Kayah State (Karenni state) is the smallest one of Myanmar’s 14 states and regions, but has an amazing variety of landscapes due to its geographical location. It is in eastern Myanmar, bounded on the north by Shan State, on the east by Thailand's Mae Hong Son province, and on the south and west by Kayin State. The area is 11,731 km2.Loikaw is the state capital and 11 hour drive away from Yangon.
There are nine native ethnic groups ( Kayah, Mo Nu, Gay Par, Yinnatale, Yin Baw, Kayan Padaung (long neck women), Kayan-Lahta, Kayan Gay Kho and Kayaw ) in Kayah State. In addition, Shan, Intha, Bamar and some minor races live in the north and Pa-O in surrounding hills. Most of the tribe's people still dress in traditional clothes, most notably the Kayah and Kayan ethnic groups.
Population and Religion
The estimated population in 2021 is approximately 330,000. Buddhists, Christians and animists religious communities are the majority in Kayah State. Most of the ethnic groups have converted to Christianity and some to Buddhism, though they still maintain speckles of their culture and traditional animist customs.
Let’s talk about Myanmar’s culture and ethnic tradition in Kayah State!
Thingyan Water Festival
The Thingyan Water Festival usually falls on April 13 and lasts for three or four days – depending on the leap year. Traditionally, it is believed that water has the power to wash away the impurities and sins of the old year and start the New Year with freshness and a purified spirit. Most young people celebrate Thingyan by playing in the water on the streets, simply to have fun.
In our Kayah State, especially, in the early morning, most of the families visit monasteries spending half of the day to do donations and other merit-making activities during through-out Thingyan festival. When we meet each other on the way to the monastery, greetings like “ Bel Na Kyaung York Pe Le?”. (How many monasteries have you been to today?). This custom is still alive to the present day.
April is also important to the Kayah tribe as well.
Kay Htoe Boe Festival
The major religious festival is the three-day Kay Htoe Boe festival, which commemorates the belief that the creator god gave form to the world by planting a small post in the ground and is a major feature of Kayah villages. It is celebrated every year around late March or early April.
“Kay” means a state or region, “Htoe” means accomplish and “Boe” means scared pole.
In Myanmar, it is “TaKhunTine”. There are rules to choosing the pole. It has to be straight, cannot be infested by bugs and no bird’s nests of unclean birds like vultures or eagles. The villagers have chosen an auspicious day in the early days. Before chopping down the tree, make offerings. Ask for permission from spirits guarding forest and hills. The guardian of the totem pole has to make a symbolic cut first, and then the others follow.
Normally, the festival is held for 3 days in a row. First day, cut the tree and bring it to the place where it would be erected. On the day the tree is felled, all of the villagers in the village have to go. Second day, peel off the outer layer of the log and prepare the log like making the crown, painting the log, and making it all look beautiful.
The last day, during the day of erecting totems, they make offerings of fruits and snacks. And bless it with water using Eugenia leaves. Then, they read chicken bones for the villages’ fortunes for next year. If the chicken bone is good, the whole village will be healthy and prosperous next year. If chicken bone is bad, they will see disease and hunger. Afterwards, women call the souls to come home. This festival is held to request “peace for the region, fair weather, bountiful harvest, and free from all dangers”.
Kay Htoe Boe is the most important festival for the Kayah ethnic group. Local people believed that if it disappeared, their tribe would disappear as well.
Bird Totem Festival
The Kayan tribe from different villages also held “Bird Totem Festival” around April as well. But, bird totems are a bit different from KayHtoeBoe. The Kayan tribe added a wooden bird figure when they made a totem. They rotate male and female bird figures every year.
August is a month for alms-giving by casting lots. It is called the “Maha Dok Festival”. Our Kayah State is a bit different from other areas. There is a special Pagoda Trustee Committee for the festival. We need to request how many monks or novices to invite home to the Committee.
When the big day comes, the Committee leads all the donors, monks and novices that are gathering together at the Hall. Later on, they make a lucky draw and announce the donor's name and his winning monk or novice’s name. After that, the donor takes his Buddha’s Order of Monk home to offer a rice meal with curry and accompaniments like sweets and fruits, depending on the means and will of the donor.
Here we come, there are two special prizes. First prize is a “Buddha’s figure” and second prize is a “Shin UPaGutta’s figure”. For a “Shin UPaGutta” winner, they have a big ceremony at home for about 5 or 7 days. People visit their home and donate some money that supports them to make special events for the last day.
The night of the last day, they prepare boats with lighting and special decorations for Shin UPaGutta and people in Belu River. The event starts after sundown, firstly, flower candlelight flows down the river and the river twinkles with lights. Later on, beautiful decorated lighting boats sail down in the river through the city. People are following and watching it until they disappear from their sight.
Deeku Festival is held by the Kayah ethnic group during the months of August and September every year in Kayah State. They pack sticky rice with Deeku leaf into a triangle shape and tie three sachets in one. After that, they are boiled and ready to eat.
In the old days, they are using Deeku as their ration during their fight to end slavery and Yuan dominance. Three sachets packed together mean the unity and brotherhood of the 3 different Karenni leaders that stayed united to fight against the Yuan Kingdom.
During the festival, everyone can go to visit their houses. Deeku with sugar, rice wine and millet wine are ready to be served to visitors. Traditionally, if you make a visit, you need to drink a sip of wine. If you drink too much wine in the first house, you will not fulfil your next visit to another house.
Kayah's millet wine
Kayah’s millet wine is the best one in Myanmar as far as I know. Generally, there are 3 types of millet wine. KaungKya ( Strongest), KaungPu ( hot & Strong ) and Soak Kaung (less strong, kept in pot and able to refill with hot water ). Millet wine is one of the most important parts of their life. Especially Soak Kaung, they drink it like water or green tea.
An old Kayan woman from Kayan village said that “I always drink at least 2 pots every day, it makes me feel good and it is good for my health, besides not being hungry.” No doubt! Free from chemicals, but highly nutritious.
Kayah traditional sausage
The best matching food with millet wine is Kayah traditional sausage (local dishes). Kayah sausage is made with pork. Grinded meats and fats are mixed well with salt, turmeric, ginger, garlic and MatKhar (Sichuan peppers).
All of the ingredients are stuffed into the pig's intestine. Sausage can either be fried or grilled. The pepper’s unique flavour imbues the sausages with a fragrant aroma of herbs and spices. Nowadays, Kayah sausage is one of the most popular delicacy foods as well.
Hopefully, one day, I will have a chance to talk about some more traditional foods (Hnin Htoke) and ethnic tradition (Kayaw tribe) of our Kayah State.