Of Burma by Sarah Corbett
The Kayan people are a Tibeto – Burman ethnic minority of Burma.
They consist of six tribal groups. The women of these tribal groups identify themselves by their form of dress. Many of the Kayan peoples are now living in Thailand due to conflict in Burma.
Amongst the six tribal groups the best known, due to their frequent interactions with tourists is the Lahwi tribe.
The women of the Lahwi adorn themselves by coiling brass around their necks. These coils appear to lengthen the neck, but in fact the rings cause deformation of the clavicle, thus altering the angle of the shoulders and creating the illusion of a lengthened neck. The wearing of the rings is intrinsic to the cultural ideal of beauty for the Lahwi women, although Lahwi mythology states that the rings protect women from tiger bites.
Girls begin to wear rings at around 5 years of age. The rings would be first added on a day chosen by elders / shamans of the village. Her neck would be coated in a special ointment which would prevent soreness. A specially made cushion was also fitted with the first Bronze ring for comfort. Rings would continue to be added throughout her life, and by marriageable age a girls rings would likely reach 25 cm in height. Socially the more rings worn and the heavier those rings were, the greater the wealth and status of the family, and respect and accolades were accordingly given.
The rings would not be removed unless there was a proven case of adultery. The removal of the rings would represent a severe social and physical hazard to a woman, and occurrence of removals are incredibly uncommon.
Other adornments of the Lahwi are bronze and silver bracelets. and coils of bronze around the legs.
Of late young Lahwi women are less inclined to wear the rings, and the traditional custom is in decline; however the income which is gained from tourism drives some to continue the practice.