From the Blog

December 20, 2015

Akha People of Thailand

An ancient people from the steps of Tibet who’s female deity made the world and where giving birth to twins would lead to murder

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The Akha people believe that their original homeland was the Tibetan borderlands and while they have no traditional written language, this belief is substantiated in their spoken language which comes from the Lolo/Yi branch of the Tibeto-Burman language group. It is further believed they first travelled to the mountainous areas of Yunnan located in the far southwest of the China and made their way into the equally mountainous areas in Myanmar, Vietnam, and Laos and eventually in the early 20th century to Thailand.

There are now thought to be up to 80,000 Akha people living in Thailand, mainly in the Northern Provinces of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, where they make up the largest percentage of the Hill Tribes. There are four main Akha groups in Thailand: the U Law, the Law Mi, the Pa Mi and the A Keu.

 

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Religion & Beliefs

Akha religion is often described as a mixture of animism and ancestor worship. The Akha believe that the female creator god, named Ao ma, or “Heavenly Spirit” created the sky and the earth and then gave the Akha their social code, the “Akha Zang” (Akha Way), but the people rarely honor her with formal rituals. The Rice Mother is more often the object of worship and there are a number of rice rituals which are directed to her. They also worship “holy hills” as guardian spirits.

The Akha believe that spirits and people were born of the same mother and lived together until a quarrel led to their separation, upon which spirits went into the forest and people remained in the villages. They believe spirits are both “good” and “bad”. House and village spirit are believed to be “good” as they represent spirits of their ancestors who watch after their family members. Trees, forests and rivers, spirits are considered bad spirits and will cause them sickness and illness.

The Akha year is divided into the ‘peoples season’ (dry) and the ‘spirits season’ (wet). During the latter, spirits wander into the village and have to be driven out as part of a yearly ancestral offering.

The Akha believe that all things on earth have souls and will offer sacrifices to mountains, rivers, dragons and heaven, and as often as every week, to their ancestors

Perhaps the most important annual festival for the Akha people is commonly known as the Swing Festival. The four-day festival comes in late-August  and is known by the hill tribe people as, Yehkuja, (or Loa Cher Bee Err) which loosely translates as “eating bitter rice”, a phrase which is believed to be a references the previous year’s dwindling rice supply and incorporates the hope that the expected rains will soon water the newly planted rice crop. To see more on this festival see our post Akha Swing Festival

 

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Strict Rules

The Akha once followed a strict set of traditional rules for specific times of the year, to ensure they kept the right side of their spirits:

Twins or those born with major birth defects are considered an extremely ominous occurrence, one where spirits are considered to interfere with human matters. The Akha believed that only animals could give birth to more than one offspring and therefore considered twins as beasts. Up until about 20 years ago, they would have been killed immediately.

Certain types of death, such as being killed by a tiger, are considered particularly bad; the bodies must be treated and buried in specific ways.

You do not touch any items or articles in the village’s gate area.

You do not bring raw meat into their village.

Pregnant woman that were not married were not allowed to give birth in the village.

You do not allow pigs to give birth in the village, and if only one or two baby pigs were born, they must not be allowed to breed in the future. They must be killed or offered as food to others.

Widow or divorced women are not allowed to die in the village. If they did, the deceased’s family had to move and resettle in another place.

 

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Village leader

The Akha have traditionally been semi-nomadic, slash-and-burn agriculturalists and when choosing the location for a new village the village leader, who holds the most important and revered position in Akha spiritual matters, drops an egg into a small freshly dug hole, if it breaks, it means that the spirits of land have accepted the villagers and they can build their new homes. The village leader will build his house on the spot where the egg was dropped.

The Village Leader also has other ritual responsibilities including initiating the annual rebuilding of the ‘Spirit Gates’, wooden gates adorned with elaborate carvings on both sides, depicting imagery of men and women, the gates mark the division between the inside of the village; the domain of man and domesticated animals, and the outside; the realm of spirits and wildlife. He is also there to advise and instruct villages on important matters, settling disputes and performs chants at various ceremonies.

 

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Akha believe that death is a transformation from the human world to the spiritual world of their ancestors. On death before burying the body, there are many rituals have to be carried out to ensure the deceased person’s spirit will not be harmful to them. The body is washed and pieces of silver are put in the mouth. Death rites and chants last for two days, until eventually the body is placed in an elaborate coffin and buried. The next day the family visits the grave site, but will never visit again. One year later a ceremony is held where the family asks the soul of the deceased to return to the family home and watch over them.

Dress

Akha women define their age or marital status with the style of headdress worn. At roughly age 12, she will exchange her child’s cap for that of a girl. A few years later she will begin to don the jejaw, the beaded sash that hangs down the front of her skirt and keeps it from flying up in the breeze. During mid-adolescence she will start wearing the adult woman’s headdress called u-coe. Headdresses are decorated by their owner and each is unique, they are made from cotton, and embroidered and decorated with colored beads, silver balls, and strands of colored wool, shells, long red boas, tassels, bird feathers, silver coins and bells. Sometimes they are decorated with monkey fur, dog fur, beetle wings and French, Burmese and Indian coins that date back to colonial days.

 

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For more on our posts regarding other ethnic people of Thailand

The seven Hill Tribes of Thailand

A snapshot of the Phuan

The Haw in Today’s Thailand

The Yong and their Salak Yom Festival

Sea Gypsies

The Mon people

The Shan the forgotten Hill Tribe

 

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Information gleaned from the following:

https://en.wikipedia.org

http://www.everyculture.com/

http://www.hilltribe.org

https://ethnomed.org

http://www.britannica.com/

http://www.sjonhauser.nl/akha-swing-festival.html

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