February 13, 2017
Kuy People of Thailand the elephant hunters of Southeast Asia
The Kuy are an indigenous ethnic group of Southeast Asia, their native lands roughly straddle the boarders of Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, their numbers in the latter (2006) were put at 400,000, the majority, live in the Isan provinces of Surin, Buriram, Srisaket and Ubon Ratchathani.
50,000 Kuy inhabit more than 70 villages in neighboring parts of southern Laos, while another 20,000 make their homes in north-east Cambodia.
In Cambodia and Laos, Kuy are considered a “Hill Tribe”, yet they are not considered the same here in Thailand, where they have become more socially integrated and often live in mixed villages.
While the Kuy have their own language, unwritten until recently, little is known of their earliest existence, with their traditions and knowledge handed down orally from one generation to the next. One folk tale is that the village elders originally wrote their language on a pig skin but then dogs ate it so their writing was lost.
Prehistoric research points to the fact that the Kuy were the first people to inhabit the areas they still live today, with evidence that they were also once skilled iron smiths, it is surmised that the arms of the old Khmer armies were forged by the Kuy.
It is also believed the Kuy centuries ago once had their own autonomous lands located around the Mekong River on the boarders of Laos and Thailand. King Setthathirath (1534-1571), of Laos is reportedly to have wanted to suppress this very same Kingdom, during his reign. Other documentation states that envoys from the Kuy Kingdom were sent to the court in the Ayutthaya Kingdom and Angkor Thom located in present-day Cambodia, which was the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire.
What they call themselves
These ancient people call themselves “Kuy or Kuai” meaning people or human being, they also sub divide themselves into three sub-groups the “Kuy Malo or Melo or Malua” who earn their living as farmers. While the “Kuy Dam Rey or Kui Damrei” (damrei is Khmer for elephant) known as Elephant People, are renowned for their ability to catch and tame wild elephants, lastly the “Kuy Bru” live in mountainous areas. (Bru means mountain).
Other names for the Kuy
Other known names and dialect names: Antra, Aouei, Chang, Cuoi, Dui, Khamen-Boran, Kuay, Kui, Kui Souei, Kuoy, Kuuy, Kuy Ak, Kuy Anthua, Kuy Antra, Kuy Ma’ay, Kuy May, Kuy Mlor, Na Nhyang, Nheu, Old Khmer, , Suai, Suai Chang, Suay, Suei, Sui, Suoi and Soai (ส่วย) by the Thai.
The Thais, Lao and Khmer traditionally recognize the Kuy as the aboriginal inhabitants of the region and refer to them as Khmer Boran (Khmer), meaning “ancient Khmer” or Khamen Pa Dong, “Jungle Khmer people”
Traditional Kuy culture is similar to other Mon-Khmer minority groups of Southeast Asia. Historically, the majority of Kuy people were subsistence farmers, supplementing their income by weaving, raising livestock and fishing. In some villages the men are clever basket makers, who not only make the water-tight baskets (khlu), for carrying water but also very large ones for holding considerable quantities of paddy.
The Kuy in Thailand have been subject to Thaification policies which while more prevalent in the past can still be seen in today’s Thailand, including the country’s most recent marketing strategies geared around Thainess.
While there is still the desire to maintain their native language (Kuy), most will use the local Isan dialect. Like their Isan neighbours they are also fluent in Central Thai, plus around 40% also use the Northern Khmer language. UNESCO has labeled their native language an Endangered Language.
Religion and Beliefs
As with most of the 62 ethnic groups, recognized by the Thai government and who live within Thailand, the Kuy are predominately Theravada Buddhist’s, but like most of the population they also believe in animism, believing in both good and bad, spirits (Phi), ghosts and the supernatural.
They believe many spirits must be appeased in order to avoid misfortune. The people obey many taboos and accept, the fortune telling skills of their Sharman. Many will wear charms and amulets to protect themselves from evil spirits, while parents will bind a good luck charm to the wrist of children for the first three years to protect them from evil spirits.
In addition to ancestor spirits, Kuy believe in other nature spirits including that of the monitor lizard (takuat) which is used in the annual ritual “San Phi Pu Ta Takuat”, which takes place prior to the planting of rice and where, the tail of a monitor lizard, is used to tell the fortune of the villagers. (The lizard is seen as the symbol of fertility and of water and rain).
Other rituals and beliefs
- Kuy people believe that illness is caused by the actions of a bad Spirit, and so will perform a ceremony called kael mo, in which patents are placed into a trance like state and a form of exorcism, is carried out by the local shaman, accompanied by music and dance, in the hope the unwanted spirit will leave the patient.
- Children are usually named after deceased grandparents.
- Older generations do not believe in Buddhist cremations, the dead are buried normally without too many formalities and without priests. The head of the deceased is turned to face the west, so among other things the spirit of the deceased can see the sunset.
- Those Kuy who raise and train elephants venerate their own set of spirits related to their work.
The Elephant Men of Asia
Elephant hunting is an ancient profession normally handed down from one generation to another, as have the rules that govern the hunt, over the centuries the Kuy have practiced many ancient rituals, which cover the whole process of capturing the animals and their training.
Rituals of the Elephant Hunters
These start from gathering the men and paying homage, to the lasso-rope used to catch the elephants, along with ceremonies to obtain permission to enter the forest and erect a camps within it. Rites and rituals are also used to find and capture the animals, plus more in training the beasts and for everyone safe return home.
All these observances are under taken with the one sole purpose, that of gaining the favor and protection of the spirits
Clean and Pure
As elephant hunts are filled with many dangers, it is believed by the Kuy Dam Rey that, all those that choose to join the hunt, must be of clean and pure hearts. Therefore a hunter must prior to the hunt give up normal worldly pleasures, in the same manner as those entering into monkhood.
Kuy couples are seen as one and so, any spouse left behind is forbidden to receive strangers or relatives into the home, nor would she be permitted to use a broom to sweep the house. Any dust or rubbish collected would be done by hand, and then thrown some distance from the home.
Furthermore, the wife could not sleep on a mattress or show any outward signs of happiness, nor can she put on makeup. Breaking any of these rules would lead to an injury to the husband, worse still, any infidelity on the part of the wife would guarantee her husband’s death.
Charms and Amulets
Each senior hunter would carry an assortment of charms and amulets, along with medicinal herbs, tucked in a sheath-belt made from course hemp. This belt must be worn at all times, to ward off evil spirits. If a hunter failed to wear his belt, then evil spirits would visit him while asleep to squeeze his testicles, inflicting great pain.
Language of the spirits of the Forest
Kuy Elephant hunters have their own unique language that is different from their own native language ‘Kuy’. For more on the Kuy Dam Rey see Adversaries of Elephant Hunting
Most of the rites undertaken prior, during and after the capture of wild elephants would once have been undertaken by the chief hunter, today these ancient traditions are remembered, but by a few. The picture below is of the Last of the Elephant Spirit Men
For more how Thai’s employ elephants in their own festivals across the Kingdom see our posts
To read why boycotting Elephant camps and festivals in Thailand is self defeating click here
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