The Scandinavian Institute of Asian Studies





by Kirsten Ewers Andersen


Copenhagen 1978


The English designation  "Karens" covering a widespread number of populations in Burma and Thailand is derived from the Burmese term Ka-yin  applied as it is to the two major groupings of Karen speakers, the Sgaw and Pwo Karens.  Karen-speaking people numbering from 3-4 million may be found over greater parts of Lower Burma, in the Shan States and in Western Thailand.  All along the Thai-Burman border lies a broad belt inhabited almost exclusively by Karens,  whereas the Karens outside this belt live among other peoples.  On the Burman side we find the two Karen states of Kayah and Kawthulei, but outside these states the dominant element of population is either Burman, Mon, Shan, Northern- or Central Thai.  The habitat of the Karens is chiefly on the flat plains of the Irrawaddy, Sittang and Salween deltas where they live as wet-rice agriculturists and in the forested hills and narrow mountain valleys on both sides of the border as swidden agriculturists.  Those Karens now living in Western Central Thailand, that is the Karens with whom I am familiar, have probably arrived there 200 years ago from Tavoy area on the run from the Burmans, as tradition has it.  Organi­zational distribution suggests that there had been Karens there before together with a population of Lawa.  Since the last cen­tury several authors have dealt with the oppressed situation of the Karens under Burman supremacy, an oppression that may not have manifested itself until the conquest of Tenasserim by the Burman king, Alaungpaya, in the 1760s, which led to the disruption of local society and the introduction of a capitation tax. Before that time the Karens may have been rather free from outside inter­ferences and taxpaying obligations.[1]   From the historical material it may be concluded that in the greatest part of the 18th century the Karens were a non-Buddhist people marginal to the Burman, Mon land Thai Buddhist monarchial civilizations, whereas in the 19th century the Mon influence on the Pwo Karens of Lower Burma be-came marked.  The Pwo Karens were then called Mon- or Talaing Karens, intermarriages were frequent and some Pwo Karens had by 1800 adopted Mon Buddhism,[2]  become literate in Mon and by the 1840s we find the first Karen monks [3]  in Lower Burma though few in number.


From the Burman side the lot of the Karens on the Thai side looked much better, they were more prosperous, they were Buddhists and Karens held positions in the Thai administrative hierarchy.  At Sangklaburi on the Kwae Noi river Carpenter in 1873 finds the governor to be a Buddhist Karen and the population to support a large monastery there, and it is claimed that the Karens of the whole River Kwae or Red-stone valley generally [4] are Buddhists.   It is therefore reasonable to suggest that many groups of Pwo Karens of Western Central Thailand have been familiar with Mon Buddhist institutions for more than a century and have been active Buddhists insofar as monks have been among them.  They still preserve an epic which they share with the Burmans of an ancestral forefather, Phu lyaung heing, a Karen, who at the time of Buddha Gaudama lived in the (Himalayan) forest of Burma with several monks.  The epic depicts the Karen "ignor­ance" of those days, the fright they took at the sight of the appearance of Buddha and their subsequent conversion and offer­ing of rice to him as dana.


Nowadays among Karens in Western Central Thailand there is a monastery in each village, but most are empty as monks are few. Apart from the Lent season the monks there usually walk between villages and stay here and there for some weeks.  Also Thai monks occasionally visit the village monasteries.  When there are monks in a village there are not more than one or two, but their func­tions are important.  They serve as teachers to the village boys, who as novices enter the monastery where they are taught to write and read Buddhist texts written in Karen or Pali with a Mon a-dopted alphabet.  Normally boys are very keen at learning and as almost every adult male at some time or other has been a novice in a monastery, the learned script serves as a secular means of communication too.  The monk's choice of a village in which to stay has a silent correlation to the village's means of support­ing him (relative surplus of rice) for a longer time.  His stay is much appreciated by the villagers who thus have the possibil­ities of merit-making at the daily offering or alms-giving of boiled rice and curry to the monastery, at the periodical cere­monies and by taking the five precepts.


Merit-making activity is a crucial conception in Karen life determining as it does the conditions of the present and future existences, and the relation between kind of merit-making activ­ity and future positive retribution is often very directly ex­pressed.  For example, if you can afford to present many wax-tapers or a large one at a ceremony, your chance of being born in the city as a rich man with electric lights is enhanced.


But merit-making acts towards monk and monastery are only one of the two spheres of merit-making activities.  I have chosen the word "sphere" for the rendering of the Karen word cho ma, "a doing"; Buddhism as a sphere is saung kha cho ma, "monk doing", while the other sphere boungkho cho ma, "boungkho-doing" refers to those merit-making activities that are directed towards the boungkho, the head of joint village ceremonies.  (Boung = punna, merit in pali, and kho is head in Karen).  This office of boungkho is of old date among Karens being referred to already in the be­ginning of the 19th century by observant Baptist missionaries. Whereas the monk is celibate, lives secluded in a monastery and has no agricultural duties and may quit monkhood at will, the boungkho is a married man living with his extended family in the village and tending his own field.  Once a boungkho he is a boungkho forever.  A man becomes boungkho out of necessity be­cause circumstances force him to do so, whereas the monk enters a monastery by his own free will, just as he may leave it again.


The differences between the connotations of the two roles are manifest in the Karen rendering of the monk as Gyai'o'phlae, the servant-follower of Buddha (Gyai'is the Mon word for Buddha) while the boungkho is termed as Phi be yu o phlae, the servant-follower of Phi be yu, the rice goddess of the Karens. This di-chotomization of the supernatural affiliation correlates with the periods of the respective ceremonies, so that ceremonies at the monastery take place mainly in the wet season of the year, the Lent, whereas the joint village ceremonies with the boungkho occur in the dry season, that is from January to June.  In the latter, prayers focus on the vicissitudes of the agricultural cycle, the theme of the prayer to Phi be yu at the end of harvest being a petition to avoid the demeritorious retribution that stems from the killing of bamboos, insects and termites during the necessary clearing and burning of last year's fields.  All prayers are in Karen, whereas the recitations of a monk are mostly in pali.  This last trait leads us to look at the ranking of the two spheres in the eyes of the villagers, a ranking that becomes visible where the two spheres overlap.  Most village ceremonies and rituals are strictly either - or, the village can not have a Phi be yu merit-making with the monk.  But when ceremonies are individual and occasional as opposed to collect­ive  and periodical, such as the merit-making or merit-transfer ceremony for a dead relative, the villager may choose to have that ceremony, showing the dead soul the way to depart, either with a boungkho or with a monk. Here, where an alternative exists, the villagers choose the monk more frequently estimating the monk's merit-conferring chants as yielding more merit than the prayers of the boungkho.  The atmosphere of a monastery ceremony is more solemn, people sit calmly listening to the impressive but unin­telligible pali chants.  The more diversified and complex gestures and the spatial separation of the monks, all contribute to the impression of a loftier sphere.  Although the boungkho-headed ceremonies have their special house, there the boungkho sits together with all the men of the village on an elevated floor, the women on the lower; he talks and jokes like anybody else in between the prayers.  At the height of the ceremony everybody participates in a joint meal, rice and curry having been brought from every household to the place of the ceremony.


There are no conflicts between the two kinds of ritual spheres; their functions are complementary to each other as re­gards both period and orientation to the supernatural.  The rit­ual of the monk is centered in the wet season, has mainly to do with higher matters, the Buddha and Dhamma, and may be shown to help identify the Karens as participants in the larger Buddhist tradition expounded by the surrounding valley civilizations.  In comparison the ritual of the boungkho is a necessary condition for the immediate repairing and preservation of nature's order, the necessary foundation of an agricultural life without famine.


Besides being structurally complementary with some overlap­ping on the surface of events the two spheres are affected by one another.  When the boungkho at one of the village ceremonies has said his prayers and everyone present has shared the joint meal, the normal procedure is for people to talk and chat, eat betel or play the kheen. But recently in a couple of villages the boungkho has replaced this sociability where everyone chats and chews, by a one-man performance introducing as it happened reading aloud of Dhamma, a reading that lasts for several hours and which most people have no chance of understanding.  The commensality that characterizes the boungkho-headed ceremony in its whole course is here partially replaced by an institution, a sermon-reading, only found in monasteries.  Its innovative appearance may serve as a counterweight to the prestige of the monk and his works and may be due to the increased contacts with Thai and Lao monks too.  As stated, this trait is not universally found and its selective adoption may also date from the special heritage of the concerned boungkho whose father had served in a monastery for several years. It is comprehensible that boungkhos, their numbers decreasing, take over elements from a slightly competitive religious sphere, whose prestige is greater.  More remarkable is the way in which Buddhism or saungkha cho ma becomes moulded to fit the dominant way of production, swidden cultivation, which formerly has been the exclusive domain of the boungkho and corresponding super-naturals.

Karen monks have within the recent decade become involved with the villagers' agricultural pursuits in that certain measures have been prescribed by monks to ensure good harvests.  The most exceptional activity in the agricultural cycle is the three-yearly institution of hae t'waung, a field cleared by the collectivity of villagers, weeded and sown by them too.  The field is cut outside the village along the path and it is sown with the various crops of an ordinary swidden, all for the exclusive and singular use of the jungle animals and for the refreshment of occasional by-passers from other villages, not for those of the initiating village.  The whole affair is commenced by the d'gah phya, the villager who acts as guardian of the monastery, and the subse­quent clearing and weeding takes place on full  and new moon days when every household sends a representative to the field, where also a sala or resthouse for future by-passers is built.  When the crops are well up, the field is left to itself and should any rice be left at the time of harvest it is threshed jointly by the villagers and presented to the monks and nuns.  The latter nor­mally prepare their own food and present daily rice to the monks' meal along with other households in the village.  But days may come when the villagers from want have nothing to give the monks. The nuns may then prepare rice from this special field in stock at the monastery ground ensuring the monks of food on those days when no villager shows up.

This short examination of Karen merit-making activities helps to show that the frequent dichotomization of Burman and Thai "hill-tribes" as animists opposed to the valley population as Buddhists, the Buddhism of the "hill-tribes" being only a thin veneer on animistic beliefs, does not hold.  It is rather a ques­tion of an inclusive hierarchization of religious activities and value orientations, where the basis for an exclusive dichotomiza­tion becomes unclear and elusive, when one investigates the con­cerned activities more closely.  The levels of activities are interlocked and a future value orientation may be directed towards an increased emphasis on "pure" monk- and more Buddhist elements, as the Karens become subsumed under the Thai cash-crop economy and the concommittant cultural contacts.  The role of the boungkhos as maintainers of nature's order will disappear when it be­comes evident that economic survival under a new economy immed­iately seems to depend more on insights into the market-mechanisms than on maintenance of the up till now balanced eco-system.


[1]          Sangermano 1966 (1833) : 283, "The Burmese Empire", note C by J. Jardine on Father Nerini, who stayed in Burma around 1730.

[2] Symes, M.  "Gesandschaftsreise nach dem Konigreiche Ava im Jahre 1795", Hamburg 1800.

[3] Missionary Magazine 1850: 350, Mr. Brayton's journal.

[4] Carpenter, C. H.  "A tour among the Karens of Siam", Baptist Missionary Magazine LIII 1873.