Story: Dr. Tuyet Nhung
Buon Krong Center for Social Sciences & Humanities of the Central Highlands,
Central Highlands University
Photos: Nguyen Ba Ngoc

Fire has spiritual significance for people in Vietnam’s Central Highlands

As in many cultures worldwide, fire is a key element in the social lives of ethnic people in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Fire is more than a means to cook and stay warm in the cold nights. It represents the soul and spirit of the longhouse and the energy of life and love. Yang Apui (Fire God) is said to reside in every family’s hearth. He is the holy embodiment of fortune, proliferation and evolution. The Fire God acts as a divine medium for the eternal dialogue between living people and their ancestors. Fire is a sacred power that oversees daily routines, love and marriage, dreams and desires, joys and sorrows.

The Fire God witnesses a person’s mortal life from the Ear-blowing Ceremony in his cradle, through the Manhood Ceremony, Coming of Age Ceremony, Wedding Ceremony, Twinning Ceremony, etc. until his demise, when he returns to the realm of the deities.

Longhouses are a unique architectural legacy of matrilineal communities in the Central Highlands. Said to be as “long as the ringing of a bell”, each longhouse has a hearth, where women keep the fire alive. People in the Central Highlands believe that where there’s fire, there’s human life. The longhouse’s soul is alive, not just because of its human inhabitants but because the Fire God is present. If a house is deprived of a fire, it is thought to become the dwelling place of yang atâo (house ghost).

The Fire God is key to religious rites in the Central Highlands. K’ho people make sacrifices to the Fire God on New Year’s Eve. They typically keep their fires burning in their longhouses. Ca Dong people treasure their sacred hearth in a closed compartment and regard the Fire God as the guardian god of their families. During seasonal transitions, Bahnar and Sdang families usually appoint a family member to visit their stilt houses and carry the Fire God to their houses in a wharf sacrifice ceremony. Ehde, Jrai and Mnong people carry the Fire God from the home of the chieftain (khua buôn) to pray for a luckier year, bumper crops, familial happiness and physical strength and stamina for their offspring.

During community festivals and activities the fire is always kindled by muscular men. Meanwhile, the fire of the hearth is kept ablaze by the miraculous hands of women. When the sun still slumbers and family members sleep in the longhouse, diligent women leave their warm beds to awaken the Fire God. When the fire of the grand hearth in the rear corner sends smoke to the winds, the women carry the dying embers from the rear hearth to stoke the fire in the main hearth.

 According to old ways, the hearth in the living room is used to provide warmth, boil water and cook during guest receptions and festivals. Guests are invited to sit by the fire and converse, have some cigarettes and consume arecas. Under the surveillance of the Fire God in the living room, couples can court and make love. Brothers toast each other in a twinning gesture. People make apologies, or bid farewell to the departed following a funeral. People recount masterful literary works and epics such as Dam San and Khing Nha beside the fire. The hearth in the rear compartment is the family’s main source of energy and a frequent gathering place for women. It is used to cook, grill bush meat, dry foods, brew pipe liquor and make other necessary items.

  The hearth in a longhouse is well guarded: children are not allowed to play near it. Guests can only touch it or perform rituals in a festival under special circumstances. It is thought that people who disturb the inner peace of the hearth will enrage the Fire God, who will abandon the family for failing to preserve its peace. To appease the frustrated Fire God, the perpetrator must perform a ritual of sacrificing livestock or chickens. Before departing to a new house, a woman must ask for permission from the Fire God to have the Water God put out the fire. The soul of the Fire God will move on with family members to help them in times of need.

While life is changing in Vietnam’s Central Highland villages, communities still observe their cultural and religious practices. As time goes by, different generations will continue to gather by the blazing fire to pass on legends and lessons.