Tay Nguyen grave statues may be history

Charnel -house statues – part of the unique cultural identity of the Tay Nguyen (Central Highlands) ethnic groups, are likely to disappear, experts warn.
Charnel -house statues – part of the unique cultural identity of the Tay Nguyen (Central Highlands) ethnic groups, are likely to disappear, experts warn.

It is said that the statues were used at the grave-leaving ceremony – the last farewell of the living before seeing off the dead to the other world. Usually, at each grave-leaving ceremony, tens or even hundreds of statues were carved.

Cemeteries of a huge number of wooden statues are usually located in forest, so it is imaginable that visitors think they are lost in between the worlds of reality and spirits.

Doctor Ngo Van Doanh, an expert in Tay Nguyen culture, visited the cemeteries in the Tay Nguyen region, a labyrinth of wooden statues with different figures.

"Usually there is a couple of male and female statues by the door of each charnel- house, the statue of a pregnant woman by the side, and seated statues of new-born babies in the house's corners," Doanh said.

"These statues spell out the cycle of birth: conception, pregnancy, then deliverance. The statues do not present specific people, they are universal."

However, they are dwindling.

Many cemeteries in Dak Lak province, for example, that were once a complex of statues have now decreased in size due to thieves.

Noticeably, tens of statues at a cemetery in Buon Don district disappeared in one night recently.

"Previously, hundreds of people in the area could carve charnel house statues. Unfortunately, only a handful of people in my village and ones nearby can, and they all are quite old now," said patriarch Ma H'trinh of Buon Don district's Yang Lanh village.

"Of course, a number of young people in the area can whittle statues of this kind. Yet their statues are carved so carefully but without a soul," he said.

Doanh agreed, saying that charnel- house statues used to be carved with primitive tools such as axes and knives, thus revealing the character's miens. Nowadays, craftsmen make the statues look like real people, but the original and artistic value of the statues is lost.

Truong Bi, deputy head of Dak Lak's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism and expert in Tay Nguyen culture, lamented: "The philosophy of human life and the cycle of birth is also lost".

"New statues do not appear to be ‘deep in thought' and plainly-carved like the traditional ones; they resemble servants of death," Bi said.

The other reason behind the gradual vanishing of charnel house statues was the decreased number of carvers and the increased scarcity of carving tools, he added.

"The number of people able to carve traditional statues is getting smaller and smaller because the younger generation shows no interest in the craft."

Furthermore, cemented and concrete graves were replacing more traditional charnel houses, Bi said. /.

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