On a hot September morning, we find ourselves in the shadow of Po Rome, one of the many Cham towers that dot Vietnam’s central coastline. The eight-meter brick tower located on a hill outside the town of Phan Rang was built in the 17th century in honor of a wise Champa king but today, it’s the epicentre of the Kate Festival (pronounced “kah-tay”), one of the most important Cham religious festivals of the year. One of Vietnam’s 54 minority groups, the seafaring ancestors of the Cham people most likely migrated from Borneo sometime during the second century AD.
It’s early yet, but bamboo mats cover almost all the space around the tower and spill onto what little grass there is. There are offerings including fruits, rice and meat which are laid carefully
Just as it looks like there cannot possibly be room for another family, someone slides over and another mat is put down.
Kate is primarily a religious ceremony in which local deities are worshipped, including a ritual changing of their godly-clothing. This happens within a small area within the tower itself, but only a select few, mainly the Brahmanist-influenced priests of the Cham people, are allowed entry.
While Kate is said to have traditionally lasted a full month, it is now usually condensed to just three days. Yesterday, the first day of Kate, we rose with the chickens to join the colorful procession of white-clad priests, Cham laymen and curious onlookers, all heading towards the local soccer stadium repurposed for the opening ceremonies, umbrellas providing meagre shade against the blazing sun. Even at this early hour, the bleachers are filled with spectators, so the crowd forms a human wall surrounding the young men and women from the villages performing traditional dances accompanied by folk music.
“Cham people live all over Vietnam, but even if we’ve been away 10, 20, 30 years, we have to come back for Kate,” says Hung, a third year agriculture student who’s returned from Saigon especially for the event. Young Cham typically leave the village for bigger cities because there are no universities nearby. After graduation, they often join other Cham adults in urban centres where work opportunities are more plentiful, meaning that mostly the very young and very old are left in the villages, putting the Cham way of life in danger of disappearing.
It’s for this reason that the Kate Festival has so much meaning, because it showcases many of the religious, cultural, linguistic and traditional elements of Cham society.
Acclaimed Cham poet Inrasara, however, is fearful that without preservation efforts, these elements may soon be gone forever. “What’s been lost the most is related to our culture and language. Language is living. Spoken language can be lost very quickly. I’m afraid that the younger generation will not treasure this part of our culture…. I know that once the doors have been opened, they cannot be closed, but while we have to accept the new, we can’t lose ourselves in the process.”
The priests at Kate are decked mainly in white, highlighted with beautifully woven scarves and detailing, with threads of red, silver and gold. Inrahani, a master Cham weaver, explains: “ The colors and patterns are used to show hierarchy’. It’s worn by our priests who talk to God. It’s worn by our mothers and fathers when they pass on. So how can it die?” she asks of the importance of this ancient art. “We still have the [Cham] towers which are historical artefacts. I also want to make sure our culture survives – our food, our arts, our way of life.
“That’s the story for so many ethnic minorities,” says Jake Orak, founder of a bag company called Ethnotek, which partners with Inrahani to include Cham textiles in some of its designs. “They’re either being pushed out or put on display. Ethnocide faces the biggest threat when there’s no support. It’s really important for us to restore demand, to bring business to these places where the people are trying to get by on agriculture or by conforming.”
Even the Kate Festival itself is under pressure to conform often re-packaged as a “Cham New Year” to better sell to tourists, obscuring the true religious and cultural nature of this meaningful festival. However, those able to participate in this peaceful, colourful event should consider themselves fortunate that they’re able to witness centuries-old traditions of one of Vietnam’s minorities.
This year, the Kate Festival will be held from October 13-15 in the small town of Huu Duc, just a few kilometres outside of the coastal city of Phan Rang.