Champa along the Maritime Silk Road - backstrap weaving

Loom Design/Loomates/Champa   >> | Vietnam 

In the last days I saw a video recording of the second day of the IASSRT Symposium 2022 with a presentation of John K. M. Ang about Cham Textiles on the Maritime Silk Road showing some great pieces of red coloured ikat works from Cambodia/Vietnam in the 17th and 18th century. By the power of this colour work let's return to the Kingdom of Champa:


As John mentions, the Cham people are muslims to that time. Further on he wonders, that one of the shown silkworks in red shows a Naga-motif: Muslim weaving a hinduistic/buddhistic Naga? On top John informs us about Cham people, that have migrated from Champa in nowadays Vietnam to some small islands between Malaysia and Borneo island.


I'll use this situation to lay back into the strap and remind us some deeper informations. Let's enjoy the praise in the shadow and saddle our Cham loom: Yes, the Cham people are Muslim   ....and no, some remain their hinduistic belief. (>> Bacam?!) Remind, that still now this Bacam society in Vietnam is the second (of the two only) non-indian Hindu-society outside India - Number one is Bali!


From 2nd century on, the Cham people became Hindu by the influence of neighbouring Cambodia. Other sources mention, the pre-Cham people became Hindu by early trading contacts to Northeast India. Up to the 17th century the Royal yard of Champa remained Hindu, but trading and inner-political circumstances led to a religious change, because the majority of Cham people converted already to Muslim belief. First, traders of the Cham people started this change to Muslim religion already in the 10th century to succeed in trading operations!


Not just Naga motifs on textiles, but the great red brick door gate-temples in Central Vietnam witness this still lasting Hinduistic period of the Cham people, even the empire has disappeared. Anyway, the converted Cham people are keeping several traditions and beliefs of older days.


So, we shouldn't wonder about Nagas on red Cham textiles, and muslim inscription on Cham textiles inform about this historical change. To the time of this textile the Royal Yard of Champa had just converted to Muslim belief. The textile with its dubios Nagas may be woven by one of the Bacam, remaining Hindu.


And we shouldn't ignore the importance of the message of these boats on one of the shown Cham ikats. Boats, that we can find quiet often even on some temples on Java. These boats are related to the Cham people and their importance in not just their own history of Champa Kingdom, but on a much greater level for other realms in cooperation; i.e. Srivijaya, Majapahit. Already this two terms cover a great time frame of the influence of Cham people on the Maritime Silk Road, from 16th century back to the 7th century. 


While the Srivijaya-period the border to Siam was located about a 100 km north of Surat Thani in Thailand, where the peninsula from east to the west measures about 60 km.  Cham people used this land route from Surat to Ranong, shipping first from Ha Tien to Surat Thani area, to ship later on to the Bay of Bengal.


Next to textiles and looms we may also follow the fragrance of the durian to trace the track of the Cham people. It seems, Cham have reached the Bay of Bengal at least about 500 CE. Some other sources argue, they reached this Northeastern region of the Indian subcontinent already about 500 BCE, mentioning records of cloves and nutmeg in Roman and Egyptian empire (3rd century BCE). Cloves and nutmeg come from the Moluccans, traded on Java, exported to India by Cham people.


Phrases like "the immense impact of Indian cotton weaving including a reed comb onto the traditional weaving techniques in Southeast Asia led to the vanishing of backstrap cultures" goes hand in hand with the image of a "Greater India", what means, it sounds like an brutal invasion of India onto the whole Southeast Asian area - an era of Indian colonisation! But it's somehow the other way round! It was the interest of the Austronesians to textiles from India, that flooded the inner market including the later change of weaving skills.


But even this trade wasn't dominated by Indians, it was invoked by the Cham people in cooperation with Malaysian emperors and Austro-asiatic migrants in the Bengal area. So, at the end we find out, that this trade from Bengal area to Nusantara (Java) is initialised by members of Austroasiatic and Austronesian  groups. Shortly after their arrival in the Bengal-area these Austroasiatic tribes had assimilated with the Indian culture, what led already to immense influence of the migrants onto Indian culture. In the later cooperation with the Cham people a cultural re-flowering of Indian legends were initialised; Suvarnabhumi (re-)born! 


It seems the durian, that originates from Borneo and Sumatra, was introduced by Cham people to NE-India as a noble gift, what was lifted onto the stage of legendary Jambudvipa in a new version. Up to this moment the durian wasn't that much cultivated. Its wild versions are red, pinkish or even purple. By cultivation they became this "golden pillow" (green-brown skin with yellish meat), that Thailand mentions by the expression "Mpnthong". ("Musang King" is the Malaysian pendant!) This cultivation experiment of durian has happened first time in this Northeastern area of the Indian subcontinent. All over India durian isn't known, just in the Northeast! Some durian trees in Sri Lanka are reported, and some in Madagascar - but none of the locals seem to get friend with their fruits! This cultivated durian fruits of the "Seven Sisters" is what Sukhothai (13th-15th century) got in contact with by Northeast-India and builds the base of the successful worldwide export market of durians from Thailand nowadays. 


Now let's take a look onto the Champa loom, we use to trace back the movement of Cham people on the Maritime Silk Road. (Watch the video on this page!) Already the first look tells us, that this backstrap loom relates to the typical kind of weaving stations you find in Indonesia, spreading from Java to Sumatra, Bali and Lombok. Same as this Indonesian weaving stations it includes a batten rest tables, you won't find with other backstrap looms. But it doesn't include this typical Indonesian yoke. The Champa station loom uses a circular warp, while most Indonesian weaving stations have changed their original circular warp with a flat version rolled up on a warp board for the use of reed comb (Palembang, Javanese, Sundanese, Balinese, Lombok). Just the Banjuwangi station loom in East-Java has kept the original circular warp.


This station loom-type of Champa tells us their story in fragments: The Cham people originate once in Borneo and are part of Sundanese people. After a period of struggle in the Dong Son-era Sundanese people left Borneo, most of them to Java, while some target the Mekhong Delta for future enterprises. That happened around 0 CE. After settling along the Mekhong up to Cambodia they started to establish the Kingdom of Champa from 3rd century on in nowadays Central Vietnam. It's told, that this group of sailors had no cultural loom to this day, but needed one for national insignia and traditional identity. Therefor I guess, this Champa station loom is the "royal version". Next to it, we find a plain backstrap loom of the stake-type, used by the Rade people, a subgroup of Cham people in Vietnam. The station loom of Champa shows us the relation of the Cham people not just to Borneo, but the whole of Indonesia. The had strong relations to the Aceh region in North Sumatra, who speak a similar Austronesian-chamic language.


The Cham are not just A part of Sundanese people, but the sailor-"cast" of Sunda. Sundanese people belong to the Malayo-Polynesian group of Austronesians (one of four major language groups), who are famous for their sailing skills. The term Malayo-Polynesian came up a century ago by finding out, that several terms of Malaysian and Polynesian language are similar, if not equal. That led to further scientifical terms like "Austronesian" and "Austroasiatic". In general we can say, all people on SEA mainland are Austroasiatic, while all people on the islands are Austronesian. But Cham people are Austronesians on the mainland! First time I realised the connection in the type of station looms between Indonesia and Champa, I thought this may be a proof, that some of the migration from mainland onto the Indonesian islands may have started from Southern Vietnam to Borneo until historical records showed me the opposite. But the relation in between got clear just by its gestalt and supply. 


The Malayo-Polynesian went first targeting the Polynesian world, by this excursion reaching enormous skills in sailing. After this first period they target westwards, building up a trading network with Borneo as a center. Later they changed to the Mekhong Delta, always in cooperation with Malaysian emperors and traders. So Cham people in Indonesia is just "a return home"! Cham people are the makers of Srivijaya, Majapahit, Nusantara and even Suvarnabhumi! So there is no Indonesia or "unity in diversity" without the immense progress of Cham people.


We should know ,how to differ between Suvarnabhumi, Suvarnadvipa, Nusantara and Champa, but in general in India the term Suvarnabhumi is almost equal to Champa, what shows some knowledge about, who were the runner of this "golden enterprise" of a Greater India. Suvarnabhumi in present mind may have mutated to an airport with its 8 giant yak(sha)s in the entree hall, but the loom of the Cham enables us to reach Champa without an stop-over in Kunthep, but keeping the yakshas in heart, mind and loom!


In this period Borneo became THE southern island ("Austro-nesia") of Sundanese people.



As we sum up all these datas we'll reach the point, that Cham people have been already great players on the Maritime Silk Road since its very beginning; and not just in their region. They must have been THE great players to connect the Indian market and therewith the rest of the way to Middle East with ISEA and East Asia. The time frame of their progress is much wider than the 18th century, what's already close to the fall of Champa. If we believe the Roman records on cloves, they have been in the game for about 2.000 years! By their support Indian traders found quick solutions for alternative routes, in times when overland routes collapsed. Chinese, Indian and other traders were enabled to pass the sea of Southeast Asia without damage by their experienced support. Later on even straight trade by sea between India and China was enabled.


   For further readings recommended:


Urs Ramseyer: 

Indonesia - The Taste of Paradise

2.000 years of Maritime Far Distance Trade and Cultural Exchange in Nusantara. - http://ursramseyer.blogspot.com/2015/04/indonesia-taste-of-paradise-1-2000.html



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