Notes on Antique Textiles, Folk Art & Timeless Traditions – Jaina Mishra
The fragility of the Akha hilltribe culture is most poignantly presented in a book ‘Peoples of the Golden Triangle’. Ironically, the two people who wrote this book were missionaries in the region, who, among other things were also instrumental in converting people away from their native culture.
The missionary’s love of the culture is evident through the wonderfully written book about costumes of the local hilltribes. But then, they were also responsible for propagating the death of this culture.
Agreed that medical facilities and education should be available to all. But in order to offer these two benefits, must the cost be ‘conversion’ to another religion and another way of life? If one were truly of the ‘seva – bhaav’ or inclined to do service to community, is this trade necessary?
But let us leave aside these haunting questions. And focus on the culture and the costume art of the Akha people of the Golden triangle that lies in the region of Northern Thailand bordering Vietnam and Laos.
There are at least seven different sects of the Akha tribe (Oolow, Lohmya, Parme, Ahkur, Adjoh, Be-ah, Oopee). Differences manifest themselves through clothing and through language.
The heritage of ritual poems that provide detailed instructions for living have been passed on orally for centuries from one generation to the next in an unbroken chain of asters and pupils.
A wealth of ancient customs accompany the twelve ancestor offerings, rice rituals and village construction rites. Offerings to ancestors are made in the women’s section of the house and hunting ceremonies are conducted on the men’s side. As in every culture, there are rites surrounding significant life events such as birth, marriage and death – but the Akha’s rituals are more complex. The spiritual beliefs centre around the soul. Funeral recitations include routes and origins of the ancestral village to enable souls of the departed to return to the ancestral village. Customs and rituals also include agricultural aspects as they believe that the spirits of the house, the father and the mother protect the rice fields from evil.
Costumes are embellished beautifully with neat applique work, buttons and, shells and beads. A loose indigo dyed jacket is worn over breast cloths embellished with large coin sized decorated metal pieces and a skirt is worn to complete the set. Tubular socks cover the calves. The most magnificent part of the costume is the headdress of the Akha. Each sub-tribe has a slightly different style that is equally ornate but designed uniquely. Even baby girls wear a form of headdress (a cotton bonnet). As a girl grows up, she will add silver discs, white seeds and red and white beads to the headdress, until the cap is covered. When she reaches her mid teens, she will adopt the full headdress of an adult woman: an elaborate construction hung with silver. One of the most fascinating costume traditions is that people here weave and embroider (or rather used to embroider) their own burial costumes!
A few examples from the wovensouls collection:
The Akha culture with its orally transmitted memes is on the brink of extinction …and the spectrum of diversity of human cultures will be deprived of this magnificent color in the next 2-3 generations.
All in the name of development!