Thanh The Vinh

Learn how Hani people in Lao Cai Province worship the region’s woods and water sources

In the misty realm of Y Ty (Lao Cai Province), the Hani people (Ha Nhi in Vietnamese) revere their sacred forest through a time-honored custom: their annual Ga Ma Do Ceremony. Every Black Hani village has a forbidden forest containing a sacred wellspring called Ga Ma Do. Since Hani villagers are nurtured and protected by the forest, they celebrate the Ga Ma Do as a gesture of praise and thanksgiving. Located at the apex of the village, the forbidden forest is considered supremely important.

A Hani village in Y Ty, Lao Cai Province

In the beliefs of the Hani people, the forbidden forest’s well-being is directly tied to humans’ well-being and the proliferation of their crops and animals. Any transgression against the forest is roundly denounced and merits appropriate punishment. Thus, the Ga Ma Do Ceremony reminds future Hani generations to protect the forests. During the ceremony, they also offer prayers to the gods for a peaceful life in the coming year. The ceremony consists of cam ban (forbidding entry into the forest), thanksgiving to the water god, and offering sacred water to the Ga Ma Do forest.

Hani villagers prepare for the Ga Ma Do Ceremony

On the first Tiger day of the first lunar month, every family in the village sends a representative to participate in the cam ban ceremony, also known as Ga Tu Tu. Carefully-prepared offerings are dedicated to the gods. Once the ceremony is over, strings are strung up and tied around spears, which are then placed on the main roads to the village to ward off evil spirits. The key ceremony takes place one day after the cam ban ceremony.

Hani villagers prepare for the Ga Ma Do Ceremony

Early in the morning of the Dragon day, villagers bring offerings of poultry, golden sticky rice, rice wine in bamboo tubes, and a pair of cutting boards to the water god, upstream of the village. This is how the villagers thank their water source for having supplied them with clean water for the past year, while wishing for another year of plentiful, infinitely-flowing water. After this ceremony, a priest uses a tube of buong (a species in the bamboo family) to collect some sacred water for the Ga Ma Do Ceremony. Shoes are not allowed in the forbidden forest as a mark of respect to the forest god. The speaking of any Hanish is strictly forbidden. The altar to the forest god stands in a central position, surrounded by a canopy of trees. Offerings include but are not limited to cooked pork, poultry, sticky rice, boiled eggs, and rice wine. The cleaning of the altar and the placement of offerings are done in a particular sequence by two priests. After the priests have finished, the men representing the village’s households take turns genuflecting before the altar. When everyone has offered their prayers, the offerings are taken down and the bounty is evenly divided among the attendees. At the end of the ceremony, the villagers share a communal meal. All offerings must be consumed on the spot and no leftovers can be taken home. Crumbs are collected and put into pre-dug holes so as not to pollute the sacred forest.

Hani men gather by a spring

 The worship of the forest and water gods in the Ga Ma Do Ceremony not only expresses the Hani people’s hopes for a peaceful life but also serves as a tie that binds the Hani community to the environment. Protecting the forest means safeguarding the pure waters.