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Symbols of Karen Beauty

long neck women The Karen are a remote people. They live in social units that are protective of the tribe and protective of the whole Karen people. Their customs and traditions stem from an ancient medium the details of which the Karen themselves claim to have forgotten. Among the many Karen traditions is that of beautifying the women of the tribe in special ways. There are as many distinctive features of beauty among the Karen as there are divisions within the larger tribe. The Karen are not one homogeneous group but rather a loose confederation of heterogeneous and closely related tribes. Each of these tribes has their own variation on beauty.
Among the smallest Karen tribes in Thailand are the Karen Padaung. These are a predominant tribe in Burma and there they occupy an entire state of the west central part of that country. They have a long history, much of which is known. The Karen-Padaung occupied central Burma before the Burmese arrived from the North and they, together with the ancient Mon, farmed the Irrawaddy and Salween Valleys and built civilizations based on their unique cultures.

Today, a small number of Karen - Padaung tribes reside in Thailand. Some are in the Mae Hong Son area of the Northwest. These are most commonly known as the Long-Necks, this term signifying the practice of adorning their women with brass rings around the neck. Other Karen-Padaung tribes reside in Phrae Province, in the north central part of Thailand, and Baan Thaton in far north Chiang Mai province. Their primary female beauty feature is the use of carved elephant tusk in the ears. These unique methods and mediums of adornment go back a long way, and the Karen-Padaung of Mae Hong Sorn and Phrae continue these traditions today.

There are two villages of Karen-Padaung in the Mae Hong Sorn area. One is at Doi Mae Ho at Km 84 in Mae Hong Sorn, and the other is at Nam Piang Din Village near the Burma border. Both areas have been settled by these Karen-Padaung only recently when small numbers came to Thailand from Burma. While the Doi Mae Ho settlement is relatively large, there are only nine families at the riam Piang Din Village in Phrae, and five families 14km from Baan Thaton. girl in village

In the Mae Hong Sorn and Bann Thaton area, the women of the Karen Padaung villages wear multiple brass rings around the neck, the arms and the legs, and for this tribe the rings are the most prominent sign of female beauty and status. The rings on the neck reach from the clavicle up to beneath the chin, and these rings are always held very tighly by the bone structure from clavicle to chin. This neck ring adornment is started when the girls are 5 or 6 years old and the neck grows longer as additional rings are added with each passing year. It is from this practice that this tribe has gained the name of "Long Necks". One woman in Plam Piang Din Village wears 37 brass rings around her neck and this is considered ideal.

The rings on the arms and the legs are not quite as prominent as those on the neck simply because the neck rings are so pronounced. However, these rings are just as important. The rings on the arms are worn on the forearm from the wrist to the elbow. Those on the legs are worn from the ankles to the knees, and cloth coverings are kept over most of these rings, from the shins down to the ankles.

The Karen-Padaung in Phrae live in the Wangshin District, in Maesin Village, Kangjai Village and Maepong Village. These are in the vicinity of KM 75 on the Phrae-Wangchin Road. The women of.these Karen tribes display their beauty, and their status as married women, by wearing carved elephant tusk in their ears. When a woman is married, her ears are pierced and an elephant tusk of one to four centimetres in length is inserted.

During the early stages the ear pieces are quite small, especially for younger women. The weight of the tusks gradually weighs down on the ear lobe and the ear gets larger and larger, and longer and longer. Then larger tusks are inserted and the process repeats itself until the woman's ears become extremely elongated and floppy. The married woman wears these ear pieces for life.

Unmarried girls in these tribes do not wear the ear pieces, but they do wear white dresses, in contrast to the red and black dresses worn by the married women, and on the backs of their hands a few magical words are written in spiritual languages. These words carry meaning to bless these girls to have a happy life.

The tradition of these Karen - Padaung who are sometimes referred to as the "Long- Ears" is one of the oldest of peoples in this part of the world. Long before any of the present day territories were formed by boundaries into nations or countries, the peoples of Southeast Asia, particularly mountain dwellers, practised a custom known as "Loaded Ears". According to this custom, the ears, being one of the most sacred parts of the body, were an important object of adornment. For beauty in the women and for strength in the men, the ears of both sexes were loaded. Today, among the Karen-Padaung of Phrae and of Burma, this tradition is continued for the female gender only, once married.

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