Padaung Tribeswomen

Posted 10th July 2015

The reason for the Padaung Tribe, indigenous to Myanmar, seeking refuge in Thailand during the 60s can be attributed to one of their most significant cultural symbols – the brass neck ring. When the military seized control of Myanmar in 1962, one thing they promised was to move the country into the modern period. This is something that saw a ban imposed on any traditions that seemed to be too archaic. The Padaung, who are most recognisable for the numerous brass rings that the tribeswomen wear, came under direct attention.

Many Padaung chose to leave the country whilst many of the younger generations removed their brass neck rings in order to adhere. However, there are roughly 7000 Padaung still in Chin and many of them are women who have kept this tradition alive.

A Padaung girl aged 5 is expected to have her first three coils fitted and every year and additional few are added. Auspices read by the village shaman determine this first fitting. But what’s particularly fascinating about this custom is the way that it contorts the bodies of the women who wear them. The neck, appearing to be longer, is in fact an illusion. What actually happens to the wearer’s body is that the coils push down on the shoulders, squeezing the chest down and their rib cage together. What also appear to be rings around their necks is in fact a long length of copper that is wrapped tightly together, to give the appearance of rings. Legs and arms can also be seen shackled in the same copper length.

There are many reasons why the women are thought to wear these brass neck rings, one of which is tied very closely to the tribes religious beliefs. One theory suggests that the illusion of the elongated necks makes the Padaung women resemble dragons. This is significant as in the Padaung religion, which is known as Kan KhwanI, there is a held belief that this tribe is the offspring of a union between a female dragon and male/angel hybrid. By resembling dragons, the women are attaching themselves to this belief system and lineage.

Although this is not the only explanation given. One idea is that the rings are said to protect the women from tiger bites – from both the physical and spiritual worlds. Similar to how the Chin and Nagas tattoo their tribeswomen’s faces, the brass rings are said to also act as a deterrent for other tribes or slave traders looking to steal Padaung women. Though there may be truth in this, today the custom is considered a symbol of beauty and wealth amongst the women in this dwindling tribe. It’s no surprise then to learn that the practice of removing the rings of women who have committed adultery is still prevalent in coil-wearing communities.

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