Historically and culturally, the Cham are probably the most important minority group in Vietnam. Descendants of the Champa kingdom that lasted from the 2nd to the 17th century AD, the Cham are the largest group of Hindu and Muslim people living in Vietnam. These people possess a rich culture that can still be appreciated today through architecture, arts, festivals and literature. Although the Champa kingdom was eliminated by the Viet in 1720, Cham people managed to stay together in large communities where their traditions and culture are well preserved. There are about 146,000 Cham living in Vietnam today, with the largest community located in Ninh Thuan (57,000), a province in central Vietnam. Other important Cham communities are located in Binh Thuan, Phu Yen, An Giang, Tay Ninh, and Ho Chi Minh City. The majority of Cham people living in central Vietnam practise Hinduism while those located in the Mekong Delta are Muslim.
The Cham’s writing system is mainly based on Sanskrit, with the majority of Cham manuscripts still in existence written in the akhar thrar script. Writings were previously inscribed on palm-leaves, but in more recent times they are recorded on paper. Cham manuscripts contain rich information about Cham customs, religious practice, literature and daily activities of Cham people. Many are records of officials and families in the communities. Manuscripts still in existence are mainly from 50 to 150 years old.
Cham manuscripts unfortunately have not been well preserved. Some have been collected by local governmental institutions and many more still exist in Cham communities. In recent years, the Center for Cham Studies and the Cham Language Studies Committee Library in Ninh Thuan have collected some manuscripts. However, due to poor preservation conditions and the extremely unfavourable climate of the area, manuscripts kept in these two centres are quickly deteriorating. In many cases, writings are recorded on cement-bag paper – as its name suggests, this paper is made from pieces cut out of cement packages used in building construction and does not last very long.
Cham manuscripts privately held by families in the communities are also disappearing. Many manuscripts are simply ruined over time by the hot and humid climate. Most young Cham people today are not able to read Cham scripts and thus pay little attention to the preservation of manuscripts in their families. Furthermore, some Cham people believe that it is bad luck to keep ‘deserted books’ (Akhar bhaw) in the home and hence, books not cared for or read frequently will eventually be discarded in rivers.
Manuscripts of the Muslim Cham in the Mekong Delta, specifically in the two provinces of An Giang and Tay Ninh, have not yet been surveyed.
Information regarding the Cham manuscripts currently held at the two archives in Ninh Thuan is sketchy, as they have not yet been catalogued. Information on the manuscripts held at the Cham Art Museum in Danang is not publicly available. The number of manuscripts available in the communities can be estimated in the thousands.
The first step to preserve the Cham manuscripts is to conduct a field survey in Vietnam. This project aims to achieve the three following goals:
First, to assess the specific holdings and preservation conditions of Cham manuscripts held at the Center for Cham Studies and the Cham Language Studies Committee Library in Ninh Thuan, and possibly at the Cham Art Museum in Danang.
Second, to survey the availability and preservation conditions of Cham manuscripts existing in six Cham communities located in the provinces of Ninh Thuan, Binh Thuan, Phu Yen, Ho Chi Minh City, Tay Ninh and An Giang.
Third, to work with local scholars and government officials on a plan to digitise Cham manuscripts in Vietnam, including those held at the two archives in Ninh Thuan and the museum in Danang.
A written report and digital samples of Cham manuscripts will be submitted as the results from this project.