Who are the Lahu hilltribe people of Northern Thailand?
Lahu hill tribe people of Northern Thailand
Thailand: 102,876 in 2003, distributed between 385 villages Southeast Asia: 750,000 in 2003
This ethnic minority calls itself the Lahu. The Thais call them Mooseu, a word that comes from the Burmese for ‘hunter”. The Lahu living in Thailand fall into five distinct groups: the Lahu Nyi (red Lahu), the Lahu Na (black Lahu), the Lahu Shi (yellow Lahu), the Lahu Hpu (white Lahu), and the Lahu Shehleh.
Linguistic family: Sino-Tibetan; Linguistic group: Tibeto-Burman
Linguistic branch: Central Lolo (Yee).
The five dialects spoken in Thailand are divided into two quite separate sub-groups: Lahu Na is what a proper Lahu speaker is supposed to speak, and Lahu Shi is a lesser variety.
4. Origins and migration
The Lahu originally lived in Yunnan (southern China). but they started to move down into northern Burma in the eighteenth century. Around 1840, the presence of several Lahu villages in the Shan state of Kentung was reported. In 1875, the first Lahu Shehleh entered Thailand and settled in what are now the provinces of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. They were followed by the Lahu Na around 1920 and the Lahu Shi in the second half of the twentieth century.
Thailand: the provinces of Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son, Tak, and Kamphaeng Pet; Burma, Yunnan (Southern China).
6. Economy and agriculture
The Lahu use slash and burn farming techniques to clear areas of the jungle, where they then grow rice (hill rice, which is grown dry), sweet corn, and cotton. In the past, most of their income came from opium growing, but today this has been replaced by fruit and vegetable growing (lychees, bananas, melons, beans, pepper, millet, etc.). Each household also owns its own domestic animals (pigs, poultry, and cattle). Hunting and plant gathering supply the rest of their diet.
Lahu society is matriarchal and monogamous. The basic unit is the couple and their children. The Lahu do not divide themselves up into clans and do not have family names. This can sometimes cause problems with the Thai authorities, and
As a result, some families have taken Thai surnames. The Lahu base their community relations on friendship and cooperation. The links between the elderly (aw via) and the very young (aw nyi) are very strong. Every member of the community obeys its rules, and conflicts are systematically avoided.
Marriage and divorce
Among the Lahu, young people are free to choose their own partners. During the New Year, adolescent boys and young men who want to find a wife go and visit girls in other villages. Once they have found a girl whom they want and who is willing, the young man sends his father as an intermediary to obtain formal consent. The marriage (hkeh ca) is celebrated when the two families have collected enough rice, other foodstuffs (given by the girl’s family), and pigs (contributed by the boy’s family) to feed the expected number of guests. There is then a celebration, followed by the pronouncement of blessings by the elders present.
The young couple usually begins by living with the girl’s parents (a tradition called “Ma mui”) for a period of between two and seven years. The son-in-law has to work for them to reimburse them for the gift of their daughter. After that, he is free to set himself and his family up in his own parents’ house or to set up a household of his own.
Conjugal relations are different among the Lahu and other hill tribes. The husband is more attentive to his wife and gives her more help than is the case with the other ethnic minorities. However, divorces are quite frequent. They are decreed by the headman of the village.
Lahu women give birth at home. When the moment arrives, the woman kneels on a mat, holding a rope that is tied to one of the beams. She is helped by an old woman, and sometimes also by her own husband. Once the baby has been delivered, the umbilical cord is cut with the help of a piece of bamboo, and the placenta is buried in front of the house. For the first twelve days after the birth, the young mother may only eat rice and the flesh of a hen with black feathers. Offerings are made to the god Geusha to ask for his protection for the new-born child. The village elders give the child its name on the first holy day of the first cycle of the moon after its birth.
When a Lahu dies, his soul (aw ha) leaves his body and goes to the world of the dead. The corpse is then wrapped in a white shroud and placed in the middle of the house. At every meal, the family places a small portion of food next to the dead person so as to “feed” him until the wooden coffin has been completed. When the coffin is ready, the body is buried, along with a chicken’s foot and wing. During the journey to the next world, the deceased will be able to dig a well with the foot if he is thirsty and use the wing to shade himself from the sun if he is hot.
8. Religious beliefs, practices, and rites
The main god of the Lahu is Geusha, or G’ui Sha. He is the creator of the heavens, and his wife, Ema, created the earth. All prayers, e.g., for a good harvest or for good health, are addressed to them.
The spirits (ne), good or bad, are also very important to the Lahu. Offerings are made to the tutelary household spirit (Yeh ne) so that he will protect the family. Nature spirits who live outside the village are greatly feared because, if offended, they can possess people. The village priest then has to arrange an exorcism.
The soul (aw ha) is the spiritual part of every human being. The Lahu believe that if the soul is attacked by an evil spirit, the person in question falls ill.
In practice, the majority of the Lahu Na and Lahu Shi in Thailand converted to Christianity some decades ago. But they tend to have kept some animist beliefs and practices and even to have incorporated some elements of Buddhism, such as merit making (tum boon), i.e., the gaining of merit by the practice of good deeds.
The village priest
The village priest or shaman is called To Bon by the Lahu Nyi and Keh Lupa by the Lahu Shehleh. He is the main intermediary between the villagers and the god Geusha. He officiates at ceremonies of healing and exorcism by driving out evil spirits. Although he is often an opium addict, he has to follow strict rules in his life, abstaining from alcohol and being totally faithful in his marriage.
The New Year
During the New Year festival (Mo le we), all the villagers, in traditional dress, organize a procession headed by the priest, who dresses in white. To win prosperity for the year to come, they sacrifice pigs and chickens to the gods and offer sweet corn and vegetables to the spirits, while male and female shamans (kasorma and tobos, respectively) intone ritual prayers. Then soothsayers predict the future for the village and its community. The ceremony finishes with a feast and traditional dances, accompanied by several musical instruments, including the Lahu version of the mouth organ (nv).
9. Traditional dress
Among the Lahu Nyi (Red Lahu), the women wear a long black or blue cotton sarong with black and red horizontal stripes and a short black jacket with sleeves and red-trimmed buttonholes. It is the importance of red in their dress that gives the group its name.
Among the Lahu Na (Black Lahu), the main female garment is a long black ankle-length tunic, which opens on the right. The sides and sleeves of the tunic are decorated with long vertical stripes, usually in red. A black sarong ornamented with stripes of brightly colored material and a turban complete the outfit.
Among the Lahu Shehleh, the women wear a heavy, black, knee-length, shiny cotton jacket that opens at the front. Colored stripes (usually white) decorate the sleeves, with the same color around the buttonholes. Black trousers and leggings are worn under the jacket. Lastly, they cover their heads with a white turban.
In all the Lahu groups, the men wear a short, waist-length black jacket and wide black, Chinese-style trousers. On high days and holidays, they may add a black turban too.
As with most of the other hill tribes, the Lahu women like to wear silver jewelry, especially for festivals and celebrations. On such occasions, they will don necklaces,engraved or molded bracelets, circular or club-shaped earrings, and large silver buckles that fasten their jackets. The Lahu Shehleh women also wear necklaces of small white beads.
The Lahu build their villages at a height of between 800 and 1,200 meters above sea level. They usually have from 15 to 20 houses, grouped around those of the village headman and the priest. Lahu Nyi villages often have a temple (haw yeh) dedicated to Geusha, and the Christian villages have a church. Ten or twenty years ago, these buildings would have been made of wood and reed thatch, but nowadays they are built from cement and tiles. They occupy the highest point in the village.
The Lahu build their houses on stilts, except for certain Lahu from China, who build directly onto the ground so as to keep the heat in in the winter. The walls of the houses are made of wood, and the roofs are thatched with reeds. They have a single entrance at the front and are divided into two: a main room, which has the hearth in the middle, and a bedroom, which is partitioned off. The main room is the social center. It is there that meals are prepared and guests are entertained. The Lahu Nyi place the altar to the household spirits in a corner away from the door, and the Lahu Sheleh keep a small sacred cabinet in the same spot.
Lastly, the Lahu Shi often build houses with several rooms that are much bigger than those of the other hill tribes.
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