The Karen village is made up of various villages located between Chiang Mai and the Golden Triangle. The name long neck is derived from the women in the locality as they are preserved to have long necks. The perception, however, is not correct as the women wearing the brass coils around their necks have a normal size neck only that the coils present an illusion of a longer neck. The weight of the brass ring pushes down the upper ribs together with the collar bone in such a manner that the collar bone appears to be part of the neck hence creating the illusion entirely. The women who wear the brass coils/rings belong to a Karen sub-group known as the Padaung. The tribe is also known as the Kayan or as they like to call themselves “Lae Kur.” The other sub-groups however never wear the rings and have never practiced the custom. The custom is estimated to date back as 1000 years ago during the eleventh century (Waddington).
The process of coiling the brass around a woman’s neck begins at an early age of five years when one is still young, and her bones are small and very flexible. The process is coordinated by an elder woman from the tribe and who initiates the process of putting the coil. As the girl grows and her neck is visible additional coils are added, some of the girls look forward to this as it is an indication of growth and maturity to them. For the adults, a full set of the brass coils can be up to 25 loops. The coils are made in such a way that the one closer to the shoulders are wide and are wrapped with a smaller one around it at ninety degrees and the remaining neck rings coil up to the base of the earlobe (Waddington). Most women find wearing the coil cumbersome in the first years, but after wearing for more than a decade, the brass rings and the long-neck look to become more of an integral part of their body.
Various theories have been presented on the origin of the custom and the purpose of having the brass coil around a woman’s neck. One proposition that has been suggested in the past is that the brass coil was used as an identifier for a lady from the Padaung tribe. The identifier was meant for men from other tribes to know that they cannot marry the woman. Accompanied by a white gown a woman wearing the brass coil would indicate their availability for marriage to the men from her tribe. Another theory is that the brass ring was worn by women to make them look unattractive. The proposition was developed in reference to the slave trade at the time when the slave trade was practiced in the region. The traders would find the women in brass coils unattractive and would not bother hunting them down for sale. Another theory that contradicts that of slave trade suggests that the women would wear the brass coils as they were a symbol of wealth and beauty. The women would wear the coil to attract the men from Padaung tribe and increase their chances of attracting a better husband ("Neck Elongating Still Practiced Within This Indigenous Tribe").
Another theory is derived from the mythology of Mother Dragon. Women in the Padaung tribe follow the traditions of their mother which is believed to originate from the legend. Wearing the brass coil is considered to be a tradition from the Mother Dragon where women wear it to resemble the dragon. The tribe believes that it originated from the Mother Drago as the legend of the Kayan people dictates (Keng). The last of these theories and one that the women in today’s society believe in is that which suggests that the coil was used to protect them from tiger bites (Mansfield). The theory can be supported by the tactics a tiger uses when hunting. When attacking prey, the tiger ambushes the target by leaping out and seizing the neck of the victim by plunging the teeth in it. The definite purpose of the brass coil cannot be pinpointed, but in today’s society, it is an identifier of the woman of the Kayan tribe. It is also a symbol and a signature tribal marking that will continue identify the woman from this tribe.
“People who live on the hilltops”
In their language, the Kayans refer to themselves as the people who live on the hilltops. They are also known as “Chao Khao” where Chao means people and Khao mean mountain in Thai. They live in the highlands and border regions of Burma, China, Laos and Thailand with their distinctive religion, culture, language, lifestyle, art, and even dressing code. Various Researchers have suggested in the past that the group migrated from the southern parts of China, penetrated through Laos, Vietnam, and Burma then stopped in Thailand. Rajani, according to Kaewnuch (2010) argues that the Karen tribes moved to Thailand primarily because they were nomadic in nature and moved from one place to another on a cycle that presented in seven years. They preferred the cycle to settling down in one locality because of their farming method is known as “slash and burn.” The movement was mainly influenced by political atmosphere, economic problems and many other social pressures in their native home. The hilltop society has been able to maintain its ancestral cultural aspects trough beliefs, rituals, architecture, and their dressing.
As of 2008, the population of the Karen community was approximately 438,450 being the highest among the nine hill tribes. The number of Kayan members within the Karen tribe is about 40,000 people (Dao). The Padaung sub-group is believed to have originated from the Kaya state Burma in the mid to late nineteen hundred (the 1900s) making the refugees of political instability to Thailand. The sub-group belongs to a Karen sub-group known as the Karenni, one that is still fighting for independence in Burma. The Padaung sub-group in their native land occupied the central Burma even before the Burmese arrived originating from the north. The Padaung people with the ancient Mon farmed in the Salween and the Irrawaddy valleys where they built their different civilization before they were disrupted by the arrival of the Burmese (Dao).
It is believed that the Karen tribe preferred to stay in isolation in the past, where they lived at mid-levels approximately between 500 and 1800 meters above the sea level. The preference, however, seems to have changed over the past few decades where they have been seen to settle at lower altitudes of about 500 meters above the sea level. The reason behind this preference would be exposure to tourists considering that the Thailand government markets them as a tourism product especially the long neck Karen. The choice of location makes it easy for visitors to travel to their villages and at the same time opens new opportunities for development for the entire community. It also allows the expansion of modern facilities to reach the community (Kaewnuch 82). Due to their prior understanding of farming, the Karen community is familiar with the rotation method of farming which is helpful in maintaining the fertility of the soil which they rely on as they are farmers.
Economic Activities of the Karen tribe
The tribe’s primary economic activity is farming where they practice as mentioned earlier “slash and burn” agriculture. The slash and burn involve clearing trees and vegetation on the land in question then burning the undergrowth. The process of burning the plant is efficient as it adds minerals to the soil that are helpful in the growth of crops but at the same time, they have a negative aspect. The downside is that in the process of burning the vegetation, lots of minerals are lost which are essential in growing crops and also in holding the soil together. The result of this is soil erosion which on the other hand renders the soil infertile leading to the lands being productive just for a short while. Their main crop is rice, but they also plant other farm products in different seasons. They include; chili, eggplant, corn, pumpkin, and other vegetables. The Karen community does not practice cash crop farming but rather subsistence agriculture where they produce farm products meant for domestic consumption only. The community also rears livestock commonly chicken, pigs, and cattle or elephants for the wealthy people in the tribe for ceremonial purposes (Kaewnuch 83).
Due to the problems that are associated with farming like land infertility, the occupation of most of the members of the tribe is changing. Many individuals plant vegetables to sell in the large cities of Thailand due to the need to increase income. Other than this, more and more people have migrated to the towns of Thailand in search of employment. Most of the people migrating to the major cities take positions as waiters, waitresses, traditional performance and many other occupations. The change has been influenced by tourism which has taken up most of the community’s time. In the past, the society used to raise elephants, cows, and buffalos for agricultural and ceremonial purposes but this has changed as they are reared for the purpose of tourism. For example, the elephants are used for tours in the local villages hence attracting more tourists. Other hospitality oriented occupations include weaving. The women of this tribe have mastered the art of weaving where most of them are open to teaching the tourists who visit them at a fee. Men on the other hand instead of hunting like it used to be in the past offer demonstration on how to make Karen tribe tea and coffee for the tourists who visit the village (Kaewnuch 84).
They do this hoping that the visitors would be pleased and would purchase the packets of Karen tea and coffee beans. Tourism has sparked a new light in the village as owners of shops in the major cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai come to Karen villages to purchase touristic products like clothes and handmade products which are in turn sold to tourist and even the people in these cities. The agricultural aspect of the village has decreased as many villagers rent places where they sell products like food, handicrafts, clothes, jewelry and even staging performances for tourists in famous shopping centers like Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai. Men also craft unique tobacco pipes, make musical instruments and even animal bells which earn them income (Kaewnuch 84).
The villages and homes of the Karen community
The Karen tribe constructs their houses using bamboo raised on stilts. The houses are made of bamboo stilts on the floor and walls and roofed with grass or thatch. The houses have a partially covered, spacious balcony which is used for various purposes depending on the owner. Most people use the space for cooking, weaving, preparing food, a place to chat with friends and even a space to accommodate overnight guests. The house can be one room or partitioned to be two where one room is used as a sleeping compartment and the other room as a living room. The living room is also where the fireplace is located surrounded by the dishes and other cooking utensils. Over the fire, there is always a suspended woven bamboo tray which is used for drying and storing items. The fire in is used for various purposes and the unique is that it is employed in the prevention of mosquitoes which gives the whole family protection from malaria infection. The livestock lives under the bamboo house, but they may stay under the same roof with the members of the family (Kaewnuch 82).
In the past, the mother would train her daughter on being a housewife where training would be on duties that she was supposed to perform when she becomes a wife. The duties include cooking, fetching water, babysitting, carrying vegetables and wood. Additionally, the girls were supposed to learn how to mortar rice, yarn spinning, weaving and many other duties. A boy, on the other hand, would learn farm, participate in ceremonies, raise animals, carpentry, blacksmith and even hunt all this with his father or with an elder brother. The traditional life of the Karen people has however taken a new turn, especially with the younger generation. Children attend the school where they receive the education just like the Thailand children (Kaewnuch 83). Other than this, more individuals from the Karen community are seen in cities like Chiang Mai selling their handmade crafts while others are working in the hospitality industry holding various positions from restaurants to tour guiding a private individuals or freelancers.
The nuclear family is the smallest social unit in the Karen tribe. The Karen household is made up of a husband, wife, and the unmarried children; however, a young couple may stay at the wife’s home for the first three years of their marriage before they can build their home. When the decision-making time comes in the family, the husband and wife are equal parties. Therefore they consult each other. The husband, however, plays a stronger role in the public. A village is considered to be the largest social unit by the Karen tribe where the headman controls it. The headman is seen as the community political leader and is recognized by the government of northern Thailand. The Karen tribe does not recognize the headman as their leader, and their respects are to their elders and the ancestors. The position, therefore, conflicts with the Thai government and not most people like holding the position of a headman as it might be difficult to carry out duties requested by the Thai authority and at the same time remain a good Karen (Kaewnuch 85-86). The Karen community exercises very high levels of democracy where everyone is at liberty to participate in the decision making; however, it is men who talk. The role a headman plays has changed over the past few years as he not only delivers the issues raised by the Karen community to the government but he also alias with the government where he introduces the village to high standards of living.
Traditionally, unmarried girls used to wear a white V-necked blouse and a plain black skirt while married women would put on skirts and blouses in bold colors like blue and red. The dressing code would help one differentiate the various sub-groups as people from the same sub-group would tend to have a similar preference, therefore, patterns that would look alike. The Pwo Karen sub-group would tend to wear more colorful clothes than any other group within Karen tribe. The Kayan, on the other hand, were unique as they wore brass coils around their neck, arms to the length of the elbows and the legs from the ankle to the knees. A huge number of individuals from the Karen community have changed their dressing code as they are wearing jeans, except the Kayan women who maintain on wearing the coils up to date. The Karen women also carry shoulder bags made of cotton. The dressing code for the Karen community would have disappeared due to the increased contact with the external world, but due to tourism they have been reserved and can be seen in various tourist and traditional markets in Bangkok and other major cities (Kaewnuch 85).
The traditional meal for a Karen just like most of the rest of Asia is based on rice, spices, and eggs. The main ingredients of the meal are based on spice and seasoning; therefore, they have an adamant smell. The favorite dish for a Karen is known as the Talapaw whose ingredients are crushed rice, green beans, fish sauce, hot pepper and spices. They do not eat their domestic animals like monkeys, cat and dogs unlike other groups of people in Asia like India and some parts of China. Other foods include chicken, fish, and pork while fruits include bananas, papayas, mangos, longan, and lychee. Exposure to the outside world has led to some changes in the way the Karen community eats. Some of the changes include eating using spoons instead of hands, drinking using cups rather than banana leaves or bamboo tubes and cooking using gas stoves instead of traditional fire. The community is more open to new foods such as "pork on hot crater" and Chinese fondue. Although various things have changed, members of the Karen tribe remain the same when it comes to food preference as they like spicy foods (Kaewnuch 84).
Custom, Beliefs and moral code of the Karen tribe
The Karen group has three important rituals that take place every year, and they include the New Year which takes place in February, marriage and Eating the New Rice ceremony. The tribe refers the New Year ceremony as “Nee Saw Coe” and which takes place every year and is crucial to the community. The tribe believes that when they attend the ceremony, the coming year will have better things in store for them. The ceremony happens at the end of the harvest season, and it usually starts at the eve of the New Year. The high priest (also known as “He Ko”), conducts the ceremony by gathering all family leaders and are supposed to be men. Each family leader is expected to present a bottle of alcohol to the priest. The priest then takes the bottle from the leader who arrive first takes a sip then passes it to everyone in the ceremony. The remaining content of the alcohol is given back to the priest who then pours the content while reciting a prayer asking for a blessing for the owner of the bottle and the family. The ritual takes place for every bottle presented, therefore; it may end up taking the whole night. In the morning everyone is supposed to gather around the traditional food stand full or four or more small dishes (Kan Tok). The children are given a white rope by their elders where they are to wrap it around their wrist. The rope is believed to represent all good things and that it will prevent any bad happenings for the children. The marriage ritual takes place from April to May. The Eating the New Rice ceremony takes place in August and shows the importance of survival (Kaewnuch 86-87).
Originally all Karen people were Animists before the arrival of either Christianity or Buddhism. Most of them of them now Animists and Buddhists while 20% of the population being Christians. The He Ko is the most important person in the Karen Traditional setup for the Animists. The priest inherits the position from his father, who inherited from his father therefore following a lineage. The followers of the Animistic beliefs consult the priest at all times for advice from the gods. The priest then determines the will of the spirits by casting lots while consulting divining paraphernalia like bones from chickens and pigs, bamboo, wood, rice seed or ashes from a ritual fire (Kaewnuch 87).
A family is an important aspect of the people from the Karen tribe; therefore their morals revolve around the family. The Karen people believe that unmarried couple should not touch each other not unless they intend to get married to one another. Premature sexual relations are not allowed and are considered immoral hence; anyone found to have violated the code is forced to marry in isolation and no young people are allowed to attend the wedding. The Karen people do not condone divorce after marriage hence the community considers adultery a major taboo (Kaewnuch 87).
Like any other community, the Karen people have myths and misconceptions that they believe. Among these beliefs is that a woman is not supposed to eat directly from the pot. The woman is also not expected to step across a broom since they believe that this may cause the woman to have difficulties in giving birth. Another myth is that pushing a child with a broom may render them unhealthy or even unintelligent, therefore it is not allowed. Finally, a child is not supposed to be given the head of a chicken or the legs as they will not listen to what the parents tell then and the may end up becoming naughty (Kaewnuch 87-88).
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