The long tragedy of Cham history

The early history of the Cham in Cambodia is far from being clear. To begin with, were the Cham Muslims at the time of their emigration to Cambodia? Scholars have pointed out evidence that Champa had contacts with the Muslim world as early as the 9th century. A group of Muslim Chams are still living in Central Vietnam although they are a minority; the majority still goes on worshipping Hindu religion. It is then plausible that prior to take refuge in Cambodia a part of the Cham population had already converted to Islam. The fact that today all the Cambodian Chams are Muslims led most of scholars to the conclusion that the conversion of the majority of Chams actually took place in Cambodia. The Chvea (litterally Javanese), a large Muslim population, were already living in Cambodia in the 15th century; their origin is unclear as nowadays they all speak Khmer and don’t have a language of their own. It is probably to their contact that the Chams converted to Islam.
By Phnom Penh Post

Jean-Michel Filippi

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Cham people photographed during the period of the French Protectorate.

The traditional warfare pattern in South East Asia generally aimed at conquering and dominating sparse populations


The Khmer empire, from the ninth to the 15th century, obviously didn’t develop in isolation. But, looking at the map of Southeast Asia from a historical point of view, it’s nevertheless clear  that this political construction benefited from an unprecedented geopolitical quietness, at least until the 13th century.

The Vietnamese hadn’t even begun their march to the south, and the Thai state was  made up of embryonic chieftainships.

Yet the exception that proved the rule occurred. In the year 1177, guided by a Chinese deserter, the Cham fleet sailed the Mekong river upstream and from Phnom Penh, the Tonle Sap. They took Angkor by urprise, plundering and destroying the town.

They quickly withdrew and, from 1181, under the leadership of the future Jayavarman VII, the Khmers led the war against the kingdom of Champa, which was soon reduced to a vassal state of the Khmer empire.

Military recovery was one thing; spiritual recovery was something else. If the very heart of the empire could be so easily struck, there were spiritual causes that couldn’t be ignored.

Under the rule of Jayavarman VII, the Khmer empire was the theatre of the most dramatic religious shift in Khmer history as the new rel-igion became Mahayana Buddhism. It replaced the Hindu religion, which had proved unable to protect the empire.

Hindu gods still existed, but were submitted to the Mahayana Buddha. The temple of Angkor Wat was still there, but was no longer the axis of the world; that was now the Bayon.

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