By Amrita Kundu
If pictures could depict a country, the long-necked women that wear brass coils around their necks would be a unique representation of Myanmar. These one-of-its-kind women belong to the Kayah Ethnic Group, one of the eight major ethnic groups of Myanmar. They live in a small state in Eastern Myanmar that shares its border with Thailand.
The Kayah State
Also known as Karenni, Kayah is a hilly state with the Salween River flowing through it. During Colonial rule, Kayah was a part of the group of states of the Shan region. In a treaty drawn in 1875, the British government had agreed to grant independence to these Karenni states, hence, they were never really a part of British Burma. These states were recognised as a tributary to British Burma in 1892.
The region is rich in mineral deposits. The Mawchi Mine in this region was the most important source of tungsten in the world in the 1930s.
Ethnic Groups Of Kayah State
Ethnically, Kayah state has about 7 to 10 ethnic groups, the primary being the Kayan people and the Padaung people. Other ethnic tribes include Geba, Bwe, Manumanaw, Zayein, Yinbaw, Paku and a few more.
The Kayan People
The Kayan people are a part of the Red Karen people and are a Tibeto-Burman ethnic minority of Myanmar. The first historical reference of these people ranges back to 739 AD in the Demanwso area of Karenni State. Today, apart from Myanmar, these people also stay in Thailand.
Culture Of The Kayan People
The most stunning representation of the culture of the Kayan people are the brass coils worn by their women around their necks. Often known as the long-necked women, they take pride in wearing these brass coils.
Traditionally, girls are made to wear these brass coils from the age of five. A coil is added to their neck every year as they age. A fully-grown woman can wear as many as 35 rings around their neck. There are several stories behind this tradition of wearing these coils. Some say that these were worn to protect their necks from the attack of tigers while others say that these were worn to disfigure the look of women so that they could not be married forcefully against their wishes.
Although they are called long-necked women, in reality, they don’t have a long neck. Prolonged usage of the brass coils push down the collar bones and compress the rib cage to give an impression of the necks being long. However, using these coils from childhood makes their necks quite fragile and it is believed that their necks will break if the coils are removed.
The Kayan people traditionally follow a religion called Kan Khwan which has been practised since the time their ancestors migrated to Myanmar from Mongolia during the Bronze Age. The religion is based on the belief that the Kayan people were born as a result of a union between a male human, an angel hybrid and a female dragon.
In the 19th Century, Italian missionaries visited the region and converted a considerable group of people to Roman Catholics. Hence, today, many of them are Roman Catholics. As per statistics published in 2005, 209 out of the 306 Kayan Villages are Roman Catholics, 44 are Buddhists, 32 are Baptists and 19 practice Kan Khwan.
Festivals Of The Kayan People
Kay Htein Bo Festival, a 3-day religious festival is the most widely celebrated festival by the Kayan People. It is celebrated every year around late March or early April. The festival is based on the belief that God created the world by planting a small post in the ground and is celebrated to worship the Creator. During the festival, the people thank God for the past year, seek forgiveness for misdeeds and pray for rain. This is the time when Kayan People from different villages come together and celebrate the solidarity of the tribe.
The Kayans are an exquisite tribe that has maintained their ethnicity despite strong external influence. They are very warm towards tourists and enjoy sharing their culture with them. Travellers who have visited them have always received a friendly welcome and enjoyed interacting with the people.