Story: Nguyen Vu Hai
Photos: Le Bich

In the spiritual perspective of the Cham people, there are so many deities that it’s hard to identify their origins, which could lie in Hinduism or Islam, or hail from Malaysia or Indonesia. These deities govern a variety of agrarian rituals, lifespan ceremonies and clan rites. The same also applies to the material life of the Cham. Some items cannot be linked to any religion. Sometimes, they are just mundane belongings in the context of a deity-dominated life, which, over time, are deified as a sacred medium. Even their owners – the Cham people – are unsure of their meanings. An example is the kanin.

Kanin are used in lifespan and clan rituals, such as funerals, weddings and rija rites. A kanin is a cloth sheet painted with images depicting the ancient world view of the Cham. Kanin is spelled k’nin in the Cham language. Once translated into Vietnamese, each Cham person gives it a different name: sheet, curtain, drape, etc.

According to researchers, it is impossible to find a precise translation in the Vietnamese language, because a kanin is employed and assigned to different roles at different times. In a wedding of Cham Beni followers and on the first memorial day for the departed in Cham Brahamana communities, a kanin is used as a backdrop. The curtain is placed behind the acar shaman who serves as the host. A curtain is also placed behind a tray of offerings as a screen, as when a basaid shaman performs the first memorial day rites.

In funerals, a kanin is meant to form a partition between spaces. When performing interment rituals on the first day, a kanin is set at the edge of the funeral house, totally dividing the ritual and medium space from the outside world. But when the feeding ceremony and ensuing rituals take place, the kanin is moved to the center. Behind the kanin lies a separate world, where the flesh and the soul of the departed dwell. Before a kanin, mortals practice their rites and lament. All rituals are an interaction between the inside and outside life, as olifant tunes wail from behind the kanin, and upbeat drum beats resonate before the kanin. The kanin is now a screen between the two worlds.

In the past, the finest kanin sheets were treasures that only wealthy families could afford to own. Assigned as a determinant of a sacred realm, ancient kanin depict the Chams’ deep-seated worldview of the mundane world and heaven. These two worlds are arranged in a top-down hierarchy, and in two stark social classes. In the middle stands the Dam King, ruler of all sources of water as the veins of life for agrarian settlers. Heaven features dragons, phoenixes, heng birds and deities, etc. In the mundane world, a clan shamaness is shown practicing her rija prong rite with a dance on the swing to transcend to heaven. Strata in the mundane world are classified from aristocracy and the wealthy to a paranung drummer, a saranai horn blower, a gi nang drummer, etc. At the bottom are common pilgrims.

Mr. Chau Van Huynh, Deputy Head of the Research and Collection Office of the Cham Cultural Research Center in Ninh Thuan, explained: “On a kanin, the humans, animals and celestial objects are painted like a fantasy of life, which is itself a miniature world. Each clan will prepare their own kanin, and in case they lack a kanin, they must borrow one from other clans. It is a must-have to dedicate to the lofty realm. A sacrifice without a kanin is a torture to your soul, as if you fail to fulfill your filial piety to your parents.”

Nowadays, kanin sheets have undergone changes in their contents, which mirror the evolving lifestyle of Cham communities. Kanin are still painted, but not in the old fashion. In Lac Tri Village, Binh Thuan, a family produces oil paintings depicting Cham landscapes and lifestyles. They have painted three kanin curtains for three different shamans, one for a Brahmana mandarin, the other for a Beni mandarin and another for a clan shamaness. In other localities such as Hieu Le Village, Ninh Thuan, Cham people use new kanin sheets produced in the old fashion with rustic patterns by folk artisans. There are still characters that define an ancient kanin sheet, but the artisan has added the 12 zodiac animals, characters from folk tales and sometimes even omkar charms. All of these characters are turned topsy-turvy, in a reverse order of the hierarchy of an ancient kanin sheet. This chaos is still the perspective of the Cham, showing a new view of when their spiritual life has faded into obscurity and subliminal concepts are vaguely and confusingly understood. However, the Dam King is still seated in the center and the clan shamaness who performs the rija rite still practices her transcendent procedures lower down.
Despite changes in the perspective and a waning faith in deities, these characters still exist as an anchor for the deep-rooted spiritual life of the Cham people.