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Champa: The Forgotten Kingdom of Vietnam

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Champa: The Forgotten Kingdom of Vietnam

The Kingdom of Champa appeared out of nowhere and disappeared as if it had never been here. It left behind a rich cultural heritage, including thousands of relics, temples, and monuments across Vietnam and Cambodia, two of Asia's most popular destinations. Yet, many who traveled in the region heard very little, if anything, about this kingdom.

Mỹ Sơn

The South China Sea has been one of the world's most hotly contested regions since the dawn of history. It connects and separates China, Indonesia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam. Through its shallow inlet, the Gulf of Thailand, you can reach Cambodia and Thailand. By taking a slight turn through Malacca Strait between Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, you can get to the Andaman Sea. From Andaman through the Bay of Bengal, you can travel to India, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Bangladesh, ultimately Africa and Europe.

South China Sea

From the 1st to 2nd century AD, South China Sea was named the Champa Sea after the brave sailors, who were engaged in trade with most Asian countries. From the archeological findings, we can conclude that these sailors came from the Indonesian islands. Jewelry pieces found in their graves suggest that their trade ships had reached as far as the shores of the Middle East. The settlement ruins of the Cham people, dating to the 2nd century BC, are found on the banks of the South East Asian great rivers, through which they transferred goods from the seaports. In this region of thousands of islands between Australia and Japan, the Chams were the most dominant power, controlling all trade routes with their large fleets.

Ponagar Tower, Nha Trang
Ponagar Tower of Nha Trang,

From the 2nd century AD, the Cham people began to settle along the coasts of Vietnam, gradually seizing the political power from the locals. They soon lost ties to their motherland, the Indonesian islands, and the only thing that connected them to their old country became Hinduism they brought from home. Around that time, Buddhism also came to Vietnam, and the two religions slowly replaced the animistic religions prevalent in Southeast Asia. The Cham people used their powerful navy to establish the Kingdom of Champa in central Vietnam. Later, they expanded their territory to some parts of Laos and Cambodia. At the height of its power, the kingdom seized the palace complexes of Angkor Wat in Cambodia from the Khmer Empire. The Champa remained a significant power in South East Asia for over 1000 years, between 500 and 1,500 AD.

Champa Hindu God

From the 4th century, as their status as foreigner rulers shifted to natives, the Cham people began to establish magnificent temples dedicated to Lord Shiva across their territory. People often compare these structures to famous temples like Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Prambanan in Indonesia, and Ayutthaya in Thailand. The most well-known Cham temple is Mỹ Sơn, located not far from Da Nang and Hoi An in central Vietnam, though it is not the largest or the most magnificent one. With its extensive trade ties, the Chams got introduced to Islam in the 8th century by Indian merchants from Karli and Tamil Nadu. Islam quickly achieved popularity among the Cham people, and it eventually became the state religion in the 11th century after some royal family members converted to the faith. Although some Chams stayed as Hindus, while others became Muslims, they remained strong and united for another 300 years.

Mỹ Sơn

The Kingdom of Champa began to crumble in 1471 following the assault of the Lê dynasty, ruling northern Vietnam. Their invasion fractured the kingdom, but Chams continued to rule central Vietnam through tiny principalities until the 19th century. In 1832, the emperor Minh Mang of the Nguyễn dynasty annexed the last Cham principality. It had put an end to the Kingdom of Champa, which once dominated the South China Sea. Some Chams, primarily Muslim, moved to Malaysia or Indonesia, while most Hindu Chams stayed in their villages or moved to the major cities in central Vietnam. Some Muslim Chams still live on the Mekong River banks near Cambodia. The largest population of Chams, mostly Muslims, live in Cambodia. Some of them have been living there since the Kingdom of Champa conquered Angkor Wat. These Muslims became one of the most persecuted groups during the Cambodian Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot.

Cham girl

So, how did this powerful kingdom that left behind a vast cultural legacy quickly disappear from the pages of history? The answer is simple: History is written by the victors.

Since the collapse of the Kingdom of Champa, Vietnam went through many upheavals, first the rule of the Nguyễn dynasty, followed by French colonialism, and then the Vietnam War. At the end of all these, the Vietnamese communists came to power and tried to erase history like other communists regimes around the world. Additionally, about two-thirds of the Cham were Hindus, and the remaining third were Muslims, which made them particularly unlikable to the notoriously atheist communists. Another reason to single them out was that the Vietnamese rulers didn't want the Cham people to make territorial claims over their historical land in the future. Thus, the authorities covertly ostracized the Cham people and encouraged violent clashes between the Chams and other ethnic groups. The history of the Chams is excluded in school history books, and the Cham Hindu temples are not highlighted in travel guides handed to tourists. Sadly, most Hindu temples built by the Cham people suffered greatly in the 20th century. The border area between Northern and Southern Vietnam, where the vast majority of the earliest Champa structures are located, was the bloodiest battle zone during the civil war between the North Vietnamese communists and the pro-American South Vietnamese army. Most of the temples were wiped off the face of the earth, and only a few survived.

Champa Hindu God

It is important to note that few French scholars living in Vietnam during the colonial era studied Cham culture. The Cham art is particularly unique because it is influenced by Hinduism, local animistic religions, Buddhism, and Islam. Elements of these different religions are visible in Cham sculptures, ornaments, and architecture. Henri Boisselier and Jean Parmentier founded the Cham Art Museum in 1915, which still exists today in Da Nang. The museum, which presents the world's most extensive collection of Cham sculptures, provides a small glimpse of their lost culture.

Cham art

If you travel to central Vietnam, make time to visit the Hindu temple complex of Mỹ Sơn, Ponagar Tower of Nha Trang, and the Cham Art Museum of Da Nang, which tell a story about a kingdom you will not hear elsewhere.


Vietnam and Cambodia are two of the most fascinating countries on the Asian continent, both dramatically affected by recent history. In the mid of the 2nd millennia, both countries were the ground for some of the largest empires South East Asia has ever known. The decline of these empires has marked the beginning of French colonialization, bringing Christianity, modernization, and rapid development, which have forever changed local cultures and traditions.

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