This morning Nicole and I attended the Traditional Karen Wrist Tying Ceremony. We had been hearing about this event out at the farm for the past couple of weeks but because of language barriers I had a sort of fuzzy idea of what to expect. I knew it would involve elders from the community tying white strings around the wrists of Karen youth as a sort of blessing and that there would be singing and dancing and (of course) mountains of food. But beyond that I wasn’t sure what to expect.
When we arrived, the auditorium at Carrboro High School was filled with several hundred Karen families all dressed in their colorful and intricately woven traditional longyi. Longyi’s are long cotton cloths that are tied or wrapped and worn like a skirt. Both men and women wear longyi’s although the method of wrapping and the patterns and colors differs for men and women. Traditionally, Karen women would use looms to weave longyis for the entire family and they take great pride in the design and beauty of the cloths. One of the farmers, Zar Ree, has a traditional loom that she still uses and apparently there are specific weaving songs that the women sing as they work on their looms. I found a Burmese saying that goes: “Men who cannot read are like the blind; women who cannot weave are like the crippled”
The opening ceremony involved members of the community carrying the Karen flag and parading down the center of the auditorium to the stage. On a long table several silver platters were set out as well as white balls of string. The wrist tying ceremony apparently was an important ritual before the Karen embraced religions such as Buddhism or Christianity and is rooted in more animist beliefs. The silver platters contained 7 symbolic items that were used in the ceremony. (The meaning of each item is taken from the website drumpublications.org)
2: White thread. The white thread serves as protection from misfortune and evil
3: Seven rice balls: The rice represents unity. One grain of rice is not as strong as a ball of rice.
4: Seven triangle shaped sticky rice lumps: The triangle represents solidarity and sharpness
5: Seven bananas: The bananas represent loyalty and discipline (this has something to do with the manner in which banana trees grow)
6: Seven flower branches: The flower branches signify the Karens ability to settle and thrive and put down roots anywhere.
7: Seven pieces of sugar cane: The sugar cane represents moral values and good ethics as well as racial and ethnic tolerance.
All of these items were laid out on several platters on a long table. Respected elders stood on one side of the table and the rest of us formed a long line to wait for our turn to be blessed. When it was my turn I put my wrists out with palms up. Each of the items from the platter were placed in my hands to hold. The string was tied around my wrists and the drops of water placed on my forearms. A small amount of banana and rice was placed on the top of my head and I was done! I read that not only does the ceremony keep serve as a protection and blessing but the string ties my spirit to my body to keep separation or wandering from occurring.
Afterwards I lined up to fill my plate with traditional Karen food and then to sit down and watch the traditional singing and dancing. I felt very lucky to be allowed to participate in this special piece of Karen history and tradition.