07 April 2004

A Burmese Padaung View of the 'Wild' Kayah

Our first contact with the 'wild' Kayah came when we were received into a house on a hilltop owned by a shaman. He squatted by the fireplace smoking a pipe as if he were a guardian ghost of the place. He made me think of an unwrapped mummy, and he neither smiled nor spoke to us. We felt like intruders who had wandered into an ancient tomb, and soon set off to the village spring for a shower.

At the spring we waited for the villagers to finish their own shower. They included some stark-naked young women, who were unembarrassed and unashamed. As we watched them they talked to us with the familiarity of old friends. We felt ashamed at our curiousity about this (for us) novelty. When dressed, these women wore a black tunic which revealed one of their breasts. We were told later that they would not cover the naked breast until they were betrothed.

A traditional 'wild' Kayah woman is like an uninhibitedly colourful work of art. Her clothes are made of home-woven material in which red and black predominate. She wears black-lacquered cotton-thread rings beneath her knees in large lumps that look like twin beehives. Bunches of silver coins dangle from her neck along with a few strings of semi-precious stones. The younger women wear cone-shaped silver earrings that look like bunches of miniature carrots, while the married ones stuff their big earholes with silver cylinders. A married woman also wears a red turban on her head and a white sash around her waist. She walks like an elephant, slow and with jingling sounds at every step, reminiscent of the tinkling bells on a Burmese pagoda top. These gorgeously caparisoned females scratched their bodies liberally and spat copiously. And all the Kayah, children included, continually smoked pipes.
SOURCE: From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey, by Pascal Khoo Thwe (HarperCollins, 2002), pp. 203-204

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