Dashan, Jinghpaw, Jingpo, Khang, Singhpo, Theinbaw



“Kachin” comes from the Jinghpaw word “GaKhyen,” meaning “Red Earth,” a region in the valley of the two branches of the upper Irrawaddy with the greatest concentration of powerful traditional chiefs. It refers to a congeries of Tibeto-Burman-speaking peoples who come under the Jinghpaw political system and associated religious ideology. The main people of this group are the Jinghpaw; their language is the lingua franca and the ritual language of the group. In Jinghpaw, they are called “Jinghpaw Wunpaung Amyu Ni” (Jinghpaw and related peoples). The Singhpo are their kin in the Hukawng Valley and in northeasternmost India, closely associated with the Ahom rulers of that part of Assam from the thirteenth century. “Theinbaw” is the Burmese form. “Khang” is the Shan word for Kachin, whom the Chinese used to call “Dashan.” Other than Jinghpaw (Chinese spelling, Jingpo), the Kachin are comprised of Maru (own name, “Lawngwaw”), Atsi (Szi, Zaiwa—the majority Kachin population in Yunnan), Lashi, and speakers of the Rawang language of the Nung group, Achang (Burmese term, “Maingtha,” meaning “people of the {Shan} state of Möng Hsa”), and some in-resident communities of Lisu speakers (Yawyin, in Burmese). Lashi and Atsi-Maru (and smaller groups akin to Maru) are called “Maru Dangbau” (the Maru branch) in Jinghpaw.
Kachin are located primarily in the Kachin State of Myanmar (Burma) and parts of the northern Shan State, southwestern Yunnan in China, and northeasternmost India (Assam and Arunachal Pradesh), between 23° and 28° N and 96° and 99° E. The Maru Dangbau are found mainly along the Myanmar-China border in this range. It is a region of north-south ranges, dissected by narrow valleys. In the valleys there are also Shan (Dai, in Yunnan) and Burmans, and those Kachin who are more heavily influenced by Shan culture. In the far north there are peaks as high as 5,000 meters but the Kachin settlements and swiddens normally range between 1,200 and 1,900 meters or so, while the two main towns in Myanmar's Kachin State (Myitkyina and Bhamo, originally a Burman and a Shan town respectively) are about 330 meters in elevation. Snow is always found on the highest northern peaks, and the upper elevations are subject to cold-season frosts. There are more than 50 days of frost a year at higher elevations. Rainfall occurs mainly in the monsoon season (between June and October) and is between 190 and 254 centimeters on average. Temperatures are substantially lower on the high eastern slopes over the China border and in the northern Shan State. The forest cover is mixed evergreen/deciduous broadleaf monsoon forest, with subtropical forest at lower elevations, including teak (Tectona grandis).


There are no reliable census reports from recent decades from Myanmar. Projections from the estimates of the 1950s (then about half a million in all) suggest a total Kachin population of perhaps a million or more in 1995. The 2012 estimate is also in the same “a million or more range”, out of which 600,000 live in Myanmar, 100,000 in China’s Dehong Prefecture, and the remaining thousands in India. Average population density is uneven. Because of the relatively poor growing conditions of the eastern zone and the adjacent northern Shan State, there was a greater tendency for Kachins to incorporate valley areas originally belonging to the Shan, as well as to practice swiddening on grassland rather than on forested slopes. In the intermediate zone along the north-south part of the Myanmar-China border, however, the relative density was especially high, owing to profitable concentration along the Chinese caravan trade routes there; the associated high incidence of raiding caused some villages to practice high-slope terracing of wet-rice fields rather than rely exclusively on swiddening. These historical conditions restricted access to enough forested upland to permit rotation cycles that were long enough for fallow fields to revert to natural cover. Even in the more fertile zone of the west, conditions of warfare and trade sometimes led to high density and resulted in grassland rather than forest swiddening, with associated tendencies toward erosion. Overall, many villages had twenty houses or fewer, with more than five persons each, on average.


All the Kachin languages are of the Tibeto-Burman Family. Jinghpaw and its dialects (chiefly Sinli, in the south, which is the Standard Jinghpaw of the schools based in the towns of Bhamo and Myitkyina; Mungun in Assam; Gauri (Hkauri) in the east; and Hkaku in the north and west (known as the Red-Earth country) are an autonomous branch of the family, while the languages of the Maru Dangbau are in the Burmese-Lolo Branch, akin to Burmese. Nung is less certainly placed in Tibeto-Burman, while Lisu is a Loloish language in the Lolo-Burmese Branch.


There are Chinese mentions of Kachin in Yunnan going back to the fourteenth or fifteenth century, and there are obscure references to what must be Singhpo clients in the chronicles of the Ahom Kingdom in Assam, dating as early as the thirteenth century. There are similar mentions in the chronicles of some Khamti Shan principalities from the Upper Chindwin, while Leach argues that the prototypical Kachin chiefly (Gumchying Gumtsa) domains of the Red-Earth country may have arisen in the context of Khamti conquest of the area and displacement of Tibetan traders from the region of Putao (Hkamti Long). However, the first historical light on them comes from the end of the eighteenth and the start of the nineteenth century. Their spread was connected with the spread of the Shan (and Ahom) Tai-speaking peoples of the region's valleys, with whom Kachin have had a symbiotic relation. There are more Shan borrowings than any other in the Jinghpaw lexicon, and Shan-Buddhist ideas (and terms) are found in the ideological rhetoric associated with the Gumlao version of their political system (“Gumlao” means “rebellious aristocrats”; see below).
Most of the ethnography comes from the work of American Protestant and European Catholic missionaries, who started work in the Bhamo area in the late nineteenth century, and later extended to the Kachin areas in the Shan States and northward to and beyond Myitkyina, which the railway reached in 1899. The rest of what we know, aside from professional ethnography, comes from the records and diaries of British colonial officers and associated traders. There are Chinese sources for the Yunnan Kachin,which show a long-standing place for Jinghpaw in the Tusi system of imperially appointed political-cum-customs agents in this borderland of Southeast Asia, the Kachin chiefs being subordinate to local Shan princes in this context. There was an expansion of Kachin settlement toward the east and south from late in the eighteenth century, in which the Kachin followed the growth of the Chinese overland caravan trade, especially with the rise and spread of commercial opium growing. This led to a flowering of the Gumlao political system, owing to the injection into Kachin politics of new sources of wealth from involvement in the trade and from the levying of tribute on the caravans. It also led to more confrontation of Kachin with Shan, and to instances of Kachin taking over minor Shan valley principalities. There is also indication that a much earlier period saw a similar development of centers of political power in the Red-Earth country, when the chiefs there were able to collect tribute from the annual influx of itinerant Tibetan pack traders going to Burma and even Siam and wintering in Kachin territory, where they gathered forest products for sale farther on.

In the Third Anglo-Burmese War of 1885, while the British were taking Mandalay, the Kachin were also trying to take advantage of the collapse of royal Burma, and it was thought that, had the British failed to reach Mandalay when they did, the Kachin (and Shan?) might have reached it first. During the British imperium in Burma and India most of Kachinland was under the Frontier Administration, but the Triangle, north from Myitkyina, between the two branches of the Irrawaddy, was largely unadministered until just before the Japanese invasion of 1942.

The Kachin State has been a constituent of the Union of Burma (now Myanmar) since that country regained independence in 1948, and the President-elect on the eve of the socialist military coup of 1962 was a Kachin chief, the Sama Duwa Sinwa Nawng. Since the coup, however, the Kachin have been a major element in the multiethnic insurgency against the Myanmar government throughout the mountains of the Myanmar-China-Thailand border region, which has led to the extension of Kachin communities into northern Thailand. In 1953 a Jingpo Autonomous Region was established in southwestern Yunnan in China; the Peoples' Republic of China has proved a magnet and refuge for some of the insurgent leaders from Myanmar. Kachins have served prominently in Burma's armed forces (as also in British times), and some hundreds served, some in Europe, during the First World War.


Traditional Kachin villages usually had far fewer than 100 households; the larger villages existed for defense, but the requirements of swidden agriculture led to segmentation of villages. In the old days many were stockaded. Houses were built on piles. There were three sorts of houses. In regions with strong hereditary chiefs ruling multivillage tracts, the chief's house was sometimes up to 30 meters long (10 meters wide), occupied as a single dwelling by the extended household of the chief. These were generally on steep mountain terraces. This form of dwelling served to symbolize the ownership of the tract by the lineage of the chief. Since livestock were considered individual household property rather than lineage property, they were not kept under the “longhouse.” In some pioneer Gumlao settlements there were real longhouses, composite structures with separately owned individual household apartments along a corridor. Again, livestock were kept separately. These longhouses symbolized the cooperative nature of the Gumlao political order.

The rest of the Kachin lived and continue to live in individual household dwellings. Water supply was a critical factor in village size and placement, but villages that were high up for defense purposes were often distant from their water supply. Most villages were entered through a sacred grove marked by posts serving to elicit prosperity from the gods, and by shrines to the spirit of the earth, where community sacrifices were held. The third kind of building that exists is the household granary.

The house posts and beams are made of wood, floors and walls of woven split bamboo, roof thatched with grass. Domestic tasks like weaving and rice pounding are done under the overhanging front gable of the house, under which the larger animals are also kept. Inside, the house is partitioned lengthwise. The left (up-slope) side consists of sleeping apartments; the right side is left open for cooking, storage, and entertainment. At the end of the apartments is a space for the household spirit and ancestral spirits not yet sent to the land of the dead. In front of the house are altars to spirits and large X-shaped posts to which cattle are bound during sacrifices aggrandizing the household. The main external decoration is the pair of hornlike ornaments over the front roof peak on important aristocratic houses. Inside chiefs' houses there are various symbolically carved boards and posts signifying the ritual claim to spiritual sources of general prosperity in the sky world and the nether world, and a head of a buffalo sacrificed at the construction.



Traditionally, all Kachins were farmers and there was no full-time occupational specialization. Save where Kachin settlements have encroached on Shan valley principalities, there is swidden farming. The main staple crop is rice, and the burnt-over swidden is cultivated with a short, heavy-handled hoe and planted with a planting stick, the crop being reaped with a knife or sickle. Swiddens, especially in the colder, less well rain-fed eastern zone, are also planted with maize, sesame, buckwheat, millet, tobacco, and various species of pumpkin. Vegetables and fruits are planted in house-yard gardens. People also raise some cotton and opium poppy. As one goes east into the Dehong of Yunnan, cultivation is a mixture of upland wet-rice terraces, monsoon swiddening, and grassland swiddening. Rice farming starts in February or March, and the cut slopes are burnt over and planted before the onset of the monsoon in June; harvesting is in October. Grain, which is threshed by being trampled by buffalo, is stored by December. Kachins do not generally use a swidden for more than three years at a time. Fallowing ideally takes at least twelve years, but field rotation does not usually require moving the settlement; villages often last half a century or more.

Fishing with traps and poison is common, but economically insignificant. Hunting with traps, snares, deadfalls, pellet bows, and guns is especially common in the agriculturally slack cold season between December and February. Cattle, buffalo, pigs, dogs, and fowl are bred for sacrifice but generally not for eating. Pigs are fed cooked mash in the evening but scavenge during the day. Some dogs are used in hunting, and some horses are kept.

Boiled rice with a vegetable stew and sometimes meat or fish are eaten three times a day. There is an aversion to eating cats, dogs, horses, monkeys, sheep, and goats. Tobacco and betel are commonly chewed. Opium smoking has been widespread in the last century or so. Rice beer is prepared, the malted mash also being taken during heavy work and on journeys, while the liquor is also distilled. These drinks are essential to hospitality and to ritual sacrifice.


Most metalware is obtained from Shan and Chinese, but in some northern regions there are lineages of blacksmiths who smelt ore. No pottery making is reported, though earthenware pots are common. Bamboo, cane, and grass are used to weave mats, baskets, and house walls. Wood-working and carving are not elaborate. Women weave on the belt loom, producing elaborate, largely floral-geometric designs, with some embroidery.


Trade is mainly with Shan and Chinese (and Burmese) for salt, metalware, and the prestigious heirloom wares exhibited by aristocratic lineages. Kachins attend the markets held every five days in Shan towns, where they sell small amounts of garden and forest produce. The extent of Kachin involvement in opium growing and trading is in dispute, but the poppy was commonly cultivated in the area, though perhaps mainly by non-Jinghpaw. Trade with the Chinese caravans that came through the region carrying, among other things, opium, was a major source of wealth for the settlements of the intermediate zone; chiefs extracted considerable revenue from traders in their domains.


Men clear and burn the swiddens, hunt, go on raids, and assume most political and religious roles. Women have full responsibility for weeding, harvesting, transporting, and threshing; both men and women cook and brew from the crops, marketing any surplus. Women fetch water and firewood; they prepare raw cotton for weaving their own clothing and make their husbands' (largely Shan-style) clothes from commercial cloth.


Forest lands in a tract are village property and there is no private property in swidden land. Chiefs or the joint rulers of a Gumlao community have the sole right to allow people to live in a village and the sole right to dispose of land to those wishing to use it, but may not refuse any resident household use of swidden lands. Deciding when and where to shift swidden sites and assigning swidden plots are the prerogative of the chief and the elders. Irrigated lands can be inherited and sold to a fellow villager, but never to an outsider; this right follows the rule that a cultivator may not be dispossessed from a plot while it is in use.



Descent is agnatic and there are eponymous clans with fixed correspondences between clan names in the different languages. The five aristocratic clans are descended from the sons of Wahkyet-wa, youngest brother among the ancestors of the Shan, Chinese, and other peoples. These brothers were descendants of Ningawn-wa, eldest brother of the Madai nat, chief of the sky spirits. The aristocratic clans are, in order of precedence, Marip, Lahtaw, Lahpai, N'Hkum, and Maran. The clans are divided into major lineages and these into lesser segments and local lineage groups, and it is especially to the last that exogamy strictly applies, although all the clans are exogamous in theory. In some regions a form of marriage called hkau wang magma is practiced, which prohibits marrying into a lineage from which a wife has been taken until the fourth generation, and requires a marriage with a mother's brother's daughter's daughter's daughter (MBDDD). In such cases the MBDDD may turn out to be in one's own lineage, and the requirement must still be met. Some traditional lineage genealogies recited by bards are very long, though the number of generations back to the common ancestor seems to be a fixed number (i.e., genealogical telescoping). Clans are sometimes spoken of as if they were tribes because major chiefly domains have a majority of their residents in the chief's clan, which owns the village tract. In Jinghpaw proper, the wife acquires no membership in her husband's clan and lineage, but in Gauri she acquires it to some extent, and this difference corresponds to differences in the ease of divorce and in the recovery of marriage payments in such cases; in Jinghpaw proper, recovery is made from the wife's family, while in Gauri it is made mainly from her seducer, if any.


Kinship terminology is bifurcatemerging, with Omaha-type cousin terminology. The members of the lineage from which wives are taken and given, respectively, are referred to (by male speakers) with affinal terms (save that in the second descending generation the members of one's wife-taking groups are called by grandchild terms and the members of the second ascending generation of the wife-giving group are given grandparent terms). On the other hand, the wife takers of one's wife takers are all “grandchildren” and the men of one's wife givers' wife givers are all “grandfathers,” regardless of generation. Furthermore, a male Ego calls the men in his own generation, whether wife giver or wife taker, by the same “brother-in-law” term (hkau); he calls the women in nonascending generations and men of descending generations of his wife-giving group “wife's younger sibling” (nam); and he calls the members of the three central generations of his wife takers, exclusive of the men of his own generation, by the term hkri, meaning “sister's children.” Women of ascending generations of one's own lineage are “aunts by consanguinity” (moi) and the men of corresponding generations of wife takers are “uncle-by-marriage” (gu); women of the three central generations of wife givers' wife givers are ni, etymologically an “aunt” term, which has primary reference to the wives of classificatory mother's brothers (tsa, first ascending male wife giver). There are terms for actual husband and wife, and real/classificatory siblings are distinguished by age relative to the speaker.



Traditionally premarital sex was allowed; adolescents used to gather in the front apartment of a house evenings for singing, recitations of love poetry, and lovemaking. These relations need not, and some of them could not, lead to marriage. Fines are levied in favor of a girl's family for fathering a bastard. Parents try to arrange marriages to ally with other lineages, but negotiations are turned over to go-betweens. Bride-price is paid by the groom's father and the latter's lineage mates and may involve lengthy negotiations with payments extending over many years; there may also be a year or two of bride-service. The bride's family provides her with a dowry and helps defray the wedding costs.

Polygyny, not common, is allowed, and often arises from the obligation to take on the widow of a real or classificatory brother. Some chiefs have several wives, some of them Shan or Burmese, and these cases arise from the need for marriages of state. Exogamy is more theoretical than strict, and it is quite possible to marry even a somewhat distant consanguine (lawulahta). This follows from the two principles of asymmetrical marriage alliance and lineage segmentation. The first has a single rule: one may not take wives from the same lineages to which one gives wives; the reversal of an alliance is a major offense against the whole social order. Since wife givers (mayu in Jinghpaw) outrank their wife takers (dama in Jinghpaw) ritually and in rights and duties to one another, wife givers can extort a great deal from their wife takers, from which derives the auxiliary principle of diversification of alliances.
Far from its being a rule that one should normally marry a woman from a wife-giver lineage, it is often thought strategic to negotiate a new alliance. This possibility reinforces the tendency for lineages to segment (or fission) when they become too large and have to compete for limited social and economic resources. It follows that one's distant lineage mates may well have separated themselves and have their own marriage networks, in which case each has effectively become a distinct unit of marriage alliance, and hence can intermarry. In Kachin ideology, however, exogamy and marriage-alliance relations are fixed once and for all among the five aristocratic clans, with the result that this ideological model of the system has the five clans marrying in a circle (e.g., Lahtaw, Marip, Maran, N'Hkum, Lahpai, Lahtaw, each being wife giver to the next). This is consistent with the rules. Wife giver-wife taker relations, and the restrictions against reversing them, are not transitive. They extend only to certain of the wife givers of one's own immediate wife giver (and of the wife taker of one's own immediate wife taker) because a woman's lineage brothers hold a sort of lien on the children, so that her husband's lineage must pay off that lien (to the natal lineage of her actual mother) along with paying the marriage price to her lineage.

In principle the rank distinction between aristocrats and commoners (du ni and darat ni respectively) is rigid, but for the same reasons that clan exogamy is only a fiction, so is this. The politics of marriage alliance combined with the tendency for local lineage segments to constitute separate entities occasionally allows a rising commoner lineage of wealth and power to get a major wife from a lineage in an aristocratic clan that may have fallen on hard times, if the alliance is suitable to the two parties and the prices paid are appropriately inflated. There are, however, some clans that figure as unequivocal commoners (not merely darat ni but darat daroi, “utter commoners”); an example is the clan Labya, properly called Labya mi-wa, indicating that it is of Chinese origin and has been included fairly recently in the Kachin system.


Ideally, residence is virilocal, but uxorilocal marriage is not notably uncommon. This is especially true in the case of a noninheriting son, whose claims on the assistance of his real or classificatory mother's brother, whose daughter is a preferential wife, may be greater than those on his own father.


Usually the youngest son (uma) inherits his father's house and office, if any, while much of the movable property may go, in the father's lifetime, as dowry to his daughters and as marriage settlements on the older sons. The youngest son in return is expected to support the parents in their old age and arrange their funerals. A childless man's estate reverts to his brothers or lineage mates and their heirs. The principle of ultimogeniture is modified by the fact that an eldest son is thought to succeed in some measure to the powers of the “mother's brother” or wife-giver line and in any case is next in line after the youngest in succession, so that the position of an eldest son of a youngest-son line is especially important. This may be an idea associated with the Gumlao political order, but compare the mythical genealogy of the chiefly clans.



See under “Settlements” and “Marriage and Family”


Anthropologists have remarked on the different versions of the political system among different Kachin communities (Lehman 2007). Gumchying Gumtsa chiefs are the ritual models of chiefdom and the base for this kind of organization in the Red-Earth country. Their authority derives from their monopoly of priests and bardic reciters of genealogical myths, through which ritual specialists they control access to the spirits who make human occupancy of the land possible. They claim the right to various services and dues from their subjects, notably a hind quarter of all animals (wild and domestic) that are killed in the tract, and so are called “thigh-eating chiefs.” Gumlao communities reject on principle the hereditary privileges of chiefs. In particular, they believe that all aristocrats of the community are equal, that is, all householders who can get someone to sponsor the essential Merit Feasts and sacrifices. It is a mistake to call this a “democratic” system, since its principle is wider access by aristocrats to chieflike privileges (though they reject the thigh-eating dues); a Gumlao man is called magma, which signifies an aristocrat though not a chief (duwa) by strict succession. Gumlao is based on the idea that a noninheriting son who can find wealth and a place to set himself up may try to get an important Gumchying Gumtsa chief to sponsor him in a feat that will raise him to standing as a full chief; but first he must temporarily renounce all claims to standing (gumyu, which literally means “to step down from privilege”) while he awaits the sponsoring rites. When local and historical circumstances conspire to make wealth more generally accessible, there are aristocrats who will not bother with sponsorship at all, since sponsorship becomes expensive and has to be postponed proportionally to the demand for it. They simply assume the ritual attributes, although not the thigh-eating privileges, of chiefdom. This seems to be the root of the Gumlao movement. Not surprisingly, as conditions ease there will be gumlao magma who again seek sponsorship as full chiefs, at which point Gumlao tracts turn again into Gumchying Gumtsa domains.
The oscillation is fueled by a perennial ideological debate about the allowable sources of ritual privilege, as well as by the combined effects of the principle of lineage segmentation and the tendencies toward disaffection brought about through primogeniture. When a Kachin chief in close contact with Shan becomes more like a Shan prince (sawbwa, or tsao-fa), often because he has taken over lowland Shan territories or because he desires political recognition on the part of other sawbwas, he will try to assert even greater power over his “subjects” and may even abandon Kachin priestly services and the closely connected reliance on upland farming. Such a chief is called “Gumsa duwa,” a Gumsa chief. In tending toward becoming Shan and asserting a sharp distinction between “rulers” and “subjects” incompatible with the claims and intricacies of the Kachin marriage-alliance system (a Shan prince, of course, simply takes and gives wives as tribute), and in giving up the ritual basis of his authority, he will tend to lose the allegiance of the Kachin manpower on which his real power depends. The alternative is the compromise status of Gumrawng Gumsa (pretentious chiefs), who claim exclusive right over a village and maintain enough upland swiddens to satisfy the Kachin priests who must serve them, but remain unconnected with the hierarchy of Kachin authority deriving from the rules of strict succession and sponsorship, have no authority outside the village, and are not recognized outside the village as thigh-eating chiefs. Traditional Kachin chiefs, not being absolute rulers, rarely acted apart from the wishes of the council of household elders. In Yunnan, where Kachin chiefs have long had a place within the Tusi system in the context of Shan principalities, it is not unknown for agents (suwen, probably a Chinese title) to usurp much of the power of the chiefs, even though these administrative agents may be commoners.


Suppressed upon the extension of British rule, Kachin warfare was mainly guerilla action, raiding, and ambush, with sporadic instances of cannibalism and head-hunting reported.



Christian missionaries have already been mentioned. By 1990 most, if not all, Kachin communities are Christian, and the social rift between Catholic and Protestant communities sometimes is quite deep. Recent years have also seen some Government-sponsored Buddhist-missionary activity among Kachins in Myanmar.
One class in Kachin religion includes the major deities, named and common to all Kachin, remote ancestors of commoner and aristocrat alike. These Sky Nat (mu nat—the word “nat” means a spirit Lord) are ultimately children of the androgynous Creator (Woishun-Chyanun), whose “reincarnation” is Shadip, the chief of the earth nats (ga nat), the highest class of spirit. The youngest sky nat (senior by ultimogeniture) is the Madai Nat, who can be approached only by chiefs, whose ultimate ancestor was his eldest brother and dama, [Ningawn-wa, who forged the earth. A direct daughter of Madai Nat was the wife of the first Kachin aristocrat. Below all these in rank are the masha nat, the ancestor nats of lineages; that of the uma, or youngest son line of thigh-eating chiefs, has special importance. There is also a vague sort of “High God,” Karai Kasang, who has no myths (except that he seems to have something to do with the fate of the souls of the dead) and who Leach thinks is a projection of the Christian God of the missionaries; this spirit's name makes no sense in the Kachin language. Below all these are minor spirits such as household guardians and the spirits of immediate ancestors, witch spirits (hpyi) who possess those accused of unconscious hereditary witchcraft, and the maraw, unpersonified “fates” to be placated; they can upset the best laid plans and the boons granted by higher deities. Beyond these are the uniformly hostile ghosts and spirits, whose evil works are not, as Leach claimed, man's punishment for infraction of proper obligations.


There are mediums and diviners; a medium works by trance and is inexplicably chosen for his or her calling, while divination is a learned skill. These are basically private practitioners. There are also priests (dumsa) who officiate at sacrificial rites, and the rather scarce jaiwa, or bards, who preserve and recite genealogies and associated myths at great Merit Feasts (manau) in which chiefs and other high aristocrats proclaim and validate the ancestral sources of their authority. These are all learned offices, never hereditary, and they are essential to the ritual practices of aristocracy and chiefdom. Priests have two sorts of sacrificial assistants (ritual butchers). Of all these offices, only that of medium may be exercised by women. Priests, bards, and sacrificers are paid with a portion of the sacrifice. Priests also can work as sorcerers. The main work in treating illnesses is intercession with spirits by some or all of these officiants.


The chief has the ritual duty of declaring sabbaths from all work at the time of rites held for recurrent or exceptional communal times of crisis such as plagues or junctures in the agricultural cycle (e.g., just before the first sowing the chief and his priests make offerings to the spirit of the earth, which is followed by a four-day sabbath).


One cause of death is said to be that the cord that the Creator holds, thus sustaining the soul, is eventually gnawed away by spirits. Spirits can also entice the soul from the body, and death ensues if the soul cannot be found and enticed back home. Ultimately myth has it that death came to Kachin mankind because human beings originally had to attend ceremonies of the sky-spirit people, and, as dama, had to contribute costly gifts. This cost so much that Sut Wa Madu, the ancestor who founded the sut manau (Feast of Merit, a major ritual connection between the two worlds), decided to hold a mock funeral, thus enticing the sky people to attend and bring gifts. The female sun spirit (Jan nat, one of the Sky Nats) felt that this compromised the asymmetrical relations between mayu and dama, and she decreed that if there were to be human funerals, then men would have to suffer death—not so much as a punishment as in order to restore the net balance of the relationship with a quitclaim payment of men's souls. This tale expresses the ultimate paradox of an asymmetrical alliance relation; for the net circulation of the system is impossible to maintain asymmetrically when there are fewer than three parties to the relationship. On the one hand, with payments going all one way, the system lacks completeness, or closure. On the other hand, payments in an asymmetrical relation cannot go both ways. Burial is a week after death; this interval is used to try to ensure the separation of the spirit of the deceased from the world of the living, a task aided by a priest, who makes offerings to the ghost and asks it to go away. The final obsequies may be postponed for as much as a year on account of the expense. Then the priest recalls the soul from its temporary limbo and tells it the route to the land of the dead. If thereafter divination shows that the spirit has not gone, it will be installed in the household altar, which had been temporarily removed from the house at the time of the death and is now reinstalled.