The Manau – A Festival celebrated by the Kachin community of northern Burma (Myanmar)

Manau is a kind of traditional festival celebrated by Kachin people. Kachin Land is situated in northern Burma. Nowadays, Kachin people also live around the world as diaspora communities. The manau festival and Kachin people are intrinsically connected – there are manau festivals wherever there are Kachin people and wherever there are Kachin people there are manau festivals.

In April 2014 I visited the ‘Triangle’ area of Kachin Land. This is the area between the Mali river which comes from the northwest and the Nmai river from the northeast. These two rivers converge at Myitsone, some 30 miles north of Myitkyina, the capital city of Kachin Land. On that trip, an experience that has stayed with me was a conversation I had with a Kachin elder about manau. We talked about why Kachin people celebrate manau and the important traditions or customs that it is necessary to conduct before holding a manau, and so on. I also noted that although holding a manau used to be the exclusive right of chiefs and governors, nowadays manau can be celebrated by all citizens.

At Brighton Museum & Art Gallery there is a small display in the World Stories Young Voices gallery called ‘Celebrating the Manau’. It explores the meanings of manau and how manau is important to the younger generation as well as to members of Kachin diaspora communities.

Regarding the manau celebration, one thing stands out in my mind and motivated me to write this post. Recently a group of online users and some elite Christian Kachin leaders have called for the end of the manau tradition. They argue that manau is an animist tradition and should be rejected now that many Kachin people have become Christians. They believe manau brings poverty and creates obstacles for a civilised society. Some even say that manau is like a curse on Kachin people. Yes, it is true that the manau festival is based on the traditions of animism but should we reject manau simply because it is not a Christian tradition? Are there proven cases that show that manau has brought poverty to the Kachins? We need to consider the important role that manau is playing in contemporary Kachin society. Manau is not only a valuable and unique tradition, it is also one of the most important identity symbols of the Kachin community. In fact, manau traditions should be conserved as an UN Intangible Cultural Heritage scheme due to the turbulent social and political history of Burma which has disrupted many other cultural forms. It is important to appreciate the culture of any particular society in its fullness and to look beyond narrow ideologies.

Gumring Hkangda, Curator, World Art

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