Lua couple

The Lua are an ethnic minority that lives in northern Thailand and northern Laos. Similar to the Kmhmu, Lamet and other Mon-Khmer hill people in Thailand and Laos, they are short, stocky with black hair and have a complexion that is darker than their lowland neighbors. They have traditionally lived among Hmong, Yuan (northern Thai), Thai Lue (Dai) and Lao and have been involved in the opium trade. [Source: Alain Y. Dessaint“Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

The Lua people are native to Laos, but there are now more of them in Thailand. They prefer to call themselves Lua'. Their Lao neighbours tend to call them Thin, T'in or Htin. They are sometimes referred to as Lawa but there is an unrelated group in northern Thailand that also goes by the names Lawa and Lua. There are two subgroups of Lua that are subject of this article: the Mal and the Phai or Pray. The total population of Lua in unknown: 23,193 were counted in Laos in a 1995 census and 48,000 were estimated to be in Thailand in 1995. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Lua are also known as the T’in, Chao Dol, Htin, Kati, Kha Che, Kha Pai, Kha Lua, Lawa, Kwa, Mai, Pai, P’ai, Pra, P’u, Pai, Thin, Toe, Tin. Most live in Nan Province in Thailand and Xagnabouri (Sayaboury) Province in Laos to the southwest of Luang Prabang. They have traditionally lived in the mountain ranges between the Mekong River and Mae Nam Nan Rivers. William Dessaint estimated 14,548 Lua in Thailand in 1964 and George Tubbs estimated 5,000-6,000 in Laos in 1960. |~|

The Lua are mostly animist and shamanists. They speak a Mon-Khmer language, closely related to Kmhmu and have many borrowed words from Lao and Yuan. They have no written language. They are believed to have lived in the Mekong area of northern Laos for centuries and migrated into Thailand in the 19th and 20th centuries to escape internecine warfare between lowlanders and highlanders and find better farmland.

Lua Religion

The Lua have traditionally believed in spirts associated with natural phenomena and deceased human beings. There are village guardian spirits, mountain and water spirits, and jungle spirits. Most spirits are regarded as overly sensitive and capricious. Great care must be taken not to offend them. Offended spirits are believed to be the cause illnesses and natural disasters.

Most traditional villages have a part time spirit specialist selected by the village elders. He presides over rituals, weddings and funeral communicates with the spirits, and performs sacrifices. The Lua observe a 10-day work week with a holy day of rest. During the New Year festival in mid-April villagers drink lots of rice liquor through straws and the village priest goes into a trance and communicates with the spirits. Many festivals are often tied to the agriculture cycle and involve the sacrifices of a pig or a dog.

The Lua believe that people have 32 souls. The loss of one or more souls can cause illnesses of varying degrees. Poor health caused by souls by spirits can be restored if the spirits are convinced through rituals to return the souls to the body. Loss of all the souls results in death.

The dead are usually wrapped in bamboo mat and blanket and buried in the jungle with some possessions. The funeral is a loud affair, with singing, drinking and wailing by family members and friends. The house of the deceased is purified and cleansed of evil spirits. On the 10th day after death some ashes are placed on winnowing tray and the dead are asked to walk over them. If no patterns appear the deceased has become an ancestral spirit. If markings do appear they may indicate the dead has been reborn as a dog, pig or chicken.

Lua Marriage and Family

Traditionally, boys marry when they are in their late teens and girls marry when they are in their mid teens. Courting is carried out in groups and sometimes involves singing love songs, and giving small gifts. If a boy is interested in a girl he informs his parents and they contact the girl’s parents. Groom’s provide a bride-price or do a bride service. Premarital sex is a serious taboo. Violators have to make an expensive sacrifice.

Most marriages are monogamous. First cousin marriages are encouraged. The wedding ceremony often takes place at a village-wide feast after the couple has begun living together and involves a ritual in which a village priest calls on the groom’s ancestor spirits and ask for their blessing. There is usually a feast at the house of the bride’s family in which the groom is introduced to the bride’s ancestors.

Afterward the couple often lives with the bride’s family until the groom finishes his bride service. The couple forms their own household after they have their own children. Divorces are common and easy to get .

Both nuclear and extended families are common. The youngest child usually lives with the parents permanently and takes care of them in their old age. Both parents, grandparents and sibling take part in child rearing. Young children are rarely disciplined. When boys and girls are still young they begin working in the fields, looking after younger siblings and taking on other responsibilities.

Lua Society

Where the Htin (Lua) live in northern Thailand

Men tend to hunt, do heavy work such as plowing, slashing and burning, trade with lowlanders and brew liquor. Women—with the help of their children—do weeding, harvesting, carrying and processing crops, gathering wild fruits, collecting water, feeding the pigs, growing vegetables, cooking and household chores.

Lua villages are very egalitarian. When there is rank it is based more on age, wisdom and experience than wealth or ancestry. Although some patrilineage organization is found, Lua society seems to be rooted more in village bonds and friendship Villagers are led by and disputes are settled by villages elders, a headman and a village priest. The headman position seems to be a fairly recent innovation, created primarily as a response to pressures from lowlanders. There is a strong social code against violence and displays of anger. Threats of supernatural punishment are used to maintain social control.

Lua Villages and Homes

The Lua generally live in hilly areas that were once and still are covered by tropical rain forests, and often live in village interspersed with Hmong, Yuan, Lue, Lao and Mien villages. Their villages, made up of between four and 100 households, are often situated on the slopes of mountains at an elevation between 300 and 1,300 meters. Many of their villages have village gates and carved wooden spirit posts.

Houses are raised off the ground on stilts or piles and have a wood frame, bamboo walls and roofs thatched with grass. There house have no nails or other metal because of Tin taboo The entrance faces west and is reached by a wooden ladder or a notched log. Flimsy bamboo partitions divide the rooms, Rattan mats are used for sleeping and sitting. Rice is stored in a separate raised granary. Every household has rice pounder. The houses are not built to last in part because the Lua have traditionally moved every few years when the soil was exhausted or there was some sort of bad omen.

Lua Agriculture and Economy

The Lua practice mostly slash and burn agriculture and grow glutinous (sticky) dry rice as their main crop. They also grow betel, tobacco, and opium mostly for their own consumption, and maize, millet, root vegetables, herbs, melons, pumpkins, gourds, and cucumbers for food.. Pig and chicken are the primary source of meat and protein. They are kept for sacrifices and food. Some times they are sold to lowlanders.

The Lua earn money from selling salt collected from salt wells and miang (fermented tea leaves chewed as a mild stimulant). They collect medical herbs, wild fruit and foods and in the forest and hunt deer, wild pigs, wild fowl, rabbits and bears with crossbows and rifles. Some fishing is done with nets and poison.

The Lua sell, trade and peddle miang and sell pigs cattle and wild animals to lowlanders. With the money they buy rice, medicine, blankets, clothes, pots, flashlights, matches, beads, earrings and manufactured goods. They are very skilled at manipulating bamboo into useful things like floor mats and baskets as well artistic creations like musical instruments and bold geometric patterns made by weaving black grass into woven bamboo. They also extract salt from salt wells.

Nan Province, where the Lua live in Thailand

The Lua are primarily subsistence farmers. They are not known as being traders or craftsmen. Slash and burn agricultural land is not owned and is cultivated by whoever clears it. Disputes over land are settled by headmen. Irrigated wet rice land is often privately owned and is inheritable.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company; New York Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBCand various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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