The Negrito of Thailand : the Mani people
The name Mani is of Mon-Khmer origin and means "human being," and they speak Tonga language. The Mani or "forest people" as other Thai people call them lives in the jungles of southern Thailand, in the Banthad Mountain Chain and around the Malaysian border in the provinces of Trang, Phatthalung and Satun. The Mani people "are of short build, black complexion" and "with curly hair. They are facing extinction and currently their total population is about 300. The Banthad Mountain chain became a base area for communist insurgents during the 1970s and thus a battle ground between communist guerillas and Thai government forces. Especially during the years of 1975-1977, the insurgents were battered in ground and air attacks. The Mani suffered terribly during this war with government forces frequently mistaking the smoke of Mani camp fires for insurgent activity. Those living in Trang and Phatthalung provinces had to move to the sanctuary of Thoungwan district in Satun province.
Mani Man and his family
The Mani people lives in groups known as "bands." Mani bands are made up of several families and usually comprise between 15 and 30 persons. They seem to regard this as the most convenient size for a band to make a living. Each family in a band has their thub or shack (which the Mani call ayah) as living quarters. Ayahs are built in a circle, all are facing inwards to form a circular village center. Normally, a band consists of parents, their children, and other close relatives such as nephews and nieces. The band is led by a chief elected by all adult members. Members of the band must follow the instructions of their chief. while youngsters are, of course, also expected to listen to their parents. A survey on the Mani living in the Trang forest area in December 1982 found that there were three groups:
1. the "Above Klong Thong River" band of 9 males and 6 females
2. the "Khlong Hindaeng River" band of 11 males and 7 females
3. the "Jaopha" band, of 9 males and 9 females.
By questioning them, we have learned that in Trang Province there had originally been 5 groups. Two of them had moved away:
4. Mr. Sung's group from Ban Naitra village
5. Mr. Yung's/Mrs. Yum's group from the vicinity of Ban Hin Jork village had moved into the area of Manung in Satun Province.
Only three groups remained in the Trang village area in the early 1990s.
The "Jaopha" Band is quite different from the other Mani bands. This band is organised differently from the other groups. One difference is that the band is made up of members of families of elder brothers and sisters joining together. Another is that members of the band can marry each other as long as they are not blood relatives. Such practice is different from that of the other Mani where no marriage among band members is normally allowed. The "Jaopha" band in the early 1990s consisted of 5 families under the leadership of Mr. Khai who is brother-in-law to one member and uncle to other members of his band.
In Mani society there is no right, apart from tradition, to assert land ownership. Yet in their hunting-gathering activities, the bands hardly ever intrude into territories belonging to other bands. Members of a band learn early about the areas that they are allowed to use for themselves and force would not be used to expel or punish trespassers. At times where the land is not suitable for hunting or for collecting wild potatoes, "we live temporarily with other bands to share food with them." (Mr. Loh, BE 2535 / AD 1992). In normal times, each Mani hunting band sticks to its own territory for hunting and gathering activities.
1. The site must be on slightly sloping terrain and not within a hollow where rainwater could gather.
2. The site must be near a source of fresh flowing water (standing water &endash; which the Mani call "dead water" &endash; would not be acceptable and is regarded as unhealthy). The Mani also shun water from a canal or a river or below a waterfall, for fear of flash floods. The sleeplessness caused by the roaring rivers during the rainy season as also be mentioned (Mr. You, 1992) as a reason for shunning such locations. Even if a proper water source has been found, the taste of the water will also be a consideration.
3. The site must be shaded by trees that are big enough to provide cool air and shelter but not so big that they endanger the Mani and their huts during a storm.
4. There should have been no human death at the chosen place - and no haunting by evil spirits. The Mani believe that evil spirits are the cause of sickness and to ensure that a place is free of such influences they require:
- that the place under consideration does not cause the hair to rise in fright (i.e. that the area not be "spooky"), but instead that it gives a feeling of cosiness and freedom- that the place under consideration shows plentiful secondary growth of young trees. If the area has sparse or no secondary growth, living people should stay away - an evil spirit must be there that is capable of causing illness. "When even young trees cannot grow there, how could a human?" (Mr. Sung, 1992).5. There must be abundant food resources in the area under consideration and it must be not too far from an area where bamboo grows.
- that the place under consideration has no white ant (termite) hills, especially not one of a rather darkish species, as it this could be the abode of an evil spirit and could cause disease among humans.
Mani girls in front of their Ayah (hut)
After a proposed location has been found to fulfill all requirements after it has been decided to set up the village there, the Mani immediately begin constructing their ayahs (huts). All available men help the head of the family in cutting down wood and in collecting large poud (banana) leaves for the roofing. The women and children clear the ground and gather lianas which are used to hold the construction together.
An ayah is simply made, a hut with a roofing of leaves. Within it, there is a a bed platform, a panong, that is also a status symbol for its owner. A single panong means that the shack belongs to an unmarried person while a double-panong singifies a married person. The panong is built at about one arm's length from the ground on one side, and touches the ground on the other side. The higher side of the construction is at the back of the hut so that anyone lying would be facing towards the outside with the feet in the same direction. They believe that in case of an attack by a wild animal or an enemy, they would still get to their feet in time for running away. This is also an example of the importance that they attach to their feet, as "without feet they could not go anywhere and could not find their food" (Mr Yoo, 1992) - (in Thai society, feet are not regarded as a "polite" part of the human body).
Moving to a New Place
The Mani are nomadic in habit which means that they do not live permanently in he same place. Having to move to a new place is a normal event in Mani life. The decision on whether to stay put or to move is based on several considerations. The most important reason for thinking of moving is shrinking productivity of the environment around the settlement, when animals and wild potatoes are getting hard to find. There are other reasons for considering a move, such as:
1. When someone has died in or near the current location, a move away has to be made quickly.
2. When sickness strikes a member of the band and persists for some time despite treatment, this means that an evil spirit haunts the area. The current location has to be abandoned quickly and a new one found as far away from it as possible.
3. When a child is born in the band, the Mani believe that the blood shed during birth causes sickness (especially "dead blood", meaning blood with a strong smell) (Mrs. Bah, 1992). The band will then move to a new location as soon as the new mother has regained her strength, 5-7 days after giving birth.
4. After an outsider (a non-Mani) has come to their village and asked for their child in a threatening manner. Such an event is considered a bad omen.
Mani Ayah (hut)
When the decision to move has been taken, the Mani help each other with packing and with carrying their possessions. The men are responsible for moving heavier items while the women look after lighter items and the children. Each owner carries his own blowpipe and other hunting implements. Smaller items (clothing, knives, salt, etc.) are carried in bags made of wrapped Pandanus-leaves, kajong. Lengths of rattan are tied to the bag so that it can be carried over the shoulders like a backpack.
In the old days before matches had reached the Mani, dry rattan rubbed on a piece of dry wood was used to make fire - a difficult undertaking. When moving camp, the Mani had to take a burning piece of wood along with them. During rains, the fire was sheltered with a cover of broad leaves sewn together. Today, the use of matches or cigarette-lighters has become widespread and firewood is no longer carried on moves (Mr. You, 1992). Immediately before setting out, parents rub ash from the extinguished camp fire onto the children's bodies and faces. This is to protect and hide the children from evil spirits during the move. The spirits, even if they do see the child, will not think it human. The Mani believe that if the spirits recognised a child as human, it would follow it and would later attack it at the new location.
The food eaten by the Mani is all found growing wild or living in the jungle - the Mani have no knowledge of agriculture and animal husbandry.Vegetables form the staple diet, supplemented occasionally by meat after a successful hunt.
Hunting and Gathering
The distribution of duties between the sexes among the Manias is as is commonly found in other hunting and gathering societies. Men hunt and are responsible for gathering fruits and vegetables and for digging up wild yams. Women are thought of as being inferior to men in hunting ability. They are, instead, responsible for looking after the children. Breastfeeding and pregnancies also do not allow long hunting trips to distant places.
Outsiders often think of the Mani as backward and uncivilised when it comes to food. Mani eat only well-cooked food; they abhor raw food. The Mani explain that "those who eat raw food are barbarians not friends" and "when the Thai villagers visit us and our children are afraid of the visiting grown-ups, we tell them to fear not, for the villagers eat cooked food just the way we do." In the olden days when association with the Thai villagers was not as common or close as it is now, the Mani daily diet consisted of wild animals, fruit and vegetables.
Mani woman and child
The Mani used to have only one method of cooking but today they know how to curry, boil, fry and roast in bamboo joints just like their Thai neighbours. No matter how many cooking methods the Mani have recently learnt, when they have successfully hunted an animal, they cook it the old-fashioned Mani way by simply throwing the meat into a fire. When they think that the meat is ready, they pull it out of the fire and eat it immediately. When "cooking" in this way, the animal is not skinned, but its hairs are merely scorched away. Before eating, the Mani are adept at removing the last remaining hairs. Next they cut open up the animal and share out the meat to every family (i.e. every hut). Usually they burn the meat in an open space, with all family members around the fire, waiting and eager to finish the food. Should there be leftovers, they will be shared out to every hut for later consumption. Mani do not normally store food to consume the following days. Instead they finish all available meat in one long feast and without wasting thought on whether food will be available the following days. As long as food is available, eating will continue until it is finished. The Mani enjoy their eating and they do not observe specified meal times.
In Mani society there is an amicability, a feeling of kindness among equals, sharing the results of hunts and other food among members of the group, regardless of who had caught or gathered the food and who had not. Those who have food willingly share with those who do not.
Food sharing has two aspects. "Immediate-Return Subsistence" is a production system that is found in ecosystems where food plants are abundant and hunting is possible throughout the year, as in a humid tropical climate. Human beings in this kind of environment need not worry much or often about food because it is naturally plentiful throughout the year in most years. In such societies, food sharing is an outstanding characteristic (ref. 8). "We cannot let others starve; if they find food, they will also share food with us. If we cannot find animals, they will give food to us." (December BE 2535 / AD1992). Observation of food-sharing among members of a group reveals that people gave others the best part of what they had caught or found. If the food was a hunted animal, they would share to others the meatiest portions. The hunters keep for themselves only the head and the back portions with the least meat on it. "We must share out to others the good cuts; when they give us, they will also give us the good cuts (Mr. You, of the "Above Khlong Tong River" Clan, BE 2535/AD 1992). Mr. Sung, a clan chief, also said that if someone caught animals and did not share them with others, after his death he would be reincarnated as a ka poh or a paeng tree (BE October 2534/AD 1991).
Mani man picture taken in 1900. From Thailand. Posted Image
From the 19th century onwards, a few researchers went to meet the Mani in their forests to record, among other things, the way the Mani dressed. These researchers included Karr and Seidenfaden (ref. 19) who wrote that the Mani men "wear underdrawers made of tree bark wrapped around the body with an end piece covering the front. Women wear short shirts made of grass or leaves." Prof. Duangjunt has interviewed Mr. Dub Sritharntoh (a former Mani chief in Yala Province) about Mani dress . He reports (ref.7) that "in the old days, Mani wore leaves and moss in the form of a sheet. Women wore skirts reaching down to the knees or half the thighs: they clothe their breasts or leave them bare. Men wear waist-to-knee-length garments that leave the upper body bare. Children wear nothing." Duangjunt added that this description agreed with the writings of John H. Brand who had noted, that "the dress of Negritos is made from materials obtainable from nature, including twigs and leaves which are woven into a fabric. Knee-length clothing is worn around the waist with the upper part of the body bare. Children, however, are naked."
In his book about the Mani (ref. 20), Thai king Rama V gives his account of Mani dress as follows: "men wear a piece of cloth covering the pubic area between the legs reaching from the front to the rear; this is called nung loh leah. The end of the cloth that suspends covers the frontal part is called kor loh. This type of dress resembles that of the Khmers at Wat Nakorn as they appear in stone carvings. The cloth may be used narrower or wider depending on what is available. A woman wears an inner under-wear called jawad, featuring a waist-band; a piece of cloth strapped between the legs and around the outside waist. When cloth is scarce or unavailable, leaves are used; when cloth is available, a type called horly, wide or narrow, is used. The narrow cloth reaches just above the knees. Women have blankets called si bai, which seems to have been added to their dress only since closer association with (Thai) villagers developed" (ref. 20).
Mr. Sung, chief of the "Above Khlong Tong River" band has given us an account of Mani dress as follows: "... my father told me that in the past, Mani collected strips of tree barks like that of the sine tree to make clothing." (BE December 2535 / AD 1992). This agreed with the account of Grandma Pod Choo Nun who said that in World War II when clothing was scarce, some of the Mani soaked the bark of the sine tree in water, beat it until soft and then made it into trousers.
The Mani of today have growing contact with Thai villagers and their dress is modelled after that of Thai villagers. In Trang province in particular, Mani men wear pa tae sarongs or wear loin cloths and leave their upper body bare. Women also like to wear the same sarongs and a shirt. Children still go mostly naked. Young men and women dress in accordance with the latest fashion they see trendy young Thai villagers wearing, i.e. jeans, canvas shoes and sunglasses.
Medicine and Health Care
Despite growing outside influences, the Mani still lead lives close to nature. They not only get their food and housing materials from their forests, they also get their medicines from it.
King Rama V (ref. 20) notes some detail on Mani medical remedies. He wrote that "prevention of forest fever involves applying a white powder on chin, cheeks and forehead, or strapping a rope around the the neck." He also added that "the Mani wonder medicine which helps with child delivery. Mani experience many pregnancies, normally once a year. They have a herbal medicine that is much sought-after by Thais and Malays in the region. As for illnesses, the Mani do not use much medicine but they do use a sort of hydrotherapy and a fire therapy".
The Mani know how to use plants growing in their jungle to cure a variety of diseases. They believe that the cause of disease is an evil spirit. Their medicines, therefore, work by driving out such spirits. The Mani believe that the same effect can also be accomplished by wearing hua plai or kled klin, or by smearing ash on the sufferer's body and face, or by doing the same to everybody involved before moving an entire village to a new location.
Today, the Mani are increasingly accepting new beliefs and values. Before setting out to hunt or to gather honey, for example, the hunter-gatherers now prefer to take stimulants as advertised on television, and when they become sick, they take modern medicines, rather than the herbs used by their ancestors. It is therefore all too likely that most of the traditional medical knowledge will vanish in the foreseeable future.
The Mani social system does not accept incestuous relationships and is built on the principle of monogamy. When their children enter puberty, the parents build a new and separate hut for them to live in. A girl who has started menstruation is considered marriageable while a boy who has developed facial hair is said to be ready to take a wife.
The first steps towards selecting a partner among the Mani are left to the young people themselves. In the days of yore, a woman selected her marriage partner based primarily on the man's hunting prowess. Today, a woman tends to make her choice of a mate more on the basis of good looks and a modern style of dressing. A young man wearing sunglasses and jeans is considered more desirable than one not doing so.
However, young people cannot simply marry once they feel mutual affection for each other and declare their wish to become a couple. Before marriage and cohabitation is possible, a formal proposal has to be made and the consent of the girl's parents has to be sought. Should they oppose the union, the two young people cannot marry, no matter how much they love each other. In such a case, it would be considered bad form for the young man to show his annoyance at the decision of the girl's parents.
The Mani bury their dead. However, among the Mani in Trang Province, burial of the dead is not practiced. Instead, there is cremation of the dead together with their worldly possessions. This practice is firmly rooted in the Mani belief system.
When a clan member dies, irrespective of what caused it, the hut in which the dead person had lived will be closed with leaves. Sometimes a new hut is built specially to receive the body. Once the deceased has been placed in the hut with his or her personal possessions, the hut is closed on all sides with leaves and then set on fire. After the cremation, the members of the village will at once abandon their village and move to a new location. Before they do so, they will tell the corpse: "Don't follow us. You stay on your own here and we on our own. You and we cannot stay together." When moving away, they will keep looking back in the belief that the dead in the form of an evil spirit would otherwise follow them.
On our question as to why the Mani do not bury the dead we were told the following. "If we buried the dead and anyone walked over the corpse, it would be a sin. Also, we do not know whether a buried dead has died or not". The Mani believe that in the case of a "real death", bones will be left behind while in the case of an "unreal death", no bones are left behind. In "unreal death", the dead is believed to have gone in the direction of Wan to return to his/her mother. If death is "real" and bones are left behind, the dead person will continue to reside in this world among big trees, but he or her will do so as an evil spirit.
Uncle Vivhien Puksee, a Klang villager of Tambon Lamkrang, Palean district, Trang Province, told us that in the early 1980s there was a Mani, a sibling of Mrs. Bah, who was running away from an elephant when he fell into a fireplace and seriously injured himself. The clan members tried to nurse the man back to health but he could not be cured. As his condition worsened, the band decided that they could not continue to support him since they would all starve otherwise. So they all moved to a new place, leaving the sick man behind. Before departing, they left some food for him and told him: "You stay here for the time being; if you get better, then follow us." The patient died there, alone. About four months later, clan members came back to find the man's bones. They concluded that he had had a "real death." Until today, the Mani have never lived there again, believing that the dead man was still haunting the place of his death (told by Mr. Vivhien Puksee, BE 2534 / AD 1991).