July - September 2002

Contents | A Letter to Our Reader | Once upon a time in Bago | Nine-Gems Ring | Khaung Cawi, to honour wives | Sea Gypsies | It's Good to Know | Cheroots | Traditional Chin House | Bandoola Boat | Events Calendar

Khaung Cawi
Honour to a Beloved Lady

By: Hpone Thant
Photo: Sonny Nyein & Maung Maung Latt (Chit Nyo)

Once upon a time a Chin man named Mong Sawi was on the banks of the Boinu River when he saw a cluster of wild flowers bobbing in the waves and circling round a whirlpool. His sudden inspiration was to honour his wife in this way: a beautiful jungle flower, bobbing and swirling and borne on the currents of love that overflowed from his heart. And so was born the legend that tells about the origins of this Khaung Cawi Ceremony; a husband's show of appreciation and love for his wife, a tradition that is still being observed to this day.

The bugles were playing and gongs were beaten. This was the beginning of the Chin Khaung Cawi Feast.

A Chin elder explained that this tradition is so costly that only the wealthy can afford It. In the old days this feast lasts for 7 days and dozens of mithans ( a bovine with thick flesh) and buffaloes must be slaughtered to feed the guests. Also a mithan must be sent as a living invitation to each village, so one mithan counts as one invitation card.

Waiting to welcome the guests

Yes, that would be expensive, as mithans are valuable possessions in the Chin Hills. So it is no wonder that this celebration is regarded as the highest feast of glory and the highest compliment paid to a wife by the husband.

We were invited to document this rare ceremony at a small village of surkhua, about 50 miles from Haka, the capital of Chin State. This is the first ceremony of its kind to be performed in more than 30 years and we were privileged to witness this event. As we live in Yangon, no mithan arrived,fortunately (or unfortunately), as an invitation.

The band leads the dance

We started out from Haka around 8.00 a.m by car but two punctures and careful manoeuvring along a narrow, twisting, barely drivable track delayed our arrival at the village to 3 o'clock in the afternoon. The last two miles were the worst. The road hugs the cliff face with barely enough room for a small car. One side is the almost vertical cliff and on the other is a steep gorge; one mistake and our car would go tumbling down to the bottom thousands of feet below. But the drive was through spectacular landscapes: rows of high uneven ridges stretching to the horizon, with small clusters of villages dotted here and there; lush forest of mixed deciduous and evergreen trees; wild orchids blooming in their natural habitats. Birdlife should also be varied as we heard many strange birdcalls but rarely is the singer visible because of the deep jungle.

Finally we reached our destination. The villagers were waiting in a happy, welcoming line. It turned out they had been waiting for us for more than 3 hours, expecting us to arrive in time for lunch! Surkhua village is situated at the elevation of 5227 feet. Bawpi Tlang Mountain, 8873 feet in elevation and the highest peak in Northern Chin State, towers above the village. A stiff breeze kept the temperature at a pleasant 20 C as we step down from our vehicle. It was a pleasant difference for us who had just came from the scorching heat of Mandalay. Boinu River could be seen as a shimmering sliver of silver in the valley thousands of feet below.

The nats are invited to bless the ceremony and ward off all evils and dangers.

"The Khaung Cawi Feast will be at the house of U Van Kio, the old Sawbwa (tribal I chief) of the region. The house was rebuilt I in 1918 in authentic Chin style when the original was burnt down. You will see for yourself': the head of the welcoming party informed us.

We had heard about this house and had seen pictures of it in the book by U Min Naing, "National Ethnic Groups of Myanmar"

Our excitement mounted as we approached the house. People could be seen packed in the courtyard and some were even perched on the branches of nearby trees. The whole compound was encircled bya high fence. The entrance is an oval opening. The inside walls were spectacular.: on the three sides were hung dozens of animal skulls, a "trophy board" of the house owner. Even the flooring is impressive. Some of the encirc planks were more than 2-3 feet wide and all had been hacked to a smooth finish with adzes.

In the front yard of the house was a bamboo contraption decorated with a traditional patterned broadcloth topped with an umbrella, and poles sticking out in all four directions. We surmised that this could be some kind of a carrying platform or a cradle of some kind and were proved right later. Huge jars of fermented rice wine stood in a row under the porch. Everyone in the village had gathered here. Soon the bugles and the gong sounded and the orchestra started playing, signalling the arrival of more guests from other villages.

The Lady-of-Honour

The hosts stood waiting in front of the entrance with cups of rice wine, as the guests will surely be thirsty after a long walk from their villages! The husband of the girl to be honoured led the welcoming party. He was clad "a la Chin': He wore a headdress with hornbill feathers stuck in it. Only the host of this ceremony can wear this headdress called the Sum Thawng. A traditional blanket was wrapped around his shoulders. He wore a piece of woven cloth around his waist with two loose flaps hanging down at the front and back. A powder horn, a bag, and a quiver of arrows hung on his body and in his hands was a bow.

Two loud booms reverberated and startled us, but not to worry! It is the Chin custom to welcome the guests with shots from their homemade flintlocks.

The girl to be honoured climbed into the bamboo contraption that we saw in front of the house.. She was also in a Sum Thawng and clad from head to foot in the most exquisite of woven cloths. Strands of silver threads and a wide silver belt encircled her slim waist.

Her sarong was hung with small tubes of brass and tassels of brightly coloured threads peeked out from the hem. Large silver bracelets encircled her upper arms.

As soon as she was settled, the men took hold of the four protruding poles and started tossing her up and down in time with the music. The husband circled around with his bow and arrowS, frequently shooting a few arrows into the air.

Our friend explained: "This is a very auspicious moment for the girl. The song that you are hearing is extolling her beauty and reciting the history of this ancient tradition."

Someone from our group asked, "What is the husband doing, shooting arrows into the air?': "Oh, as' said before, this is the highest feast of honour and as such, extra care must be taken to safeguard this lady. Bad spirits or evil birds of prey might come and take her away; the husband has this duty to frighten them away" our friend explained. Although this is a feast hosted by an individual the guests can take part in the ritual and toss their own wives.

The Lady-of-Honour and her spouse

As is normal for all ethnic communities, the dances are communal. A long line of dancers swayed to the beat of the music; the people tossing the bamboo carriage moved in step. The wife in the cradle threw candies and cash towards the spectators. The audience jostled and shoved in high spirits to catch some of these gifts to be kept
as good luck charms.

If anybody is thirsty they can help themselves to the rice spirit and many do. A white chicken was then tossed into the crowd and our friend explained:" This act signifies that what we had celebrated is good, clean and auspicious. According to strict rituals
the ceremony must end with the hosts and the guests going to the river to catch some fish and kill a mithane, but today we will dispense with the last part".

Soon the sun was hidden behind the high peaks and dusk descended. The music stopped and all the guests have gone home by the time flickers of candle lights appeared in the houses; but the warm glow of the ancient ritual lovingly preserved and proudly presented today will forever remain in our hearts.

Contents | A Letter to Our Reader | Once upon a time in Bago | Nine-Gems Ring | Khaung Cawi, to honour wives | Sea Gypsies | It's Good to Know | Cheroots | Traditional Chin House | Bandoola Boat | Events Calendar



July - September 2002