Story & Photo: Tran Tan Vinh

The New Year of the Cham people is a celebration of history through festive rites and colorful costumes.

The Champa New Year, called Ka Te, is a solemn ceremony to remember heroes and ancestors and to pray for peace, favorable weather and bumper crops. Sacred rites are usually hosted in tower temples dedicated to kings. The most important rite in this festival is the Costume Procession of the local goddess Po Ina Nagar to offer costumes of the goddess to the statues of the kings. The festival takes place on the first three days of July (on the Champa calendar), or around late September and early October on the Gregorian calendar.

For the Cham people, regardless of royal standing or status, death and the afterlife must be followed by three costumes in hand (colloquially called klau kaya anguei). Costumes of a king include: robe, shirt, skirt, belt and boots. Costumes of goddesses, empresses and princesses are comprised of robe, bracelet, earrings, shirt and veil. Previously, Cham locals fully afforded royal costumes to dedicate at the Ka Te Festival. Given their sincere devotion, Chams not only purchase three costumes for the king, but possibly many more, the more the better depending on their financial means each year.

Formerly, costumes of goddesses or monarchs were offered by villagers of Champa communities on the occasion of the Ka Te Festival. These are made of quality silk and ethnic fabrics of refined colors and patterns. However, because of time and poor preservation conditions, many of the fabrics and costumes of gods and monarchs are already worn or lost. Given the obscurity of garments of gods and monarchs, they have been replaced with various types of new fabrics manufactured by modern Cham silk villages.

Most of the costumes of Cham monarchs are carefully preserved by the Raglai locals. By the dedication day of a goddess or monarch, a costume procession must be made by the Chams from the Raglai back to their villages. Raglai will join the Chams in carrying these costumes to temples in these villages and to sacred towers such as Po Klaong Garai and Po Rome. As legend has it, the people of Champa and Raglai were sisters, with Chams the elder and Raglai the younger. In the matriarchal hierarchy, the youngest daughter who inherits wealth is responsible for ancestral sacrifices, so Raglai people are supposed to preserve costumes of Champa gods and kings. Costumes of a Champa king are classified in types, placed in many rattan baskets and arranged in a palanquin covered in a colorful shroud that boasts eye-catching prints, colors and decorative patterns.

On the first day, Cham people host the Costume Procession rite of the local goddess Po Ina Nagar at her temple in Huu Duc Hamlet. Here the procession and exchanges of goddess costumes between the Chams and the Raglai take place. When costumes are taken to a village, Cham villagers keenly rush to celebrate the garments. At 6am the following morning, on July 1 (on the Champa calendar), the Costume Procession (Raok khan aw Po Yang) is brought to the tower temple. The rite is meant to open the festival. On this day of costume procession, Raglai participants fully gather and a gatekeeper dedicates offerings such as liquor, eggs, betels and areca nuts to ask for permission from the god to carry back costumes.

When the men carrying the palanquin of the king’s costumes to the tower arrive, the chief monk, shamaness and elder officials will undertake to bathe and change clothes for the king. The chief monk bathes and cleanses the king’s statue with a pot of sacred water. The king is washed and is dressed in a cap, robe, skirt, belt and a pair of boots.

The dedication of new costumes to kings, empresses and princesses was formerly hosted at the court, but is now reenacted by the Champa with folk rituals for immortalized kings in a profoundly mysterious ambience.

The Ka Te Festival is also meant to honor, enrich and preserve the unique costumes of Vietnamese ethnicities. The liveliest part of this festival can be seen in signature garments of the Cham people, from chief monks and officials to mere onlookers who also pay great attention to their appearance with precious jewelry, bright veils, shirts, scarves and shrouds that highlight the festive mood. Chief monks who perform rituals in their white garments don a grave red headscarf. Girls are graceful in their traditional costumes, scarves hung diagonally across their chests and a thin veil covering their heads. More impressive is when Cham girls perform their dedication dances with fans before the millennia-year-old temple tower to the sounds of ginang drum beats and saranai horn melodies. In this dedication dance, Cham girls wear a 3-layered Thor hala cap, which is called the betel sustainer because offerings are mainly betel leaves shaped symmetrically. The fan dance at the Ka Te Festival is equally refined and flamboyant.

The procession is a demonstration of the Cham people’s gratitude for their ancestors through the dedication of religious costumes to immortalized kings and the reenactment of the key parts in this cultural heritage of the Cham people. The Ka Te Festival is also a museum of fashion heritage, which further graces and beautifies their ancient tower temples.