The Karen represent the largest ethnic minority in Thailand second to the Chinese. The major groups who are represented speak Sgaw and the Pwo based on dialectal differences. The Karen identity has been seemingly resistant to change primarily because of the identity that is formed surrounding their indigenous religious practices. The Palokhi Karen practices are unrelated to any Buddhist or Christian views but have adopted some techniques that remain consistent throughout the community. Anada Rajah’s study of the Karen focused on the continuity of its, cultural identity in the context of a predominantly Northern Thai socio-economic environment and a slowly growing presence of the administrative apparatus of the larger polity of Thailand. (Rajah p. 1).
The problem with any ethnic minority throughout the world is the threat of modernity and globalization that exists to alter the status of a group. A majority of Karen identity relies within their religious rituals and beliefs but there is a very condensed version that has been observed. A central problem with this is the question of religious conversion and whether anything may be said about the sociological relationship between, if not an identifiable then, at least, a posited Karen religion and Karen identity. (Rajah p. 6).
Religion is often intertwined in cultural change as a piece of the conversion of ethnic identity in the context of changing intergroup relations. A concern with the issue is the relationship between religious, cultural and ethnic change. (Rajah p. 7). The importance of identity is constructed within the difference between an ethnic identity and a cultural identity of a particular group. Rajah promotes in his book the question of how the Palokhi Karen maintain their cultural and ethnic identity with the increasing exposure and forceful shift of modernization.
While religion is a primary source of identity for any ethnic group, the inclusion of economic and/or agricultural systems is just as important. For the Palokhi Karen lived in a swidden agriculture based system. They were not entirely self sufficient of the crop and grew tea to sell in order to gain cash to purchase rice. The rituals affiliated with swidden cultivation construct the foundation of the community, together with other aspects of the religion of the Palokhi Karen, which form the key elements in the construction of a social and cultural order that is unequivocally Karen. (Rajah p. 16).
Without the lifestyle of swidden agriculture, the beliefs of the indigenous Karen religion would be incomprehensible. The concept and tasks of the agricultural cultivation are synonymous in some aspects with their religious rituals. Environment plays a key role within their religious system as the main protective spirit of the domain, Thi Koe’ca or Kau Koe’ca, can be translated as Lord of the Water and Lord of the Land. The headman of the Karen community is responsible for maintaining a healthy relationship with the Lord of the Land and Lord of the Water. When it is felt that the relationship is not sustained it can lead to the dissolution of the community. (Rajah p. 40). The headman acts as the mediator between the community and the Lord of the Land and the Lord of the Water.
The Palokhi Karen exist on patrilineal principles that are connected with the fact that older male figures own land that is used for their agriculture practices. The male figures who control the agriculture hold the power within the households and, in turn, the community. The succession of the headman of the Palokhi exists within patrilineal lines as the idea of the continuity of ritual relationships. This explains that practices of ritual significance or religious importance is the association between the headman, the community and the protective spirit of the domain as interchangeable. The general characteristics of ritual performances and religious beliefs are in Palokhi rather than the succession to headmanship and participation in the Head Rite. (Rajah p. 44).
Regarding generational terms, continuity is an important aspect of the religious conceptions of the Palokhi Karen. The implication of this is that succession or continuity is conceived of as a process of affiliation, or association, through successive steps of biological reproduction rather than strict genealogical lineality. (Rajah p. 45). The Head Rite is an annual ritualistic ceremony that combines three main aspects: offerings of food and rice liquor, interdependency, and semantic parallelism through oral interpretation. (Rajah p. 46). Through the Lord of the Land and Lord of Water the Head Rite is obtained to project harmony and success for agricultural culmination that the community relies on.
Within the Head Rite and general beliefs there needs to be a cool state that will be essential for the successful cultivation of crops and the well-being of the community. To insure prosperous conditions to be prevalent, the Palokhi Karen believe that the Lord of the Water, Lord of the Land, and the land itself must be cool. The successful growth of the rice crop also depends on the production of a cool state. In correlation to this, harmonious predicaments in marriages are thought to guaranteed by cooling the bride and groom as an important part of marriage ceremonies. (Rajah p. 49).
The Palokhi Karen believe that crooked marriages invite unwanted interference from the Lord of the Water, and Lord of the Land. The assumption is that where crooked marriages exist, the natural order of things is disrupted. The Palokhi Karen explicitly stress the saying that the village becomes hot, the land becomes hot resulting in the destruction of the rice crop. (Rajah p. 78). There is a distinctive theoretical connection between marriage and the cultivation of crops. Interestingly enough the consequences fall on the community as a whole rather than the couple in question. Both words heat and cool are essential words in the Palokhi Karen religion. In similar aspects to yin and yang the concepts of heat and cool need to be balanced in an equal manner to maintain tranquility of life. (Rajah p. 85).
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