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Note: National, provincial and district boundaries have changed considerably since 1908. Typically, old states, ‘divisions’ and districts have been broken into smaller units, and many tahsils upgraded to districts. Some units have since been renamed. Therefore, this article is being posted mainly for its historical value.


A collection of Indo-Chinese tribes, the representatives in Burma of one of the smaller immigration waves that entered the country from the direction of South-Western China during prehistoric times. The arrival of the Karens in the country in all probability pre- ceded that of the Tai (Shans), and may possibly have been earlier than that of the Burmans. It is more probable, however, that they app eared after the latter, and in any case there is reason to believe that they were later comers than the representatives of the Mon-Anam races. The Karens may be divided into three main divisions : the Sgaw, the Pwo, and the Bghai. The Sgaw and Pwo are generally looked upon as the Karens proper. They are found down the whole of the eastern border of Lower Burma, from Toungoo to Mergui, in the delta of the Irra- waddy, and in the Pegu Yoma ; in fact it is only in the Arakan Division, in Rangoon, and in the Districts of Prome and Thayetmyo that they do not form an important section of the community in the Lower province. They are most numerous in the Districts of Thaton, Myaungmya, and Toungoo. In 1901, 86,434 persons were returned as Sgaw-Karens, and 174,070 as Pwo- Karens, a total of 457,355 having been shown as Karens with no division specified. These last w r ere practically all either Sgaw or Pwo, probably more of the former than of the latter.

The Karens are for the most part hill-dwellers, but a very consider- able proportion of them are now permanently settled in the plains. The Sgaw plain-dwellers are often known as Burmese Karens, and the Pwo as Taking Karens. In physique there is no great difference between the Karens of Lower Burma and their Burman and Talaing neighbours ; they are not exceptionally flat-faced, and sharp features are frequently met with. Their eyes are not oblique, like those of the Chinese. In dress they have to some extent adopted the style of the people in whose neighbourhood they live. The typical Karen garment, where the national dress is still worn, is the thindaing or smock, a long, sleeveless or almost sleeveless garment, which is slipped over the head and falls away from the neck, leaving a V-shaped opening in front and behind. Where this is worn it forms the sole upper garment of the men, boys, and unmarried girls. In the case of married women the thindaing is shorter, is often highly decorated, and is worn over a skirt. Clan distinctions were, and to a certain extent still are, indicated by differences in dress, as for instance in the embroidery on the hem of the men's smocks. The typical hill Karen house, like that of the Kachin, is far longer and larger than that built by the people of the plains. The Karens practise agriculture, their cultivation, when resi- dent in the hills, being of the ordinary taungya description. They are excellent foresters, and ever since the annexation of Pegu their relations with the Forest department have been intimate. The original religion of the Karens was spirit-worship, and a considerable number still hold by their old faith ; but some have embraced Buddhism and a large proportion of them have become Christians. In their spontaneous readiness to accept Christianity they are probably unique among the more backward races of Asia.

The Karens have been enlisted to some extent in the Burma military police. At one time a battalion was recruited entirely from the Karens ; but a riot that occurred in its ranks in 1899 led to its abolition as a separate unit, and to the distribution of the companies of which it was composed over other battalions. The two main divisions of the Karens proper have dialects of their own which differ very considerably. It is probable that the Sgaw dialect will in time supersede the Pwo for educational purposes. The lan- guage is tonal, and belongs to the Siamese-Chinese sub-family of the Indo-Chinese family.

Of the Bghai division of the Karen race, the Red Karens of Karenni have hitherto been the best known. Other representatives of this division are called Padaungs, Bres, Zayeins, Sawngtiing Karens, Loilong Karens, White Karens, and the like. The Bghai inhabit the south- western corner of the Shan States, between 18 3c/ and 20 30' N. They were found mostly in the 'estimated' areas in 1901, and the precise strength of the different tribes is not exactly known. The total of Red Karens would appear, however, to be above 29,000, that of the Padaungs between 9,000 and 10,000, and that of the Bres about 3,500. Most of the Zayeins live in territory that was regularly enumerated ; they aggregated 4,440. The Bghai tribes vary considerably in language, cus- toms, and dress. The male costume consists as a rule of short trousers and a jacket or blanket ; the female costume, of a short kilt with either a short smock or, in the case of the Red Karen women, of a single piece of cloth, draped over the upper portion of the body. Leg and neck ornaments are common among the women, the former being specially noticeable in Karenni in the shape of beaded garters, the latter in the Padaung country, where the women lengthen their necks artificially by means of a succession of brass rings which is added to year by year. All the Bghai are spirit-worshippers, and the majority of them are at a lower stage of civilization than the Karens of Lower Burma. The Bghai dialects, though differing, are probably all variants of a common speech.

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