Story: Tran Tan Vinh
Photos: Nguyen Ba Ngoc, Nguyen Manh Tuan
Every year in October or November, the terraced paddies tended by Co Tu ethnic people in the highlands, midlands and lowlands ripen and turn bright gold. This is the season to celebrate the first grains of the new rice harvest. The locals call this rite the Cha ha roo tamêê festival. This festival allows people to pay homage to Yang, who is responsible for affluence, and to celebrate the end of a grueling year of growing terraced rice and harvesting vegetables.
Before starting the rituals, middle-aged Co Tu women carry baskets to the rice terraces and pick the first golden grains, which are pounded and cooked. This new rice is used in the cha ha roo tamêê festival. They select ripe paddy and tie it into bunches, which are hung from beams. These good “seeds” symbolize their hard work and are retained in preparation for next year’s crop. In the meantime, glutinous rice (crlăng) is taken from the storehouse to make sticky rice, cuốt cakes (glutinous cakes wrapped in đót leaves) and rice in hop pipes. They also brew cassava and rice to make pipe liquor. The host family goes downstream to catch fish, shellfish and crabs. Freshwater fish (mainly niêng fish) are steamed in hop pipes – an integral dish in the new rice celebration. The celebrations vary according to each family’s financial status. Even poor families try to serve some pork and poultry. Wealthier families will enjoy buffalo meat or beef. A new rice celebration always includes offerings of chicken. A chicken is slain and its blood is drained into a tray on the floor, which contains new rice, cakes, meat and vegetables. This is done as a tribute to the Rice God for having granted them good crops and abundance.
These celebrations are also a time for dances and songs. Tân tung da dá dances are staged before the communal hall (gươl). Performed to celebrate the harvest, these unique dances are performed by Co Tu people throughout the Truong Son Mountains. Grandmothers, mothers and young girls dance with their hands held up to the sky to pray to the gods for holy rice grains and to thank the Rice God for good crops and a bountiful supply of rice. This primitive “holy dedication” dance remains very much alive amongst today’s Co Tu people. Another charming dance is the Tân tung dance performed by young men. Holding a shield in one hand and a spear in the other, the young men dance with strong and imposing gestures. Chieftains gather to enjoy pipe liquor and show off their skills in lý singing exchanges. They proclaim wise words advising the youngsters to work hard, care for their rice terraces, be frugal, and save up for bronze pots and water jars, etc.
This festival is associated with the Rice God and Rice Mother cults of ethnic minority groups throughout the Truong Son – Central Highlands in general and Co Tu people in particular. After the harvest, the festival allows villagers to relax after a year of hard work, celebrate their culture and build community spirit. Each year, the festival represents people’s dreams for a better life for themselves and their communities in this vast mountainous area.