The Kingdom of Champa

The Kingdom of Champa at its peak ruled much of modern day Viet Nam. The Kingdom stretched from Quang Binh province to the southern border of Binh Thuan, also large portions of eastern Cambodia and Laos (Adam 2). Champa endured for nearly a millennium, leaving behind some twenty five temple sites (Adam 3). Its ancestors continue to thrive today.

Champa has a blurred beginning of multiple origins involving a combination of three peoples, each with significance and importance. These three are the Sa Huynh people, Funanese, and dynasties of Lin Yi.

The Sa Huynh people are the ancestors of the Cham. They are thought to have migrated to Vietnam by sea from Borneo. This would explain the Malayo-Polynesian language origins of the Cham language compared to its contemporaries in the same region like the Funan, Dai Viet and Khmer speaking Vietnamese or Mon-Khmer languages (Higham 297). Another cultural variation was the burial of Sa Huynh dead in large ceramic urns (Tingely 82). This was an unusual burial practice in mainland Southeast Asia. They adorned their dead with agate, carnelian, and glass beads from India, as well as gold and glass beads from the Mediterranean; suggestive of Champa’s vast seafaring competency (Higham 297). As Hinduism became increasingly popular, cremation became a prominent practice. Ashes would be collected in jars and then spread across the rivers (SarDesai 23: 1989).

The Kingdom of Funan was one of the first Southeast Asian kingdoms to adopt Hinduism, which they attribute to a legend of an Indian Brahmin, Kaundinya, who married the Naga princess Soma. Together they began the Funan royal lineage. This melded Orthodox Hindu tradition with local beliefs and mythology. Champa adopted it later through cultural diffusion and annexation of the Funanese territory of Panduranga (SarDesai 1988: 23).

The Lin Yi state has two likely relations to the Champa. Lin Yi is either the proto-nation of Champa, while it was severing from China, or it is merely the Chinese designation of that region (which was changed many times throughout its history), thus making Li Yin synonymous with Champa. Lin Yi should not be thought of as a unified state, but as many small kingdoms whose language and shared animosity of the Han Dynasty united them to separate from it in 192 CE. China still uses this ancient ownership to support their claim to some of the archipelagos in the South China Sea, specifically the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos (Adam 1).

Champa’s heyday was between the 6th and 15th centuries. Much of the knowledge on Champa comes from through physical evidence such as stone murals and temples. Champa’s contemporaries, such as the Dai Viet, contain bias accounts of Champa as warmongering pirates. The Chinese Dynasties only have an account of Champa when it was an interest to China (Tingely 189). Coastal Viet Nam is a fragmented geography with fifteen major rivers and mountains, which denied it the ability of a unified kingdom (Tingley 179). This geography is attributed to Champa’s seafaring lifestyle: a powerhouse on the sea but lacking on land. Modern interpretations of Champa consider it less of a unified kingdom, but a contingent of provinces that were united by a common culture, language and adversaries (Tingely 193). Champa is usually divided into five main regions. Some of these regions are directly correlated to modern day settlements. These regions were concentrated areas of settlement and ritual activity. From south to north they are: Panduranga/Thuan Hai, Kauthara/Nha Trang, Vijaya/Quy Nhon, Amaravati/Quang Nam, and Indrapura/Dong Duong (Tingley 180).

Vietnamese records portray the people of Champa as being malicious pirates. Champa did gain some wealth with piracy, but not exclusively. Piracy was a direct consequence of Cham ports not gaining profit due to Ming Emperor, Yongle 1403-1424 CE. Emperor Yongle cut out the Cham middlemen and set up direct trade routes from China to Southeast Asia (Tingely 189). During times of prosperity Champa’s trade influence stretched all the way to North Africa in the west and Japan in the East. A Muslim geographer wrote, Champa “produced ivory, camphor, nutmeg, mace, cloves, agarwood, cardamom, cubeb, and other substances” (Adam 4). Shipwrecks in the Philippines show green-glazed ceramics from Vijaya (Adam 4). Champa not only distributed wealth across their trade networks but also culture, especially Cham music, which influenced early Vietnamese court music (Adam 8). Traditional Cham music is still practiced in Viet Nam, especially in resorts and restaurants (Adam 8).

Champa had long lineage of kings. A king would be the leader of the most powerful Cham province at the time (Tingely 197). However, Champa was not unified and there were few who could stand out as “great”. The lineage may be long but it is also fragmented with diverging cultural influences, foreign occupations and a lack of records. Chinese records provide us with the early insight (Higham 301). Zhu Lian was of Lin Yi. He was the man who led to the separation of what would be Champa from Han China. For reference, Champa was not referred to as “Champa” until 629 CE by the Chams themselves, 657 CE by the Khmers and not until 877 CE by the Chinese (Higham 299). This is most likely due to increasing Sanskrit influences, as the name Champa is of Sanskrit origins. The newly separated state annexed the border fortress of Qusu, which defended the early kingdom (Higham 300). The Chinese sacked and recaptured Qusu in 446 CE, where it is said they put all inhabitants aged fifteen and over to the sword (Higham 301). Afterward, both states held an uneasy peace where they were able to share knowledge such as Chinese city defense and Chinese military architecture (Higham 300). This knowledge allowed a tactical edge in combat. During this time more ports began to open allowing Indian merchants’ access to Champa. With this new access came an introduction to Hinduism.

During the reign of Fan Hua 380-413 CE, through Indic influence, the Sanskritization of names in the South Indian Pallava style of naming, ending names with “varman,” and adoption of Hinduism flourished. Thus the king took the name Bhadravarman. Bhadravarman began inviting Brahmins to Champa (Higham 300-302). The Brahmins brought with them the sacred Vedas. Hindu Chams are given the title Balamon (Minority Rights Group 10).  Bhadravarman erected the most holy site in all of Champa, the temple complex of My Son. My Son grew to consist of seventy different temples. My Son is also an important centre for the understanding of Cham culture and the lineage of kings. In the temples, subsequent kings added stone murals and inscribed stelae over the ages (Higham 302). Bhadravarman temple was dedicated to a linga that combined Siva’s name [Isvara] with that of Bhadravarman himself, the Temple of Srisanabhadresvara. Most Balamon Cham temples were dedicated to Siva (Tingely 181). Subsequent kings worshipped the linga to seek legitimacy by making divine connection to Bhadravarman. This temple no longer stands today as it was burned to the ground in the sixth century. A later king, Sambhuvarman, built his own temple to Siva called Sambhu-Bhadresvara (Kumar 30). There is an inscription at My Son, which explains “Sambhuvarman’s glory rose like the autumn moon”. Sambhuvarman heightened his prestige by making divine connection to Siva and Bhadravarman (Higham 302).

Saivism’s popularity probably came about due to Siva’s relationship to mountains (Tingely 210). The Chams revered mountains and often placed many of their temples there. My Son was in a valley shadowed by Mount Mahaparvata and is considered particularly holy, as evidence by the seventy temples placed in My Son between the fifth and thirteenth centuries (Tingely 210). The linga is the most popular representation of Siva in Champa. However, images of Siva’s human like form have been found including one of Nataraja [King of the Dance] (Tingely 222).  Statues of Siva’s sons, Ganesa and Skanda have also been found, yet it is unsure if they were worshiped separately or as attendants to Siva (Kumar 23).

Images of Visnu and Brahman were present in Cham art but, there is no evidence of any major dedication to their worship (Tingely 224). An image of Krsna holding up Mount Govardhana has been found, which highlights Cham reverence of mountains and perhaps to Krsna (Kumar 37). The mythic episode of Ravana holding up the Kailash Mountain [Siva’s abode] has also been found, again a mountain theme (Kumar 46). While Visnu worship had little prominence some reliefs of the Ramayana have been found indicating it may have had popularity (Kumar 46).

The goddess Yang Po Nagara, of Cham Hinduism had renown nearly equally to that of Siva (Tingley 226). The temple of Po Nagar was dedicated to her worship. She is not found to have a relatable character in either Hinduism or Buddhism. Cham rituals today venerate her as “the goddess of the country, who created trees, forests, and rice paddies, and who taught the Cham to cultivate” (Tingely 226).

Cham temples were structures with one chamber, usually built with red bricks, a staple of Cham architecture. There was only one entrance, much like early Hindu temples. The base of the temple is usually square with a pyramidal roof called a kalan (Kumar 30) which parallels the sikhara of India. The kalan represents the sacred Mount Meru, the home of the gods (Kumar 30). The Cham temples design is similar to the Nagara temples of northern India.  A precise iconography system was important in Hindu temples in India. Deities inhabited certain precise points on the outside walls of temples. Specific iconography adherence was not evident in Cham architecture, but icons are present in some cases. The interiors were rather small and usually dimly lit with a candle or slivers of sunlight. Sanskrit texts call it a womb chamber [garbha grha], which held a single image. The usual image in Cham temples would be a linga mounted on a yoni (Tingely 181). The most profound difference between Indic and Cham temples is the presence of an elaborate pedestal on which the central image rests. In India it would only be placed on the stone foundation (Tingely 182). These pedestals would be square with one or two increasingly smaller squares on top of it with beautiful carved Cham and Hindu motifs around their perimeters. This pedestal may be due to the understanding of a text called the Silpa Sastras “The science of Silpa [arts and crafts].” The Silpa Sastras offered guidelines for temple design. A reference in the Sastra indicates “the importance of the seat of the god, endowing the base, or support of the god, with almost as much importance as the god itself” (Tingely 182). However, its prominence may be more likely related to indigenous beliefs reworked by Hindu tradition (Tingely 182). These pedestals have been found at major Cham religious centres, Hindu and Buddhist, such as My Son, Tra Kieu, Nha Trang, Po Nagar and Dong Duong (Tingley 182).

In 875 CE King Indravarman II erected a new dynasty in the Northern portion of Champa at Indrapura – Dong Duong. After repulsing an invasion by the Khmers, Indravarman was the first Cham to adopt Mahayana Buddhism. He constructed a monastery dedicated to the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara [Lokeshvara], which now lies in ruins. Buddhism gained prominence in Champa for a time much like it did in India. It must also be mentioned there was a blending of Saivism with Buddhist. Indravarman still honoured the linga Bhadresvara in an inscription at Dong Duong (Tingely 216). Dong Duong was the centre of Cham Buddhism. The bodhisattva Ajaya Avalokitesvara or Guanyin “Lord who looks down” was particularly revered in as he offers protection from danger (Tingely 172). Cham Buddhism is still trying to be understood as the excavations at Dong Duong continue (Tingely 187). The Dong Duong temple consisted of three court yards (Tingely 186). In the first is a monastery, the second a long pillared hallway and the third contained the main sanctuary surrounded by nine smaller buildings representing the navagraha (Tingely 186). Pairs of guardians were placed at the entrances of the courtyards. These images emphasize the intense physiognomy. These sentinels are identified as: dharmapala “Protectors of the Law” (Tingely 187).

From 1100-1200 CE there was a period of war with the Khmer of Angkor where the balance of power was constantly fluctuating (Tingley 188). Based on documented accounts of King Jaya Indravarman IV’s 1177 CE sack of Angkor, Chams weaponry included crossbows. Crossbows were a technology adopted from the Chinese and were used on horseback. The usurper king of the time was Tribhuvanadityavaraman. Khmer Jayavarman VII assumed leadership and led the resistance, but was reluctant to take the throne. In 1178 CE, on Lake Tong Sap, the Chams were defeated decisively by the Khmer. By 1203 CE they occupied parts of Champa Vijaya. In the 13th century Champa rose up again, as the Thais in the west pressured Angkor. Reliefs such as the one on the Bayon in Cambodia provide us an image of Angkorian, and in turn, the Champa army composition. The army consisted of war elephants, limited cavalry archers and infantry levies usually dressed in a loincloth with a single spear (Higham 306).

The last strong king of Champa was Po Binasuor [Che Bong Nga], who ruled from 1360-1390 CE (SarDesai 1988:33).  In Vietnamese stories he is called the Red King. Po Binasuor was able to, for one last time, unite the whole of Champa. He was nearly able to conquer Champa’s northern enemies – the Dai Viet. The Cham navy was able to sack the capital at Thang Long in 1372 CE (modern day Hanoi). These attacks continued until Dai Viet general Ho Quy Ly in 1390 CE finally halted the offensive, and Po Binasuor was shot and died in the battle (SarDesai 1988:33). Dai Viet was a puppet state of the Ming Dynasty until 1426 CE when Le Loi led the Lam Song uprising and gained Dai Viet independence. (SarDesai 1988:34) The Dai Viet looked to enlarge their territory and they turned south to Champa. This was the beginning of the slow collapse of Cham territory southward. In 1471 CE the Dai Viet captured Vijaya. (SarDesai 1988:23). With this annexation the Cham people began to immigrate to places such as Cambodia. Even though once old enemies, their cultural practices were familiar to those of the Vietnamese descendants. The Champ people preferred the Hindu Khmer to the Sino-or Confucian cultured Vietnamese (Minority Rights Group 10). By the mid-1600 CE the Dai Viet reduced the Champa Empire to the southern province of Panduranga. Here the last vestiges of Champa remained and in a sense, found new prosperity; a prosperity similar to the 16th and 17th centuries. Temples were still being erected, especially by the King Po Rome. Rome, the last king of the brick towers, created one of Champa’s largest towers, and its last (Tingely 192). Unfortunately, in 1832 CE Vietnamese Emperor Minh Mang campaigned to stamp out the remnants of Cham identity. Minh Mang ordered the destruction of the temples and villages. This is the main reason Champa is a largely unknown kingdom. There was destruction of ancient Cham physical culture. Many more Chams then fled to Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries. The Vietnamese continue to build rice paddies, dragon fruit plantations and shrimp farms over old Cham sites in addition to using the bricks for modern construction projects (Adam 7). In 2001 and 2004 human’s rights protests in Vietnam, from multiple minorities including Cham, saw mass imprisonment and even deaths (Adam 9).

However, the Cham people still survive in Southeast Asia today. The Chams are renowned for their textiles, which are hand-woven on looms (Adam 7). The exact number of Cham descendants is contested, but estimates come in around 400,000-700,000 strong (Minority Rights Group 10). The Chams are an officially recognized minority in Vietnam and Cambodia. Very few Chams can read and write in their native tongue due to government policies requiring them to use only the state language. The Cham language can only be transferred orally from generation to generation by family (Adam 8).

Cultural changes occurred as Malay Muslims migrated to Cambodia over the centuries. The interaction with Malay Muslims led to many Chams following the Islamic faith.  They are referred to as Bani Chams. Islam was present as early as 986, but its following was insignificant (Adam 6). Islam toady is the faith of the majority of Cham diaspora (Minority Rights Group 10).  However, in Vietnam Hinduism still has the majority (Minority Rights Group 10). Both Hindu and Muslim Cham worship ancestors and even some Balamon observe a Bani variation of Ramadan, Ramawan (Adam 6). Caste distinctions among Balamon Chams are not as important in Cham society as they are in India.  They are a matriarchal society. Daughters have the right to inheritance (SarDesai 23: 1989). When Chams marry the husband is chosen and co-opted into the bride’s family, which is opposite to that of Indian practices. Women are called household chiefs, yet the chief of the clan is male (SarDesai 23: 1989).  The Balamon Chams are one of the two longest remaining indigenous non-Indic Hindu People along with the people of Bali (Minority Rights Group 10).


References and Further Recommended Readings

Higham, Charles (1989) The Archaeology of Mainland Southeast Asia: from 10,000 B.C. to the fall of Angkor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

SarDesai, D.R. (1989) Southeast Asia Past and Present. Boulder: Westview Press.

SarDesai. D.R. (1988) Vietnam Trails and Tribulations of a Nation. New Delhi: Promilla and Co.

Groslier, Bernard-Philippe (1966) Indochina. Geneva: Nagel Publishers

Tingely, Nancy (2009) Arts of Vietnam: from river plains to open sea. New York: Asia Society.

Minority Rights Group (1995) Minorities in Cambodia. Colombo: International Centre for Ethnic Studies.

Phan, Hao N. (2015) “Cham Manuscripts, the Endangered Cultural Heritage from a Lost Kingdom.” Restaurator. 36:101-120. Accessed February 7, 2016. DOI: 10.1515/res-2014-0019

Bray, Adam. (2014) “The Cham: Descendants of Ancient Rulers of South China Sea Watch Maritime Dispute from Sidelines.” National Geographic. Accessed February 9, 2016.

Kumar, Bachchan. (2011) Arts and Archaeology of South-East Asia. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

Ngo, Van Doah. (2005) My Son Relics. Hanoi: The Gioi Publishers.

Ngo, Van Doah. (2012) Champa Ancient Towers: Reality & Legend. Hanoi: The Gioi Publishers.

Maspero, Georges. (2002) The Champa Kingdom: The History of an Extinct Vietnamese Culture. Banglamung: White Lotus Press.

Phuong, Tran Ky. (2011) The Cham of Vietnam: History, Society and Art. Singapore: NUS Press.


Related Topics for Further Investigation

My Son

Trau Kieu

Po Rome

Po Nagar

Dong Duong

Nha Trang



Minh Mang

Sa Huynh


Khmer Empire

Dai Viet




Lin Yi


Silpa Sastras



Po Binsuor







Yang Po Nagara



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Jon Kasperski (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.