Tay Nguyen – Central Highland Wooden Statues

Nha mo Gia Rai 00

This large and lofty house with its colossal steep roof has become the symbol of Tay Nguyen (the Central Highlands). It is a highland in the west of our country’s Nam Trung Bo (southern Central Vietnam). In former times (prior to the 17th century), the Viets were dimly aware of this land; tribal peoples were derogatorily referred to as “savages” (Ke Moi).

Tay Nguyen (the Central Highlands) today comprises 4 provinces: Gia Lai, Kon Tum, Dac Lak, and Lam Dong. Here live tribal peoples of Southern origin. There is a legend that says that their ancestors were drifted to this highland after the Deluge. Tay Nguyen peoples still adhere to the custom of making funeral houses and statues for the dead in the most solemn way and they are proud of their own, very original culture. The people in Tay Nguyen such as Gia Lai (Jarai), Ba Na (Bahnar), E De (Rhade), Xo Dang (Sadang)… live in scattered villages (buon). Their kinship systems are dominated by the mother’s lineage. Houses are very long, at times reaching 100m in length. Several generations (great-great-grandfathers, great grandfather, grandfathers, parents and children) share the same roof and the same meals. After the wedding, the groom must live in his wife’s home. The mother is the family head, but the village chief is a patriarch (gia lang).

Tay Nguyen people excel in basketwork and weaving. Their well-known products are decorative patterns on dossers for carrying all kinds of things on one’s back as ‘ well as ornamental motifs on rolls of “ethnic minority brocade”. They are very fond of gourds. A dry gourd is used as a water container. They also know how to make fine ceramics. Their “jar wine” decanters are real Vietnamese traditional arts.

Apart from two types of houses for the living, namely the “common house” (nha rong) owned by the whole village (it is similar to the Viets’ dinh, communal house) and the “longhouse” (nha dai) a common dwelling for all the family members, there exists a third category of houses much more beautiful and sumptuous reserved for the dead, called the “funeral house”.

Funeral house (Boxat) built for the dead are rich in designs. They vary from one ethnic group to another: Boxat Talo (male funeral houses) and their opposite Boxat Ana (female funeral houses) and Boxat Giep, the colossal funeral house. The Jarai Chon prefer Boxat Pok, the funeral house with one roof surrounded by a fence of pillars sheltered by a flat roof. The Jarai M’thur used to construct Boxat Kut (a four-roofed funeral house with Kut pillars). The Bahnar have Boxat Chobor (a funeral house with a wooden roof and drawings on it) and Boxat Kodoi or Boxat Rong (a funeral house whose roof resembles that of a common house). The construction costs of a colossal funeral house amount to the value of 30-40 cattle, hence this brings about the impoverishment of the Tay Nguyen people.

Notice the diverse designs of their funeral houses as well as their rich and strange building and decorative styles. They are the crowning achievements of their aesthetic gifts. All the family members live in the same “longhouse” and they may be buried in one funeral house, their tomb abandonment ceremony accordingly celebrated on the same day. On the contrary, it is a custom among the Viets to prefer having “one house and one grave for each person”. The Tomb abandonment ceremony is the most important and complex rite lasting from 3 to 6-7 consecutive days. The rite sequence conducted by Jarai people is as follows (Po thi means ‘to abandon the tomb’ and Hoa hu, ‘to eat and give up’):

1. The village patriarch invokes the spirits in the old funeral house.
2. They set up the funeral house (Broanh means ‘the day of commencement’).
3. The funeral house having been erected, the head of the house invokes the ghost, beats Arap gongs, and plays “Tung Tai” dance followed by a marionette procession (Po chan means ‘breakage day’).
4. The emancipation ceremony: It consists of splashing water on the family head and taking a bath (Xatgo means ‘to clean the rice pot’).

Bahnar people celebrate this ceremony in a slightly different way (Po thi also means’ to abandon the tombs and Bru, to eat and give up’):

1. The Village patriarch evokes the spirits in the old funeral house.
2. They set up the new Anar funeral house. This is the Entrance day (Dong Boxat means ‘setting up the funeral house’).
3. The next step is to invoke the ghost from evening till late at night, beat Atau gongs, dance the ghost dance Atau, drink alcohol, eat and cry. (Anartuk Atau is the day of tomb abandonment).
4. The emancipation closing ceremony: they thank the spirits, splash water on the family head and take a bath (Glanggo means ‘to clean the rice pot’).

The essence of the “funeral house art” precisely lies in its architecture, decoration, and wood sculpture. Tay Nguyen villages are generally located on vast sands near the sources of water. They used to be surrounded by a protective barrier. The common house lies in the village centre, a very convenient site for meetings and entertainments. And the cemetery is always situated in the west, outside the village fence.

Most important is the horizontal decoration across the ridge. Strangely, there are figures of boats, fish, shrimps, and marine life on it. Are these the reminiscences of the local people’s ancestors? Or do the images have another meaning? Truly Tay Nguyen people’s fertile and strange imagination is quite different from ours. Of second importance is the vertical ornamentation along with large columns which gives the funeral house a bizarre aspect. The Klao (Bahnar) or Kut (Jarai) pillars symbolize the souls’ road to Heaven.

In some funeral houses, people planted up to 9 Klao pillars and several pairs of ivory tusks (the latter symbolize a mother’s breasts). These symbolic pillars were decorated with figures of grass and flowers, birds and beasts, objects and especially the image of Lady Ho Kroih the goddess of procreation, cotton cultivation, and weaving. Geometrical patterns and realistic drawings are skillfully combined in the decorative designs of the ridge and pillars.

Geographical names in Tay Nguyen generally begin with the words Chu, and Ia, or Kroong, or Dac and Kon. The Jarai word Chu means ‘mountain’, Ia and Kroong signify ‘water’ (river). The Bahnar word Dac means ‘water’ (river) an Kon, man. So, the above words once pronounced will clearly tell us which ethnic group lives in such and such land or who rules over such-and-such mounts and rivers. For example Dac Bla is a river in Kon Turn inhabited by the Bahnar. Kroong Pa is river Pa in Gia Lai where the Jarai is living. The two Tay Nguyen ethnic groups aforesaid have the characteristic tradition of making funeral houses and sculpting wooden statues.

Tay Nguyen people believe that man after death will move to another world. If the dead were not buried in beautiful graves, they would return and harass the living. That is the reason why large funeral houses must be built and beautiful statues are carved to please them. Atau or the ghost of the dead person must undergo eight metamorphoses: that of a tiger, a wild cat, a weasel, a Java mouse-deer, a mouse, a tailless rat before being turned into a fog and vanishing in nature. The abode of the dead is named “Mang lung” meaning a very dark place, the ancestors’ village. When Klao and Klut pillars have already been erected, wooden statues duly hewed, Tay Nguyen mourners begin to “cry” after this Mournful Song:

“Oh, ghost! The tomb abandonment is now ready, just behind me. From now on, the living will eat white rice while you, ghost, will enjoy red rice, Violet and yellow flowers. Oh, ghost! Today the coffin has been made, closed, and buried; the Kut pillars have been carved. Today we offer you food for eating and alcohol for drinking because from now on, we will quit you. Henceforward, we will not bring rice and water to you or give you any care. Oh, ghost! Please do not call, approach or cherish your offspring any more. If you want to eat meat and fish, address yourself to the gods in Heaven. Oh, ghost! After the tomb abandonment, we will turn our back on you… just like detached M’nang leaves or withered Mtei foliage. Oh, ghost! You are really dead and have turned into a forest bird… It’s all over now, we have definitely abandoned you”. The pregnant woman has difficulty in getting about. She is holding her belly, her mind laden with worries while she is expecting a baby. The statue simply but lively depicts her emotion.

The hewing of wooden statues is a primitive custom as old as the hills but it is sun prevailing. The Jarai word “Klun” and the Bahnar vocable “Dich” both mean ‘slave’, which implies that funeral statues are the ‘slaves’ of the dead. In reality, the making of funeral statues has a much wider meaning: it is the expression of life in its several stages of development: Birth, Procreation, and Death, before shifting to eternal life. Tay Nguyen people merely use three tools: a knife, an axe, and a chisel to turn a whole log into a statue in a coarse but truly lifelike style. They also deal with new topics taken from modem life, e.g. the statue of a G.I. or a soldier from our armed forces in the period of the Resistance war.

Funeral statues in a funeral house fall into 4 categories, depending on their actual costs:

1. Statues portraying reproduction.
They include monkey-like embryo statues, pregnant women, and sexual love.
2. Statues illustrating everyday life and memorial topics:” a mother carrying her child on her back, a little child going to school, rice pounding, drum beaters, a seated weeper.
3. Statues of animals: peafowl’s, turtle doves, kites, king crows, rooks, reptiles, iguanas, lizards, cats.
4. Statues of gods or goddesses: the long-breasted goddess (who breastfeeds babies dying of hunger).

Making funeral houses and hewing wooden statues are Tay Nguyen people’s way of building palaces and supply slaves to the deceased in the Underworld. But this world also expresses their dream to own beautiful houses, amuse themselves happily in harmony with Nature, and work in peace. Tay Nguyen artists are true masters of wood sculpture. They have sculptured monuments for their own people. With the rate of today’s “modernization” a tradition like this runs the risk of dying out.