Some Notes about the Karens in Siam. พิมพ์ อีเมล
เขียนโดย Major J. P. Andersen,Gendarmerie, Ayudhya.   

ANDERSON, J.P. SOME NOTES ABOUT THE KARENS IN SIAM. JSS. VOL.17 (pt.2) 1923. p.51-58.

 

 

                     SOME NOTES ABOUT THE KARENS IN SIAM

 

                                      by Major J. P. Andersen,

                                      Gendarmerie, Ayudhya.

 

 

 

                                        _______________

 

 

 

          The  Karens   in  North   and   North - Western  Siam   are   of   two
kinds,  called    hero    in    Siam   the "  White  " Karens  and   the "  Red  "
Karens. The  Siamese  call them " Karieng,"  but  they  call  themselves
" Yang, " and the Shans also call them so.
          The Red  Karens  are  very  few ; I   have  only  seen  them  in  Maa
Hawng Sawn  in  the  Western  part  of  Monthon  Chiengmai,  but  there
are   also   a   few  in  Monthon  Nakon  Sawan  and  in  other  Monthons.
They have darker coloured skin than the White Karens.
          The   men   dress  in  short  Shan - trousers  and   a   loose  jacket
something like the Shans do. The garments are generally made of dark
material,   but   even   if  light  coloured  material  is  sometimes  used, it
soon becomes dark with dirt ;  a  Red  Karen  would  be  horrified  at  the
idea of washing either himself or his clothes.

          The  women, of  all  ages,  both  married  and  unmarried,  wear  a
piece of blue  and  red  striped  cloth  round  the  waist,  barely  reaching
to the  knee.  On  the  body  they  wear  a  piece  of  black  cloth ;  in  front
it is tucked under a girdle , draped  over  the  bosom , brought   over one
shoulder   and  tucked  under  the  girdle  at  the  back.  Round  the  legs
just   below   the   knee,  they   wear   a   number  of  rings  made  of  thin
strips of cane. 
          Both   sexes   wear   a   piece   of  cloth  tied  round  their  hair,  but
not a real turban.
          The   White   Karens   are   much   more   numerous,  and    when
hereafter in these notes  I use  the word  Karens, it i s  White  Karens  I
mean.
          I    have   found   them   the   whole  way  from   Muang  Bai  to  the
North-west  of   Chiengmai,  and   down   through  Maa   Hawng   Sawn,
Khun Yooam, Muang  Yooam and  Medan  in  the  Western  Chiengmai
district, and continuing  down  through  Melamat,  Mesot  and  Umpang,
near the head-waters of the Me Klong, in Nakon Sawan Monthon.

 

                                                          (52)

 

          They are a well - built,  sturdy  race,  much  better  looking  than
the Red Karens. The men, while  young,  are  lithe  and  well  set  up,
and the young girls are plump, buxom wenches, often with pleasing
features.
          Their height  averages  about  the  same  as  the  height  of  the
Siamese peasants and the Laos. If their  skin  were  not  exposed  to
sun and wind, it would in many cases be quite white. I  have  on  one
or two occasions seen some young girls and  children  bathing  in  a
stream, and their bodies, where the sun had not touched them, were
white.  Young   people   often   have   rosy   cheeks.  They  have  more
strongly marked features than most other Eastern  Asiatics, many  of
the men  having  aquiline noses. In  the  Me  Chem  district, between
Chiengmai  and  Maa Hawng  Sawn, a  district which is almost exclu-
sively  inhabited by  Karens, I  have  seen  many  young  people  both
men and women with perfectly Jewish features; if they were dressed
in European clothes they would easily be taken for  Jews  of  Eastern
parentage.  So  perhaps  it  is  not  absolutely  a myth  that  the  White
Karens are descendants of one of the ten lost tribes.
          The  fashion of  the men's dress  has  gradually  changed ; origi-
nally the dress consisted of a kind of  smock,  reaching  to  below  the
knee, and nothing else. Then short Shan-trousers  were adopted, the
smock   was   made   shorter,  and   gradually  by  many, replaced  by
a Shan jacket,and this is now the most common dress.There is also
another piece of clothing the Karens  sometimes use instead  of  the
Shan trousers,that is a short home-made sarong with broad blue and
red stripes. Sometimes, but not often, one meets an  old  Karen  who
still keeps to the old fashion and wears a smock only.
          The smock is first a bag with  the  cross - slit  to  put   the  head
through   and   two   slits  in  the  corners  for  the  arms. It   is  mostly
white with red stripes, sometimes vice-versa ; the stripes  are  some-
times very narrow and close together,  forming  a  border   round  the
lower part of the smock,sometimes there are two broad stripes com-
ing, one over each shoulder and running parallel and close  together

down   the  front  and    the  back. There are  also  other  patterns, but
always made with stripes, and the colours red  and  white  are  used.

 

                                                         (53)

 

          The   women   have   been  absolutely  conservative  about  their
dress. An unmarried woman, whether she is a girl of tender age o r a
toothless old hag, wears, as her only  garment,  a  long  white  smock
reaching  to her heels.  Sometimes  a  red  thread  is  woven  into  the
material,round the waist, but otherwise the smock is not ornamented
in any way.
          A Karen ' belle ' does not  cost  her  fathe r much  in  the  way  of
clothes, as the only dress she owns is the smock she has on. When that
begins to be too much worn, she begins the weaving  of  a  new  one,
and when it is finished she takes off the old smock and puts the new
one on. A  married  woman  wears  a  red  skirt, reaching nearly to the
ankles, with some  blue,  white  and  yellow  patterns  woven  into  the
material in the shape of broken stripes. Over this  she  wears  a  dark
blue smock, reaching nearly to the knee, the smock being often richly
embroidered with white beads.
          Both sexes generally wear a piece  of  cloth  tied  round  the  hair.
          The women and girls always wear some silver ornaments  such
as   necklaces  of  silver  coins,  bell-shaped  silver tubes  in  the  ears,
bangles, etc., and they  are  also  very  fond  of  coloured  glass-beads.
The young bloods also wear necklaces and bracelets made of coloured
glass-beads, sometimes they have a string of  glass-beads  hanging
from ear to ear, down under the chin.
          The Karens are animists and  worship  the  spirits  they  believe
exist   in   the   forests,  the   mountains   and   in   running    water.   In
Burma, a  great  many  of  them  have  been  converted  to Christianity,
but here in Siam I have only met one Christian Karen family.
          At  certain  times  of  the  year  and  on   certain   occasions  they
sacrifice a pig to the spirits, and the head and feet of the pig are  then
carried  in  procession  through the  forest and mountains. Well-to-do
Karens also sacrifice money, in the shape of silver rupees, which are
thrown down a narrow crack in the rocks or some other  inaccessible
place. It is not unusual for a Karen, who has sold an  elephant, to dis-
pose of a part of the price in  this  way,  and  sometimes  the  part  so
disposed of amounts to several hundred rupees.

 

                                                          (54)

 

          A   Karen  will   not   undertake   a   task   of   the   slightest    import-
ance  before  he  has  asked  the  spirits'  advice ;  this  is  done with  the
help of a chicken which is killed.
          The  Karens   are   of   a   higher   morality   than  their   neighbours
with   whom   they   rarely   intermarry. They   also   marry    later    in    life
than  most  other  Asiatic  people, and  it  is  very  rare to meet a married
woman  under   twenty  or  a  married  man  under  24-25.  Polygamy   is
not forbidden but is very seldom practised.
          They   burn  the  dead,  generally  close  to   a  mountain  path, and
when a headman dies, a kind of altar, made  of  bamboo, is  erected  at
the road-side. On this is placed the  dead  man's  personal  belongings,
such as his gun, ' dah,' powder-horn, shoulderbag, pipe and numerous
other small articles, and everybody coming along the road  is  then  sup-
posed  to  take  one  of  these articles  as a memento, but it is an under-
stood   thing   that   the   gun, ' dah ' and   powderhorn   are   left   for  the
relatives.
          Also, when  a  headman  dies, the  village  is deserted and rebuilt
on another site in the neighbourhood.
          The   Karens  are  very  afraid  of  infectious  diseases, particularly
small  pox, which  used  to   play  havoc   amongst  them. They  will  not
go  within  miles  of  a  village  in  which  there  is  known  to  be  an  out-
break   of   small-pox,  nor   will   they  allow  any  stranger  to  come into
their   village  if  there  is  small - pox  anywhere  in  the  neighbourhood,
and  they  barricade  the  approaches  to  the  village. It  is  not  a formid-
able  barricade, a  child  could  kick  it down, but  people passing along
the   road   know   the  meaning  and  respect    it.   It   consists  of   light
chains made of bamboo, and  bamboo-spears  pointing  outwards are
placed leaning on the chains, with some roughly made   wooden  guns
and  the  figure  of  a  man made of  wood in a super-realistic  way, and
also as a rule crude imitations of an elephant and a buffalo.
          The villages are mostly  built  high  up  on  mountain  sides, and
the houses are built entirely of bamboo, with roofs of leaves. As a rule
each family has its own house, generally containing  only   one  room)
in  the  middle  of  which  is  a  big   square   fire-place  made   of   clay,
the smoke escaping as best it can. I have, however, seen two villages

 

                                                           (55)

 

where the houses were  long  buildings,  each  divided  into  several
rooms, and inhabited by several families, all  related  to  each  other.
The floor is raised about 4-5  feet  from  the  ground, and  the  space
under it is the residence of pigs and  fowls.  There  are  no  gardens,
and seldom any fences in a Karen village, the houses being just scat-
tered about in a clearing on a fairly open hill side.
          The  Karen  is  a   cultivator,  but  his  way  of  cultivating  is  very
crude indeed. Some Karens have paddy fields  in  the  small  valleys
amongst the hills, and these fields they cultivate in the same way as
their neighbours, the Shans  and  Laos. But  far  the  most  common
way   of   cultivation   is   the   hill  cultivation.  A  suitable  place  on  a
hill-side is completely cleared of vegetation, all trees are  felled  and
later burned on  the spot, to prepare the  soil  for  the  seed. Only  an
iron-tipped  stick  is  used, with  which  innumerable small holes are
scratched in the soil, and in these holes the paddy seeds are dropped.
Rain and sun must then do the rest. But sometimes the  rain  is  so
violent that the seeds and young plants are  washed  down  the  hill
side, and sometimes it rains too little  or  not  at  all, and  the  young
plants get shrivelled up by the sun, or  myriads  of  rats  overrun  the
hill side and eat every  sprout.  When  any  of  these  things  happen,
the Karens are  badly  hit  and  they  have  then  to  exist as best they
can on " kloi." This is a tuberous root which   grows  round  about  in
the forest,and is poisonous if it is not steeped in water for a conside-
rable time ; in  any  case  it  is  a  poor, unpalatable  food, containing
very   little   nourishment. So    it  happens  sometimes  that  there  is
famine amongst the Karens, when they come down to the Shan and
Lao   villages  to  buy  rice  if  they  have  anything  to  buy  it  with,  the
poor even selling their children for rice, or to beg for it.
          In  some  places the same clearing is cultivated three years in
succession, but in others a new clearing is made every  year. In  the
past, large tracts of forest have been destroyed in this way,and even
now, when the Forest Department has taken the matter  up, a  good
deal of destruction takes place in valuable forests.
          The Karens  who  own paddy-fields, of  course  own  buffaloes
for  the  purpose of  ploughing, and  many  Karens  in that part of Me
Chen district which is nearest   to  Chiengmai,  own  herds  of  cattle,

 

                                                      (56)

 

but  the  most  common domestic animal in the Karen villages is  the
pig, though a number of fowls are kept, and dogs of course. And then,
there is the  elephant. The  Karens  are  very  fond  of  elephants, and
have a great deal  of  knowledge  about  them  and  their  habits, but I
am not so sure that  they  are  really  good  elephant  masters. I  have
seen  a  great  many  Karen  elephants,  but  I  have  seen  few  really
well-trained ones, as they are nearly always shy and will bolt   on  the
slightest occasion.
          Many  Karens  who  own  elephants  use  them  to work teak for
the timber-firms, but there  are also  a  good  many  who   keep  them
simply  because  they  like to have them, and only use them   to  carry
paddy in from the fields. I  once  saw  an  elephant  which  was consi-
dered   by   the   Karens   a  perfect  specimen  of  a  full  grown  male
elephant,  and   it   was   certainly  a  fine  animal. It  belonged  to  two
brothers  and  had  formerly  worked  timber  for  the  Bombay-Burma
Trading Co., but it had been stolen  twice  and  again  recovered, and
now it did  no  more  work,  but  was  kept  as  an  ornament.  One  or
other of its owners  was  always  with  it, and  the  young  men  in  the
village took turns to  act  as  body-guard  for  it, so  that  it  should  not
be stolen again.
          There  is  comparatively  little  crime  amongst  the  Karens,  but
there is one kind of crime which  has  an  almost  irresistible  fascina-
tion for many Karens, and that is elephant-stealing. I should not at all
be surprised if it was proved that a large  number  of  Karens  looked
upon elephant-stealing as a perfectly legitimate sport.
          Nowadays  criminals  are  brought  to  justice  in  the  Siamese
courts, but formerly, when such courts did not exist in those parts  of
the country  where  the  Karens  live, the  Karens  treated  their  crimi-
nals according to their own customs and their own  ideas  of  justice,
unless the victim of the crime  was  a  Shan  or  a  Lao,  when  those
people saw to the punishment, and the innocent often suffered  with
the guilty.
          For  illegitimate  love-affairs, the  Karens  used  to have a pecu-
liar and rather drastic punishment. When the affair  was  discovered,
the man and the girl were brought before the headman of the village.

 

                                                         (57)

 

Three small pills, exactly  alike, were then  placed  before  them, and
each had to swallow one Two of  the pills  contained  deadly  poison
while the third was harmless. They then had to go out into the jungle
together, and after  some  time  the  headman  and  others  from  the
village followed them to see  what  had  happened.  Sometimes  two
corpses were found, but if one of them had been fortunate enough to
choose the harmless pill, he or she went back to the village, and the
matter was finished. From a reliable source I have heard about such
a case in 1912, but whether it is  still  practised  now  I  do  not  know,
though it is quite possible that it is.
          The Karen is generally a good hunter  and  a  good  tracker, who
knows all there is to be known  about  the  jungles  and  the  denizens
of the jungle. But, in contrast with the Shan, who  is  fond  of   roaming
about as a trader, the  Karen  is  a  stay - at - home   person  and   has
little   aptitude   for    trading.  That    the   Karens,   however,  are   able,
through a couple of generations of education, to develop  a  high  intel-
ligence and to take their place amongst more civilised people, is proved
by the Karens in Burma, where they have good schools  of  their  own,
and where there are many Karens in prominent positions as doctors,
schoolmasters, lawyers, etc.
          Though a Karen seldom travels far from his own district, he is
however fond of visiting his friends in neighbouring villages, and on
these occasions much  beer  is  drunk.  The  Karen - beer is  a  very
simple brew : into a stone-jar, partly filled with fermented rice, water
is poured. The partakers, each armed with a long, thin reed, bent in a
slight curve, then squat down round the jar,  the r eeds  are  pushed
through the fermented rice down to the  bottom  of  the  jar,  and  the
liquid is slicked up. The taste is slightly acid but  is  not  unpleasant,
and   it   is  quite  refreshing.  Like  lemon - squash,  it  tastes  better
sucked up through a reed than when drink out off a  glass.  It  is  not
very   intoxicating.  Most   Karens   are  fond  of  distilled  spirits  also,
but they do not often drink to excess.
          Both men and women are inveterate tobacco  - smokers,  and
they  begin  very  early. The   tobacco   is  mostly  home - grown  and
home-cured, and the pipes are made from a piece of naturally  bent
bamboo.

 

                                                       (58)

 

          The Karens are generally quite pleasant people  to  deal  with.
Whenever I have had occasion to employ them for  transport-work. I
have always found them cheerful and willing,  and  also quite  ready
to  give  whatever  information  it  was  in  their  power  to  give. Their
opinions they express in a straight-forward way, and they do  not  try
merely to  say  what  they  think  will  please  most. They  are  cheery
and amusing people to travel with, and I have many pleasant memories
from my travellings amongst them.

 

 

 

 

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