That Swing Thing
The Akha of Thailand
Text & photography by Eric Pasquier
The Akha are one of the many hill tribes of Northern Thailand boasting a fascinating oral history and colourful culture, but the one thing that sets them apart is their need to swing.
Every year between August and September, as part of a pre-harvest festival, the Akha construct a pyramid made of four posts and suspend a 10-15-metre vine from its centre.
Then, beginning with the village headman, everyone gets a turn on the swing. ERIC PASQUIER gets a good look.
The Akha hill tribe of Northern Thailand takes the stereotype of tribal peoples and gives it a new twist.
First off, as a rule, they don’t have a reputation for shyness. Like the Tibetan people from whom they originate, the 25,000 members of this tribal group are warm and open, but they also enjoy animated bargaining and receiving guests in their homes.
The greatest evidence of their gregarious nature by far has to be the annual Swing Festival that they hold each year between August and September.
For four days each year, as the rice crops are nearly mature, the Akha prepare the huge swing for the festival. Four long, thin and flexible tree trunks are set at the four-point of the square and their ends are brought together to form a sort of pyramid. The swing, with its wooden seat, is suspended from the high point of the pyramid in the middle.
Two ropes are attached to the swing on either side and when someone climbs onto the seat, two Akha men take up the ropes and assist the swinger to gain altitude.
The vine that holds the swing is between 10 and 15 metres long, and the swinging will continue for the four days of the festival. After that, it is left alone for another year.
There is apparently some mystery involved in the origins of this annual rite. It is generally held to be associated with fertility, but even in this, the purpose is unclear.
Some say the ritual is practised in the hopes of the good harvest, while others say that it is a festival for the women, who hope to find husbands and start families.
Strangely, no one is suggesting what every seven-year-old western kid knows—that it’s just good fun.
As to the rest of their culture, the Akha are also well known for their clothing, especially the woman’s headdress. Each woman creates her own as she matures. She may start out with a mere cap, but she will slowly add ornaments, beads, dyed feathers and fur, and even silver coins until it becomes an ornate headdress.
A girl’s clothes also change as she matures.
As a girl, she will wear a skirt that reaches nearly to her knees and is slung low on her hips and on her calves she wears leggings. It is plain in the front and pleated in the back. Over this, she wears a dark-coloured, long-sleeved, hip-length jacket.
As the girl begins growing up, she alters her attire by stages during the occasions of important ceremonies.
She will begin by taking up the chest wrap that all grown Akha women wear. It is fastened at the side and suspended by a single strap over one shoulder, and covers the torso from above the breasts to the navel.
She will also embroider the cuffs and lapels of her jacket. Later, she will add a sash tied at the waist so that the ends hang down over the front of the skirt, and finally she will complete her headdress.
The men’s costume of loose black trousers, a flat turban wound like a broad-brimmed hat and a lightly embroidered loose jacket is much less impressive. The different subgroups of Akha in Thailand have slightly different costumes and headgear, but all of the clothing is made by hand—woven, homespun cotton cloth dyed with indigo. On their way to and from the fields and whenever their hands are free, girls and women spin the cotton using a hand spindle, a traditional symbol of the distaff side of the tribe, which they set spinning by rolling on the thigh and then fling out and away to draw the thread.
The Akha live in raised houses with steep roofs, built on steep slopes, with porches built on either end. In the interior, the uphill side of the home is a living and work area, while the downhill side is for sleeping. This sleeping area is divided into two sections by a chest-high partition running from the post supporting the ridgepole at the centre of the house to the main house post, which is in the middle of the downhill wall. Men sleep in the section closer to the uncovered platform, and it is at this end of the house that guests are also received. Male guests are not permitted in the other end of the house, where the women’s and children’s quarters are.
The Akha are ancestors - rather than god-worshippers. They keep ancestral altars on the women’s side of the house. These are either shelves or sections of bamboo, which hold the first three sacred ears of rice cut at the most recent harvest. On days appointed for offerings, food and drink are placed in bowls and set on a small table before the altar. The ancestors are invited to partake first, and then the offering is distributed and consumed by the members of the household, who abstain from field work, hunting and sexual relations on these days.
In contrast to their worship of ancestors, however, the Akha also believe in spirits that can do harm to men. They have several rituals that take place throughout the year to appease the spirits and keep their families safe, but the most apparent evidence of their superstition is the gates to their village. The Akha consider their own villages to be the strongholds of only a few feeble humans, compared with the world outside that contains innumerable spirits that may bring ills to men at any time. The gates they construct consist of two pillars supporting a lintel, and there is a gate at either end of the village to divide the domain of the people from that of the spirits. Each year in a ceremony before planting, the village priest and men erect new gates and elaborately decorate them with charms and symbols of wealth, because it is believed that spirits fear human wealth. Adjacent to the gates are statues: large females stand in opposition to smaller males, with genitals greatly exaggerated, as though copulating. New statues are set up each year with the new gates; the spirits are presumed to fear human sexuality, as well as wealth.
Outside the gates are banks of ceremonial weapons, which are plunged into the earth at the end of a festival held after planting. Carrying the weapons and shouting to expel spirits, the people proceed from house to house, collecting an offering at each one, until finally their arrival at the house of the village priest, who feasts them on a buffalo or a pig. At times when illness among the villagers is high, sacrifices may be made at the gates.
Call it superstition, but the Akha belief system is no different than some western traditions: flinging salt over the left shoulder into the eye of the devil, not walking under ladders, crossing oneself in the face of ‘evil’, or turning on the lights at night to make the boogieman disappear. We paint Easter eggs; they sway backwards and forwards on a swing. Perhaps it appeases the spirits; perhaps it celebrates no less than the fickle pendulum of life’s bounty and fortune – what is certain is that it looks like a lot of fun.
Copyright © Eric Pasquier
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