Short Teaching Module: Ariya Cam Bini, a 19th century Cham Poem
Ariya Cam Bini is a 19th–century epic poem written in the Austronesian Cham language of mainland Southeast Asia. The poem comes from the area called Pāṇḍuraṅga or Nâgar Cam, a pluralistic society in terms of culture, religion, and identity. Ariya generally record elements of history, religion, and popular social practice, although this ariya has little to no historical references. The story is instead one of star-crossed lovers, one Cham (that is, following the Hindu/ animist tradition of the area), and one Bani (a blended form of Islam followed in the area). The parents and neighbors referred to in Ariya Cam Bini vehemently oppose the marriage of the two lovers. Yet, the verses remind readers that despite coming from different religious backgrounds, those who share Cham culture, the Cham language, and Cham social memory have a common bond.
Ariya Cam Bini is a 19th–century epic poem written in the Austronesian Cham language of mainland Southeast Asia. The oldest extant versions of the manuscript have been found in the contemporary Vietnamese provinces of Ninh Thuận and Bình Thuận, two coastal provinces where the foothills of the Annamite chain transition from forested jungle to desert dunes, before plunging into the South China Sea. As an Austronesian language, Cham is related to many Island Southeast Asian languages, like Balinese, Javanese, or Malay. There are also many languages related to Cham on the mainland of Southeast Asia. They include the “Chamic” languages: Churu, Jarai, Raglai, and Ede. People who speak Chamic languages tend to live mostly in Cambodia and Vietnam. Many locations in Vietnam are named using Chamic terms. For example, the famous Central Highlands city of “Pleiku,” derives its name from the Chamic language palei, meaning “village, settlement.” Both the Ia Drang Valley – which became famous during the Vietnam War (Second Indochina War) for a major battle that took place there – and the Vietnamese coastal city of Nha Trang – which has become famous most recently for snorkeling and scuba diving – derive their names from the common Chamic terms: Aia and Drang. Aia means “water,” and “drang” a location where waters cross or meet. At Ia Drang, there are two mountain streams. At Nha Trang, the bay is where salt and freshwater mix. Also, at Nha Trang, one can find the “Po Nagar Tower,” more properly known as Bimong Kalan Ppo Inâ Nâgar in Cham. The “tower” is really a temple-tower complex, dedicated to a series of incarnations of the goddess Ppo Inâ Nâgar.
Ppo Inâ Nâgar is commonly thought of as a mother goddess of Champa, a Hindu-Buddhist civilization that stretched up and down the coastline and deep into the hinterlands of what is now Vietnam, from the 2nd through the 19th century. The Champa civilization was made up of several polities, which rose and fell in prominence over time. By the early 17th century, the remaining polities were collectively called Nâgar Cam in the Cham language, stretching from approximately Phú Yên through Khánh Hòa, Ninh Thuận, Bình Thuận, and parts of Đồng Nai provinces. Historians tend to refer to this as the “Kingdom of Pāṇḍuraṅga” a term solidified by the studies of the turn of the century French scholar-colonialist Etienne Aymonier and 20th century Cham historian, Dr. Po Dharma. Whether we call this polity Pāṇḍuraṅga or Nâgar Cam, it was a pluralistic society in terms of culture, religion, and identity. We should also remember that early-modern conceptions of identity cannot be precisely mapped onto the modern and contemporary notions of “ethnicity.” What does this mean? When we see the term Cam in the title of Ariya Cam Bini it does not precisely mean “ethnic Cham” or even “Cham language speakers.” Instead, it seems to refer to a religious identity. Indeed, the term Bini refers to a religious community that existed in Pāṇḍuraṅga, spoke the Cham language, developed Cham cultural practices; becoming a religious community that is identified as the “Cham religious community” in contemporary Vietnam. The terms Cam and Bini appear quite often in early modern Cham literature, with Bini simply being a variant of Bani. They represent two paired religious communities. To simplify, we might think of one of these communities as “Hindu” and one as “Muslim.” Yet, in this historical context Cham are not “Hindu” as in the Hinduism that you might expect to find in 17th-century India. The Bini are also not “Muslim” as in the Islam that we might expect to find in the 17th-century Arabian Peninsula.
Hinduism certainly was part of an elite religious identity in the courts of the Champa polities, including Pāṇḍuraṅga. During the Tantric Age, Hinduism was combined with Buddhism, such that the two are virtually indistinguishable in some sources from Champa. Yet, there are also locations, such as the Đông Dương Monastery site of Quảng Nam province, which are clearly associated with Mahayana Buddhism, while there are also locations, such as the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mỹ Sơn, which are clearly more associated with Hinduism. Finally, there are those locations of the Champa civilization, such as the Ppo Inâ Nâgar temple-tower complex, which are associated with a local form of Hinduism, specifically rooted in the soil of Nha Trang, Khánh Hòa province. This local version of Hinduism, rooted in the soil, is known as Agama Cam or Agama Ahiér in the Cham language. Agama Cam blended ancestor veneration of spirits (muk kei) with animistic concepts (yang) and gods that might either be adopted from Hinduism or local rulers who were deified (ppo). And, what happened to the Buddhists? Although the matter is of some substantial scholarly debate, the famous Cham anthropologist, Gru Hajan (Dr. Thành Phần) has hypothesized that they converted to Islam. There is evidence to suggest that Muslims were arriving at the ports of Island and Mainland Southeast Asia by the 10th to 11th century, including from Chinese records of the region and local gravestones. Although some of this evidence has been disputed, these disputes do not change the overall scholarly consensus that Muslims began to have influence in the port-polities of Champa during the late classic era. By the early modern historical epoch, we have substantial evidence to suggest Islam was quite influential in the courts of Island Southeast Asia. Indeed, many courts were explicitly ruled by sultans, a Muslim title. Kings of Pāṇḍuraṅga also adhered to some form of Islam in the early modern period, although in Cham language sources this was usually called Agama Bani.
We cannot be precisely sure if Agama Bani was a particular school of jurisprudence within Islam by reading Cham language source material. It seems that it was a form of Islam that recognized the need to make certain strategic conciliations to its followers’ Hindu-Animist counterparts who followed Agama Cam in Pāṇḍuraṅga. This does not mean that there was no contestation between these two religious communities. Indeed, Cham language sources record that a one-hundred-year period of civil strife ended only with the reign of Ppo Romé, a magnificent uplands Churu sovereign of Pāṇḍuraṅga, who strategically managed to bring together uplands peoples with lowlands Agama Cam and Agama Bani. He did this in part through his marriage to a Bini princess of the previous monarch, which was the very reason he managed to ascend to the throne. Unfortunately, his attempts to form a complex network of marriage alliances failed when he was duped by a Vietnamese prince (Bia Ut). Nguyễn Vietnamese forces invaded Pāṇḍuraṅga, captured Ppo Romé, and reduced the power of the kingdom further. Nonetheless, Ppo Romé was deified by the religion of the Agama Cam and remained venerated as an ancestor of the Agama Bani lineages that were related to his Bini wife. Furthermore, a unified Cham-Bani (Bini) religious system was emerging with a joint luni-solar calendar, a commonly used writing system, and pluralistic recognition of holidays to avoid social conflict. This unified system became known as Awal-Ahiér with Awal (from Arabic: First) referring to the Muslim and symbolically female elements of the new cosmological system and Ahiér (from Arabic: Last) referring to the Hindu and symbolically male elements of the cosmological system. In the 19th-century, with the final violent annexation of Pāṇḍuraṅga by the first Vietnamese Nguyễn dynasty emperor, Minh Mệnh, the memory of the Pāṇḍuraṅga court culture was kept alive by an elite class of literati who wrote in Cham. Although they were forced to hide their identities for several decades, these literati continued to write in Cham language while in hiding. They produced a vibrant collection of early-modern literature, including in the ariya genre.
Ariya were composed as a form of Cham-language epic poetry in the early-modern and modern periods of Southeast Asian history. They record elements of history, religion, and popular social practice. Most likely, ariya emerged from a blend of pre-existing court poetry, especially from Hindu-Buddhist Champa traditions and the Malay hikayat, another form of court poetry, although Malay hikayat were predominantly Muslim and Hindu-Muslim in orientation. There are also six known Cham akayét, which are more clearly related to the Hindu-Muslim Malay court context. Yet, there are also sometimes manuscripts that are called ariya in existing archival collections that appear to fall between the meaning of the term ariya and akayét in Cham. An example could be the EAP698/23/30 manuscript of the British Library, digitized by Hảo Phan of Northern Illinois University, which has been coded as “Poetry of Ariya,” yet actually begins “ni akayét si panuh tuer tabiak padeng ni cam…panuec ni ppo um mârup,” meaning that the manuscript begins with a version of Akayet Um Mârup, which is an example of the akayét genre of literature, not a sample of the ariya genre of literature. Potential confusion arises from the fact that the term ariya gradually becomes a stand-in for the word “poetry” itself during the modern period, due to the popularity of the genre. The distinction is that akayét are early-modern pieces, either prose or poetry, generally 15th through 18th century in origin. However, ariya tend to originate in the 18th through 20th century, including the one in translation below.
Ariya Cam Bini
Ariya Cam Bini is one of the few ariya that has little to no historical references in the poem. It is possible to deduce from the language of the poem and from the study of extant versions of the manuscript that its origins likely lie in the 19th century. The story, however, is one of star-crossed lovers, one Cham, and one Bani. As it happens: tensions between Cham and Bani communities were not ultimately resolved by the Awal-Ahiér religious system that was introduced in the 17th century and these communities continue to live in mostly distinct settlements (palei) up through the present, in part to ease the conditions of dietary taboos. One might find swine raised in a settlement or town affiliated with Agama Cam/Ahiér, but one would be much less likely to even find pork products in communities associated with the Awal/Bani, even though these settlements are not purely defined by one religious community or another. Additionally, although it is somewhat common to find mixed marriages of Awal and Ahiér today, the popular historical memory records that this was uncommon, even forbidden in the past.
The parents and neighbors referred to in Ariya Cam Bini vehemently oppose the marriage of the two lovers and the daughter is beaten viciously in the poem. The references to the funeral pyre and the Inâ Gârai, a “mother naga-dragon” of Cham culture indicate that the burial is one in accordance with the Agama Cam religion, since the Bani/Bini would bury their dead. I have only offered the first several couplets (1-29) in this translation, yet we get the gist of the social context straight from the outset. I left the term “Yang” in the Cham language, since it could be used to refer to Allah, if one was Bani, to Hindu gods, if one was Cham Ahiér, or to animistic gods of the elements as well. The poem gives us a glimpse into the cultures of Cham language literati in the 19th century. We see a remembrance of past inter-communal strife yet contained within the lines of the poem is also a lament, “One side is Cham, and the other, Bani…Yet, we are not usually wandering, separately, as boats on the water.” The lament reminds the listeners that despite coming from different religious backgrounds, they are unified in their understanding of Cham cultures, the Cham language, and Cham social memory, creating a common notion of the historical past informed by literature.
This source is part of the Ariya Cam Bini teaching module.
Calendar from Cham manuscript, early 20th century
An image of the Cham calendar from an early 20th century Cham manuscript. The column on the left and top row indicate measurements of months of the calendar drawn from the Islamic lunar calendar. Numerals written in Cham script in the middle are symbolic of the Cham Hindu solar calendar. The combination of the lunar-awal and solar-ahiér calendars is intended to promote social harmony and avoid the tensions alluded to in the poem Ariya Bini Cam. The origins of the calendar are said to be in the 17th century reign of an upland ruler of Cham communities, Ppo Romé. To this day, the calendar is used to decide on the appropriate times for weddings, funerals, and high holidays, so that the resources of the Cham community are not overly strained by having such occasions overlap with one another.
This source is part of the Ariya Cam Bini teaching module.
Nakamura, Rie. 2020. A Journey of Ethnicity: In Search of the Cham of Vietnam. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Noseworthy, William. 2013. “Reviving Traditions and Creating Futures,” in The IIAS Newsletter 64: 12 – 13.
Noseworthy, William & Quảng Văn Sơn. 2014. “Ramâwan: 2013,” in The IIAS Newsletter 67: 12 – 13.
Taylor, Philipp. 2007. Cham Muslims of the Mekong Delta. Singapore: NUS.
Taylor, Keith. 2013. A History of the Vietnamese. Cambridge: Cambridge.
William Noseworthy is a Visiting Fellow at the George McT. Kahin Center for Advanced Research on Southeast Asia at Cornell University. He has written extensively on the history, religions, and culture of Cham communities in Southeast Asia, as well as, more broadly, on the history of Vietnam and Cambodia.