Culture: People of Myanmar

The People of Myanmar are made up of a medley of tribes that mostly belong to southern Mongoloid stock. Four main groups can be classified by linguistics : Mon-Khmer, Tibeto-Myanmar, Tai-Chinese or Tai-Shan, and Krennic. Doubtless they came down the great rivers, but the routes, order, and dates at which they came are purely conjectural. The Mon were the first of the waves of immigrations. They came from the east about 200BC and settled along the coast. The second immigration wave, the Tibeto-Myanmars, is divided into 3 streams – proto Bamar, Chin-Kachin and the Lolo group. The traditional names of the Tibeto-Myanmar tribes are Pyu, Kamyan, and Thet and it is thought that the Thet were ancestors of the Chin, Kamyan – the Rakhines, the Pyu, now extinct, may be an part of what became the Bamar. The third wave were the Shan who camp from the present day Yunnan province of southwest China. The fourth Krennic group are today represented by the Karin who’s roots lie deep in the Gobi Desert at a legendary place called ‘The River of Sand’. Myanmar is home to more than 60 other groups, including many hill tribes who live in the highlands and remote states along the borders.

Tribes: Bamar I Mon I Shan I Padaung I Pa-O | En, Palaung, Akha I Salon I Kachin

The Bamar

The upper and central plains of Myanmar are the traditional home of the Bamar People, a Tibeto-Bamar people who migrated from the north and China-Indian borderlands in about the eleventh century A.D. The Bamar established their greatest capital at Bagan between 1044 and 1287 A.D. on the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy. Later capitals were built at Inwa, Amarapura, Sagaing, Mandalay and Toungoo. Today, Bamar form the largest ethnic group in the country, with 30 million people - about 60 percent of the population - speaking only their language, Myanmar. In the past century, many minority groups, especially Mons and Karens, have become assimilated as Barma migrants spread into new areas.

Like the Mon, the rich culture of the Bamar, who are strongly Buddhist, shows influences of Indian civilizations. These include Pali script (derived from Sanskrit) cosmology, philosophy and statecraft, art, medicine, and architecture.

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Mon peopleA distinctive branch of the Mon-Khmer peoples, the Mon were probably the earliest of the modern-day inhabitants to settle in the plains of Myanmar. They soon established themselves as the most cultured people in Southeast Asia at that time, as their art and architecture clearly show. The Mons brought both Buddhism and writing to Myanmar and traded with India as early as the Christian era. The earliest Mon writings date from the fifth century A.D. and they are believed to have founded the world famous Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, originally a Mon settlement.

For a thousand years until the fall of Bago in 1757, the Mon ruled much of lower Myanmar from their great cities at Thaton, Martaban, and Bago. Many Mons believe that the whole of Southeast Asia could have come under their control had their forefathers been a race of warriors rather than artists and poets. Mon State is home to the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda; an extraordinary golden rock perched precariously on a mountain outcrop.

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The Shan

Along with the Karen, the Shan are the second largest ethnic group in Myanmar after the Bamars and live mainly in the Shan State. Most Shans are valley dwellers. They were among the first migrants into the area and are thought to have come from Yunnan, southwest China, where related Tai peoples still live.

One division of Shans migrated south to the Menam valley and became known as the Siamese or Thais, while other remained in Myanmar or moved into Laos. Following the Mongol sack of Bagan in 1287A.D., the Shans established a power base in upper Myanmar, with their capital at Inwa outside of modern Mandalay. For nearly two centuries, they controlled the fertile rice land around the middle reaches of the Ayeyarwaddy and expanded into Kachin State and along the Chindwin River.

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The Padaung

The Padaung are found in a 150 square mile area of Kayah State and Shan State, west of the Thanlwin River and around the Pekon hills, which rise to 5000 feet. For centuries they have been the objects of curiosity and were once brought to the palace of the King of Mandalay for inspection. They are part of the Kayan sub-group of the Karens. Although known in the world as Padaung, they call themselves Ks-Kaung, which means "people who live on top of the hill." In recent years many have become Catholic. The Padaung are often nicknamed 'giraffe women' or the 'long-necked Karens' because of their custom of encasing the neck in brass coils. The practice is fast disappearing, and today can only be found in a few villages. When a girl is aged between five and nine, her neck is rubbed with ointment said to be made of dog fat, coconut milk and royal jelly, and the first neck ring is fitted. After two years, the next set of coils is added and every year thereafter she gains a new set until she marries.

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The Pa-O

The Pa-O - or Taungthu as they are known by Bamars - are the second most numerous ethnic group in the Shan State after the Shans themselves. They are an important branch of the Karen ethnic family and speak a related language, although many Pa-O in the Shan State are unaware of any connection. Local legend claims that they fled north to Shan Sate from the Mon city of Thaton, in Lower Myanmar, after the overthrow of the Mon King Manuha in the eleventh century by King Anawrahta of Bagan. Itinerant traders and Buddhists, many live today in the mountains around Taunggyi and Kalaw in western Shan State, where their main cash crop is the thanapet leaf from cordia trees, used for rolling Myanmar's traditional cigar, the cheroot. Pa-O men wear loose fitting trousers, jackets and turbans like the Shans, but they always dress in black. The women wear longyis, long sleeveless shirts and cropped long-sleeved jackets, but with a brightly coloured turban.

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En, Palaung, Akha

Other hilltribes include En and Palaung. En people dye their teeth black while Palaung women still wear cane waist rings. The Southern Chin women have the whole face tattooed. Another interesting tribe are the Akha of the Lolo group. Akha women wear a proper kilt, plain in front and pleated behind. The head-dress full of silver coins and bosses a foot high.


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Myanmar also has a strange, primitive race of sea-gypsies called Salon who are of Proto-Malay origin and inhabit the islands of the Myeik Archipelago. They spend most of their lives in their sewn-boats, fishing and sometimes pearling. While at sea they go entirely naked. Once a year they congregate on the island of Lampi in the Myeik Archipelago.

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The Kachin

Kachin is a general term for a people embracing the Gyingphaw, Lisu, Lashi, Maru, Atsi, and Rawan tribes. Their lives are full of myths and most are animist. Lisu are born hunters and Rawan cultivate steep mountain slopes. Gyingphaw are the dominant group among them and grow paddy in the river valleys. Although parts of them have converted to Christianity all still hold onto animist beliefs, and a traditional festival called Manaw (see Festivals).

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