ayah State is famous for its own traditional clothes, foods, and culture, located in eastern Myanmar. Kayan tribe is one of the nine ethnic groups in Kayah State. Mostly they are living in the eastern and southern part of the Kayah State. Kayah people also known as Red Karen or Karenni or Kayah, are a Sino-Tibetan people. The Kayah ethnic groups from different villages in Shan state usually hold significant traditional festivals every year. Among the festivals, the housewarming festival is one of the most important festivals in their culture and tradition.

How do they hold the festival?

When Kayah Local people build a new house, they usually hold a housewarming festival. Normally, a housewarming festival is held in the month of late March (Tapaung). When villagers are celebrating a new house festival, not only relatives from their own community but also acquaintances from nearby villages come to help. According to the culture, friends from the whole village come and give some traditional rice wine(Kaung Yay) and salt for the necessary meals. For those who come to help, the host usually gives back a packet of salt and a little raw pork. At the housewarming ceremony, the guests were treated to rice porridge and traditional wine (Kaung Yay). Only after the housewarming ceremony is held, the members of the household live in the new house.

Kayah Traditional House
Traditional House of Kayah

What do they need to do before moving up to their new home?

Before people move up to their new homes, a particularly interesting Calling Self-guardian Spirit Festival is conducted by a shaman. While this arrangement is being made, the women cook rice dishes to serve to the guests in the courtyard. In some housewarming ceremonies, a person who understands the traditional customs of the community leads by calling the Self-guardian Spirit. The leader went to a field near the new house with a rooster in his arms. Apart from chicken, they have to pack a spear, a scarf of Kayah’s women, a small bamboo bottle, a bell, a silver coin necklace, and a small branch of bamboo. The package was carried with a stick and placed over his shoulder. After him, two of Kayah's men carried a live pig with its limbs tied up with a stick. After that man, the household members had to follow. 

What did the shaman do when he arrived at the designated field?

When they arrive at the designated field, the shaman or pioneer elder catches and puts a small bug into the small cotton jar that he brings. This little bug is called the Self-guardian Spirit.

If you can't find the bug easily, you beat the bushes with a stick and look for the bug. The small animal or insect that came out after being hit with a stick was put into a small cotton container as a Self Guardian Spirit and brought back to its new home. If no animal or insect is found, a leaf is added as a self-guardian spirit and brought to the new home. Bringing it like this means that the lucky self-guardian spirit is leading to climb up to the new house. The shaman took the self-guardian spirit in front, and the other groups of family members started walking in procession to the new house. When they reached the stairs of the new house, they all stopped.

Why did the shaman need to split a gourd at the bottom of the stairs?

 Before the shaman went up to the house, he had to split a gourd at the bottom of the stairs and step on the side of the gourd. Doing this means that all the household members who will live in the new house will be happy just like the gourd is peaceful. Then the shaman started to climb the house by cuddling the chicken in his hand. Others stayed on the stairs.

Mother with child meeting tourists near her wooden house in Kayan State Kayah

Why did the shaman throw the spear?

When the shaman arrived upstairs of the house, he knocked on the floors of the house with a spear, chanted in the Kayah language, and started building the house. After that, he threw the spear in his hand from the window at the back of the house, so that it fell to the ground. Planting a spear in the ground is considered a good omen. Therefore, there is a custom to shoot without planting. When the spear fell to the ground, the household members who were waiting at the bottom of the stairs took some necessities like their bed, boxes, plates, cups, and so on, and went upstairs. 

When everyone arrived at the house, the shaman cut the cock's beak with a small piece of the cotton diaper and touched the blood that came out of the part of the diaper and applied it to the foreheads of the household members. After that, the shaman took a cup of Traditional wine (Kaung Yay) and let the household members drink it for a little bit. By doing this, it is believed that the people who will live in the new house will be full of happiness and will be wealthy.

How did they read the chicken bones?

Then, they had to read the chicken bones with the thigh bone of the rooster to make another prediction for the new house. Here is the detail of how they read the chicken bone. The shaman killed the rooster and threw out the faces from the rooster's anus. When it was finished, he took out the chicken's right thigh bone first. The muscle fibers on the surface of the thigh bone were scraped with a blade. The top of the thigh bone was cut and a stick was inserted into the hole. Then the blood comes back out of the holes in the bone. By looking at those small bleeding holes, we know how many holes are in the thigh bone.

 In this way, the hole is found and marked with the thin strips of bamboo on that hole. They often have one, two, or three holes on each side of the thigh bone. Before Sharman read the chicken, he had to make a vow. And then he had to measure the height of the left and right holes which were marked with thin strips of bamboo. If the hole on the right side is higher, it means that the people in the house will be commercial and successful. However, even though the right side won’t be high,  it is considered appropriate if the right thigh bone has two holes and the left side has only one hole. For the future of the household members, the shaman read a good or bad fortune as above. 

Exterior of traditional burmese house in Kayan state near Loikaw City

After reading the chicken bone, the pig that was brought back from the field was speared in front of the guests and taken to a place where they managed to cook it. Friends and relatives who came to the housewarming festival were treated with pound rice and served with traditional wine (Kaung Yay). Relatives who came to the housewarming festival in the village usually gave a pot of traditional wine (Kaung Yay) or a little money to the host according to their culture. The host also gave them a small pot of traditional rice wine (Kaung Yay), two packets of pound rice, and a piece of pork. However, the pound of rice is not given to everyone. But pork chop must be given to everyone who came.

How do they prepare for the fireplace?

Before the housewarming ceremony, the fireplace of the new house must be specially cared for and updated. The clay was brought to the fireplace and mixed with water to make it muddy. After that people had to step on it. When it became hard and uniform, it was covered with chaff on top. After that, they had to cut about a cartload of wood from the forest to cook the fireplace. Then, they had to make a fire with wood on the fireplace covered with chaff and cook it overnight. When it was burning, they added some rice, matches, and banana leaf to the fire. The three or four of the grandmothers had to be kept waiting to add wood to the fireplace throughout the night. To make the house peaceful, they usually stuck pieces of gourds with sticks and put them in the four corner floors of the new house. 

 Kayah Lady
Kayah Lady with old traditional clothes

According to the culture, the Kayah people used to play musical instruments when the housewarming festival was held after the construction of this new house. Among the 4 instruments, the frog drum is the most important festival auspicious. They danced a group dance in which dancers stepped between moving bamboo poles timed to music and shield dance by playing the frog drum. After playing the frog drum, the men hit the floor with their feet. Doing this is to see if the new house is solid.

This is the culture and tradition of the new housewarming ceremony of the Kayah ethnic group in Kayah State. How meaningful is it? By learning their culture, we can know the unity of the ethnic. However, we can rarely see that culture nowadays. It will be a blessing if we have a chance to participate in their housewarming festival in our next visit. 

A lovely story of a unique culture…

September 7, 2023