Karen hill tribe – History and Culture
Origins of the Karen
It is not clear where the Karen hill tribe originates from. Tibet and the Gobi desert are considered possible homelands of the Karen. What is clear is that the Karen have been living in Burma for many centuries. In the 18th century Karen started migrating into Thailand.
Where do they live?
Karen live in fifteen provinces in Thailand. These are all along the Burmese-Thai border from Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son down to Tak, Kanchanaburi and further south to the Isthmus of Kra. Green Trails organizes tours to Karen communities in the Mae Wang area and on Doi Inthanon. Karen communities also feature in tours to the Mae Taeng and Chiang Dao areas. There are Karen villages in the Doi Wawee area, south of Chiang Rai.
In Thailand, the Karen hill tribe is divided into four major sub-groups: the Sgaw Karen who call themselves and other related subgroups Pga-gan Yaw. Then there are the Pwo Karen or Plong: the Pa-O or Taungthu who are also known as Black Karen and the Bwe or Kayah or Red Karen. There are two sub-categories of Pwo Karen – in the north, the Pwo Rachaburi, and in the east, the Pwo Kanchanaburi.
The Karen languages are members of the Tibeto-Burman group of the Sino-Tibetan language family. They consist of three mutually unintelligible branches: Sgaw, Pwo, and Pa’o. The Karen languages are almost unique among the Tibeto-Burman languages in having a subject–verb–object word order. Other than Karen and Bai, Tibeto-Burman languages feature a subject–object–verb order. This anomaly is likely due to the influence of neighboring Mon and Tai languages.
The Karen hill tribe is the largest of the minority groups. Many people of the Karen hill tribe were converted to Christianity by the missionaries, with some tribes still practicing animism. Much of Karen hill tribe life is dictated by the spirits. The most important is the “Lord of Land and Water” who controls the productivity of the land and calls upon the rice spirit to grow. Also important is the matrilineal ancestor guardian spirit (bga). The village priest is the most revered individual. He is the ritual leader and it is he who sets dates for the annual ceremonies. As the Karen have been incorporated into the Thai state increasing numbers have turned to Buddhism. However, some Karen, especially the Sgaw Karen, have been very responsive to the gospel.
Culture and lifestyle
The Karen hill tribe people wear woven v-neck tunics of various natural colours and turbans. Unmarried women wear distinctive long white v-neck tunics. The Karen occupy lowland areas, engaging in agriculture, including rice cultivation. Most Karen live in mountain villages and practice shifting cultivation of the rotating field type (that is, they move their fields, not their villages). They are primarily subsistence rice farmers. Because they live in the lower mountains, they have interacted significantly with the Thai population.
They are also skilled weavers and the most environmentally conscious of the hill tribes – practicing crop rotation, thus preserving the forest. The Karen hill tribe is the only tribe that owns elephants. Their formerly isolated villages now boast electricity, running water and a dirt road. Many marketable crops, such as tomatoes, soya beans, peanuts, beans and peppers, have become almost as important as the basic rice crop.
Important Karen festivals
As many Karen hill tribe people have been converted to Christianity they celebrate Christian festivals such as Christmas and Easter. During Easter the Karen also engage in ‘finding the egg’. More about this tradition here.
Buddhist Karen celebrate the New Year (‘Nee Saw Ko’) in January.