The Center for Myanmar Americans

The story of Karenni Deeku Festival


The origins
Karenni people descended from the Mongolian plateau (also called Htay-Ra-Ta-Ma-La-Ruu in Karenni) a long time ago. Some say that their long and treacherous journey began in 739 BC while others believe it was as early as 3000 BC. They came down from Mongolia to China in search of a better and new place to build new villages. However, they encountered constant threat from the local Chinese people and they decided to move to the south of China to settle and build new communities. Still, they still met with the same threats from the local Chinese villagers and they were forced to move further down south of China.
There were actually two leaders in the group. The two leaders were brothers; the elder leader was called Hay Phe and the younger Ka-Yah-Li- Phu. As they were moving slowly down south of China, they came across a place called Moe-Ta-Ma-Klu-Khu and they continued until they reached the Salween River. They slowly moved down along the Salween River. While on the way, the group led by Ka-Yah- Li-Phu caught crabs from Salween River and cooked them. When they cooked the crabs, they turned red. They noticed that the longer they cooked the crabs, the redder they became. Thus, they cooked them for days and nights thinking that they were still uncooked. As his elder brother Hay Phe was eager to continue their journey, he told his younger brother Kayah Liphu, “Follow us after you eat your crabs and we will leave behind some signs on the way so that you will know how and where to follow us”.
When Kayahliphe and his followers realized that the crabs were already cooked, they ate them and they found them very tasty. Then they began to catch some more. After enjoying eating the crabs for some times, they began to follow his elder brother Hay Phe. As the elder brother Hay Phe walked down along the Salween River, he cut banana plants and thatches to leave behind their traces for his younger brother. When Kayahliphe followed the traces left behind by his elder brother Hay Phe, he realized that the banana plants and thatches were already growing fresh and tall as if they were never before cut by anyone. The truth of the matter is that banana plants and thatches can grow to its full length and size within a few days. One thing that they did not know was that if banana plants and thatches are cut in the morning, they can grow long and tall again in the evening. Thus, they decided not to follow his elder brother Hay Phe thinking it was already impossible for them to catch up with him because they saw that banana plants and thatches were already growing tall and big.
Then, Kayahliphe and his group crossed the the Salween River and reached a place called Law-lit-loo (moving or hanging rock). There was no pagoda on top of the moving rock yet in those days. Because the rock was moving, they called it Law-Lit-Loo. After sometimes, Mo-Ta-Let came to build a pagoda on top of the moving rock or Law Lit Loo and it was called Kyite-Htee-Yoe pagoda afterwards. When Kayahliphe and his group lived there, they grew paddy rice. As there was too much rain, it affected the rice. As a result, there was poor harvesting in the area due to heavy rain, and therefore Kayahliphe decided to move to the north and they reached a place called Dee Maw So (Dee Maw So means the valley of rice). They began to settle in Dee Maw So and built their kingdom. As time passed by, there was born a princess (also known as Kan-Nyar-Maw) with supernatural power in the kingdom. From then on, Dee Maw So was called Kan Nyar Maw Dee Maw So or Dway Men Naw Ngway Daung Pyi, meaning the Karenni kingdom of Kan Nyar Phe and Kan Nyar Maw angels. There are actually seven lakes closely linked to another where it is commonly believed that seven Kan Nyar Maw angles usually came to swim in those days.
All the inhabitants that lived in Ngway Daung Pyi were descendants of Karenni and Karenni sub-ethnic groups and they were ruled by Kan-Nyar Maw angels. During the reign of Kan Nyar Maw angels, there were a mother and her daughter who were extremely honest. After sometimes, the daughter became pregnant but passed away no sooner did she give birth to a son. The son was named Thyar Htoo Phe and his grandmother took care of him until he grew up to be a man. In fact, he really grew up to be a man of full strength and great power. Famous for his honesty and strength and supernatural power, Kan Nyar Maw angels gave him a thunder sword and asked him to rule over Ngway Daung Pyi.
Karenni people vs. Yuan Kingdom
At that time, Ngway Daung Pyi was often under the constant threat and attack by the Yuan people from the north. However, Karenni people were able to defend and drive out Yuan people under the leadership of Thyar Htoo Phe for some times. Nonetheless, the Yuan people never gave up and receded but continued to attack Karenni people. At last, they captured one of the trusted men of Thyar Htoo Phe as they continued to attack Karenni people. They began to interrogate him, especially about the secret of Thya Htoo Phe’s thunder sword. Under the overwhelming spell of fear and torture, he began to reveal the secret of the thunder sword. He told them that they have to offer a white roaster to the thunder sword because when it ate chicken and became full, it would not work. Then, they began to march towards Thyar Htoo Phe and Karenni people with the guidance of the captured man at night. They offered a white roaster to the powerful thunder sword and launched a surprise attack on Thyar Htoo Phe and Karenni people. During the attack, Thyar Htoo Phe tried to draw his powerful thunder sword from its sheath but he could not. At last, he became extremely angry and drew the sword out of its sheath with all his might and strength and he cut the ground with it. There appeared a big lake in the place where he cut the ground. There is actually a lake named after Thyar Htoo Phe today. It is located in the east of Nam Men Kone (a small town), around ten kilometers from Loikaw.
Then Thyar Htoo Phe transformed himself to a tortoise and jumped into the lake. The Yuan people knew that Thyar Htoo Phe changed his form to a tortoise and they tried to capture it using a net. At last, they captured the tortoise. After they captured it, they cooked it, ate it, and threw away the bones on the ground. To their great surprise, from the bones of the tortoise, he transformed himself to a wild boar. The boar began to gather the other wild boars in the forest and organized several attacks on the Yuan invaders. They destroyed their plants in the fields. It took the Yuan invaders quite a long time to get rid of the wild boars that were destroying their crops in the fields. Just like before, they captured the boar, cooked it, ate it, and threw away the bones on the ground. This time around, the bones turned into a big monkey. Once again, the monkey gathered the other monkeys in the forest and destroyed their crops and rice fields. They had to try again to kill the monkeys that destroyed their crops and rice fields. After some times, they were able to capture the monkey. Having learned their lessons from the past, after cooking and eating the monkey, they did not throw away the bones on the ground anymore but tied them on the trees instead. The bones turned into beautiful and fragrant wild orchids. Thus, Karenni people believe until today that the wild orchids are the bones of Thyar Htoo Phe. The fact that Thyar Htoo Phe had gone through two forms of life has become part of Karenni traditional legend and songs until today.

After many attempts, the Yuan invaders eventually conquered Karenni people and they ruled and tortured them for many years. They made them their slaves in all those years. They forced Karenni people to mine natural resources, build rivers, and work in other construction projects. Therefore, Karenni people had always longed for and looked for ways to escape from the slavery of the Yuan colonizers.

The rise of Phoe Dee Gree

The poor Karenni people had been enslaved for decades. One day, under the brave young man Heh Reh’s leadership, they suddenly made a bold proclamation to all neighboring kingdoms that they had their own King, and that his name was Phoe Dee Gree. The news reached the Palace of Yuan King, to which he asked his highly decorated soldiers to go to the colony and inspect the insurgency for themselves. The soldiers, on arrival, quickly summoned all Karenni elders, and asked that they shall meet the newly elected King of the region. The Karenni elders went inside the bambooed house and brought out what it looked like a “man-shaped bamboo basket wrapped in linen” Phoe Dee Gree. The soldiers laughed and teased at the lifeless appearance of the newly-proclaimed King. Even worse, they started kicking and trampling the Phoe Dee Gree beyond repair.  


They really destroyed it until they were satisfied and returned to their kingdom. However, while they were on their way home, they all suffered from cholera and threw up and died one by one. When Karenni people saw that many Yuan soldiers died, they began to gather available weapons and attacked them. Then, Karenni people and Yuan soldiers fought for many months. As the fighting lasted many months, the Yuan soldiers ground glutinous rice, turned it into cakes also known as Kaut Pote, and made it their ration. The Yuan cake or Kaut Pote can be roasted and eaten easily. On the other hand, Karenni people packed glutinous rice with Deeku leaf, tied three sachets in one and made it their ration. The three-in-one packed glutinous rice is what is popularly now known as Deeku. The name Deeku derives from the leaf out of which is used for packing glutinous rice. Deeku, which is packed and tied three-in-one, represents and becomes the symbol of the unity of Karenni people in their long, tremendous effort for freedom from the Yuan invaders. Finally, Karenni people were able to drive out the Yuan invaders out of their territory and regained their beloved country and freedom in unity.

The importance of Deeku
In their fight to end slavery and Yuan dominance, Karenni people fought many battles, and lost countless lives. One of their big reasons for losing the battles had a lot to do with their inability to store foods, among many other reasons. Too many times, they ended up retreating in battles that they almost won, only because they were starving. Most foods, that they brought with them, were either rotten too quickly, or they took a lot of time to prepare until readiness. One day, an poor orphan came to a realization that the was a way to prepare foods that could last for days, or even weeks, and they could be made ready in just a few minutes. With the new method of storing foods, the Karenni people were able to keep on fighting and fighting until battles were won, over and over again.  
3 sachets, which are packed together to become “Deeku,” symbolize the unity and brotherhood of the 3 different Karenni leaders that stayed united in their fight against Yuan kingdom. So long as Karenni people celebrate Deeku, their story of struggle, trust, brotherhood, and most important of all, their unity, will always be remembered.
The Yuan invaders retreated back to the north of Ngway Daung Pyi. After that, Karenni people celebrate Deeku festival (also known as Et-Dyo) every year which becomes the time of commemoration of the victory over the Yuan invaders. After the Yuan invaders left Ngway Daung Pyi, Karenni people actually became worried that they might lose some knowledge of the Yuan invaders. Then, they sent some Karenni people to Yuan people and brought back a Yuan sage, and they took good care of him afterwards. As a matter of fact, Deeku Festival becomes the very symbol of unity and victory over the Yuan invaders. After Karenni people regained their freedom from the Yuan invaders, Ngway Daung Pyin became known as Karenni State until today. Karenni people were not literate at that time and therefore, they neither wrote nor kept any records of the true historical events.
Actually, it was during the months of September and October when Karenni fought with the Yuan invaders and drove them out of Ngway Daung Pyi. This is why, Deeku festival is held on September and October every year in different parts of Karenni State. Deeku festival normally lasts three days. During this festival, Karenni people from different villages invite one another, bringing with them the gongs, the drums, the symbols, and the flutes. They go from house to house; eating Deeku and drinking Karenni wine. They also play the gongs, the flutes, the drums, the symbols, and dance. It truly is a day of great celebration with abundant joy and happiness.

The new generation

Karenni people, around the world, celebrate Deeku festival in remembrance of a long standing tradition of unity among several different tribes within the Karenni state. Especially for the Karenni people in the state, several activities can be spotted and cherished.

During the months of August and September, the already-friendly Karenni people are a lot friendlier. Families usually cook a lot larger portion of foods, compared to any other months, in anticipation of expected guests and unexpected guests. Visitation of one another is a lot more frequent. Distance families come to visit and stay for a few days. A lot of Karenni families stop working, to prepare for a wave of events, guest attendance, and traditions. There is a universal belief among Karenni people, which is that all guests are to be served and served well, in accordance with the belief of Phoe Dee Gree.

Karenni people believe that everyone, especially guests, is to be treated how one would want to be treated. Therefore, when a guest comes into the home, he/she is treated with utmost respect and care. However, money is never involved or exchanged as a token of friendship or hospitality. More than money, water, traditional rice wine, and foods are served. More than money, serving Deeku-relevant foods is preferred. Therefore, as a way of gifting, a lot of visitors can be seen going home with some bags full of items such as a few Deekus, traditional rice wine, raw meats, clothes, and miscellaneous household supplies. During these months, some traditionally-dressed women can be seen standing on the side of the street, welcoming wanderers into their homes. Or, some group of men and women are standing inside a makeshift booth, asking passersby to sample the home-made Deeku and wine.

Some disguise themselves by dressing up in Halloween-styled clothes of their choice to visit family after family, performing dances, asking for Deeku and drinks, scaring kids and so on. Traditional musical instruments can be heard, day and night, nonstop, playing, near and far.


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Co-authored by Shadaw Journal
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