|‘Mercy' killing: The buffalo sacrifice is an important ceremony for ethnic minorities in Tay Nguyen (the Central Highlands). Villagers ask for the buffalo's mercy and request it to accept their decision before it is killed and its meat shared. — VNA/VNS Photo
by Kim Anh
Water buffaloes are no longer used for ploughing rice fields these days, but the Lach ethnic people in Lam Dong province's Lac Duong District still consider them their most precious possession.
Village patriarch Krajan Plin said that all families in the district's Dang Ja Commune keep water buffaloes. While the female buffaloes were used for ploughing, the male ones have been reserved for making sacrifices to deities.
With rice farming being replaced by cultivation of vegetables, flowers and coffee over the last few decades, the Lach people release their buffaloes into the forests, Plin said.
One may wonder whether villagers worry about losing their animals as several thousands of them are left unattended.
But Plin said the Lach are very honest and value loyalty. They never steal another's property.
And, he added, "Buffaloes differ from each other. They have different faces, hair colour, horn shapes and personalities. It is very difficult for villagers to mistake one buffalo for another."
It is not uncommon to see families in each clan gather several buffaloes in a herd before releasing them into the wild. As the buffaloes are tame, they do not wander deep into the forest.
The buffalo owners find it easy to round up their animals by simply dusting grass with salt and calling the name of the biggest buffalo in the herd.
"The herds keep moving to find grass. The longer they are in the forests the more aggressive they become," said a villager, Cil Breo.
Following the buffaloes' tracks, Cil Breo took us to an area about three kilometres inside from the edge of the forest, where we could see a herd of 25 buffaloes grazing unhurriedly.
As soon as they saw us, they stopped eating, turned towards us and quickly formed a circle. The bulky ones with long and curved horns were on the outer side of the circle, preparing to fight, while the calves were driven into the middle.
"This herd has been living in the forest for almost a decade. They can attack men. Even its owner does not dare to approach them and needs the help of experienced buffalo keepers to communicate with and feed them," said Cil Breo.
"More than ten people are needed to drive them back to the village. Although both men and buffaloes have to ford springs and cross forests, it is worth the risk since they can give birth to young ones after a few years."
Senior citizen Dagot Jroi of Dang Ja Commune said his clan used to raise one hundred buffaloes. After some were sacrificed, given as betrothal gifts to grooms' families or sold for money, the herd is now down to about 20.
As they have been living in forests for several years, the animals have become wild and ferocious.
"We cannot drive them back home. Instead, we have to entrap them. If some buffaloes are too strong and vicious, we have no alternative but to shoot them with arrows," Jroi said.
The buffaloes are named after the Lang Biang Mountain where they are reared.
Fed a special grass in Lac Duong, they become strong and brave, according to village patriarchs.
"In Viet Nam, no buffalo meat is as tasty as the one in Lang Biang, and no buffalo can surpass the Lang Biang buffalo's beauty and strength," said Plin.
Having eaten buffalo meat in festivals and restaurants in different parts of the country, Plin said only Lac Duong has buffaloes whose meat is tender and delicious inside with a thin skin.
Head of the Lac Duong People's Committee's Agriculture and Rural Development Bureau Than Xuan Quy said the Lang Biangs are different from the other buffaloes listed in the domestic animals' Atlas of Viet Nam, compiled after the Centre for Environment Research and Community Development launched a survey of domestic animals.
The Lang Biang buffaloes are characterised by their big and short legs, big buttocks, long and small necks. There are white spots on their faces and around their eyes.
This strain of water buffaloes is the biggest in comparison to its counterparts. A male Lang Biang buffalo averages 669 kilograms, while a female weighs 500kg. Meanwhile, the heaviest among other strains of buffaloes in Viet Nam is only between 450kg and 500kg.
"The Lang Biang buffaloes are as big as the Murrah breed of water buffaloes in India that Viet Nam has imported to cross-breed with its domestic buffaloes to improve their stature and meat quality," Quy said.
"The centre, therefore, has requested relevant agencies to preserve the good genes of the Lang Biang buffaloes, to improve the quality of buffalo herds in the country," said deputy chairman of Lac Duong People's Committee Pham Trieu.
Ethnic communities in the Central Highlands in general and the Lach people in particular consider buffaloes as a totem or a standard item used in exchange for other products.
The wealth of each family and clan is also measured by the number of buffaloes they possess.
Buffaloes are beloved animals for the locals, many of whom get their upper teeth cut in a fashion similar to those of the totem. In important festivals, buffaloes are offered as sacrifices to deities.
I was lucky to have witnessed such a festival of the Lach ethnic people in which a series of traditional rituals are held to celebrate the paddy-harvesting period. I was impressed most by a village head's speech bemoaning the imminent death of the buffalo as a totem at the beginning of the ceremony, though it was only a formal gesture.
According to the speech, the buffalo had been living with the villagers like a father, mother and brothers. But for the sake of a peaceful and prosperous life for villages, the buffalo has to be sacrificed to deities. Thus, the villagers asked for the buffalo's mercy and requested it to accept their decision.
Then the village head ordered the killing of the buffalo. The participants applied the buffalo's blood on their foreheads as a blessing for happiness and then its meat was divided among the villagers and visitors.
"It is very lucky for those who witness the ceremony and have a chance to eat such a sacred thing," Plin said.
According to village rules, the brides' families have to offer one big buffalo to the grooms as a betrothal gift. However, strong and talented men usually ask for four to five buffaloes from their brides' families. — VNS