Nguyen Linh Vinh Quoc

After the harvest, Jarai people in Vietnam’s Central Highlands hold a thanksgiving festival

“O Yang! Today I call upon Yang Hri (the god of rice), Yang Oi Adei (the god of the sun) – Ya Pom (the goddess of mercy, who protects the spirits of rice and property), the Yang of the rong house, the Yang of the mountain, the Yang of the water…

We thank the Yang for blessing our village with a harvest unharmed by birds, mice, or squirrels, and healthy rice plants laden with grains in a bumper crop…

We humbly ask you to bestow us with rice souls, so the next harvest will be plentiful, the rice will have hundreds and thousands of children, the weather will be mild, and animals and diseases will not harm our crops. From now on, our village will love, protect, and shelter each other. Our children and grandchildren will work hard and study well, our villagers working far away in the mountains and by the river will be safe. We pray that our villagers will always enjoy good health… Our pigs, chickens, buffalos, and cows will fill the yards, and our rice will never run out… O Yang!

(Excerpt from the New Rice Celebration Ceremony’s prayer)

A gong performance in front of the rong house

For generations, ethnic minority people in the Central Highlands, particularly the Jarai, have lived a simple and rustic existence, while enjoying rich polytheistic spiritual lives. They believe that everything is endowed with a soul. Their deities have human emotions and will protect and bless worshippers who are sincere and make abundant offerings.

Each year after the harvest, from around November to December, the Jarai community in the Central Highlands holds the New Rice Celebration Ceremony. This rite is intended to thank the gods for an abundant harvest and to wish for an even better harvest the following year, as well as good health for local families and communities. Each family holds its own ceremony until the entire village has brought in its harvest. After the last grains of rice have been stored, the village elder will choose a day to hold the New Rice Celebration Ceremony in the village’s traditional communal longhouse, or rong house.

Village Elder Ro Cham Hup

This year, Village Elder Ro Cham Hup of Plei Kep Village, Ia Phi Commune, Chu Pah District, Gia Lai Province, was overjoyed that his village had a bountiful harvest. Elder Hup informed his assistant elders and the other villagers that they should prepare for a major festival. On the chosen auspicious day, Elder Hup woke up very early and dressed neatly in traditional Jarai clothing. He went to the edge of the forest to pick a branch of the freshest ngal leaves (a type of forest leaf used in religious rites) and brought it back to the rong house. To the hearty beat of his drum, he roused the other villagers and announced that the monumental day had begun. A chorus of mortars and pestles pounding rice resonated everywhere. The women grilled meat, prepared various dishes, and picked leaves to stuff into jars of ruou can (wine drunk from communal jars with cane straws). This food and drink was carried to the rong house to serve during the festivities. Meanwhile, groups of middle-aged men prepared the gongs. Young people dressed in traditional attire showed off their tanned skin. Everyone gathered in front of the rong house wore brilliant smiles and held the most beautiful stalks of rice picked from their established and temporary fields. The assistant elders carefully gathered all of these rice stalks into a neat bundle, which was presented to Elder Hup.

Villagers offer the most beautiful stalks of rice from their fields

After ensuring that the offerings were complete, Elder Hup went to the porch and signaled for the gongs to sound. A procession of gongs led the elder and his assistants into the rong house while merry villagers danced the xoang in a circle while holding hands. Their feet and hands moved in unison to the same rhythm. The women danced gracefully and the men took strong, firm steps around the neu pole in the middle of the yard to the beat of the gongs.

Inside the rong house, Elder Hup and his assistants undertook the solemn ceremony. Once the preparations were complete, Elder Hup began the ritual and raised his voice in prayer to the gods. As the prayer ended, the gongs began to sound again, escorting Elder Hup and his assistants into the yard to join the village’s festivities.

Elder Hup and his assistants perform ritu

Every family had brought a jar of wine brewed from new rice to the rong house’s yard, along with rice cooked from the new harvest. These were laid out around the neu pole. Only after Elder Hup opened the first jar of wine did the whole village take turns in sharing their mutual joy. Grandmothers and mothers distributed fragrant bamboo tubes full of freshly cooked rice to young children. Pairs of young men and women began to invite each other to drink, beckoning people to join the xoang dance circle, accompanied by the euphoric sound of the gongs. Strapping young men challenged each other in games such as wrestling, stick-pushing (a two-person tug-of-war), and stilt-racing. Everyone enjoyed the jubilant and exuberant energy of the village’s great festival.

As well as being a unique cultural feature in the spiritual lives of Central Highlanders, the New Rice Celebration Ceremony is equivalent to the Lunar New Year (Tet) and infused with their community’s distinctive and respectful traditions.