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Ethnic minorities look to the mother gourd (February 28, 2005)

In a market in Dien Bien Phu, principal town of the border province of Lai Chau, I recently had the chance to meet some men of the Mang ethnic minority group. The men were not outwardly recognisable, as they wear the same clothes as any Viet man or young boy. Instead of wearing their hair long in a turban as before, they have cut their hair short. They wear shirts and trousers in the Western style, instead of a coat and large trousers dyed black or indigo.

The women have kept their traditional blouses with two rows of silver buttons on the chest, a black or indigo skirt, leggings, and their hair gathered into a chignon pulled into the nape of their neck.

A piece of white fabric covers the blouse and the skirt from the armpit downward, giving the appearance of a second skirt, or an apron covering the body.

The Mang ethnic minority group has only 3,000 members in Viet Nam, mostly concentrated in Lai Chau.

Their population growth is slow; 300 new members between 1969 and 1989, and 700 during the last decade, due to the fact they live in nearly 20 villages far from each other in three isolated districts (Muong Te, Muong Lay, Sin Ho).

The Mang (meaning nomad), are of the Mon-Khmer austro-asian ethno-linguistic category. They travelled and cleared land since time immemorial, and settled first in Gium Bai, now Nam Ban Commune, in Sin Ho District.

In the rich folklore of the Mang one is attracted to the legend of the deluge and the mother gourd of human kind, which is passed along from generation to generation.

As the story goes, after the deluge, the only person left on earth was a young man and his sister. The sister, refusing to become a woman, jumped to her death into a gorge. Heartbroken and desolate, the young man followed her.

To perpetuate mankind on earth, Mon Ten (Heaven) used a gourd and filled it with men. He then rolled the gourd through a bamboo tube to the ground, but each time the gourd touched the soil, it was devoured by the demon Ma Pinh (Pangolin). Mon Ten then rolled a hot green pumpkin through the bamboo tube. The demon became seriously burnt and lost all his teeth. The gourd was then able to reach the earth with its load of men who had become intelligent by having swallowed pearls.

The men then were able to walk the earth, burnt by fire. The first out of the tube had their skin blackened by the flames, the last ones out had skin a pale shade of white. During the night, Mon Ten then released another gourd containing seeds for cultivation.

The Kho Mu ethnic minority group have another version of the mother gourd story. Once, there lived two orphans, a brother and his sister, who lived in misery. One day, they caught a mole named Ma Sot in the forest and wanted to eat it. The beast begged them for pity and was spared. Grateful, it revealed to them an oracle: a typhoon was to come and drown everyone.

The mole told them to take refuge in a hollow log, to stock it with plenty of food, and to seal both ends with wax. When the deluge passed, the brother and sister came out of their hiding place. Since there were no human beings left, they had to marry in order to ensure the continuance of humanity. The sister gave birth to a gourd which they put on the hearth to dry. Each time the couple returned from the fields they would hear laughter and noise coming from atop the hearth.

One day, the wife decided to pierce a small hole in the gourd. Just as she did, the Kho Mu people popped out, then the Mang, then the Thais, then the Mong, then the Lao, and finally the Viet – whose skin was far paler than those who left the gourd first.

The tale of mother gourd is prevalent in many ethnic minority groups of the North-west and in other mountainous regions of Viet Nam, and as well in other cultures in Asia. It marks the passage of an era and symbolises the lives of those who live at high altitudes. The story warns of family intermarriage, and describes the mysterious power of nature.

In other cultures, the tale of the deluge carries other symbolic significance, in particular in the Bible’s story of Noah’s Ark. Often tales of a deluge are described as an act of justice practised by a supernatural power, God of the Good and the Bad who pitilessly destroys a depraved civilisation to replace it with a better humanity. The deluge is also the symbol of the eternal re-commencement of everything.

Has there ever been a real deluge in prehistory? The ancient Greeks wrote of the city of Atlantis, which would have been swallowed up following a cataclysmic natural disaster. Some years back in his book Eden in the East, Dr Stephen Oppenheimer tried to demonstrate that a deluge had devastated the continent located in the region of South-east Asia, the real cradle of all civilisation, not the Middle East, Greece, India or China. — VNS

Reprinted with permission from Vietnam News Agency


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