This is the home of a Karen family who allowed me to call their house my home during my early years in the mountains in Thailand. The village priests and elders decide who is allowed to enter the village so perhaps it was decided that I stay at the priests house, just in case my k’la caused trouble in the village. Traditional Karen animists believe that the body has 16 pairs of k’la or spirits and an over soul that directs the others. The family and their ancestors have practised traditional animism for centuries.

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The man in the photo was the father of this house and a village priest. He was my friend and each time I arrived in his village he would beckon me towards his house with a beautiful toothless smile and clear, kind eyes. Then came the year I heard his k’la wasn’t coming back and he wasn’t there to greet me anymore. The only name I ever knew him by was Pu, as is the custom of addressing a man of respect. I think he really enjoyed my being a part of his household and I miss him not being there.

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In the photo above Pu is performing a ceremony to call back the k’la with his wife at his side holding the first ceremonial string that he will tie on my wrist. The wrist tying ceremony is a way of calling back the k’la that may have wandered off so that the person and family may be reunited. Animist ceremonies remain a vital part of the Karen peoples lives and are taken very seriously. When k’la wander away a person can become very ill. This particular ceremony was to consult the spirits and unite my k’la as I was leaving their village to return to Canada. My k’la would certainly be wandering and the ceremony was offered to ensure that my over soul would keep me well and be able to find it’s way back. For me it was a symbol of acceptance, one that paved the way for the beginning of my involvement in their village life, a kind of belonging.

As the ceremony began all involved gathered around a small table which was filled with Karen cloth, a large bowl filled with rice, curry, chicken bones and other items in the household that would tempt my wandering k’la to return, generally it is believed they are lost in the forest. I’m not sure where mine were!

Preparations are complete with a bottle of rice whisky that has been syphoned from a larger batch into an old beer bottle that has been around forever with a piece of cloth rolled up and stuffed into the top to avoid spillage. Another temptation for the k’la. String had been prepared in even lengths and sat ready, draped over a Karen patterned hand-woven basket to be used for the wrist tying portion of the ceremony, a symbol of unity. As I look at the picture again and see the rice hanging off the back of the knocking stick I am reminded that everything in a Karen village is multipurpose. The handle of the rice stirring spoon can easily be turned around to become a ceremonial pounding tool.
The beginning of the ceremony with my translator, Tamla.

When I look at the photo I hear the tapping of the stick on the wooden bowl to signify the beginning of the ceremony. Late comers jump up onto the platform and take their place. Mothers settle in with babies tied tightly to their backs or children curled up in their folded legs.

The tapping is clear and solid with evenly spaced gaps that fill the space, there is an aura of lightness in the outside room. As the priest continues to tap out a solid beat, the tone becomes more distinct and the volume increases as the sound becomes more like knocking. No one moves, not out of fear rather out of respect. It continues until the rhythm is just right, satisfactory to the priest’s trained ear. He then begins to chant with a quiet even voice slowly repeating the same sounds over and over, his voice rising to remain at the same volume as the knocking of the stick but never quickening. The sound is rhythmic and intense, it’s gentle but definite and continues until the priest senses it should stop. Without warning, at least not to me as I can’t understand a single thing Pu is saying, it stops abruptly just as I am falling into the rhythm. There is quiet for a brief moment and the wrist tying begins with much chatter and movement.
People begin to pick up a section of string they touch and drag the end through all of the offerings that have been set out. Family members and villagers come towards me left and right; I sit with both arms turned outward as I am offered gifts of unity through the tying of sections of string around my wrists. When an elder comes forward they chant a blessing over me as they tie the string and break a piece off to place on my shoulder. Food is eaten and of course rice whiskey is shared with each person taking a sip out of the same cup. The celebration can continues for hours with more bags of rice beverages arriving to fill up the old beer bottle whose cloth lid has fallen through the gaps in the floor and been eaten by the pigs.
Another respected village elder and priest in the the village.

It is believed that one k’la can have an effect on another k’la helping to find it’s way back which then unifies families and villages as all are interconnected. As I headed down the road, back to the Chiang Mai my k’la were feeling very connected indeed!

Note: I realize there are many variations and interpretations of Karen animist ceremonies. However, I have written this story based on my experience with the explanations and translations my Karen friends offered. It is but one of the ceremonies I am very grateful to have been privy to.