Karenni people have celebrated El Doepawmee, or Deeku, the same time each year for many generations, wherever they live. And, many elders and leaders in the community want to make sure the celebrations continue, especially for young Karenni.
"Don't give up our tradition. Please keep up our tradition; it is only held one time a year", Karenni youth leader, Boe Reh urged passionately during a recent interview with Kantarawaddy News.
Traditional Deeku food is prepared every year during the Karenni festival celebrating freedom from oppression. photo: contributed
He lives in Karenni refugee camp 1, Mae Hongsong district, northern Thailand.
Deeku is based on a legend which has been passed down throughout Karenni history.
It says that once upon a time, there was a place called Kanarmaw Deemawsoekay, or Dwe Mae Naw Ngwe Taung Pyay, in Karenni State. Karenni people lived there. The legend says, Dwe Mae Naw angels ruled the Ngwe Taung Pyay.
During that time, a child was born in Noekoe area. His mother died after his birth. The child was named as "Shar Tu Phe". He grew up to be honest and brave.
Therefore, the Kanarmaw angles gave him a special sword, called Dar Setkyar, to protect the Ngwe Taung Pyay.
At that time, Yuan people came down from the north and started to establish their nation there. Yuan people attacked the Ngwe Taung Pyay many times, but, they failed to overrun it because of Shar Tu Phe's strong defensive strategy.
However, the Yuan people didn't give up and managed to arrest a body guard of Shar Tu Phe.
Eventually, they found out from the body guard what kind of food Shar Tu Phe fed Dar Setkyar.
Yuan people brought the body guard to Shar Tu Phe's home at night and they fed Dar Setkyar a white chicken. Then, the Yuan people attacked Shar Tu Phe, but, he was unable to draw his sword during the battle.
Shar Tu Phe was very angry and hit the earth, with his sword still in its sheath. The earth broke and became a small lake. The lake, known as Shar Tu Phe Lake, still exists behind the Nam Mae Khong, in Karenni State.
Shar Tu Phe jumped into the lake and transformed into a turtle. When Yuan people realized it, they tried to find the turtle with nets. Finally, when they got the turtle, they cooked it and ate it.
After they ate it, they threw its bones and skulls on the earth. The turtle transformed into a boar. The boar organized other boars and destroyed rice and vegetables in the fields of Yuan people. Eventually, they arrested the boar and cooked and ate it.
Then they threw bones of boar on the earth. The bones of boar transformed into a bear. The bear organized other bears and destroyed plantations belonging to the Yuan people. Finally, the Yuan people captured the bear and cooked and ate it.
But this time, the Yuan people did not throw the bear’s bones on the earth. They tied the bones on a tree with ropes. The bear bones transformed into a fragrant flower, called Tha Zin Pan. It is like the orchid.
Therefore, Karenni people believe that Tha Zin Pan is the bones of Shar Tu Phe.
Even today, Karenni people continue to write songs proclaiming that Shar Tu Phe protected the Karenni nation for three lives.
Yuan people occupied the Ngwe Taung Pyay and the Karenni peoples became their slaves. But, they attempted to find the way to freedom.
Then, a Karenni youth, Yel Reh, made a "Pho Dee Karee", or deity sculpture.
Yel Reh went to the King of Yuan people and said the Karenni people had a king and could not give any tax and did not want to be slaves under the Yuan king. The Yuan king was very angry and launched a military offensive against the Karenni king. Yel Reh became a path finder and showed his "Pho Dee Karee" deity sculpture to the Yuan king.
The king was very angry when he saw the spirit sculpture. He kicked the deity sculpture and destroyed it. After that, he and his soldiers attempted to go back to his palace.
But, along the way the king, high ranking officers and many soldiers died.
Then, the Karenni people took spears and swords and started a revolution, which lasted many years.
During the battle, the Yuan people pounded sticky rice and made rounded-flatter rice, called Hkaw Puok. They carried Hkaw Puok as their rations under their hats. When Hkaw Puok put near the fire, it became soft and could eat it.
The Poe Dee Karee is also used to celebrate freedom for the Karenni people. photo: contributed.
It would last a week without spoiling. If it became hard, it could be put near the fire and would soften and could be eaten.
Three Deeku are boiled together symbolizing unity among Karenni groups which joined together to fight with theYuan.
Finally, the Karenni defeated the Yuan people, who went back to the north.
After that, Karenni people held El Doepawmee or Deeku celebration in every village.
So, Deeku is a celebration of freedom from domination by the Yuan people, still held for three days in September and October in every Karenni community.
In Karenni tradition, a ceremony called Kyet Yo Hto, is used to choose the best days for celebrating Deeku, according to The Bu Phe.
This has been the tradition since the Karenni people lived in "Dawdoemawku Htaysal Tama Laru" desert area.
Grandpa Soe Reh said, "It's different talking among different people when they are doing for Kyet Yo Hto. Some people ask for health of family members. If Kyet Yo Hto is not succeeded, people have to ask about unhealthy problem in the family. After people ask for negative things, finally, they have to ask for good things or positive things."
Sticky rice packages are still boiled during Deekuu celebration.
Nga Mae told about how to take leaves and how to pack Deekuu.
"We have to take leaves carefully. For instance, if a leaf is pulled down with left hand, the leaf is brought with right hand. Now people don't want to pay attention taking leaves. When we are packing Deeku, it has edges at top, middle and bottom."
Chicken, pork and beef are also cooked in a curry during Deeku celebration. Alcohol, Khaung yay (rice fermentation liquid) and Deeku are fed to all visitors. Deeku dance groups will entertain in every house during the three days of celebration.
There are three main programs to be done during Deeku celebration. The first thing is the "Thawluu" rice offering, traditionally given in memory of the people who sacrificed their lives in battle with the Yuan people.
Nowadays, the 'Thawluu' rice offering is intended for their relatives who have passed away. Karenni people believe that all souls can come back except the souls which have arrived in hell and heaven. Therefore, the Thawluu rice offering is a way of praying for dead relatives to go to heaven.
The second is "Wai Day" to dispel witches and evil spirits. Karenni people believe that witches and evil spirits can attach themselves to houses. During Deeku period, "Pho Dee Karee", or a deity sculpture will drive them away from homes.
The Deeku plant is packaged with, bamboo stems and thorn stems. After the "Thawluu" rice offering service, people drive evil spirits out at night. While they are kicking evil spirits out, they have to wipe out every corner of the whole house with the package of Deeku plant, bamboo stems and thorn stems. The evil spirits are also taken away with Pho Dee Karee.
The final thing is to make a "Pho Dee Karee" deity sculpture. Karenni people believed that they could defeat Yuan because of "Pho Dee Karee" deity. Therefore Karenni people make a "Pho Dee Karee" deity sculpture when they are holding Deeku celebration.
Pho means Grandpa and Grandma and Dee Karee means relative deity. The complete meaning of Pho Dee Karee is the relative deity of Grandpa and Grandma.
Karenni peoples have two tribes, called Eluphu and Kayphu. The Eluphu tribe doesn't make "Pho Dee Karee" deity sculpture but Kayphu tribe does.
On the first day of Deeku, two or three honest people from Kayphu tribe put old clothes on their backpacks and go out of the village to make the "Pho Dee Karee" deity sculpture. It's believed that if the deity sculpture is made by honest people, they can get the right answer from the deity sculpture when asking about the future.
When they arrive at the forest, they cut a bamboo plant and make a hole in the trunk. Then they have to put a fire-stone, piece of iron and a feather inside.
After that, they have to make a hole in a bamboo backpack and put the bamboo trunk on the hole. Then they tie the backpack and the trunk firmly together. They have to cover the bamboo backpack and the trunk with clothes.
After they finish it, the bamboo backpack seems to be like a person, sitting without a head. After presenting a "Thawluu" rice offering, the villagers have to bring Pho Dee Karee into the village.
The day after the finish of Deeku, the people have to send Pho Dee Karee back to the north, where the Yuan people left. It was believed the deity sculpture would protect the Karenni from another invasion by the Yuan people.
But, now there are no Yuan people. So, Karenni people send the deity sculpture to a place where danger might enter.
Karenni who resettled in third countries also held Deeku celebration last year.
"We held Deeku celebration last year. I think we'll hold the Deeku celebration this year. We Karenni should not forget this Deeku celebration wherever we are. Nobody held the Deeku celebration here in the past; however, we held the Deeku celebration together with them when we got there," said a Karenni who resettled in Finland.
Karenni people in Finland could not hold the Deeku celebration before because there was no leader who knew enough about it.
“Deeku is an effective way to preserve Karenni history, culture and traditional celebrations”, said Sayargyi Khu Hte Bu Phe, chairman of the KNPP and a researcher of Karenni traditions.
“Deeku is a celebration of freedom. Therefore, every village has to hold Deeku celebration. If Karenni people can not hold the Deeku celebration, Karenni history will disappear slowly. Therefore, Karenni people have to keep their customs and traditions always."
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