Ethnotek Tribe member and photojournalist, James Pham, accompanied the Ethnotek team this year on a visit to the Cham village in Vietnam to celebrate the Kate Festival with their weavers and friends. For a unique and unbiased perspective, we asked James to write about his experience and share some photos. He was happy to oblige... Enjoy!
James Pham (bottom left in the gray shirt). Inrajaka (third from right), Inrahani, and Jake Orak (Ethnotek founder).
The night is pitch black. Every now and again, a solitary spot of light breaks up the night, bouncing ever closer, signaling another visitor bumping along the dirt path on a motorbike. It’s the eve of Kate (pronounced “kah-tay”), one of the most important Cham religious festivals of the year bringing Cham people back from all corners of Vietnam.
Established in the second century AD, the Champa civilization reached its peak in the ninth century, controlling parts of Central Vietnam down to the Mekong Delta and extending west into present-day Cambodia and Laos.
Known as intrepid seafarers, the Champa Kingdom developed international trade routes that allowed them to accumulate wealth and political power. However, as their contemporaries grew stronger, the Champa people were slowly driven south by the Vietnamese kings and east by the Angkorian kings, leaving centuries-old sandstone towers as silent place holders of this once-great civilization.
Cham Towers near Phan Rang, Vietnam
Despite no longer having a land to call their own, the Champa Kingdom is survived by the Cham people, one of Vietnam’s 54 minority groups. We’ve traveled almost eight hours to Phan Rang, on Vietnam’s South Central coast to experience the largest Cham gathering, the annual Kate Festival.
Our guide is Inrajaka, a 30-something cultural ambassador of sorts. We arrive at his home, a modest thatch-roofed abode with walls coated with buffalo dung set in a wide field, away from the more “modern” cement houses that make up the nearby town.
Home of Inrajaka, photo by Inrajaya Photography
Raised in Saigon (Vietnam’s largest city), Inrajaka made the unusual decision to move back to his tiny blip of a hometown, building this traditional home with few creature comforts. This night, it’s the setting for an impromptu gathering of friends and family who have returned for Kate from far-flung locales where schooling and employment are more accessible. As dusk turns into night, the few lights in the home are turned on, but most of us are sitting in half darkness on the brick terrace, sharing a bountiful yet simple meal, passing around a clay jar of distilled spirits, sipped from a communal straw. The stars are bright and the night is quiet, punctuated by the laughter of old friends and new acquaintances.
Cham schoolchildren in Inrajaka’s village of My Phuoc
“No matter where I went or who I met, something always pulled me back,” says Inrajaka as to why he chose to give up a promising future in the big city. “Every time I went back and put on Cham clothing, it just felt like me ― the moonlit nights, the wide open sky, the smells, the people. I felt the best way to help preserve the culture had to be to live here and survive here”.
The Cham are different from other minorities in Vietnam in that they customarily live side-by-side with ethnic Vietnamese, instead of being geographically isolated, like the hill tribes of mountainous Sapa in Vietnam’s far north. However, as with so many minorities around the world, Cham villages are often depressed economically, with little access to higher education and decent jobs.
“For most young people, when they feel like they have the strength to fly, they fly away,” says Inrajaka. This exodus of the young has placed further pressure on the Cham to integrate into Vietnamese society. “There are families who feel that teaching the Cham language to their children is not important, that it’s better for business if they learn English or Japanese. The Cham have a saying that ‘those with knowledge sit in the best places and eat first; those without can sit right next to you and you wouldn’t even notice them.’ We used to value knowledge, literature and music above material possessions but now it’s cars and big houses and money,” Inrajaka says wistfully.
Thankfully, Inrajaka isn’t the only one in his family trying to make a difference. His mother, Inrahani, is battling to revive the fading art of Cham weaving.
Early Chinese sources suggest that the Cham wove both cotton and silk cloth incorporating multiple colors and patterns. Cham weavers “knew how to mix gold thread into the weft and weave, wrong or right side out, a different pattern on each side" and they "embroidered complicated motifs made more dazzlingly luxurious with gold, silver, pearls, and gemstones.”
Inrahani at the loom
We visit Inrahani’s small weaving workshop in the village where a few local women are sitting at long, narrow looms, their hands and feet working in tandem to make beautiful textiles, thread by painstaking thread. More than just cloth, it wouldn’t be wrong to call these “books in fabric”, as designs woven into the textiles tell ancient stories with motifs named after everyday objects like “cucumber” or “dog foot”.
Earlier in the day, though, as we take a walk around the village, we see discarded looms abandoned in the front yard of houses. With the working-aged all but gone, there are only the old and the very young left, with no one to continue the art of weaving.
“When I was a girl, almost every family did weaving, even in the evenings,” Inrahani remembers. “But then many people left the villages. You could work at a factory or be a seller or do manual labor like picking coffee or cashews and make more money. It was only the older or weaker ones who stayed behind to take care of the homes and children. The looms were being discarded for firewood.”
So began Inrahani’s quest to revive the art of weaving in her village. “It was almost lost, maybe only 10% left. But I knew that if we called them back, they would come. If they could earn even VND 3 million (USD 150) at home instead of VND 4 million (USD 200) away, people would come back.”
In 1990, she began with a modest business selling woven handicrafts as souvenirs in Saigon. In the decades since, she’s established herself as the face of Cham weaving in Vietnam, recently receiving an award for being the country’s largest Cham textile producer. Her success has allowed her to revive the craft in her village, also partnering with Ethnotek to produce custom designs based on traditional patterns. “A lot of people talked, but my American friend (as she calls Ethnotek owner Jake Orak, in part because she can’t pronounce his name properly, as there is no “j” sound in Vietnamese) was the only one who did something about it. They pay us 50% upfront which allows us to buy the materials. They are genuinely interested in helping the community.”
With her success, Hani hopes to reinvest in the Cham villages. Her workshop now also doubles as a museum of sorts with Cham artifacts on display and a library, primarily consisting of an old wooden bookcase with yellowed books in Chamic script. Her dream is to build a preschool where village children can be taught the old Cham ways and a proper library where people can read Cham writings. She wants to build traditional-style Cham houses for visitors to see what Cham family life is like. She wants to restore all 30 Cham weaving motifs. “Red with silver or gold patterns for men. Dark green and other dark colors for women. The colors and patterns are used to show hierarchy. It’s worn by our priests who talk to God. It’s worn by our mothers and fathers when they pass on. So how can it die?” says Inrahani of the craft that is at once her livelihood and her passion. “We still have the [Cham] towers which are historical artifacts. I also want to make sure our culture survives ― our food, our arts, our way of life.”
The next day, we’re up early to witness the first day of Kate, traditionally held in September / October. The multi-day festival includes dances, the ritual of changing clothes for the local Champa deities, and music and chanting to recount the histories of the gods and goddesses and to invite them to be present and bless the Cham people.
The day starts out with a colorful procession leading towards the soccer stadium repurposed for the opening ceremonies, umbrellas out in force to counteract the blazing sun, even at this early hour.
Early arrivers take seats on the bleachers, but most of us stand around the perimeter, yielding to the kids who squirm their way to the front to take in the action. Music and dancing ensues with fan dances, folk music and speeches.
The next day, we head to Po Rome, one of the many Cham towers that dot Vietnam’s central coastline. The 8-meter tower located on a hill was built in the 17th century in honor of a wise Champa king who the people later deified.
It’s early yet, but families have already staked out their space in the area surrounding the tower. Offerings of meat, fruit and rice are carefully laid out on bamboo mats. More and more people filter in as the morning wears on, and when there looks to be no possible room for more, someone slides over and another mat is put down.The ritual changing of the wardrobe is happening in the tower, but only a few are allowed entry. Most are content to simply be a part of the ceremony, catching up with old friends, and making new ones. Some will stay the whole day and share their offerings while others make their way down to the nearby beach for a picnic, reunited with friends and family who they haven’t seen in a year.However, even this age-old tradition is being threatened. The celebration that was once reputedly one full month during the days of the Champa civilization has been shortened to a few days. What’s left is being co-opted and re-branded as a “Cham New Year” to better sell to tourists. And young Cham sometimes find it difficult to make it back to their home villages because employers often don’t understand the importance of Kate.
“That seems to be a common thread with most of the ethnic minority groups here in Vietnam,” says Jake Orak, Ethnotek founder. “They’re either being pushed out or put on display. Ethnocide poses a real threat here because there's just not enough support or understanding of the importance of their cultural practices. We've made it our responsibility to restore demand for handmade textiles by bringing business to these areas as well as helping to tell their story to a wider global audience. Cultural preservation through commerce and storytelling if you will”
Know more, do more:
- The roughly 167,000 Cham people in Vietnam are concentrated in Binh Thuan and Ninh Thuan provinces (near Phan Rang) and along the Cambodian border in Tay Ninh and Chau Doc provinces. Inrajaka sometimes arranges tours to experience Cham culture.
- To understand more about the history of Kate, this academic article by researcher William Noseworthy is a good resource.
- Pair a visit to the ruins of the large Cham temple complex of My Son (about 1.5 hours outside of Danang, Vietnam) with a visit to the excellent Cham Sculpture Museum in Danang.
- Check out “Incredible Champa” on Facebook, a page by photographer Inrajaya (Inrajaka’s brother) featuring images of Cham culture