Find out the culture and tradition of the indigenous Padaung tribe and their struggle with the ‘human neck controversy’.
Nestled in the lush forests to the west of the Salween River and the Pekon Hills region of Kayah State and southern Shan State in eastern Myanmar, the fascinating Padaung tribe calls this verdant terrain their home. Although their ancestral territory is situated northwest of Loikaw town, the Padaung people now reside in seven villages, with the vibrant Bangpe community being the largest among them.
Despite their undeniable connection to their native land, it is worth noting that approximately 500 Padaung individuals have sought sanctuary in neighboring Thailand. They dwell in three villages located in the Muang District of Mae Hong Son Province, just a stone’s throw away from the Myanmar border. The year 1988 marked the onset of this mass exodus when the Padaung fled the perilous conflict between Burmese soldiers and ethnic minorities in Kayah State in search of a safer haven.
The Padaung tribe calls themselves “Kakaung” in their native tongue, which translates to ‘people who live on the hilltops.’ Additionally, their language bears a striking resemblance to that of the Lahta tribe in Myanmar, and it belongs to the Karen branch of the Tibeto-Burman family, adding to their rich cultural heritage.
What has drawn attention from the world to this tribal community is the fact that Padaung women wear brass neck coils that can amount to 32 coils. Traditionally, girls start wearing them at age five and add one more coil each year until marriage. Only three villages still follow this custom in Myanmar, but in Thailand, many women continue to wear them for economic reasons. The maximum extension of a human neck is 40 cm! Despite discouragement, the demand from tourists has led to a resurgence of this dangerous practice, with young girls being initiated as early as five years old.
Read About: The Indigenous Tribes of Asia
The Padaung Culture Is Rooted in Divination and a Unique Marriage Tradition
It is estimated that there are around 7,000 people in the Padaung group. They cultivate rice in the mountains near Loikaw and are mostly animists. Their history reveals a fascinating past where they once followed a matrilineal society, but tribal warfare caused a shift to polygamy. Interestingly, some echoes of their previous way of life can still be found in their customs, such as men playing an active role in childbirth and child care. Nowadays, polygamy has become less prevalent, and some Padaungs have converted to Christianity, embracing new beliefs while still preserving their unique cultural heritage.
These indigenous people have a fascinating traditional religion known as Kan Khwan, which dates back to their migration from Mongolia during the Bronze Age (similar to the ancient Scythians who thrived in the Bronze Age). Their belief system suggests that the Kayan community originated from the unlikely union of a female dragon and a male human/angel hybrid.
One of their most significant religious festivals is the vibrant and joyous three-day Kay Htein Bo festival, held in late March or early April. The festival commemorates their belief that the world was formed when the creator god planted a small post in the ground. During this event, a Kay Htoe Boe pole is erected, and participants dance around it in celebration. The festival is an occasion for the Kayan people to express their reverence to the eternal god and creator messengers, show appreciation for the blessings they’ve received throughout the year, seek forgiveness, and pray for rain. Additionally, the festival serves as an opportunity for Padaung people from different villages to come together, strengthening the solidarity of the tribe.
Additionally, their ancient tradition is rooted in divination. They hold fast to the belief that no action should be taken without consulting some form of augury (omen). While some may resort to breaking thatch grass for guidance, the most trusted method is none other than…chicken bones.
The Padaung have strict rules when it comes to marriage. They prefer first cousins to tie the knot. The man’s family must provide a dowry, and the price is higher if the woman moves in with her husband. And when the contract ceremony is over, the families celebrate by sharing a meal of—you guessed it—chicken!
Why Do the Padaung Wear Neck Rings?
The Padaung girls begin wearing brass coils around their necks when they are about five years old. A bedinsayah (a spirit doctor) puts the coils into place on an auspicious day, and the first coil is typically about four inches high. Additional coils are added every two years until the limit of 21–25 coils is reached at the age of marriage. The coils can reach up to a foot in height and weigh up to 20 pounds, but the actual effect is to push down the collarbones and compress the rib cage, creating the illusion of a stretched neck. The girls also wear coils on their legs, and the weight of the brass on their necks may have been meant to protect them from becoming slaves or to exaggerate sexual dimorphism. The coils may also give the women a resemblance to a dragon, an important figure in Kayan folklore, or they may have been meant to protect from tiger bites symbolically.
While the initial pain and discomfort are worth the unique identity it brings, the leg spirals can severely hamper mobility. Walking can become slow and stiff, making it challenging to navigate the steep mountain rice fields and ladders leading to their stilt-supported homes. Women with full-leg spirals must sit with their legs thrust straight out, and drinking requires the use of long straws due to the neck spirals.
But once the spirals are in place, they are rarely, if ever, removed. The duration of their wear requires a neck brace to prop it up until the muscles recover their strength. It’s said that removal was used as a punishment for adultery since the unbraced neck would flop over, causing suffocation. However, with the Padaung becoming less isolated since World War II, the practice of neck spiraling has been on the decline. Some women have removed their rings after converting to Christianity or rejected the practice as outdated and cumbersome. Even mothers who currently wear the rings have chosen not to continue the practice with their daughters.
What Happens When Neck Rings Are Removed?
Women in Mae Hong Son wear coils around their necks that can cause their shoulders to droop and their necks to look elongated. Although removing the coils is typically harmless, it is a tedious process and can cause discomfort and bruising. Despite this, many women choose to keep wearing the rings as they become a part of their bodies after years of use. In recent years, some younger women have begun to remove their rings as a form of protest against cultural exploitation and to pursue education. When the rings are removed, there is some discomfort that fades after a few days, but discoloration may linger.
The Struggle of the Padaung Tribe
According to some trekking companies and human rights groups, the Padaung villages in northern Thailand are considered exploitative “human zoos” for the women who live there. Some reports suggest that some of the Padaung are held captive by businessmen. The Padaung believe that women were once angels in a past world and that male hunters used rattan rings to catch them and bring them to Earth. Women are not supposed to remove the rings and should only briefly take them off when showering. Some guides fear that if tourists see the women in their traditional costumes, they will stop visiting the villages. The women and girls in the villages sell trinkets or charge for photographs to raise extra money since they are paid very little, if at all. They are not allowed to leave the one-acre village, and supplies are brought in daily by motorcycle. The women fear being arrested or having to call immigration if they try to leave. While none of the Padaung want to return to Myanmar, they express a desire for more freedom of movement.
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