Tribes of the central Vietnam highlands

The Jorai are the among the oldest inhabitants of the central highlands or Tay Nguyen region of Vietnam close to the Cambodian border. They belong to the Austronesian language group and are closely related to the Dayak of Borneo and Pacific Polynesian cultures. They are a matriarchal society and practice dry rice growing and agriculture. Of all the hill tribe inhabitants of the Vietnamese central highlands, it is the Jarai, Banha and Ede (or Rade) who have gained the most public attention today. This is principally due to their moving, timeworn, wooden statuary. The monumental sculptures were created for funeral ceremonies that, curiously, did not take place upon the death of the deceased, but long after burial. The grave was thus ritually “abandoned” in the course of this last farewell. The Jorai are animist and their brand of ‘ancestor worship’ is quite different from the Kinh, the vast majority of the Vietnamese population, whose belief was that the soul of the deceased would return periodically from the other world to re-unite and feast with family. For the Jorai the deceased is buried facing the west and conscientiously cared daily for during this first phase of burial with offerings of food and surrounded by important and familiar objects such their rice wine jars and ceramic bowls. (I have seen TV sets and bicycles!) This formal ritual phase occurs over a relatively brief period ending when the departed’s soul leaves the world forever after the tomb abandonment ceremony. The Jorai believe that everything contains a spirit or soul and thus is a person. When a person dies, mngol (the soul) will become an atau (ghost) which stays within the environs until the abandonment ceremony when it will go to live with the ancestors in the plei atau (ghost village) or ancestor forest. The tomb abandonment is the most important ceremonial occasion amongst the Jorai. after which figures are sculpted by an appointed and accomplished carver and erected. The site is no longer visited with everything left to decay. The crucial period prior to tomb abandonment can be several months or several years, varying between groups and depending on the family raising the money required for sacrificial buffaloes and pigs. The abandonment ceremony itself can last up to a week .

In essence sadly, knowledge of these wonderfully archaic figures going back to the origins of humanity is scant. It was only from the time after the Vietnam War that they came to any sort of recognition in the west. Much of the hill tribe culture was devastated at this time. French missionaries had been in the area since the 1860s and later, after colonization, there were military outposts to protect the interests of colonial rubber and coffee planters but little changed until the 1950s when the French were defeated and north and south divided and then ensued thirty years of warfare. Many so-called ‘weepers’, hunkered figures evoking ancestors in the foetal position in which the dead were buried, sit atop poles surrounding the burial grounds. This practice was in keeping with a megalithic tradition shared by many tribes, traces of which can be found throughout South-East Asia and Oceania: the Hampatong, sculptures of the Dayak in Borneo, Bulul statues of the Igorot from the Philipinnes, Korwar figures from the Indonesian province west Irian, Asmat statues from Papua New Guinea and the stone megaliths, penji, from the island of Sumba, to name others. In the typical arrangement of the funeral house, the ‘weepers’ sat at the four corners of the rectangular grave and other figures of often more recognizably human form and even embodying aspects of the deceased’s personality stood between the corner figures. Sometimes, as in this case, the figures are associated with mythological zoomorphic representations. The snake (dragon or serpent) from the lower world, is a powerful female cosmogonical force in many animist southeast Asian cultures and has a protective and benevolent presence. Amongst the Dayak for instance, the dragon or serpent is so powerful that even uttering the name could be dangerous, hence the motif, widely used as a protective symbol on many carved objects, was referred to as the ‘aso’ or ‘dog’ dragon. Nguyen Van Ku, a photographer, tells of his encounter with a snake amongst the Jorai. While concentrating on his photography a large snake had wrapped itself around his leg. He froze in fear but the snake unwound itself and slid off. Local people told him it was a sacred snake, a ghost snake, and that it was exceedingly auspicious!

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