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LOCATION: Cambodia; Vietnam

POPULATION: About 400,0001 million

LANGUAGE: Cham; Cambodian

RELIGION: Islam; orthodox Cham; Hinduism


The Cham live in Vietnam and Cambodia. They are descendants of refugees from the ancient kingdom of Champa who fled central Vietnam 500 years ago.

The ancient Cham were heavily influenced by India, as can be seen in their religion and art. Cham were fishermen, rice cultivators, and masters at temple construction. The remains of their religious monuments dot the landscape of Vietnam and Cambodia today.

From the sixteenth century on, the great Champa kingdom was gone. The Cham people were being persecuted and murdered by the Vietnamese. Numerous Cham fled central Vietnam for Cambodia, including a number of nobles and other dignitaries. Sometime in the seventeenth century the Cham were converted to Islam. The last royal Cham descendent died in the early 1900s.

In the twentieth century, the Cham were again the victims of massacre by the majority population, this time in Cambodia. From 1975 to 1979, Cambodia was ruled by the Khmer Rouge, communist extremists determined to erase all non-Khmer characteristics from the population. The Cham are believed to have been special targets of the Khmer Rouge.

The Cham were forced to adopt Cambodian language and customs and to abandon their own. Fishermen were forced to grow rice and dig canals, and religious leaders were stripped of their authority. Many were killed. In just two districts in Cambodia where Cham lived, over 40,000 Cham were killed by Khmer Rouge soldiers in the late 1970s. The Cham claim that over one hundred of their mosques were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge period.

In Vietnam, the Cham have fared better, but have also been subject to discrimination and ridicule, and to pressure to assimilate to Vietnamese society.


By the late 1800s, there were only small numbers of Chammaybe as few as 15,000living in both Vietnam and Cambodia. Their numbers increased rapidly, however. By 1975 there were between 150,000 and 200,000 Cham in Cambodia the about 150,000 in Vietnam. Currently there are between 400,000 and 1 million Cham in both countries.

In Vietnam, most Cham continue to live in the south central area of the country. In Cambodia, the Cham have settled along the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers and in western, southern, and central Cambodia.

Cham villages are usually comprised of only Cham. Most are small, with between 200 and 300 people, and are located near a river or lake.


Cham is related to languages spread over much of Asia and the Pacific. Most Cham in Cambodia are bilingual, speaking both Cham and Cambodian. Cambodian Cham speak a dialect called Western Cham. Cham in coastal central Vietnam speak Eastern Cham. Words in the Cham language contain up to three syllables.

The Cham language has its own writing system. Western Cham speakers use Arabic script rather than the traditional Cham script. Eastern Cham speakers in Vietnam use the traditional Cham script.


Many ancient Cham are remembered as great men. A king named Che Bong Nga ascended the Cham throne of central Vietnam in 1360. He led his armies against the Vietnamese and reoccupied Cham land to the north. His victories were temporary because the Vietnamese soon conquered the Cham empire, but Che Bong Nga's triumphs are remembered and retold.

The most renowned king of all, Po Rome, ruled Champa from 1627 to 1651. His rule is remembered as glorious by present-day Cham. When Po Rome was killed by his Vietnamese enemies, his Vietnamese wife threw herself on his burning funeral pyre in grief.


The Cham who fled the Champa kingdom of central Vietnam in the fifteenth century converted to Islam sometime before the seventeenth century. Cambodian Cham are Muslims (adherents of Islam). Cham decidation to their religion has helped them survive as an ethnic group.

The Cham worship in their own mosques. Their holy book is called the Quran (also spelled Koran). Each Cham community has a leader called the hakem. The bilal calls the faithful to prayer, and the imam leads them in prayer.

The spiritual center for Cham within Cambodia is Chrouy Changvar Peninsula, near Phnom Penh. Cham travel there to consult the high Muslim officials and to celebrate special occasions. Young Cham men may travel to Malaysia or Mecca (the holy city in Saudia Arabia) to study the Quran. Like Muslims worldwide, every Cambodian Cham hopes to make a pilgrimage (religious journey) to Mecca.

Most Cham in Vietnam are Hindus. Important Hindu officials are priests who are chosen for life. Some of these priests learned religious rituals when they were only ten or eleven years old.


Both Hindu and Muslim Cham observe a number of religious and magic ceremonies. Most religious and magical ceremonies contain rituals that originate in Islam, Hinduism, and traditional religions of the area.

The two most important festivals of the Hindu Cham, both honoring spirits of the dead, are the Bon Kate and Bon Cabur. (Both Hindu and Muslim holidays are set by the lunar calenday, so they fall on different days in the Western calendar each year.) Bon Kate is celebrated over five days in late September or early October. Hindu Cham make religious offerings to the statue of their god. These offerings include a goat, two cups and one box of cooked rice, a tray of ground rice cakes, five cups of sticky rice, lemon juice, and ten pieces of betel (a pepper plant).

Bon Cabur is held over five days during late January or early February. Cham gather to share celebrations and an elaborate feast.


The birth of a Cham child is greeted by the family and community with great joy. Babies are nursed by their mothers until two to four years of age. At age four, children are expected to feed, bathe, and control themselves, and shortly thereafter, to care for their younger siblings.

Most parents exercise almost complete control over their children until they are married. Even after marriage, the influence of parents is strong. Children are expected to show respect to their parents and elders, and are severely punished for any lapse. Cham express pride in the fact that their children have been less rebellious and their families have had less conflict than many other Cambodian families.

The Cham keep all a deceased person's rings before holding the funeral and burial. In the year following the funeral, several more ceremonies are held to honor the deceased person. At the end of the year, the bones of the deceased are exhumed (dug up). The bones are carried to the final permanent cemetery and are buried, with the person's rings, in one final ceremony.


The Cham often exchange the traditional Muslim greeting. One person begins by saying "Salamu alaikum," to which another responds "Alaikum salam."

Cham in Cambodia also greet each other with the sampeah (traditional Khmer greeting). The sampeah involves joining the palms together, with fingers pointing up or slightly tilted toward the other person, then bringing their hands up to their chest or forehead.

The Cham place great importance on hierarchy and proper behavior. Women must respect men, children must respect their elders. Everyone must respect their superiors, which includes anyone with higher status, greater wealth, or a more important job. Inferiors greet their superiors with a deeper bow. All visitors are treated to the best the household has to offer.

Few young people date, and virginity remains highly valued for brides. Girls and boys have the opportunity to talk and flirt only on special occasions, surrounded by relatives and neighbors.

Most men marry between nineteen and twenty-five years of age; women are slightly younger, usually between sixteen and twenty-two. It is common for a young man to ask his parents' permission and assistance in finding a wife than to do so on his own. His parents or a matchmaker approach the young woman's family to see if they are interested in a match. If the response is positive, the families negotiate the terms and time of the marriage.

After an exchange of gifts, the young couple marries. It is still common for many young couples to spend the first year of marriage in the home of the woman's parents. After the parents are assured of their son-in-law's stability, or after the birth of the first child, the young couple moves into a new house built for them by their families.


Cham homes are made of split bamboo and thatch. Most houses are built on stilts 4 to 12 feet (1.3 to 4 meters) off the groung to protect them from seasonal flooding. Chickens, ducks, and oxen are kept in the area beneath the house. Family members often gather beneath the house during the heat of the day to do chores, look after the children at play, and visit with neighbors and passersby. In the evening, most Cham retreat upstairs to their homes, where they eat, chat, and rest.

The upstairs portion of the house may be an open room or may be divided into several rooms: a private room for keeping possessions and a public room for entertaining guests, eating, and visiting. A lean-to kitchen may be attached to the house, also on stilts.

Cham do not have electricity, running water, sewage systems, or appliances. Houses usually contain little furniture, decoration, or utensils. A few books, a pad of paper, and a pencil or two may be wrapped in plastic and placed in the rafters for safekeeping. People sleep on mats, which are rolled up and leaned against the wall or stored overhead during the day. Some Cham, especially in Cambodia, have low platform beds.

Cham cook over an earthenware stand placed over a fire. Because most Cham do not have refrigeration, they use preserved, salted, or fresh food. Kitchen utensils include pots, bowls, cooking ladles, and spoons made of coconut shells.


Cham observe a fairly strict division of labor, with women caring for children and the household. Men are responsible for rice cultivation and the chores of construction, tool craft, and repair.

Women do most of the textile manufacture, such as carding, spinning, and weaving cotton. They are also responsible for the family vegetable and fruit gardens and for threshing, husking, and milling the grain. Women carry the family's water from the nearest lake, river, or pond.

The vast majority of Cham marry within their group and religion. When a girl and her parents (or a boy and his parents) agree on a selection, the parents approach the other's parents.

Cham marriages are simple, involving little expense or ceremony. In the presence of an imam (spiritual leader) who acts as the witness, the parents of the young woman ask the groom if he will accept their daughter as his bride. After he agrees, the marriage is concluded and is then celebrated with a feast. Polygynous marriages are allowed (up to four wives), although the first wife must approve the selection of any subsequent wives. Divorce is also permitted. Most polygamy and divorce occurs in families with more resources.

Cham trace their descent and pass inheritance through the maternal line. Residence is also matrilocal, so that young couples go to live with the wife's family.


The Cham wear distinctive clothing. Both men and women wear a batik, a garment much like a sarong, which is worn knotted around the waist. Men wear a shirt over their batik, while women wear close-fitting blouses with tight sleeves over theirs. Men and women usually cover their heads with turbans or scarves.

On religious days, leaders dress completely in white and shave their heads and beards. Children usually wear shorts and go barefoot or wear rubber thongs.


Cham of Cambodia and Vietnam eat much as their fellow countrymen. Rice is eaten at almost every meal. Fish is almost as important and is eaten fresh, dried, and salted.

A traditional meal is a bowl of steamed rice eaten with a sauce containing bits of fish, fowl, or meat, eggs, vegetables, and spices such as onions, chilies, garlic, mint, ginger, or lemon grass. Pork and alcohol, consumed by many Cambodians, are forbidden to Muslim Cham.

Cham usually eat an early meal of leftover rice, cakes, or fruit either at home or in the field. The big meal of the day is lunch around midday, followed by supper at twilight.

Cham men usually eat together, women and children later. Each has a bowl of rice, and all take bites of food from several dishes sitting in the middle of the group. Cham may eat sitting in a squatting position, with their feet flat on the ground and their knees bent sharply. In Vietnam, most Cham use chopsticks to eat, while in Cambodia, most use spoons.


Literacy (the ability to read and write) is greatly valued and parents and religious leaders go to great lengths to teach reading and writing to their children. Cham children attend their own schools, where they learn Cham language and writing, Cham history and traditions, and receive religious instruction. Some children also attend Cambodian or Vietnamese public schools.


Literature and religion are both important to the Cham. They highly value their books and religious texts.


Most Cham are involved in subsistence agriculture (growing enough to meet the family's needs, with little left over). Some are engaged in raising livestock (such as buffalo, goats, dogs, and fowl), hunting, and fishing. Hunting is done with guns, nets, dogs, and traps. Fishing is done with nets. They use animals not only for food but for making tools and in religious ceremonies.

Cham grow rice, maize (corn), manioc, peanuts, ferns, and vegetables. Nonfood plants grown by the Cham include cotton, tobacco, and plants that yield castor oil. Women may make extra money by weaving.


Most Cham do not engage in organized sports. Children do not have free time, since they must help their families make a living. Even the smallest children help their parents fish, cook, gather firewood, and do a variety of chores. Children are often responsible for caring for the animals. Boys herd the water buffalo and oxen when they are not being used for plowing, and girls feed the pigs and chickens. Boys climb up sugar palm or coconut trees seeking syrup or coconuts.

Children find time during their daily activities for play. A popular game is played with rubber thongs. The boys draw a line in the dirt, then stand back and throw their sandals at the line. The boy who gets the closest is the winner. Girls and smaller children play a similar game with rubber bands, and the winner wears his captured bands around his wrist. Girls also play hopscotch.


In Cham villages, local festivals remain the most common and popular leisure activity. Visiting and gossiping are everyday pleasures. Modern leisure activities, such as television, movies, and videos, are rare in Cham villages and homes.


Cham enjoy music, and use musical instruments that are similar to those in Cambodia and Vietnam. They range from guitars to gongs, drums, and xylophones.


The Cham are proud of never having completely assimilated to either Cambodian or Vietnamese culture. Some Cham hope that Champa, their ancient nation, will be reestablished. But most Cham are content to raise their families and practice their religion. Most of all the Cham hope for peace.


Hickey, Gerald C. "Cham" In Ethnic Groups of Mainland Southeast Asia, Frank M. LeBar, G. Hickey, and J. K. Musgrave, eds. New Haven, Conn.: Human Relations Area Files Press, 1964.


Embassy of Vietnam, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available, 1998.

Interknowledge Corp. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. Vietnam. [Online] Available http:/, 1998.

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ETHNONYMS: Kiam, Nguoi Cham-pa, Tchame, Tchams, Thiame, Tscham, Tsiam


Identification. The Cham are a Malay people who represent the remnant of a once large and powerful kingdom (Champa) that was dominant in the Vietnamese coastal region from about a.d. 200 until its demise in AD. 1471. In 1901 they were on the verge of extinction. It is believed that the original home of the Cham was Java. There they adopted a number of Indian cultural elements (particularly in the religious and artistic spheres) before their migration to Indochina.

Location. Vietnam and Cambodia are the locus of Cham culture. The Cham are found in south-central Vietnam and in the Tonle Sap and Chau Doc areas of Cambodia.

Demography. In 1910 there were 15,389 Cham in Annam and 30,000 living in Cambodia. In 1981 there were 155,000 Cham reported living in Cambodia and Vietnam.

Linguistic Affiliation. Cham is a branch of Malay that contains elements drawn from several language families. Some of its more important elements are those from Malayo-Polynesian languages, Khmer, Vietnamese and Chinese languages, Indochinese languages, Sanskrit, and Arabic.

History and Cultural Relations

Leuba demarcates three periods in Cham history. In the first of these, the Cham were at war with China (from the second to the tenth centuries a.d.). During the second period the Cham were engaged in armed conflict with the people of Annam (tenth to fifteenth centuries a.d.) . The end of this period witnessed the destruction of the kingdom of Champa by the Annamese emperor Thanh ton (in 1471 a.d.). Attempts to throw off the yoke of Annamese subjugation failed, and a gradual decline of Cham culture took place from the sixteenth century onward. During this third period, the decline of the kingdom precipitated an exodus from Champa to Cambodia by a number of Cham dignitaries and persons of noble birth. The last descendant of the Cham royal line died early in the twentieth century at Palei Chanar. The early 1900s witnessed a decline in the Cham population, but subsequent times have witnessed their resurgence. The ancient Cham were known for their seafaring skills, agricultural inventiveness, and construction of temples and religious monuments. The culture of the Cham in more recent periods has had little of the flavor of its ancient progenitor, relative poverty having replaced the grandeur of its ancient past.


Cham villages are extremely poor. Leuba has noted that they convey a sense of impermanence. Homes are made of split bamboo and are elevated above ground level (by the use of pilings) to protect against flooding. The space beneath the house serves frequently as a shelter for water fowl (e.g., ducks). The typical home has few adornments and domestic utensils. The structure may contain several rooms separated by walls. Access to these rooms is by means of a hallway running along the side of the house or by doorways in the walls separating the rooms.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . Although agriculture figures prominently in the everyday life of the Cham, animal domestication, hunting, and fishing are also a part of their cycle of subsistence. Crops grown include rice (by means of wet and dry cultivation), cotton, maize, tobacco, castor-oil plants, manioc, peanuts, ferns, and vegetables. An alternative to wet cultivation (used for the growing of rice) is that of ray cultivation (the Cham variety of slash-and-burn agriculture). Mangrove and other trees are also cultivated for profit. Buffalo, goats, dogs, poultry, and ducks are domesticated. Eggs are also collected. Animals and their by-products are used for a variety of purposes (i.e., for food, sacrifice, and agricultural assistance). Hunting (with nets, beaters, dogs, and traps) and fishing (with nets) is also engaged in.

Industrial Arts. Basic tools used by the Cham include pots, bowls, chopsticks, looms, spinning wheels, mortars (for rice pounding), baskets, jars, ashtrays (for torches), trays, calabashes, baskets, jars, ladles and spoons (made of coconut shells), cooking spoons, combs, rope, and a small quantity of iron implements. Low wooden beds are also manufactured for domestic use. Bedding (of cotton, wood, and matting) also is used. Little furniture is made, and luxury industries are scant.

Trade. Leuba reported the existence of a trade relationship between the Cham and the Moi. The Moi trade spices, cereals, and poultry to the Cham in exchange for iron bells, dried fish, and silk garments. The Moi also work as hired laborers for the Cham.

Division of Labor. Men and women share labor-related responsibilities. However, Cham women play an important role in the subsistence cycle and in the management of family affairs. They are responsible for household chores, the socialization of children, textile manufacture (e.g., the carding, spinning, and weaving of cotton), vegetable cultivation, burden bearing, grain preparation (i.e., threshing, husking, and milling), and water drawing.

Land Tenure. Both individual and village ownership of land seems to occur in certain Cham villages.


Kin Groups and Descent. Cham kinship practices represent a fusion of Hindu and pre-Hindu elements. LeBar cites Maspero's observation that the Cham had a matrilineal clan system that predated their Hinduization. The system also is said to have been totemic. Of these clans, the two that are reported to have struggled for dominance are the coconut-tree clan and the areca-nut-tree clan. Succession to the office of king was patrilineal (perhaps showing Hindu influence) rather than matrilineal.

Kinship Terminology. Hawaiian kinship terminology is employed for first cousins.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Once females reach the age of consent, they are allowed a considerable degree of freedom in mate selection. They are permitted to choose mates (from their own religious faith or others) and to initiate the mate-selection process. Polygynous unions are permitted (with the consent of the first wife) and the first wife is the agent responsible for the introduction of subsequent spouses into the household. Divorce is permitted and is usually initiated by the wife. Economic factors are a determinant in marital form, polygyny being limited to more wealthy Cham. Postmarital residence is matrilocal.

Inheritance. Inheritance of property, succession rights, and prerogatives related to ancestral worship is through the female line.

Socialization. Cham women are the chief agents of socialization.

Sociopolitical Organization

Political Organization. The Cham village is made up of several hamlets and is governed by elected officials numbering from five to fifteen. These officials are charged with safeguarding the public, the distribution of community funds, and tax collection. Each village is also governed by a mayor. All officials, with the exception of the mayor, are subject to individual taxation. A larger administrative division is made up of groups of eight to twelve villages. These groups are governed by a group leader. Three to four of these village groups compose the highest administrative division, the huyen.

Social Control. Social control is maintained by a combination of regulations derived from indigenous and national (i.e., governmental) sources.

Conflict. Conflict between the Cham and their immediate Vietnamese neighbors was characteristic of early Cham history. After their defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese, many Cham fled to Cambodia. Subsequent contact between the two groups has improved over the years to the point where the Cham have adopted many aspects of Vietnamese culture. No Cham military structure has existed since the fall of the Champa empire.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Two religious systems are followed by the Cham: Islam and Hinduism. The adherents of Islam are known as cham bams (sons of religion) or cham aclam (Cham of Islam). Those who follow Hindu practice are called cham jat (thoroughbred Cham), cham kaphirs, or akaphirs (infidels) . A substratum of indigenous religious practice is to be found in the syncretized form of Islam and Hinduism practiced by the Cham. The Chams of Cambodia, most of whom are Muslim, are members of the Shiite branch of Islam. The Cham of Vietnam, who are almost exclusively Hindu, practice a form of Shaioita Brahmanism.

Religious Practitioners. The chief religious functionary of the Muslim Cham is the imam, the congregational leader. Other Muslim officials include the ong-grou (high priest of the mosque), the katip (assistant to the ong-grou), and the mo'duo'n (censor). Among the Hindu Cham, the most important religious officials are the priests who belong to the basaih caste. This caste elects three high priests (po adhia ) who serve in this capacity for life. From the age of ten, children of this caste are taught appropriate sacerdotal rituals and activities. Other practitioners include the camenei, the kathar, and the paja (celibate priestess/prophetess), the kain yan, the rija, and the Hindu mo'duo'n. The camenei, who form a caste inferior to that of the basaih, are responsible for temple upkeep. The kathar are cultic musicians who sing hymns and play instruments for ceremonial observances. The paja officiates at domestic ceremonies. The kain yan (assistant to the paja) presents offerings to the paja and performs ceremonial dance. Finally, the rija (family priestess) also officiates at certain family-based magicoreligious rites. The Hindu mo'duo'n is a celebrant at certain magicoreligious observances.

Ceremonies. The calendar of the Hindu and Muslim Cham contains a number of ceremonial occasions that are marked by magicoreligious rites. Many of these contain indigenous elements that have been blended with elements of Islam and Hinduism. Two major feasts are observed by the Hindu Cham: Bon Kate (September-October), observed on the fifth day of the fifth month, and Bon Cabur (January-February) , held on the first day of the ninth month. The spirits of the departed are honored on these occasions. A festival meal is shared and five days of celebration accompany each of these feasts.

Arts. The visual arts of the Cham are not well developed. Music (instrumental and vocal) is, however, highly developed, though musical instruments are of the most rudimentary type. The Cham literary corpus includes a number of songs and hymns, prayers, rituals, folktales, and lists of divinities.

Death and Afterlife. Muslim Cham bury their dead twice (provisionally and then permanently). Several commemorative ceremonies are carried out near the tomb during the year following the death of an individual. The bones of the deceased are exhumed when the final ceremony takes place, and are carried to a permanent resting place in the area that serves as the people's common cemetery. Here the bones, along with the deceased person's rings, are buried. The Hindu Cham, by contrast, cremate the deceased after ceremonial preparation of the body. The remains are placed in a family sepulcher.


Cabaton, Antoine (1901). Nouvelles recherches sur les Chams. Translated by Human Relations Area Files, Inc. Paris: E. Leroux.

Hickey, Gerald C. (1964). "Cham." In Ethnic Groups of Mainland Southeast Asia, edited by Frank M. LeBar, Gerald C. Hickey, and John K. Musgrave, 245-249. New Haven: HRAF Press.

Leuba, Jeanne (1923). Un royaume disparu: Les Chams et leur art. Translated for Human Relations Area Files, Inc. Paris: G. Van Oest.

Maspéro, Georges (1928). Le royaume de Champa. Paris and Brussels: G. Van Oest.

Olivier, G., and H. Chagnous (1951). "Anthropologie physique des Chams." Bulletin de la Société des Études Indochinoises 26:271-318.


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Cham (käm), pseud. of Amédée de Noé (ämādā´ də nōā´), 1819–79, French caricaturist and lithographer. He abandoned a military career to produce over 4,000 designs, many of them caricatures and sketches of French and Algerian life.

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ʾCham (Tibetan ritual drama): see MUSIC.

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Cham XVI. Earlier form of KHAN.

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