The Tribes of Burma/Karens

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The Karens

The Karen country proper lies at the southern end of the Southern Shan States and the north-eastern corner of Lower Burma, but Karens are found also in the Irrawaddy delta in both the Pegu and Arakan Yomas and over the greater part of the Tenasserim Division. Speaking generally, the Karens play in the east of Burma much the same part as the Chins do in the west. While not found so far north as the Chins, they extend a good deal further south than the latter: in fact as far south as the hills which separate Mergui from Siam. The term Karen includes a large number of tribes known by different names. In the days when the Shan States were practically a terra incognita it used to be said that there were three branches of Karens—the Sgaw and the Pwo, i.e., the "male" and the "female"[1] and the Bghai. Sgaw and Pwo are names still known among the Karens of the south, in fact practically all the Karens of Lower Burma are either Pwos or Sgaws. Bghai appears to have been a name given to a collection of communities in and on the borders of, Upper Burma whom we now know as Red Karens, White Karens, Padaungs, Bres, Loilong Karens, Sawngtungs, Banpas, Zayeins and the like. The Taungthus area Karen tribe, probablv an off-shoot of the Pwos. They are almost the only Lower Burma Karens who have preserved their tribal homogeneity. The Pwos and Sgaws are largely dwellers in the plains and foot-hills whom alien surroundings have moulded into some kind of uniformity, but they have never really coalesced. The Upper Burma Karens as a whole, partly on account of the rugged nature of their separating hills, partly as a result of their leaning towards endogamy show an ever-growing tendency to disintegrate into separate clans differing widely from each other in dress, dialect and custom. Prior to the annexation of Upper Burma the best known of these communities was that of the Red Karens, whose home is Karenni in the south of the Southern Shan States. Karenni was in 1901 excluded from the "enumerated" areas and only an estimate of its population was obtained. The exact total of Red Karens is thus not known, but it is probably somewhere in the neighbourhood of 30,000. The authorities quoted at page 98 deal with the Red Karens among others. The men wear short red trousers and sometimes a coat. It used to be customary for them to have a rising sun tattooed in red on the small of the back. The women are peculiar in not wearing the thindaing or smock that is ordinarily the distinctive feature of the Karen female dress. The upper portion of their dress-consists of a cloth draped over the body ; their skirts are short, and the leg immediately below the knee is swathed in an uncouth gartering of cane bands and beads. The Padaung country lies to the west of Karenni. The Padaungs or Kekawngdiis are for some reason somewhat better known than many of the other Karen communities inhabiting the southern portion of the Southern Shan States. The very remarkable neck ornaments of the women—a succession of coils of brass which elongates the neck to a distressing extent—have long attracted the attention of observers, A description of the tribe is given at pages 535—539 of Part I, Volume I of the Upper Burma Gazetteer and further particulars will be found at page 125 of Sir G. Scott's "Burma" (London, 1906). The total of Padaungs in 1901 was between 9,000 and 10,000. Of the Padaungs' neighbours, the Bres, comparatively little is known. There were about 3,500 of them at the time of the 1901 Census. The fullest account of them yet published will be found at pages 531 — 535 of the Upper Burma Gazetteer. They call themselves Lakii and are divided into the Southern and Northern Bres and the Manos. The women wear smocks and skirts and ornament their legs with brass tubling. The Zayein or Sawng-tung Karens are found in the States of Loilong and Mongpai near Karenni. They totalled about 4,500 at the last census. On pages 539—550 of the Upper Burma Gazetteer will be found a detailed account of the different small Zayein clans that go to make up this aggregate. Smocks and leg rings are the ordinary features of the women's dress in all the clans, and short trousers those of the men's attire. Bead ornaments are much affected and in some cases the women's head dresses are peculiar. Some of the men shave the head except for a small patch over the ear. In some cases bands of black fibre are worn tightly tied round the forehead. The White Karens (Mepu) are a distinct clan (vide page 550 of the Upper Burma Gazetteer) which is possibly connected with the Taungthus and may thus be Pwo in origin. There is no record of their total, but it is probably smaller than that of either the Padaungs or the Bres.

The Padaungs are not to be confused with the Padons to whom reference has from time to time been made in some of the older works dealing with Burma Who the Padons were is doubtful, but Mr. C. E. Browne has ascertained that they once had a dialect of their own and that their women used to wear a striped smock. Though not Padaung they were probably, like the Padaungs, of Karen origin; possibly an off-shoot of the Taungthus, though it is just possible that they were of the same stock as the Yanghseks and therefore Mon Khmers. Their habitat lay apparently at the northern end of the Southern Shan States. Apparently they have by now been absorbed into other communities.

  1. "Burma." Sir George Scott, London, 1906, page 117.