Tribes of the Central Highlands

Posted 22nd September 2013 by David McGuinness

Like many tribal groups around the world the minorities of the Central Highlands (as they are known here) live a traditional lifestyle in a modern world and inevitably the modern world does intrude on their lives. Plastic is more convenient, if less photogenic (does nobody think of the tourists?), than more degradable materials, electricity does make life quite a bit easier. But then again, tradition is tradition.

The Jarai use plastic water bottles in the main. But they also still make some old traditional water bottles, and I don’t mean to sell to tourists. It’s a tradition. Their traditional water bottles are made from a vegetable from the pumpkin family called a gourd. They put this into the river for a week and it starts to go brown. They then rub it with a particular leaf, the chemical effect of which helps to preserve it. Then it goes back in the river for another week. They repeat this process over the course of a month by which time the bottle goes black and then they can use it to store water or rice wine. Unless it is broken by clumsy children who often use them as play things these bottles can last four or five years. They display them with pride.

Similarly on the surface of it the Jarai and Banhar are Christians but their beliefs are a complex blend that suffused Christianity onto a more ancient set of beliefs rather than replacing them. The Jarai believe they are descended from the union of a dog and human woman, and various animals are believed to have otherworldly powers and origins. Nor did the bible have much to say on the topic of the God of Water, nor the God of Fire. Their most important rituals are weddings, funerals and the like and here it is the ancient beliefs that dictate what is to be done. Both Jarai and Banhar have “grave villages” set to the West of the actual village.  For the Banhar, the size of the grave allowed is determined by the number of water buffalo slaughtered in their honour. As the village will all eat from this a large grave is allowed when more than one is slaughtered. The buffalo’s jaws are hung on the graves. Poorer families who do not own any buffalo are given token plots.

Family send items into the next life with the deceased but they must be broken (like the deceased) to pass through so they crack a jar of rice wine and send it on so the departed can have a draught or two in the afterlife. For the Jarai a single buffalo is slaughtered. This can be done up to six years after the death but the soul is only considered to be released when this is done and at that point the grave can be abandoned. And then the village will celebrate. If another village can hear the celebration they are considered invited as well. Until this celebration takes place no one from the family is allowed to wear any new clothes. Nor buy iPhones presumably.

The most obvious manifestation of their unique cultures apart from the graveyards are their communal building, called “Roong Houses” (a mispronunciation of “Long house” I think). These beautiful structures are a symbol of the village’s wealth and prosperity and are taken very seriously. The whole village takes part in their construction which takes three to six months typically, and their inauguration is a major event where a white buffalo used to be slaughtered, but these have become so rare that just a particularly fat one suffices these days. Their steep roofs look like upturned axe blades. Here all important village activity takes place, council meetings, communal celebrations and the like. In Kon’ktu, a Banhar village, their Roong House was doubling as two classrooms (with a simple screen divide) as the school building was no longer sufficiently large for the numbers. The gong to call children to class was a B52 bomb! “This is normal in Vietnam”, Minh smiled at me.

Both cultures are matriarchal (men move in with girls family after marriage and women are ultimate property owners), and have elaborate rituals and traditions around births, weddings and daily life (washing rituals, keeping a constant fire burning, etc) as well as the death ones I described.  They also have unique weaving both on looms (for clothing) and by hand for their beautiful baskets.

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