Monday, September 26, 2016

Non-Buddhist Dai in Xishuangbanna

                                                       by Jim Goodman

Huayao Dai in Mengyang market
       The usual assumption about the Dai ethnic minority in Xishuangbanna is that they are Buddhist.  After all, virtually every town and village inhabited by the Dai has a Buddhist temple.  I thought so myself on my first trip to Banna two dozen years ago.  What little information I had on the prefecture informed me that three main branches of the Dai lived here:  Shui Dai, Han Dai and Huayao Dai.  The Shui Dai lived near water (shui in Chinese), were the most numerous of the three and called themselves Dai Lu.  The other two lived away from streams and dressed differently and that’s all I knew at the time.
       At the end of that first trip, though, almost by accident, I learned that not all the Dai in Banna were Buddhist.  After visiting the tropical garden in Menglun, I opted to return to Jinghong via the northern route through Jinuoshan, intending to stop at Mengyang.  Nice route, much of it a nature reserve, but back then there was hardly any traffic.  I missed whatever bus was running and had to wait hours before I could flag down a truck.  I arrived in Mengyang quite late.
       I didn’t have much time in the morning, for I had a flight back to Kunming to catch late in the day.  The road back to Jinghong climbed over high hills just northeast of the city and took at least three hours.  I set out early to see the Mengyang attraction that inspired my stopover—the elephant tree.  This was a banyan tree in a grove at the edge of the town, whose roots thrust the tree trunk above the ground, with one part extending like an elephant’s trunk.  An eye had been painted on the part corresponding to the head, so that it did indeed resemble an elephant.
Huayao Dai woman carrying her load
Huyao Dai women in Mengyang
With a couple of hours left until the bus departed, I looked around for a temple to photograph.  Mengyang’s not a big town, even now, but I couldn't find one.  I did spot a couple beautifully dressed women in the market, carrying their loads in baskets suspended from each end of a balance pole.  Someone in the market identified them for me as Huayao Dai, non-Buddhists, which is why no temple stood in the area. 
the 'elephant tree' in 1992
the 'elephant tree' in 2006
       They were certainly more colorful than any Shui Dai I’d seen so far.  The outfit comprised a tubular skirt, a shorter skirt above that, long-sleeved jacket, shirt and silver turban.  The garments were black, but embellished with broad sections of colorful embroidery, especially around the midriff and hips.  It is this feature that gave then the name Huayao Dai—Flowery Waist Dai.
       It was several years before I could make a return trip to Xishuangbanna, but that included another, more extended visit to Mengyang.  A newly built road skirted the hills and the journey only took 45 minutes.  The town hadn’t grown much.  It still had just one main road running through the town, with one side, which contained the market, full of cement buildings and the other side basically the original Dai village, with houses of wood and brick. 
       The only real change was with the elephant tree.  Now the grove had a wall around it and a ticket booth at the entrance.  The elephant tree itself, maybe because it was in danger of sinking or toppling over, was now propped up by stilts and the ‘trunk’ was encased in wooden planks.  Now it looked like a crippled elephant on crutches with its fractured trunk in splints.
Huyao Dai village and fish pond
       But this time I came not for the tree but for the villages.  Mengyang is a few hundred meters higher than Jinghong and the altitude gradually increases further north.  No Shui Dai villages exist in the district.  Huayao Dai villages dominate, but there are also a few Han Dai villages, including the closest one to Mengyang.  The Han in Han Dai means ‘dry,’ to indicate that this Dai sub-group lives away from streams and rivers.
       So do the Huayao Dai.  And another characteristic they share with the Han Dai is housing.  They live in mud-brick houses with tiled roofs, generally set on the ground and not stilted like those of the Dai Lu.  They surround their compounds with bamboo fences to keep the animals out and keep old-fashioned handlooms to weave and embroider their clothing components.  
Mannazhuang ladies
       In the early 21st century the prefecture government chose one of the seven Huayao Dai villages in the district to be an official ‘cultural village.’  I was familiar with the concept.  Aini and Lahu ‘cultural villages’ used to lie beside the old road to Menghai.  But the new highway from Jinghong to Menghai ran right through the middle of these two villages, so as  ’cultural villages,’ replete with ticket booths and people ready to show you around, they ceased to exist.  The Jinuo had one, too, with a huge sculpture of the Jinuo goddess and a re-created traditional longhouse.  And of course, by then the Dai Park in Ganlanba had opened, with the highest ticket price.  But at least it had five villages to explore.
       Mannazhuang, the official Huayao Dai cultural village, was a pleasant surprise; no ticket booth and no handicraft/souvenir shop.   I was there in the company of a Dai resident of Mengyang who wanted to practice his English.  When we arrived, several Huayao Dai women, in full traditional outfits, were standing in the lane next to our drop-off point.  They were a bit shy, surprised to see us and were probably wondering whatever could they possibly talk about with us?
preparing the warps threads
       With my new friend interpreting for me, I told them I lived in northern Thailand and was involved in the ethnic textile business and wanted to know whether they made their beautiful garments themselves.  They did, of course, and used a loom similar to that of the Shui Dai, and if I wanted to see how it worked, women were dressing the loom—preparing the warp threads—right this very moment just two streets away.
       This is the first task in the weaving process, whether it’s for sheets, pillowcases or clothing components, the only one requiring a group effort.  When we arrived at the courtyard a dozen women were at work.  The older women dressed in traditional clothes; the younger ones did not.  But a young woman sat at the bench, rolling the threads around a drum, while the other women attended to the threads, wound around five pillars in a shed. 
Huayao Dai loom
       Just in front of her another woman inserted thin sticks in the line of threads at intervals to keep them straight.  In front of them, several women untangled, straightened and brushed the warp threads before they were wound on the drum.  This particular bolt of cloth was to be 120 meters long, and the women took over an hour to complete the work after we arrived.  That done, the women dispersed.  The next day they would assemble the loom and mount the warp threads on it.
       We left for other houses where weavers were at their looms.  The Huayao Dai loom is a simple wooden contraption with two heddles, which separate every other thread, attached to two foot treadles.  The weaver sits on a bench at the rear of the loom, depresses one treadle to open a shed in the warp threads, then tosses a shuttle with the weft thread through it and pulls the reed forward a few tines to knock the thread into place.
       This kind of loom can only produce plain weave.  Huayao Dai clothing components are full of embroidery and this is done by hand on the loom itself during the weaving process.  The weaver simply ties in yarn of different colors into places on the warp, without using extra heddles.  As the patterns are both different and repetitive, she has to remember exactly which colored thread goes in where and when.  It’s a laborious job, but certainly justified by the result. 
embroidering on the loom
       Men weave, too, but baskets, not cloth.  As in other traditional villages, they are responsible for the heavy agricultural work like plowing and house construction.  They are also in charge of the rituals, usually held at the village ancestral shrine, a simple altar in a grove at the edge of the settled area.  Being animist, the Huayao Dai do not celebrate the Buddhist festivals of the Dai Lu, but the Han Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival instead.  They do not celebrate Poshuije---the Water-Sprinkling Festival—either, at least in their villages.  But they are one of the contingents in the multi-ethic procession of Poshuijie’s first day.
       For this occasion the women wear the circular, slightly upturned bamboo hat worn by the Huayao Dai in Xinping and Yuanjiang counties, rather than their own round cap lined with silver chains.  The round bamboo cap is better known in Yunnan as a component of the Huyaao Dai women’s outfit, the procession showcases the prefecture’s ethnic clothing for outsiders, so perhaps the Jinghong authorities ordered the switch in headgear.  It’s hard to think that the Huayao Dai women themselves chose to make the change.  But Xinping and Yuanjiang counties are where they came from originally, migrating to Banna in the last decades of the Qing Dynasty.
Han Dai in Jingne
       The other animist Dai sub-group, the Han Dai, is not part of the Poshuijie procession.  Their women do not dress as colorfully as the Huayao Dai, but have a distinctive outfit.  They wear plain black turbans, pastel-colored blouses and a black tubular skirt with a long black apron in front, trimmed with blue and white stripes along the edges.  Besides a couple villages in Mengyang, they also live in Jingne district, northwest of Mengyang.
       All but unknown to tourists, Jingne is notable for the outstanding traditional Dai stilted houses in the three villages close to the town.  These Dai are Dai Lu and share a temple in nearby Dazhai.  Neighboring villages, though, are Han Dai, with houses on the ground.  Like the Huayao Dai they also immigrated to Xishuangbanna in the late 19th century, coming out of Jinggu County.  After I inquired about the Han Dai I’d seen in the town square, my hotel staff arranged a vehicle for me to visit the Han Dai village of Nafa, because there was wedding going on there. 
       I didn’t get to see any rituals, but did observe the wedding gifts—mostly household furniture-- piled up before the house where the feast was taking place.  As a guest, even an unexpected, uninvited one, I was immediately summoned to the feast.  The repast consisted of different pork dishes, sticky rice and several cups of rice liquor, accented by a spirited conversation about Dai in Yunnan and Thailand.  I had the distinct impression I was their first foreigner guest.
Nafa Han Dai village
       When a young woman came to refill my liquor cup, and I asked her, as I did in Mannazhuang, whether she made her own clothes, she at once offered to show me how.  The house loom was just a few meters away, so she sat at the bench, worked the heddles and treadles and demonstrated how cloth was made.  I was already quite familiar with this, but the important point was the pride she took in showing me her weaving.
       Besides the animist Dai, one other sub-group lives in Banna—the Paxitai.  They are Muslim by religion, but ethnically Dai.  Manlanhui is the main settlement, 8 km east of Menghai.  The community traces its origins to two Muslim missionaries from Weishan who came here in the mid-18th century seeking converts.  This site was on the tea caravan route and they set up a ferry on the river in front of the village, which was probably a lot bigger back then, and made a living from ferrying goods and people.  They married local Dai women and became the ancestors of the Paxitai.
Han Dai women in Nafa
Han Dai weaver
Manlanhui’s mosque exhibits both Arabian and Chinese features.  The onion-shaped minaret dome is clearly Middle Eastern style, but the tiled roofs and general layout are more characteristic of Chinese Hui mosques.  The villagers observe Ramadan and Friday prayers, but are not very strict.  Very few women wear headscarves and in general dress like their Buddhist neighbors.  The village has become wealthy thanks to the tea trade and modern cement houses have replaced their former dwellings, which were on the ground, not stilts.
       The other Paxitai village lies on the dirt road 5 km west.  Called Manzhanhui, it is newer, with residents who originated last century from Lancang County.  The mosque is totally Arabian style and not as attractive as that in Manlanhui.  Both Paxitai communities have been expanding their connections to the Hui minority—the Han Chinese Muslims.  Mostly this results in Hui-sponsored Islamic Studies programs. But the Dai Muslims still identify as Dai.  So do the Huayao Dai and Han Dai.  In Xishuangbanna, ethnic identity supersedes religion.  

Manlanhui in 2002  
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for more on the Dai in the area see my e-book Xishuangbanna: the Tropics of Yunnan


Saturday, September 17, 2016

Tigers Out, People In—The Second Founding of Chiang Mai

                                                                by Jim Goodman

Kawila's army on the march, Wat Srisupahn
       Originally founded in 1296, for over two and a half centuries Chiang Mai was the capital of the independent Kingdom of Lanna.  At its peak, Lanna ruled over most of northern Thailand and its authority extended into northeast Burma and Xishuangbanna in Yunnan, China.   But by the mid-16th century the state had fallen into decline and Chiang Mai fell to Burmese armies from Pegu in 1558.  Lanna became a semi-autonomous vassal state of Burma for over a century, then was incorporated into the Burmese Kingdom as a province and ruled directly by Burmese governors. 
       At the pinnacle of its power, in 1767 Burma conquered and destroyed Ayutthaya, the capital of its hereditary rival Siam.  Down but not out, the Siamese recovered under King Taksin and began a long struggle to expel the Burmese from the land.  Some places, like Lampang, 100 km south of Chiang Mai, had already reclaimed their independence from Burma and in an alliance with Taksin’s forces, in 1774 drove the Burmese garrison out of Chiang Mai. 
ruins of the wall and bastion on the nw corner
       Peace didn’t last long, though, for the Burmese launched a nearly successful counter-attack two years later.  Not feeling strong enough yet to withstand another attack, the defenders abandoned the city and removed what was left of its local population to Lampang.  With most of its fortifications, palaces and temples heavily damaged by years of conflict, Chiang Mai became a ghost city, its ruins the haunt of tigers and wild elephants from the forest just to its west.
       In 1782 the Chakri Dynasty took power in Siam and moved the capital to Bangkok.  King Rama I, who had been one of the commanders who expelled the Burmese from Chiang Mai, appointed his ally Prince Kawila of Lampang as King of the re-established state of Lanna.  It would not be fully independent, as in the past, but as a vassal state of Siam, yet would still recoup its former glory.  And so would Chiang Mai, its capital once again.
       The problem was that there were not enough people around to be able to do this.  Decades of war had devastated northern Thailand and all the cities north of Lampang were empty.  Persuading people to leave their forest retreats and return to rebuild didn’t seem to work.  So for the next several years Kawila’s armies embarked on what were called missions of ‘collecting vegetables for baskets and collecting people for the cities.’ 
guardian lions onrth of the city
       Mostly these expeditions went north, to Kengtung in northeast Burma and over into Xishuangbanna.  Their objective was to capture people to repopulate Chiang Mai and other cities.  This was not something unprecedented.  For centuries states in the region had been doing the same thing to each other.  The winners abducted people from the losers’ territories and brought them back to live within their own countries.  They waged war for resources and people were prime resources, especially crafts workers.
       Finally, in 1791, fifteen years after the tigers took over Chiang Mai, Kawila began his reconstruction program.  He had the original moats renovated, rebuilt the brick walls and city gates, restored the most important temples, constructed new palaces and eradicated the wild animal presence.  Reviving old Lanna customs, he reinstalled the sacred city pillar and later built shrines for protective animal spirits at two locations north of the city.  One was a pair of white elephant statues and the other a pair of white lions.  Then he began moving people into the city starting with the former residents who had been shifted to Lampang.  They were Tai Yuan people, from the majority ethnic population in the north.  And for some time only Tai Yuan people were permitted to live within the walled old city.
rounding up theTai Khoen
the chedi at Wat Ku Tao
       The Tai Khoen from Kengtung and the Tai Lu from Xishuangbanna were settled in Haiya, the area south of the old city that used to be inhabited by the Tai Yuan commoners, when only the royal family, high-ranking nobles and monks lived within the walled area.  Both the Tai Khoen and the Tai Lu are culturally close to the Tai Yuan.  Their dialects are very similar.  They use the same alphabet, follow the same monastic orders and their former ruling families were related.  They apparently didn’t have any trouble fitting in to the Tai Yuan polity.
Chakravartin Buddha at Wat Ku Tao
Shan girls at Wat Ku Tao
       In 1796, five hundred years after its original birth, with enough people on hand now to cheer his procession, Kawila had himself crowned as king in resurrected Chiang Mai.  With a further nod to tradition, he and his entourage entered the old city by the northern gate, the same route taken by Mengrai, Lanna’s first King, and all of his successors.  Security was still a priority, though, for the Burmese were still a threat.  Kawila had an earthen wall built around the southern and eastern suburbs and this helped stop a final Burmese attack in 1802.  Shortly after this, Kawila expelled the Burmese from their last stronghold in Chiang Saen and from then on northern Thailand lived in peace.
music at the Wat Ku Tao festival
Wat Papao
       With this victory, followed by more ‘collecting people’ among the Tai Yong and Shan, Kawila assured the revival of the Lanna state and the prestige of Chiang Mai.  But just as it was not quite the Lanna state of old, it was not the same kind of Chiang Mai this incarnation.  In the past, Chiang Mai had some resident foreign traders and diplomats, but now it had entire neighborhoods settled by outsiders.  From now on it could no longer be identified as a Tai Yuan city.
       This trend continued for the next century as other Lanna cities revived and the north became more integrated with the rest of Thailand.  The last of the people-collecting missions ended with the captured Tai Yong of northeast Burma, removed to resettle Lamphun, 30 km south.  Afterwards it was a normal immigration process, though communities settled in certain exclusive areas.  The Tai Yai, or Shan, moved into the area north of the old city and in the early 20th century Chinese settled along the Ping River, where today they dominate the big riverside markets.
lacquer ware at Wat Nantharam
       Though they have long been an integral part of Northern Thai society, many of these ‘outsiders’ have kept up their own distinct customs.  The Chinese have their Mahayana Buddhist temples and stage elaborate New Year celebrations in the riverside Warorot Market.  The Shans took over maintenance of Wat Chiang Yeun, the only temple undamaged by the Burmese wars, and erected two of their own.
       Wat Ku Tao, about two km north of the old city, is distinguished by its unusual old chedi, shaped like a stack of begging bowls.  It was built in the late 16th century during the Burmese occupation and holds the ashes of the first Burmese prince appointed to the throne of Lanna.  The two-story viharn, or main worship hall, is new and in the Thai style.  The large, seated Buddha in the upper floor hall wears a crown, regal garments and ornaments, a style known as the Chakravartin—Universal Ruler.  It symbolizes a period when the Buddhist Dharma will prevail all over the world.
Wat Nantharam
       At the beginning of the Buddhist retreat season the local Shan hold a festival in the compound.  Dressed in their best traditional clothing, they throng the compound from mid-morning.  Festivals are market venues as well, so some set up stalls to sell temple offerings, jewelry, clothing, fruits, drinks and snacks.  Others light incense sticks and place flowers at the shrines and inside the viharn, paste gold leaf wafers onto Buddha images and, more and more often every year, use their cell phones and selfie-sticks to record their devotional exercises.
       The activities are both religious and secular.  Inside the ground level hall devotees listen to monks’ sermons and beneath one of the compound’s leafy big trees sit while monks recite passages from scriptures.  In another area an impromptu music session takes place, with flutes, gongs and a long ‘elephant-leg’ drum. 
      The other main Shan temple is Wat Papao, across the moat on the other side of the northeast corner of the old city.  With its triple-roofed entrance gate, bell-like chedi and multi-tiered viharn, it follows the Shan style in northeast Burma.  It’s also more of a Shan cultural center, for the signs are in the Shan language and script and stalls in the compound sell Shan specialties like cheroots. 
Wat Srisuphan--the Silver Temple
       The biggest Shan festival, Por Sang Long, takes place here late March or early April.  It is a rite of passage for boys 7-14, who dress like princes in gorgeous clothes and jewelry to symbolize the life of the Buddha before he left his royal palace to seek Enlightenment.  After three days of music, dancing, games and a colorful procession, the boys exchange their fancy garments for monastic robes and enroll in the monastery as novices for a few months.
       As for the earlier settlers from Burma, the Tai Khoen forcibly resettled in Haiya, their neighborhood became an important part of the city’s crafts tradition, particularly lacquer ware and silver.  Workshops in the lanes around Wat Nantharam produced bowls, vases, platters, trays and containers of all shapes and sizes, lacquered in red, gold and black.  The lustrous surface finish is so durable that antique lacquer ware, like that on display in the Wat Natharam museum, looks like it was just made yesterday.
craftsman at work,Wat Srisuphan
       Wat Nantharam is also famous as a traditional medicine center.  It is one of several temples serving the Haiya neighborhoods.  But the most important, the cultural hub of Haiya, is Wat Srisuphan, just off Wualai Road, the street that runs diagonally through the district.  Shops selling silver jewelry and other silver items dominate Wualai and craftsmen work at little stalls in the adjoining lanes.
       Wat Srisuphan was built in 1501, when Lanna was still a strong, independent kingdom.  At the time, it was one of the eight holiest temples surrounding the center of Chiang Mai.  Hardly anything remains of the original structures, though, for it has been renovated many times since.  During the Second World War, when Thailand was temporarily allied with Japan, the Japanese Army used the temple compound as a military base, with soldiers quartered just outside the walls.  Consequently, it suffered from a rare Allied bombing raid.  One of the bombs blew up the main worship hall--the viharn.
monk in the workshop, Wat Srisuphan
     After the war the local people gradually restored the buildings, added more, upgraded the decorations, installed new statues and in recent decades turned the compound into a showcase for the Haiya silver crafts community.  From 2005 workers began covering the exterior walls of the ubosot (ordination hall) with sculpted metal plates depicting a great variety of figures and scenes.  The work was completed only a couple years ago and Wat Srisuphan now is famously known as the Silver Temple.
       The plates are only silver in color though, for they are made from aluminum.  Yet the work, carried out in the compound’s own workshop, is truly impressive, both for its skill and for some of its unusual themes.   On each side of the entrance stairs are mythological scenes of devatas (Buddhist angels) flying over churning oceans.  On the back wall is a scene of the Buddha, in gold, preaching to an assembly of devotees.  On the side walls are vignettes of daily life, like riding ox carts, building houses, carrying water and so on.
       Such scenes are also commonly portrayed in the interior wall murals of many temple buildings in the city.  Unique to the Silver Temple are the panels depicting the Haiya community’s history, with Kawila’s army on the march and his mounted soldiers rounding up people in Kengtung.  Also unique are decorative plaques that have nothing to do with religion, like the emblems of the ASEAN nations, pictures of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, capital cities of the modern world, famous buildings like Stonehenge, the Hagia Sophia Mosque, the catacombs of Alexandria, the Porcelain Pagoda of Nanjing, etc. and cartoon characters like Spiderman.
Alexandria catacombs, Hagia Sophia Mosque
       The identifying captions beneath these plaques are all in English, another indication of the temple’s new reach out to the tourist crowds.  Next to the ubosot is a small museum honoring the community’s top silver and lacquer ware specialists, with biographies and samples of their work.  The workshop next to the viharn is still active every day and the temple offers tourists classes in silver craftwork.  It also has a ‘Monk Chat’ program for visitors to talk with English-speaking monks about Buddhism or learn about meditation.
       The moats, bastions, restored old temples and city gates, what passes for the main tourist attractions in Chiang Mai, are the visible legacy of Kawila’s reconstruction.  More important was the demographic change he introduced, the precedent he set for adding to the local population people from far beyond Chiang Mai,  As a result, the culture of Chiang Mai today is richer than it ever was, even in Lanna’s Golden Age.

village life, a panel on the Silver Temple
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Monday, September 5, 2016

Art and the Akha Woman

                                                   by Jim Goodman

Ulo Akha woman
       This month in Thailand it’s time for the Akha Swing Festival.   For the females of a traditional village, this is also the time to dress up in their very best Akha clothing.  Even when they have adopted modern clothing for everyday work, at this time of the year they remember their roots and express it in their clothing.  It’s also a time of artistic competition, to show off one’s skill, to create a jacket, shoulder bag, cap or headdress more outstanding than anyone else’s.  And this is in an environment where all the women and girls, while keeping within the traditional artistic parameters, strive to be original enough to be noticed. 
       Though their language does not have an equivalent for the term, they are artists without knowing it.  They pay attention to each step of the work.  While working on their creations they have a vision of its final appearance and spend much time carrying out the details of the original inspiration.  In what way are they different from painters, novelists or symphony composers?
       In the traditional Akha view art is something one wears. They don’t hang their creative work on walls. They put it on their bodies. To an Akha, art is the adornment of everyday being and to wear it is to make a statement at once ethnic, personal and aesthetic.  Living in relative isolation for so many centuries, they evolved their own idea of what was beautiful.  And maybe because the women spent so much time in the laborious process of turning cotton bolls into clothing, they imagined ways to adorn and decorate otherwise functional clothes into something that aesthetically enhanced their lives in a color-limited environment that was basically greens, browns and whatever color the sky was that day.
spinning thread while on the move
weaver at work
            The Akha woman’s outfit comprises, from head to toe, a headdress, halter top, long-sleeved, hip-length jacket, belt, knee-length skirt, a sash-pouch worn over the front of the skirt and a pair of leggings below the knees.  The components change according to age.  As children they wear round caps, skirt and jacket.  When they get older, they change to a different, more decorated cap, add the sash-pouch in front of the skirt, and wear leggings.  When fully grown up they wear the adult woman’s headdress.  The Swing Festival and Akha New Year in late December are the occasions when they can graduate from one outfit to the next.
embroidering on the way to the fields
indigo-dyed cloth hanging up to dry
        The process of making clothing begins with the collection of cotton bolls grown in the village.  The women run lumps of this through a simple gin to crush the seeds, then fluff it with a bow to remove all foreign matter.  The next step is to roll the cotton into sausage-shaped rolls. To spin thread the Akha woman takes a roll of cotton, hooks it onto her simple drop-spindle, gives it a fast turn on her thigh to set it spinning, lets it drop, then draws out the thread.
       When there’s enough thread ready, it’s time to set up the loom.  This is a simple contraption, easy to put up and take down, comprising two pairs of erect bamboo poles about six meters apart, connected by bamboo rails.  First all the warp threads are laid out on the ground for the entire length of the bolt of cloth, then dipped in a solution of rice water to give them a little starch to withstand the pressures of weaving. When dry the threads are inserted through the heddles, which separate every other thread, and are connected to two foot pedals, or treadles.  Then they insert them through a wooden reed, which keeps them all in a straight line, and finally tie them to an end beam behind and above the weaver and around an end stick at the front of the loom.
Ulo Akha child
Lomi Akha child
Standing at the back, the weaver steps on a treadle to open a shed, tosses a shuttle of weft thread through the opening, then slides the reed towards her to knock the weft thread into place.  She then presses the other treadle, opens the complementary shed and repeats the process.  The end result is a tightly bound, strong and durable bolt of cloth 22-24 cm wide (the width of the reed).  Most of this will be dyed dark blue, from the indigo plant polygonum tinctorium, which they cultivate in their gardens, and become the basic cloth for what they wear.
       The jacket requires two equal strips of indigo cloth, stitched together halfway, for the front will be left open.  The width overlaps the shoulders and the straight sleeves, which is accentuated by brightly colored piping around the shoulders as well as the lapel and hem.  Embroidery and appliqué dominate the body of the jacket and bands of contrasting colors decorate the sleeves.  What kind of embellishment the Akha woman will use depends on the sub-group.  And in Thailand alone there are three, each with its own distinctive style:  Ulo, Lomi and: Pamee.
Lomi Akha girl
Ulo Akha girl
       The Ulo style features up to thirty or more tiny running stitch lines in varying colors, covering the lower half of the jacket on both sides. Some of these are simply lines, small zigzags, loop stitches, connected x’s; others more elaborate, wider rows of complex stitches.  They have names, though many Ulo Akha women don’t know them:  spider’s tail, centipede, chicken feet, snake stripes, meeting of curves, braid, eye, ankle and flower stitches.  They ornament the finished jackets with rows of cowries or buttons across the back and chicken feather tassels or gibbon fur on the shoulder blades.   
Lomi Akha girl doing embroidery
       The distinguishing characteristic of Lomi style jackets is the use of appliqué. Women cut rows of connected diamonds, triangles or a cutout that looks like a flower from above, onto thin strips of cloth and attach them to the jacket body or sleeves.  The common jacket design has two or more rows of appliqué, with bands of embroidery in between. The stitching patterns include some of the easier Ulo ones, as well as mazes, circular stitches, connected squares, crude geometric designs and stylized trees.  Each has its special name—flower stitch, drum, moon and sky, splashes of rain, etc.—as do the appliqué designs.  Cowry shells, beads, Job’s tear seeds and horsehair tassels are commonly attached to the final result.
       In Pamee women first cross-stitch patterns on strips of perforated indigo cloth and attach from three to six rows of these on the front and rear of the jacket.  Geometric designs predominate.  There are mazes, spades, screens, squares within squares, triangles and quadrilaterals in addition to borrowings from other groups’ patterns.  Classic Pamee jackets feature probably the tiniest, most intricate needlework of all, but nowadays the tendency is towards fuller, somewhat larger patterns and the borrowed motifs include those culled from Hmong and Yao repertoires.  Pamee women attach nothing to their finished jackets and like to wear them open in the front to show off their silver-laden halters underneath.
       The same kinds of stitching, appliqué and embroidery the three Akha sub-groups use on their jackets also characterize their respective shoulder bags.  They are basically smaller versions of the jacket art.  But the ornamentation is similar to all three styles.  Two or three rows of colorful beads run vertically down each side and another row goes horizontally along the top of the bag.  The vertical rows flank rows of coins or cowry shells and chicken feather or horsehair tassels hang from the top of the rows.
making chicken feather tassels
       The Akha are the only people who turn chicken feathers into an ornament.  They use a two-string bow to do this, twisting white tail feathers around the strings and knocking them into place with a bobby pin.  They can even do this, like spinning and embroidering, while they’re walking to the fields.  The usual size for shoulder bags and caps is about 10 cm, with ones double that and more attached to headdresses.  They are usually dyed bright red, as are the horsehair tassels, which are about 5 cm long.
       The jungle is a source for other decorative materials.  If they run out of horsehair they can use the fibrous stem of a certain plant growing wild in the area.  They collect small white Job’s tears, round or cylindrical, seeds that are easy to string and attach along jacket hems or around headdresses.  They look for the iridescent wings of shiny, bright green beetles.  And in the past they used gibbon fur, with half the tuft dyed red and the other half white.
       Cowry shells, a favorite decorative item, come from the faraway sea, of course, but in past centuries people used cowries as a medium of exchange in the regional markets.  So they symbolize wealth.  To fit them flat against the cloth an Akha has to make an incision, and it’s usually done with a full-sized machete, under the hump on the back. Then the hump can be popped off with a twist of the blade.
       Coins are also used for embellishment symbolizing wealth and status—for everyone around knows the value of the particular coins.  Most favor the large silver rupees from British India days, especially for headdresses.  For jackets and shoulder bags they’ll attach the small 2-anna coins from the same period.  Poorer Akha women use large Thai one-baht coins. The old Thai 5- and 10-satang coins, with the hole in the middle, are common on bags. So are the old Burmese ‘lion coins,’ the large ones turned into buttons, the small square and scalloped ones attached to jackets, belts and bags.
        The last major decorative device is the chukhaw, or the small half-globes of silver that come in three sizes. They are a basic component of the headdresses and also used on men’s jackets.  They are pounded out in a mold mounted on a tree stump at the blacksmith’s. Nowadays there are cheaper ones of tin or aluminum available in towns.  The chukhaws are perforated on each side with a tiny hole and so are sewn directly onto the cloth.
Lomi Akha headdress and jewelry
Lomi Akha woman
       The rest of the woman’s outfit comprises the skirt, halter, skirt-guard, leggings and belt. All but the skirt and belt are embroidered and designed in the same style as the jackets and bags. The skirt is plain blue-black cloth, pleated in the back, that hangs from mid-hip to just above the knee.  In front of the skirt, to keep it from flying up, she wears an ornamented skirt-guard, called jèjaw in Akha, a unique clothing item. The beads of it sway with the skirt when she walks.
       The halter has a single diagonal strap and is designed in the same style as the other items, except the Pamee style, which is covered with diamond-shaped silver pieces.  The leggings, designed to protect them in the fields and jungles, are tied just below the knee with beads or strings and reach down to the ankles, appliquéd with bands of colors,
      To top off the outfit the Akha wear distinctive headgear, starting with infancy, for the first clothing item the new mother makes for her baby is the cap.  It is round, embroidered and decorated with beads, seeds, coins and chicken feather tassels.  As they get older, girls switch to a more elaborate design.  Lomi girls wear a silver-laden cap that is essentially the headdress without the back plate.  Pamee girls wear a round cap covered with chukhaws and diamond-shaped silver plates.  Ulo girls wear a beaded cap with several long feather tassels streaming out the back, with large tufts of red and white gibbon fur over the ears and on top.
Pamee Akha cross-stitch patterns
Pamee Akha woman
As adults, Ulo women wear a two-part, pointed headdress, wound with rows of beads, chukhaws and buttons, with long chicken feather tassels dangling down the sides and a row of silver rupees hanging over the brow.  Lomi women use more silver, bigger chukhaws, and have a repoussé plate attached to a thin plywood trapezoid mounted on the back of the cap.  Extremely long feather tassels and beads descend down the back of the headdress.  Large coins and hollow silver balls are attached to the front and sides and hang freely.  Pamee women have a wider plate at the back and the entire cap is covered with small chukhaws.  Instead of feathers and fur, they suspend various sizes of silver ornaments, ring chains and pendants.  The sides of the cap are trimmed with beads and covered in silver rupees and the weight in silver of a proper Pamee headdress is 4.5 kg.
       Finally, there is jewelry to augment the ensemble:  silver neck rings, filigreed pendants, engraved discs, earrings shaped like the Greek letter omega, bangles, rings and beads galore.  Fully dressed and adorned in the traditional way, Akha women stand out resplendently in their color-challenged jungle environment.  To get that way required many hours of meticulous workmanship.  But it was all worth it.   It made them the most beautiful beings in the forest.

Ulo Akha festival dance 
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