Funeral customs of the Brahmin Cham ethnic minority

(VOVWORLD) - Welcome to VOV’s Sunday Show, our biggest feature of the week, delving into the Vietnamese cultural landscape. On today’s show, we’ll delve into the funeral customs of the Brahmin Cham ethnic group in south- central province of Ninh Thuan.

The Cham Balamon or Ba Cham funeral recapitulates the process of human birth. The first day of a person’s life until his last day is represented by the pregnancy, and the day of cremation represents the day of birth. The Ba Cham people believe that from the first day of the funeral the deceased is no longer dead. Doctor Truong Van Mon, an expert on Cham culture said: “The Ba Cham people consider the funeral tent a symbol of a woman in the process of giving birth. The dead body is the newborn child. On the second pillar of the cemetery house, there is a wooden penis and an accompanying hole, symbolizing a vagina. These represent fertility. The death of a person is thought to serve the prosperity of his or her offspring and is the beginning of a new life.”

Considering the dead body a baby waiting to be born, the Ba Cham people “feed the baby.” The feeding ritual symbolizes giving a baby water, salt, and rice. Dr. Le Duy Dai of the Vietnam Ethnology Association says that in the ritual, the Ba Cham people clap their hands to pray for a fulfilling afterlife. He said: “They always clap their hands according to the rule “twice for, once against”. A “for clap” is done by the right hand on top of the left. An “against clap” is the reverse. The same rule applies to the feeding ritual. Counter-clockwise is “for”, clockwise is “against”. The “twice for, once against” ratio represents 2 yins and 1 yang.”

Later in the show, we’ll learn more about the Kut ceremony, which is conducted a year after the cremation.

Funeral customs of the Brahmin Cham ethnic minority - ảnh 1 Ba Cham people prepare for the Kut ceremony (Photo: VOV)

After being buried for over a year, the remains will be cremated. After that, 9 pieces of the brow bone are retained inside a box called klaong, which will be used for the cremation ceremony, known as Kut ceremony. It is believed that keeping those bones helps the deceased connect with their ancestors and join them in the eternal world. The Cham have a proverb which says: “When alive, a person makes money for strangers. When he/she dies, that person must bring back their bones to their mother.”

Flawlessly smooth and rounded stones, taken from rivers and springs, play an important role in the Kut ceremony, the final process of a Cham funeral. A ceremony is held in which the stones are ritualistically removed from the river or spring. The Kut ceremony expresses the Ba Cham philosophy that people can live anywhere they want, but once dead, they must be buried in their root village near their deceased relatives, neighbors, and clans. If a clan does not have a Kut house, they will be held in ill-repute as they have no evidence of ancestry.    

The wife’s family is responsible for bringing the klaong boxes contain the bones of the deceased, to the husband’s family. All the klaong boxes, are carried on palanquins to the cemetery in order to conduct the Patrip ceremony. Only when the families in the village can gather 15 to 30 klaong boxes, will the Cham organize the Kut ceremony. It usually takes 5 to 10 years, so the Kut ceremony is considered an important ritual in the Cham community. Many people, mostly family members, participate in this ceremony.

Mr. Ba Van Ho, Head of the Ber clan in Phuoc Huu village, Ninh Thuan province, said: “In 1984, my clan conducted a Kut ceremony for three generations, with my grandmother ranking the highest. I didn’t remember much about the Kut ceremony for great-grandparents because it took place when I was little. It has been 33 years since our clan has conducted the latest Kut ceremony for 36 dead people of 5 generations: grandfathers, grandmothers, children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.”    

According to Head Monk Han Van Dau in Huu Duc village, Phuoc Huu commune, the Kut cemetery is carried out far away from the villages so the crowd has to traversea variety of terrain. Using motorcycles or cars to carry the klaong palanquins is prohibited and the villagers have to walk.

Arrived at the Kut cemetery, the klaong boxes are lined up based on familial ranking. The Kut is fenced and separated into two sections, one side is for the so-called fortunate dead, reserved for those who didn’t have any physical impairment, disease, and were not married to people outside of the Ba Cham community, while the rest is for the unfortunate having a crippled body or those dying in unfortunate circumstances.

The klaong will be baptized by dignitaries, then the name will be labeled to avoid confusion and to clarify the order from old to young.

When minor rituals are completed, the bones are once again placed carefully in the boxes to prepare for the most important ritual. At midnight, the highest ranking dignitary Po Adhia will perform this sacred ritual. Now only dignitaries and people outside the clan can participate in the ceremony. The families are not allowed to come. The ceremony takes place at night because they believe this is the time when Shiva incarnates in Po Adhia, leading the souls of the deceased back to the family, ancestors, and on to the eternal world. Head Monk Han Van Dau said: “The Kut ceremony for fortunate death lasts for 3 days and 3 nights while the ceremony for unfortunate death can only be conducted in the span of one day. A typical kut grave includes 6 stones, 1 of which are for Po Dhi, the spirit overseeing the kut. A stone for men and another one for women are placed in the same row. 2 stones for the bad death are placed in different angles with other stones. The last stone is for spirit, who guards the kut.”  

The Kut ceremony is the very last ceremony for the Ba Cham’s conception of the circle of life. It is believed that the souls of the deceased will join their ancestors after the ceremony. The Kut grave is the worshiping place for families and clans during the annual Kate festival.