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The Jarai
the most populous minority in the Central Highlands


A ceremony at the Jarai

          The Jarai - (also Nguoi Gia Rai, Gia Rai, or Gia-rai) is an ethnic group based primarily in the Tay Nguyen (Central Highlands). The Jarai language is related to the Cham language of central Vietnam and the Malayo-Polynesian languages of Indonesia, Malaysia, Madagascar, Philippines and other Pacific Islands (Hawaii, New Zealand, Easter Island, Samoa, Guam, Fiji, etc.). The number of members of Jarai is estimated at about 350,000. It is the largest ethnic group in the Central Highlands, whose inhabitants are also known as Degar or Montagnards.

The Jarai live primarily in the Gia Lai and Kon Tum Provinces. Some others in the Dak Lak Province and a few thousand in Ratanakiri Province in Cambodia. Many Jarai in the war sided with the Americans (as well as members of other Montagnard groups). After the war, many settled with their families in the United States, particularly in the state of North Carolina.

Traditionally, the Jarai live in small villages numbering 50-500 in population. The villages are laid out in a square, with single occupancy dwellings or communal longhouses arranged around a village center. Often the village center boasts a communal house, well, volleyball net or rice mill.

 


Jarai

Houses have traditionally been constructed entirely from bamboo, though in more recent times wooden houses with steel roofs have gained popularity, due to their durability.
The Jarai have a matriarchal society where mothers in families have the greatest authority and also more generally spoken the women are the boss. The children are given the mother's family name. The youngest daughter is the heir. It is the woman who takes the initiative in marital relationships. They choose an man who chooses a young man to marry her girl. Once the couple gets married, they live with the woman's family. As one of the two might die, the family of the deceased is looking for a new candidate.
The majority of Jarai are animists; believing that spirits inhabit all of creation. Sacrifices of pigs, cows, and buffalo are periodically made to the spirits to appease them. In the 1970s, however, American missionaries under the Christian and Missionary Alliance brought Christianity to the Jarai. As a result, the number of Jarai Christians in Vietnam and Cambodia now numbers upwards of 100,000. A smaller number of Jarai who have moved to urbanized areas have also converted to the Buddhist religion of the Vietnamese.
The Jarai perform their music on gongs, xylophones, zithers, and various other traditional instruments..

Traditional Jarai tombs are little huts in which are placed the possessions of the deceased and some offerings. Around the tomb are placed wooden pillars which are topped by crude carvings, some of which represent spiritual guardians.
A funeral for the Jarai is a complex and costly business. Sometimes the deceased's family can't afford the ceremony. Then it can be held up for several years. Most Jarai villages have targeted the cemetery to the west, which is divided into enclosed family graves. The family members are buried in the same grave. Precious possessions, such as a TV (see photo) or bicycle, will be laid at the grave of the the deceased.
On the edge of the simple family tomb carved figurines are placed in a variety of moods - pensive, sad, happy or sexually aroused.
 


a tv for the deceased

After a number of years, the tombs are abandoned. This final ceremony of the abandonment of the tomb marks the point where death becomes final and the deceased spirit is released, thus releasing a widow for remarriage for instance. It is best to visit a Jarai cemetery in the company of a local guide.


A grave in the shape of a longhouse

 

 



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