By: Kristofer Bech
In the northern highlands of Myanmar bordering India and China, in what is the most distant region from the capital Yangon, you will find Kachin state, home to the Kachin people and their unique culture.
The Kachin are a population of related Tibeto-Burmese tribes that trace their common ancestral origins back to the Tibetan plateau. The Kachin comprise six main ethnic tribes made up of the Jinghpaw, Lachid, Lhaovo, Lisu, Rawang, and Zaiwa, each having a unique ceremonial style of dress as well as their own distinct dialects – yet all together identifying as the Kachin people.
The first reliable records of the Kachin date back to the period of the Chinese Tang Empire (618-907). Over the centuries they gradually migrated from their ancestral homeland on the Tibetan plateau, via Yunnan in southern China to the highlands of what is now present-day northern Myanmar. There are also smaller populations residing in the neighbouring Yunnan province of southern China, as well as the provinces Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in northeastern India.
The Kachin are commonly known throughout Myanmar as the people of the highlands and are famous for their enduring independence, craftsmanship, and jungle survival skills. The Kachin have always been regarded as skilled cooks, the first Christian missionaries that visited Burma observed that the Kachin were rather particular about their food and were able to make a meal from almost anything that grew in the jungle. These days Kachin cuisine is still very dependent on wild leafy greens and vegetables, as well as beef, chicken and fish.
Originally practising Buddhism and animism, these days most of the Kachin have taken up Christianity moulded in with traditional beliefs, incorporating ancestral practices and spiritualism. The instantly recognisable silver decorations that adorn the traditional attire at ceremonial events are said to represent the scales of the dragon, historically revered and worshipped in their cultural mythology.
Today, it is estimated that at least one million Kachin are living in Myanmar, mostly within the area of Kachin state, where they are now a minority accounting for less than 40% of the total population. Kachin State is a remote and rugged land, with densely forested hills, wide valleys and raging rivers. In the far north Myanmar’s highest peak, Hkakabo Razi rises among the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayan foothills, to an impressive height of 5,881 metres.
Beyond its natural scenery, Kachin state is perhaps best known as the source of the world’s largest and finest jade crystals. There are also rubies, gold, rare piles of earth and extensive timber resources. Kachin State has been listed as one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots, but in recent years with the accelerating exploitation of the region’s natural resources, the forests and river systems have suffered, along with the Kachin whose livelihood has been tightly woven in with the natural environment for generations on end.
The Irrawaddy, one of Asia’s great rivers, famously immortalised by Rudyard Kipling as ‘the road to Mandalay’, has its headwaters in Kachin state. The Irrawaddy River flows from north to south, traversing almost the entire length of the country, forming the historical, cultural, and economic heartland of Myanmar.
For the Kachin though, the river holds an even deeper significance. The tributaries high up in the Himalayas that feed the Irrawaddy track back to the borders of Tibet, and for this reason the Kachin tightly associate the Irrawaddy with their cultural origins, heritage and ancestors. The location of the confluence of the two rivers that form the headwaters of the Irrawaddy in Kachin state is regarded as a sacred place where the Kachin often congregate to worship, contemplate, as well as pay respects to their ancestors.
Every year in January, the Kachin from all over Myanmar assemble at the Kachin National Manau Park, in the city of Myitkyina (the capital of Kachin state), to celebrate the Manau festival. Manau literally means ‘dance’ and is both a social and a spiritual gathering of the various tribes to celebrate their social unity, and family ties, pay respects to God, their ancestral spirits, celebrate the new year, and to welcome new kinsmen and friends. The Manau festival strengthens social bonds through a showcase of Kachin cultural heritage, celebrating their identity and preserving traditions to pass on to the next generation.
It is here at the Kachin National Manau Park that you’ll find the culturally significant Manau poles, the focal point that the entire event revolves around. The twelve culturally significant Manau poles are formed in an arrangement standing upwards of 20 meters tall, six are placed upright, with two pairs in a crossed formation, and the remaining two are arranged parallel to the ground, one higher than the other.
The Manau poles are painted with the sun, moon, stars and earth, decorated with Kachin motifs and colourful patterns that represent the individual tribes, as well as animals of cultural and ancestral importance. The lower parallel pole is artistically styled in the form of a hornbill.
The impressive Manau poles are sometimes compared to the famous totem poles of the Native Americans – a curious fact that I find interesting, especially given that the first Baptist missionaries to travel to Myanmar described the Kachin in early contact as – ‘with complexion and features remarkably like the American Indians’
The highlight of the festival is the Manau dance led by the shaman chiefs – styled in their sensational traditional robes, handcrafted from silk, with headdresses sprouting vertically elongated hornbill and peacock feathers, magnificently adorned with wild boar tusks.
The ‘dance’ starts with the chiefs leading to the beat of the drums, and the boom of the gongs, which beckons all those kitted out in their best traditional garb to join in with the dance in respect of God and the heavenly spirits. The elders lead, with the rest following the moves, and steps in sync. The men and women dance separately, to begin with, later joining in the middle, lined up one behind the other conga style. Visitors and tourists are also commonly invited to participate and join in with the festivities.
The stories passed down through the many generations reveal that the Manau was originally a wonderful dance performed to show reverence to God and the spirits in the heavens above. The dance is primarily influenced by the flocks of birds and butterflies whose movements in flight could be interpreted as a dance in the sky.
While the individual tribes of the Kachin have their own distinct dialects and unique traditional attire, they all happily unite to celebrate their shared ancestral origins and the traditions of the Manau dance and festival. Offerings, prayers, music, and dance accompanied by traditional rice wine goes on into the night and the celebration can roll on for more than a few days.
There are also smaller Manaus held in Kachin communities within Yunnan province China, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, India, as well as northern Thailand where smaller Kachin populations reside.
Through learning about the Kachin, perhaps there is a lesson in the Manau for us all:
“We should rally together as human beings and focus more on what unites us and brings us together, to have fun, celebrate and create laughter, rather than to focus on our trivial differences.”