Brau native Y An’s earlobes are almost five cm long. Photo by VnExpress/Tran Hoa.
More than 100 years ago, two siblings named Thao A Jong and Thao To led a small group of Brau people to migrate to Vietnam from southern Laos and north-eastern Cambodia.
Today, there are just 500 of them living in Dak Me Village, Kon Tum Province in the Central Highlands. In the early years, the Brau upheld strongly the traditions and rituals they’d practiced in Laos and Cambodia.
To gain community recognition of one’s maturity and earn the freedom to engage in romantic affairs, both men and women had to participate in a teeth grinding ritual.
“I’ve had my teeth ground (with a stone) since 13,” 80-year-old Y An told VnExpress. She still remembers that day 67 years ago when she first participated in the ritual. It was a year-end evening when dozens of men and women of similar age gathered in the community house.
After the village chief burnt incense to the deities/Gods, a gong was rung, signalling commencement of the ritual. Some men assigned for the task used stone to grind the four front molars on the top for almost two hours until the teeth’s length was reduced close to the gums. The area was covered with a plant extract to avoid inflammation and hasten the healing process.
“Only by going through this ritual would the person would be considered mature and granted the freedom to seek lovers. Otherwise, they would be ridiculed by the villagers, frowned upon by their friends, and unable to find a spouse,” said Thao Loi, chief of Dak Me Village.
While getting the teeth ground was a coming-of-age ritual, stretched and split earlobes carried a more significant meaning for women.
This was a long-term ritual, starting from the age of one or two. The ears of infant girls would be pierced and a small piece of bamboo used as a earring. The bamboo piece would then be replaced, gradually, with earrings that would grow in size. If both earlobes split due to the size of the earring, it was considered a good luck omen for the whole village.
Y Pe wears a pair of ivory earrings made with elephant tusks. Photo by VnExpress/Tran Hoa.
Sitting on the front porch of Dak Me Village’s communal house, Y Pe recounted her earlobe experience with pride in her eyes. The 90-year-old woman said everyone got their ears pierced and elongated as a way to enhance their physical appeal and show off their family’s affluence. For the Brau, the wider the earlobes, the more beautiful the person, the more attractive you are to men.
Well-off families gave their daughters neatly polished round elephant tusk earrings with a diameter of 5-6 cm or similar ones made of silver, while daughters of families not so wealthy used wooden earrings.
A pair of ivory earrings made with elephant tusks. Photo by VnExpress/Tran Hoa.
According to an information portal called Kon Tum Que Toi (Kon Tum my hometown), an elderly villager in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai Province said some ethnic minority inhabitants of the region, including the Brau, worship a certain ancient animal whose front teeth are short. People grind their teeth to resemble that animal deity.
The chief of Kon K’Tu Village in Kon Tum Province said the practice symbolized relentless will and no fear of pain or death.
Yet another report in a local newspaper in Lam Dong Province mentions a more romantic and tragic story begind the stone-grinding ritual. According to village elder Y Bongong Ni of the Ede ethnic group in Buon Ma Thuot City, a pair of lovers forbidden to be together ran away to the forest and committed suicide together by biting their tongues. This led to a consensus among village chiefs that men and women should have their teeth ground and shortened so that they would not end up hurting themselves like the couple.
The Brau in Kon Tum Province are among many ethnic minorities with distinct rituals in the Central Highlands region.
Phan Van Hoang, deputy director of the Kon Tum Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said that though the customs of grinding the teeth and stretching the ear lobes have existed for a long time, greater integration and interaction with mainstream society has changed mindsets.
Such practices are no longer popular among ethnic minority youth in the Central Highlands, and it is the few elders in their 80s and 90s who wistfully and proudly recall notions of beauty and maturity markedly different from today.