By To Dong Hai
With a population of nearly 99,000 people living largely in the provinces of Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan and scatteredly in some parts of Chau Doc, Tay Ninh, Binh Dinh, Phu Yen... provinces, the “Cham” ethnic minority occupies a special position in the great families of Vietnamese ethnicities. The Cham once had their own state and their own legal system. Following the disintegration of the Cham Pa state, the traditional social institutions based on the administrative unit of “play” (village) and clan (muagawom) continued exerting their effects in the protection of the Cham community and became important factors in the social, cultural and economic life of the Cham people.
Speaking of the social and cultural institutions of the Cham people one can not help mentioning two important religions in their life, that is Bahaism and Islamism. Bahaism was introduced to the Cham people right from the beginning of the Christian era and in the course of formation and development of the Cham Pa state, it became the national religion with religious rules governing all aspects of the Cham’s life. Now, the number of Cham people who follow Bahasim, called Ba Cham, make up three-fifth or two-third of the Cham population. The rest follow Islamism, called Ba Ni. In the Ba Ni community, the Islamic rules have governed their social life. Therefore, the Cham conventions can be seen through three different forms: the local customs and practices; the Ba Cham rules and regulations; and the Ba Ni rules and regulations. In fact, the traditional customs and practices have greatly affected the Bahaist and Islamic rules and regulations, making these two religions practiced by the Cham people different from the original Bahaism and Islamism.
The Cham live in small coastal plains. Besides wet rice as their main crop, the Cham also cultivate such subsidiary food crops as sweet potato, maize, vegetables, fruit trees like water melon, banana, coconut... on some terraced fields along the banks of rivers and streams or on sand dunes. The Cham people are owners of the wet rice civilization. Many people think that the “Chiem” rice crop (the summer rice crop) practiced for long now by the Viet ethnic majority has originated from the “Cham” wet rice cultivation which has left deep imprints on the customs and practices of this ethnic group. In the traditional society of the Cham people, three persons oversaw the irrigation activities. They were Bnuk (also called Mr. “Cai Dap” who took care of the dams); “Seo” (also called Mr. “Cai Muong” who took care of the canals); “Hmu ya” (Mr. “Cai Le” who took care of religious rituals). Besides farming, the Cham also practice pottery and textile.
The basic unit of the Cham social organization is “play” (village) where people of the same religious belief live together. If there exist in a village two religions, people of the same religion live in a separate area. The Cham “play” is often built on a fairly high plot surrounded by mounts, rivers and fields, which is convenient for production and self-defense. Erected around the village is a brick and cactus wall.
Noteworthy in the Cham society is a system of religious dignitaries who not only undertake the religious activities but also manage other aspects of the social life in the village because all the villagers are followers of a certain religion. Bahaism is characterized by a system of “Paseh” headed by the chief master called “Po Gru” while Islamism is by a system of “Char” masters headed by the chief master also called “Po Gru”.
The Cham’s traditional society was built on a firm foundation, that is the concept of clan, grouping people of the same maternal line of descent with the same real (not legendary) female progenitor, including married men who stay in their wives’ houses. Each clan is headed by a woman who is often the eldest sister of a family of the first line of descent, and who is often called “Ai prong” (the big sister) or “Muh prong” (madam). Such women are also entrusted by their respective entire clans to keep the “gio thieng” (sacred bamboo creels) where relics of the dead persons or skulls symbolizing the clan’s ghost or deity, called “chiet atau”, were stored; they have been accepted by deities as the representatives of their clans to communicate with the deities, often participating in “Rija” rituals.
The clan chief manages all activities of the clan, including such religious activities as rituals, worshipping... The management of the clan according to traditional customs of the Cham people is strictly implemented. People of the same descent and worshiping the same “chiet atau” are not allowed to marry each other. If not, they will be considered committing incestion for which a ritual must be held at a cemetery to ask for the forgiveness from the deities.
Each clan possesses a number of fields reclaimed by the entire clan and distributed to each family in the clan for cultivation, which is called “Hmu gaup” (clan fields). Such fields can be transferred among people within the clan but not to people outside the clan. “Hmu gaup” of a family can be bequeathed from generation to generation. For families without any heir, such fields will be recovered by the clan and assigned to the families within the clan for cultivation for several years on a rotary basis. Yields from such fields shall be partly deducted to worship the dead owners. All these are performed by the female chief of the clan.
The family is considered cell of the traditional Cham society. The traditional family was a big matriarchal family which grouped many small families in an area. All members of the big family worked together and commonly owned the family property. The eldest woman of the first generation was considered the head of the family. She had the responsibility to manage the economic, religious, social and other activities of the big family and all members thereof. Later, the Cham big family split into smaller ones which are, however, still bound together through religious and social activities. The family estates are bequeathed to daughters, particularly the youngest one who shall have to look after the parents when they get old. Yet, all the production activities in the family are undertaken by men.
The basic marital principles observed by the Cham people are the marriage between people of the same ethnicity and marriage between people of the same religion. Adultery shall be severely punished, particularly with corporal measures. Levirate and sororate used to exist in the Cham society and almost disappear now. Monogamy has long been practiced by the Cham people. The procedure for a divorce is very simple. After several unsuccessful reconciliations attempts, the “Po Gru” (chief master) approves the divorce. After the divorce, all the children will stay with the mother and the property may be partly divided to the husband by the woman’s family.
After the wedding, the man shall have to stay with his wife’s family. However, he can maintain close ties with his maternal side, particularly in religious activities. When the man dies, he shall be burried in the cemetary of his maternal side.
The only son of the family can bring his wife to live in his house. But in this case, the girl shall submit to the “chiet atau” (the family deities) of her husband’s family and become a member of her husband’s clan.
The wedding ceremony practiced by the Ba Cham is similar to the country’s traditional ceremony with the same steps such as plighting visit, engagement then wedding. Meanwhile the wedding ceremony practiced by the Ba Ni is very complicated and costly. People who cannot afford the wedding party may organize their wedding ceremony later even after they have children.
Due to their different religions, the Ba Cham and Ba Ni follow different funeral ceremonies. The Ba Cham practice cremation while the Ba Ni bury the dead bodies once for all without exhumation.
Despite many deviations from their origins, Bahaism and Islamism still play an important role in the economic and social life of the Cham people. They shall serve a good basis for building a system of rules and conventions suitable to the life of the Cham ethnic minority.-