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You are here:      Home News Spirit houses
Spirit houses

Katu EthnicThe heart of a Katu village is its communal house. Bao Dan visits Vietnam’s Truong Son Mountains to report on these special buildings.

People of the Katu ethnic group live in Vietnam’s northern Truong Son mountain range. Their communal houses, or gươl, form the heart of a Katu village. Inside these houses, the cold and loneliness of the jungle is mitigated. All of the community’s ritual activities take place inside this house or around the sacrificial that stands out front.

Hopes and dreams.

Representing the villagers’ hopes and willpower, the gươl is a symbol of the powerful community. Located in a position, this is where village elders make key decisions. Following respectful sacrifices and ceremonies, the community house is built under the guidance of experienced village elders. All of the materials come from the forests, from tall wooden columns to the small rattan stems that are used to tie everything together. The house is the pride of the community and also a reflection of the strength and position of the village.

 

The houses take different forms, depending   on the position and wealth of the community. However, their design follows a set of strict rules. A main, round column stands in the middle of the house to symbolize the Rice Mother. Twelve smaller columns stand around this central column. The walls slope like the sides of s boat and are decorated with legendary T’ring birds at the peak of the roofs.

Katu people explain the strange shape of the gươl in many ways. It is said that the house resembles a buffalo lying beside a sacrificial pole. The peak of the roof represents the buffalo’s spine and the rafters its ribs. The gươl is likened to a mother buffalo with surrounding houses compared to baby buffalos. Buffalos play an important role in the lives of the Katu people.

The communal house’s strange shape is also compared to the legendary T’ring bird. This special building is reserved for the spirits and the "souls of the community" – the much-respect-ed village elders.

The space inside the house is filled with simple decorative motifs, such as flowers, leaves and climbing trees. Other images include a pair of geckos from the legend, a woman dancing the padil yaya (a heaven-offering dance) or a legendary m’nga monster. There are also scenes from daily life, such as men smoking, hunting, beating drums and stabbing sacrificial animals and women pounding rice.

The top of the pole is covered with three layers of patterns representing the world. A buffalo head from the precious sacrifice is hung from the pole and at the foot of the pole stands a vase of cần rice alcohol. Beneath the eaves hang many animal heads, trophies from the villagers’ hunts.

A gathering place

After work, young people gather around the fire and listen to tales recounted by the village elders, the gươl serves as a school where each generation learns about their community and its history. This tradition is essential to preserving their culture.

During rituals, the gươl is a meeting place for the spirits. Community members express their wishes to the spirits via the village elders. If there are complaints or disputes among villagers, judgments are made by the village elders in the communal house. In the past, the gươl also served as a fortress where unmarried young men slept to guard the village against invasion.

Similar to the communal house of the Viet people (the largest ethnic group in Vietnam), the gươl is the central point that holds the community together. The gươl is essential to the world view and way of life of the Katu people.

 

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