The incredible tradition of the collars of the “giraffe” women of the Kayan Lahwi or Padaung

In some villages on the border between Myanmar And Thailand a people lives, i Kayan Lahwi or Padaung (which is part of a larger ethnic group, the Karen), in which an ancient still exists tradition with unclear origins: many women they have been wearing gods since they were little collars made of metal rings which deform the body and which progressively give the impression that theirs neck becomes long. In reality it is mainly the chest that remains compressed, but the final effect is to make the neck too weak to hold the head: the use of the collar therefore becomes essential. This tradition has led over time to assigning various nicknames to Kayan Lahwi women, often considered offensive, such as “giraffe women” or “swan women”. The practice is also being exploited for economic purposes and in a coercive manner especially from Thailand. The “ethnic tourism” resulting, in fact, leads many girls and women to wear collars not to keep alive a tradition they believe in, but to obtain in exchange for money with which to survive, despite the physical damages that the practice entails.

Who are the Padaung women from tribal villages in Myanmar and Thailand

The Kayan Lahwi are one of the least 135 ethnic groups originating from Myanmar (or Burma), in South-East Asia, are also present in some villages of Thailand and are part of the larger Karen group. An alternative name by which they are called by other minorities is “Padaung” (translated as “long necks”).

For the incredible peculiarity of the collars worn by the women of the group, the Kayan Lahwi are known in Europe since 1300 thanks to the reports of Marco Polo present in his work The million. In the 1930s the English came into direct contact with the Kayan Lahwi women: some girls were in fact recruited in Myanmar to go to London and participate in various shows, especially circuses, which attracted crowds of curious people. It was then that the press of the time gave them the nickname “giraffe women”.

giraffe women london

What does the tradition of making women wear collars consist of?

Padaung women are famous for wearing gods rigid collars made of brass rings, although gold and other precious metals were also once used. The number of the rings comes increased as they age: little girls begin to wear them around their 5 years and, over time, their collar is replaced by progressively larger ones. The overall weight that the brass can reach, up to 10 kgslowly push the collar down onto the collarbones and compresses the chest. The neck itself, in this sense, it is not stretched: it's everything else that deforms.

Once worn, the collar is removed almost exclusively to be replaced by a new one and this tendency, first of all, progressively makes the neck muscles unable to support their head without supports; Secondly, it prevents the neck area to receive light or to be washed; finally, determine the support area of ​​the collar permanent bruises. Basically, after more than 15 years of continuous use, the collar ends up being de facto integral part of the body of the wearer.

Why they wear rings around their necks: cultural reasons

If they cause this type of physical harm, why do Kayan Lahwi women wear collars? Anthropologists have suggested various reasons, both by speaking directly with the Kayan Lahwi and by studying their culture. Here you are some of the most accredited explanations:

  1. in ancient times the collars would have made the women of the tribe less attractive and, therefore, they would have averted their kidnapping and enslavement by rival groups;
  2. on the contrary, collars may have served to make the female neck more slender and attractive, so how means of seduction;
  3. the elongated neck would have recalled that of the nāga, an ancient race of demigods, represented as dragons or serpents, present in Vedic and Hindu mythology and religion. Many other Asian ethnic groups attribute their origin to the union between a human and a snake woman, defined naginiand the collars would have served precisely to recall this figure and therefore the semi-divine origins of the tribe;
  4. the collars could have served, as other local myths tell, for protect yourself from tiger bites both, perhaps, in a literal sense and, more probably, in a symbolic sense; in this sense we close the circle and return in some way to the first hypothesis, that of avoiding kidnappings by enemy tribes.

Leaving aside the interpretations on the origin of the tradition, Today Kayan Lahwi women, when asked why they wear collars, say they do so to highlight their cultural identitybecause it reflects a certain canon of beautyto arouse respect and admiration and also, above all, for economic reasons.

Kayan Lahwi women why they wear collars

The economic exploitation of Padaung women

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Kayan Lahwi and other ethnic groups they fled largely from Myanmar to Thailand because they were discriminated against and harassed by the Burmese army. Among other things, Myanmar came to make illegal the practice of collars in an attempt to appear more modern. As a result, many Padaung women, whether on the run or not, stopped wearing collars.

In Thailand, on the other hand, things did not go much better: while most of the refugees were distributed in huge refugee camps, the Thai government built shelters for the Kayan Lahwi villages designated in such a way as to economically exploit its presence for tourism purposes. Not only that, from that point on the Padaung had enormous difficulty obtaining information from the authorities permits to leave the country or, alternatively, the Thai citizenship. They are thus kept in a bureaucratic limbo and in a mechanism of economic dependence. For this reason theUnited Nations Refugee Agency accused Thailand of wanting to keep the Kayan Lahwi in a state of semi-captivity.

Currently, to visit the Padaung villages it is mandatory to pay a fee feethe size of which has grown over time to almost $20 current and of which the Kayan Lahwi perceive one reduced percentage. In addition, the ethnic group organized itself and developed some merchandising to sell to tourists. Considering that during peak periods each village can count on one fifty visitors a dayespecially Chinese, the condition of the Kayan Lahwi has settled at a better level than that of the other refugees and many of them have therefore accepted it.

On the other hand, all the women who managed to emigrate they stopped wearing collarsas well as many young remained in the villages which, in recent years, as a sign of protest, have decided to remove the rings to dedicate themselves to other things. In short, it is likely that the tradition of this people will gradually disappear and from many points of view this is certainly a good thing, given the physical damage it causes and the resulting economic exploitation.