|Parting wishes: Charnel houses built for the bo ma ceremony, in which local ethnic people say goodbye to the dead. — VNA/VNS Photo Ho Cau
by Nguyen Quang Tue
Imposing wooden charnel houses are one of the unique architectural traditions of the Central Highlands. However, as the forests in the region grow increasingly depleted, these structures may soon be relegated to the past.
We arrived in Ia Kly Commune in early April, when it was scorching hot and the trees were suffering from the drying heat. In most of the villages in the commune, solid cement coffins lay by the path.
"Sadly, we haven't made as many wooden coffins as we used to, because the forests have run out of wood," said Rolan Yik, who lives in the village of Lan. "A wooden coffin costs no less than VND1 million (US$50)."
Visiting the village cemetery, we saw various kinds of tin-roofed cement charnel houses and statues. When we wondered if the villagers had cut down so many trees that there was no more wood to build charnel houses, Rocham Pher, a local cultural official, defended them: "Our axes could not cut down so many trees. We would never destroy the forest inherited from our predecessors."
About 500 families of 3,000 Jrai ethnic people live in the commune. Besides rice and maize, the local economy in recent years has largely depended on coffee, pepper and rubber planting.
|Changing times: More and more cement charnel houses and statues have been built in the Central Highlands of Viet Nam, replacing the traditional wooden ones.
According to tradition, each Jrai community has its own cemetery in the west of the village, where the bo ma (leaving the tombs) ceremony, one of the most important and sacred ceremonies of the local people, takes place every March.
The event is also an opportunity for village people to demonstrate their abilities in singing, dancing, weaving and cooking. A traditional bo ma ceremony takes a long time and a lot of money, as offerings like cattle, pigs and chickens must be prepared.
The scale of each ceremony depends on the economic condition of each family. If it is a grand one, there will be many beautiful statues in the charnel house, while there are fewer and more monotonous statues if the ceremony is small.
Jrai people think that death is the beginning of a new life. The wooden statues buried around the charnel houses in the ceremony are the last tribute offered to the dead. The statues of Jrai people depict all the expressions of human emotion. In the ceremony, they are buried around the grave so that the dead do not feel lonely.
According to Jrai custom, the dead are buried in tree-trunk coffins. The trunk of a big tree of good wood is cut down and then hollowed out so the body can be placed inside.
However, so many big trees have been cut down that many Jrai families can no longer afford to make wooden coffins or charnel houses.
In the first three months of this year alone, 460ha of forest nationwide have been burnt and cut down, mostly in the central provinces of Gia Lai, Lan Dong and Dac Lak and the southern province of Binh Phuoc.
While the news about deforestation and poaching seems to be increasing every day, it's impossible to fathom that the Central Highlands have completely run out of forest. However, this seems to have happened - at least in Ia Kly.
The forests in the Central Highlands have been severely exhausted. Someday, wooden statues and charnel houses may be only a distant memory. — VNS