Tuyet Nhung from Krong Village

Discover the touching beauty of the Po thi Festival in Vietnam’s Central Highlands

“Oh Gods, Oh Spirits of our Ancestors! Rise upon our sacred graveyard and welcome the spirit of the atâo (the deceased). We host this final send-off today to escort the atâo to the other world. Three years have passed since the atâo’s body decayed with the rotten trees. They have cast their bracelets and withdrawn their axes. They are committed to marital ties no longer. Oh Gods, please welcome the atâo and support them as a child entering a new world. Oh Gods, Oh Spirits, I call upon thee!”

A man carves wooden tomb statues

Prayers to the gods and ancient spirits mixed with the sounds of cymbals and gongs to form a bewitching cacophony, drawing young men and women into an unrelenting soang dance. Sympathetic hands reached out as if clinging to lost time, liquor was passed among the men, and warm tears streamed down the cheeks of the women. Everything came together as the village eagerly escorted the atâo back to their ancestors in a traditional Po thi (send-off) Festival during the  off-peak season after harvest time at a necropolis in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.

Per tradition, ethnic minority people such as the Jrai, Ede, Bahnar, and Sedang preserve “the soul of the dead” and tend a departed loved one’s grave for one to three years – or sometimes up to five years – after burial. After their grief has subsided, the family hosts a send-off ceremony. Community members bring alcohol, rice, or sacrificial animals, offer their condolences, mourn the deceased, and help to prepare the ceremony to assuage the family’s grief.

At the end of the send-off ritual the villagers sound their gongs

Before the send-off ceremony, burly men find the sturdiest trees, which talented artisans carve into wooden sculptures of various shapes and forms. The sculptures take the shapes of animals, inanimate objects, a person lost in thought or grief, a village chief smoking a pipe, a pregnant lady, shirtless children frolicking, even men and women in the height of intimacy. The sculptures are then erected alongside a bamboo pole, and a sepulcher is built. After the send-off ritual is finished, the villagers sound their gongs and join in the soang dance, a masquerade around the sepulcher. They dine together at the sepulcher for the first and last time. The send-off usually lasts for at least two days. It is forbidden to take any food, drink, or tributes dedicated to the atâo from their sepulcher. They are the atâo’s property, belong to the atâo’s world, and are completely off-limits to the living.

An elderly woman tends the graves daily before the start of the Po thi Festival

After the final send-off ceremony, rituals around the grave cease. As the atâo’s body has returned to the gods, their souls go to the “phan” world – the world of the “yang atâo” (the ancestors) to embark on their new journey. The atâo’s soul may proceed to the reincarnation cycle, be reborn into an infant’s body, and start its life anew among the living.

Statues of an intimate couple signify a wish for rebirth

The Po thi Festival is a significant event in the ceremonial life cycle practices of the Central Highlands. It honors the belief that death is not a complete annihilation but the beginning of a new journey. Only after the Po thi ceremony will the atâo peacefully return to their ancestors or be reborn. As soon as the living have completed their tasks, all entanglements with the atâo will end. They are free to remarry or move on with their lives. The humanity of the Po thi Festival not only displays a unique concept of life and death but also depicts the altruism and compassion of the Central Highlands’ ethnic minority communities.

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