in Champa’s history, after they were overtaken by the Vietnamese, many of the Cham people began to adopt Islam as their faith. Chams that adhered to Islam were referred to as Bani Chams. “Bani” is derived from the Arabic term for “people.”

The royal families of the Cham began to convert to Islam in the 14th century. By the 17th century, most of the royals were Islamic.

Today, the Cham people are evenly split between Islam and Hinduism, with most of the Vietnamese Chams being Hindu, and most of the Cambodian Chams being Muslim.

History of the Champa Kingdom

Champa was one of the longest-reigning kingdoms in Southeast Asia’s history. It held control of most of the east coast of the region, so much so that the waters beyond it were known as the Champa Sea– now known as the South China Sea.

The culture’s most prosperous era lasted for nearly a millennium, from the 6th to the 15th centuries. This makes Champa home to some of the oldest artifacts and monuments in the whole of Southeast Asia.

Champa’s Early Years

While the breakaway Chinese polity of Lin Yi (林邑) bore some relation to the native Cham people and is recorded to have become independent in 192 CE, it was a few decades later that the first distinctly Cham settlement has been found at Simhapura (modern Tra Kieu).

As these Cham politics began adopting an Indianized culture, their influence spread along the coast, building a powerful maritime empire that reached the Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan.

The Golden Age of the Champa Kingdom

During its height, the Champa Kingdom held in its power parts of modern-day Cambodia and Lao, and nearly all of Vietnam.

Part of the reason the kingdom was so prosperous was its control of the South China Sea. Many of the early states of Champa had powerful military fleets used for trade and piracy.

These powers only grew as the Kingdom of Champa grew, and maritime trade was a lucrative excursion for the Chams. From the 7th to 10th centuries, Champa and its seafaring powers were at their peaks. They controlled the trade of silks and spices between China and India and found great wealth in their exports of aloe and ivory.

While the Chams controlled the coastal area, they bordered the massive inland power of the Khmer Empire. The two states engaged in several wars, with Champa even laying siege to the Khmer capital at one point. However, the Khmers under Jayavarman VII retaliated and left Champa in a weakened state, which the Vietnamese from the north would later take advantage of.

The Fall of the Champa Kingdom

The Cham-Vietnamese war in 1471 is highly regarded as the main point of downfall for Champa. The war had, for the large part, been decided by numbers. The Vietnamese (then Đại Việt) naval army numbered almost 300,000, while the Cham army only had 100,000 in their fleet.

Once Đại Việt overtook Champa, the entire kingdom was reduced to a few territories in the south. Eventually, this was shrunken down to only Panduranga, which was annexed by Vietnam in

Geography of Champa Kingdom

While centered along Coastal Vietnam, the Cham influence extended beyond these areas. They influenced many nearby nations, inland empires, and archipelagos with their maritime power.

Champa in Vietnam’s Central Highlands

Vietnam’s Central Highlands, a mountainous area along the Vietnam-Laos border, was an inland group of states within the Champa mandala. While they recognized nearby Chams as their lords, the people of the highlands mostly maintained their independence.

Champa, however, benefitted from these regions by using their resources for naval trade. Products from the highlands included gold, silver, animals, and their byproducts, slaves, and the most famous eaglewood.

Champa in the South China Sea

When Champa was at the height of its power, it controlled the vast majority of trades in the South China Sea, then known as the Champa Sea.

This sea was the connecting water between China, India, and Indonesia, so Champa controlled the trade of spices and silks between the countries.

Champa also found great commerce in the export of ivory, aloe, and the mountainous hinterlands’ riches. The eaglewood developed into a famous export of Champa and became renowned in China, India, the Middle East, and even Northern Africa.

The Champa sea also hosted many trade ships between the Cham and Indonesia, as evidenced by the many shipwrecks near the islands.

Champa in Greater Southeast Asia

After inheriting the maritime trade routes of the Funan, the main interest of the Cham people was maritime trade, which meant their fleets and vessels were commonly found along Southeast Asia’s coastal waters. Cham goods have been found in the islands of Taiwan, Philippines, and Japan, as well as in Mainland China, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Of particular renown was the discovery of a Cham shipwreck off the coast of Palawan island in the Philippines. Like many other coastal excavations (particularly the Cham Island off the coast of Hot An), this shipwreck was found to be a merchant ship carrying pottery.

However, the relationships between Champa and its direct neighbors were less amicable. Despite both stemming (directly or indirectly) from the same early Funan culture, the Khmers and the chaos were longtime enemies. They engaged in a series of wars, one of which resulting in a siege of the Khmer capital at Angkor.

A later retaliatory victory by the Khmers is memorialized at the Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom. Both this temple and the new walled city were built by King Jayavarman VII during his reconstruction of the Khmer Empire after their defeat by the Cham. With his newly reinvigorated empire, they launched an attack on Champa that severely weakened the nation for decades to come.

At the same time, another enemy was moving south in the form of the Dai Viet, who would later go on to entirely conquer the remaining Cham territories, creating the precursor to modern Vietnam.

What Happened to the Champa Kingdom?

In 1471, the Đại Việt (Vietnamese) conquered Cham and reduced them to the territories of Panduranga (modern Phan Rang–Tháp Chàm) and Kauthara (modern Nha Trang). Kauthara was then taken by the Vietnamese in 1563, and Panduranga was absorbed in 1832.

The Cham people and culture still exist today as minority groups in Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as small pockets in Malaysia and Indonesia. While a large amount of the Cham people have fully embraced Islam, there are still groups that maintain their longstanding Hindu beliefs, particularly around Phan Rang-That Cham, where the Po Ro Me Cham Tower is kept as an active Hindu Shrine.

Cities of the Champa Kingdom

Panduranga (Phan Rang-Thap Cham)
Ninh Thuận, Vietnam
GPS: 11.57762, 108.98961

Kauthara (Nha Trang)
Khánh Hòa, Vietnam
GPS: 12.25524, 109.197

Vijaya (Quy Nhon)
Bình Định, Vietnam
GPS: 13.92551, 109.07115

Simhapura (Tra Kieu)
Quảng Nam, Vietnam
GPS: 15.82384, 108.22812

Indrapura (Đồng Dương)
Quảng Nam, Vietnam
GPS: 15.67536, 108.29446

Mỹ Sơn
Quảng Nam, Vietnam
GPS: 15.76337, 108.12417

Hoa Chau Citadel (Huế)
Thừa Thiên Huế, Vietnam
GPS: 16.53943, 107.56563

Monuments of the Champa Kingdom

Bang An Tower
Quảng Nam, Vietnam
GPS: 15.88471, 108.23352

Po Nagar Temple
Khánh Hòa, Vietnam
GPS: 12.26532, 109.19579

Tháp Bánh Ít
Bình Định, Vietnam
GPS: 13.86859, 109.13529

Tháp Khương Mỹ
Quảng Nam, Vietnam
GPS: 15.54799, 108.50578

Tháp Đôi
Bình Định, Vietnam
GPS: 13.78616, 109.21122

Tháp Dương Long
Bình Định, Vietnam
GPS:13.92515, 108.99068

Tháp Phú Diên
Thừa Thiên Huế, Vietnam
GPS: 16.49567, 107.74621

Tháp Pô Klông Garai
Ninh Thuận, Vietnam
GPS: 11.60086, 108.9461

Tháp Po Sah Inư
Bình Thuận, Vietnam
10.93501, 108.14663

Tháp Yang Prong
Đắk Lắk, Vietnam
GPS: 13.20971, 107.83161

Fast Facts

Name: Champa
Origin: Indigenous to the coastal areas of Vietnam.
Language: Cham
Religion: Hinduism (present, Islam)
Period/Era: 2nd – 18th Centuries CE
Location: South and Central Vietnam
Capital: Several, including Simhapura, Vijaya, and Panduranga
Decline: After centuries of conflict with the Khmer Empire, Champa was conquered by the Dai Viet (Vietnamese) from the north.

Glossary

Angkor
Capital of the Khmer Empire, located near modern-day Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Austronesian
Ethnolinguistic group originating in Taiwan which migrated through the Southeast Asian coast

Buddhism
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.

Cham
Austronesian ethnic group native to Southeast Asia that once controlled the Hindu Champa civilization in the region of modern Vietnam. Today, the Cham people are a minority in Vietnam and largely practice Islam.

Champa
An Indianized Hindu kingdom in ancient Vietnam known for constructing Tháp Chàm, their iconic Cham Towers dedicated to Shiva and other Hindu deities.

Cham Tower
Hindu monument built by the Cham people of ancient Vietnam.

Chenla Kingdom
Early period (6th-9th Centuries CE) of independent Khmer states before being united into the Khmer Empire by Jayavarman II.

Funan Kingdom
Early mainland Southeast Asian culture (1st-6th Centuries CE) which grew along the Mekong Delta coast with influence from the China-India maritime trades routes. Funan was among the first regional cultures to adopt an Indianized society.

Indianization
A culture adopting Indian culture, religion, and social structures.

Islam
Monotheistic offshoot of Judaism founded in the 7th Century CE and based on the teachings of Mohammad.

Jayavarman VII
Mahayana Buddhist king of the Khmer Empire from 1181–1218 who conquered Champa, built Angkor Thom, and initiated massive engineering projects to rebuild the kingdom.

Khmer
Austroasiatic ethnic group native to Southeast Asia and the majority inhabitants of the modern nation of Cambodia.

Khmer Empire
Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which ruled much of Southeast Asia from their capital at Angkor.

Mekong Delta
Low-lying river delta making up much of southern Vietnam where the Mekong River meets the Pacific Ocean.

Mekong River
The world’s 12th longest river, which flows from the Himalayas through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, into the Pacific Ocean.

Mount Kailash
A mountain in southwestern Tibet considered the dwelling place of Shiva and associated with Mt. Meru in Hindu-Buddhist traditions.

Mount Meru
The metaphysical mountain said to represent the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.

Oc Eo
An ancient port city of the Funan culture located in the Mekong Delta, modern-day Vietnam.

prang
A Khmer Hindu tower representing Mount Meru and taking the form of a lotus bud. Thai architecture later adopted the design into their Buddhist temples.

Srivijaya
Empire based in Sumatra which controlled or influenced Buch of the Malay archipelago circa 600-1200 CE.

stupa
Buddhist monument used to enshrine sacred relics or memorialize important figures. Its dome, bell, or otherwise tower-like appearance is an architectural representation of Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain said to represent the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.

Sources

Benjamin

Benjamin

Hi all, my name is Ben. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in archaeology and writing, pursuing a career in the latter. However, I never quite lost that fascination for archaeological theory. For the past 9 years, I’ve been living and travelling in Asia, documenting ancient sites and the peoples who built them, and then adapting them into practical archaeological travel information at PathsUnwritten.com.

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