The Karen People
Mountains to the Karen are a very important part of their lives and of their history. Northern Thailand is a mountainous region inhabited by the foothills of the Himalayans, home to the largest mountain in the world, Mount Everest. The Karen people have always been closely connected to this beautiful mountainous land which sustains them.
The Karen have always been environmentally aware and because of this they have avoided farming methods which involved cutting down trees. It is said they feared the spirits so they didn't cut down the trees. This connection with nature is part of what it means to be Karen.
For many generations, the Karen people have lived in harmony with the forest. Only if teak trees reached a certain size could they be harvested. They were replanted and the logs were transported by elephants and river rafts. Forest-dwelling Karens build their houses of bamboo with some wood, perched on stilts with thatched roofs.
Many Karen who migrate to more urban areas choose career paths that involve the forest, such as trekking guides or building from bamboo. Our friend Sombat has lived in Chiang Mai for nearly 15 years and still chooses to run treks for tourists all the way back to his Karen village in the mountains. He is at home in the forest.
There are about 5 million Karen tribal members living in Myanmar (Burma). Another 300,000 Karen people are in Thailand, and thousands of others live there as refugees having fled the conflict with the Burmese military. They are said to have migrated from Yunnan China into Burma in the 8th century where they settled and continue to live in the low mountains along the Burma - Thailand border.
Karen society is a matriarchal one. Traditionally, either a boy or a girl can propose marriage. The whole village is allowed a say whether their marriage would be appropriate and not offensive to any spirits. Weddings are festive occasions when both the bride's and groom's villages come together. Unmarried girls wear simple, long white dresses called hsay mo htoo in Sgaw Karen. Once married the bride changes from her unmarried woman's long dress to a married woman's two-part outfit.
The Karen women's tunics are often elaborately embroidered with colored thread and seed-beads. The men's tunics are plain, having only fringed hems. Karen women are known for their fine cotton weaving of clothing, blankets, and bags. The weaving is usually done on a small loom set up with a strap that wraps around the waist at one end, but in some areas there are large wooden frame looms as well.
The thread is dyed sometimes with patterns producing a tie-dyed affect. Each of the many sections of this large ethnic group has its own style of dress. Our Karen friends only have to look at a piece of Karen weaving and they immediately identify where it comes from, saying “ Oh that comes from such and such area.”
The Karen also produce gorgeous etched silver jewelry, baskets, and musical instruments.
The Karens have several musical instruments of importance. The Karen drum is a symbol of the culture. It is round and made of cast bronze, often decorated with figures of frogs and elephants. Bronze drums were used among the Karen as a device to assure prosperity by inducing the spirits to bring rain, by taking the spirit of the dead into the after-life and by assembling groups including the ancestor spirits for funerals, marriages and house-entering ceremonies. The drums were used to entice the spirits of the ancestors to attend important occasions and during some rituals the drums were the seat of the spirit.
The Karens play a harp called the t'na ,
which has five or six strings and is tuned
with pegs along the neck of the instrument.The Karen harp, only played by men,
is traditionally a courting instrument,
the player usually accompanying his singing
Music that uses the repetitive beat of metal gongs accompanies such dances as the rice-planting dance and the bamboo dance, as well as wedding processions. In the bamboo dance, sets of eight to twelve long bamboo poles are placed in a grid. Participants kneel on the ground and bang the poles together in time to the music, while dancers step in and out of the openings in the grid.
The Karens have htas, It is a form of oral poetry which are normally sung on special occasions such as weddings and funerals, the Pwo Karens also developed dong dancing, which is performed with htas set to music. Dong, or dou as it is actually pronounced in Pwo Karen, means to be in unison or in agreement. It comes from the fact that originally the dong master would write a song about someone in the village who had committed some misdeed. Hta singers would describe the person’s immoral behavior while dancers would dance to this song. If the person asked, "Who is saying these things against me?" the dong master would identify himself as the accuser. But the dancers would also join in and say, "We all agree. Given that contemporary Karen written communication only occurred in the 1800s you can see the importance or oral communication to Karen history.
The month of August marks a time of year when the bonds of tradition that bind the Karen people are tied in a symbolic but also quite literal way. In Karen families and communities around the world white threads are tied around wrists in a ceremony known as Lah Ku Kee Su.
Lah Ku means August and Kee Su describes the act of binding the wrist. Traditionally the festival takes place at the time of the August full moon
Karen elders get things going by singing a traditional song and then explaining to the community the ancient meaning of the ceremonies that follow. These ceremonies begin with prayers imploring the spirits—or K’la—to return from wherever they are roaming and to stay in the family and community circle.
The wrist-tying ceremony follows. The Karen elders wind white thread three times around the wrists of seven young unmarried couples, knotting the bracelets and breaking the thread with their fingers. Then the ceremony is repeated with the rest of the community.The chief purpose of the festival is to reinforce Karen identity and contribute to the continuation of Karen culture.
Siamese Dream Design is repurposing beautiful Karen textiles into colorful home decor. Giant colorful floor pillows is just a start. We'll be traveling soon to some of our friends villages in the mountains for a bit of added inspiration for additional home decor items from this very beautiful Karen woven fabric.
Funky purple and yellow ethnic Karen fringed floor pillow
Big, Bright, Fun & Funky Double Sided
Big, Bright, Fun & Funky Double Sided
Boho Floor Pillow / Cushion Cover With Tassels.
Ethnic Karen tribal woven cotton in a great super sized floor pillow or cushion. Perfect for throwing your body on to read, watch TV or just relax. Pile them up, mix and match with other colorful pillows for a style that is uniquely yours