Cham People – The Skilful Artisans
Cham minority people can be found throughout Vietnam, and their highly sought-after handicrafts are one of the many reasons they can be proud of their heritage. Their history, traditions and culture are among the richest in the world, with many techniques being passed down through countless generations. Cham people are especially famous for their unparalleled weaving skills, but they are also very accomplished pottery makers- not to mention their super-efficient, sustainable-minded building techniques! The South Central Coast region’s well-preserved ancient temples are a testament to their ancestors’ architectural prowess, and make for an awesome tourist attraction, whereas their crafting villages are full of new and vintage handmade treasures that are often available for purchase.
A Look into Cham Weave Artisans & Their Patterns’ Meaning
Woven Cham brocade has been renowned for its vibrant colors and various motifs that reflect their creators’ coastal life. From the 6th to the 20th century, these skilful Cham artisans used to grow cotton, and mulberry trees to raise silkworms, in order to ultimately produce highly aesthetically pleasing cotton and silk products for their personal use. Unlike other ethnic groups living in the North of Vietnam, who usually dye the fabric after weaving it, Cham people traditionally dye their threads in different colors before setting up their looms, and creatively combine them to make beautifully colorful sheets of brocade. They collect leaves, stem, roots, and barks from the jungle, and combine them with various other natural resources to extract different color shades. The artisans traditionally dye their threads in a strenuous process that can take weeks, until they achieve the desired color.
Nowadays, industrial development has led weavers to use threads and materials that they acquire from the market, to replace the traditional process. Even so, Cham weaves still maintain the flawless traditional beauty of their traditionally created predecessors. Their five basic colors (red, white, blue, yellow and black) are classified by warm and cold tones, which are harmoniously mixed to form a variety of patterned color combinations.
The main theme of a Cham weave’s pattern usually involves the vivid depiction of familiar images of the artisan’s daily life, including their view of the surrounding natural environment, various animals and commonly used objects. The Spirits of Brahmans religion, which are derived from Hindu mythology, are often turned into the Cham artisan’s own style patterns, such as designs featuring Garuda birds, magic peacocks, and dragons. Besides these iconic deity patterns, various other motifs are common among Cham weaves, such as designs depicting four-petal flowers, eight-petal flowers arranged in a square, corals, sea shells, zigzag lines, grid lines, and rhombic shapes.
Using only a few simple dots, along with some vertical and horizontal lines, Cham artisans are able to create an eye-catching, high-quality piece of weaving brocade, each featuring their own shapes and patterns. Five square dots and four parallelograms are enough to create the form of a flower; cross-stitch and eight-petal patterns can be used to express the image of the sun, and hook shapes can adequately imitate the anchor of a boat.
But the weavers’ imagination is not limited to simple graphics; they often push their creativity to even higher peaks, with more complicated geometric motifs, which symbolize their surroundings and their natural environment. The pattern stylization on Cham weaves greatly resembles abstract art, as the artisans utilize simple details to elicit the whole image. For example, a dog’s footprint symbolizes the dog, and a wavy pattern can express the form of a flying dragon.
The ethnic people live by cultivating crops, which is why many of the patterns reflect themes from the Cham’s agricultural life. The diamond shapes and zigzag lines represent the soil, the rice grains and the rivers.
In contrast to other minority groups, who live mainly in the highlands of Vietnam, Cham people in the Central of Vietnam live in a plain and coastal region, where the weather is dry and hot, with extremely scorching sunlight all year round. Therefore in order to survive, they have developed various highly efficient architecture styles to take advantage of the natural winds, allowing them to come in the building and balance the temperature.
Traditionally, the main material that the Cham people use in order to build houses is a mixture of clay, sand and dried straw. Bamboo and animal manure are often used for making light doors and windows, while dried coconut leaves usually cover the roof, to help keep the house’s temperature stable.
Cham houses usually have a big yard in order to dry rice grains and seafood. The main gate always faces the South, so as to catch all the cool winds coming from the ocean. Cham builders also design the house so that the kitchen is in a separate area, to avoid spreading heat and unhealthy smoke from cooking.
Traditionally, Cham people cover their floors with clay tiles, to help the house remain cool during the day. Houses are usually decorated with traditional pottery and ornaments, and sometimes the owners mark the year when the house was built above the entrance.
People who visit Cham villages will be amazed by the iconic orange temples, which reflect a unique architecture technique that has been used by local people for hundreds of years. Ancient Cham builders, from the 13th to the 17th century, invented a special glue made from plant resin, which was commonly used to stick blocks of bricks together.
Although the process of creating this special glue remains a mystery to present Cham builders, recent research has shown that indigenous people actually made the glue using cactus, which were readily available in the surrounding landscape. They soaked cactus in a big barrel overnight, along with black sugar, until they created a very sticky mixture, then they dipped the clay bricks in the mixture in order to saturate them. After that, the bricks were placed one on top of the other, dispensing the sticky substance that stuck them together permanently.
Cham temples usually have three or four towers, with a yard in the middle. The towers have a very high roof, which gets narrower as it rises. The roofs are often decorated with dragon tails, and sculptures depicting the Brahman deities, which are made from stone and clay. There are also a few old stones near the temple, where an ancient Cham description stands, as evidence of the highly developed building techniques of ancient Cham people.
Cham Pottery Makers
Cham pottery artisans are mostly women, who are able to create amazing pottery products using only their bare hands during the entire process. These craftswomen don’t need to use a turntable in order to create their products. They move around the clay paste while continuously moving their fingers, in order to gradually form the general shape. A piece of wet cloth is then used to smoothen the surface. After that, these artisans use simple tools, such as seashells, snail shells and bamboo sticks to decorate their pottery. Finally, the pottery is dried overnight in a cool shade, before being fired outdoors to become a fully cured, finished product.
Cham pottery has a distinctive yellow and black color. They are not only used as everyday items, but they are often also used for home decoration, as ornaments that feature designs inspired by Cham people’s daily lives and their spiritual beliefs.