Across the River of Running Sand:
The Ethnic Karens of Burma – Origin and Folktales
By – Pa Thoo Plie
The Karens of Burma are believed to have begun their first migration into Southeast Asia as early as 1128 B.C.1 But the question for most people, especially the Karens themselves, is not so much when they arrived, but from where.
The Karens, based predominantly on oral legends, trace back their lineage to Mongolia. The main basis for this is the Karen legend of Taw Mei Pah, who is seen as the father of the Karen race. According to the story, Taw Mei Pah lead the Karens people away from their homes when the place they inhibited became too overcrowded. According to the fable during their journey he led his people across a ‘River of Running San’ or ‘Hti Hset Meh Ywa’ which was interpreted by Dr. Mason, a missionary working with the Karens in the early 19th century, to mean the Gobi dessert and it was this theory that was embraced by many during the 19th century and still continues to be today. However many have speculated that a different translation which can also be used to mean ‘A river following with sand.’2 One such individual who doubted Mason’s hypothesis was Dr. D.C. Gilmore, who suggested that the story was actually referring to the Salween River,3 a claim he noted that was supported by Mason’s translation of the Taw Mei Pah legend, which gave the most famous Karen mountain ‘Thaw Thi’4 as the ancestral home of Taw Mei Pah and the Karen race.
It was not only Dr. Mason who believed that the Karen crossed the Gobi. Donald Mackenzie Smeaton of Bengal Civil Service also put forward the hypothesis, agreeing with Dr. Mason by quoting the Chinese pilgrim Fa Hian, who, whilst visiting India in the fifth century referred to the Gobi as a ‘River of Sand’, whilst Chinese maps of the time also referred to the dessert as ‘quick sands.’5 Smeaton also quotes Malte Brun, who in reference to the writings of Marco Polo, says that, “the country of the Caride is the southeast point of Tibet, and perhaps the country of the nation of the Cariaines, which is spread over Ava.”6 Unexpectedly, the Independent Karen Historical Research Association (IKHRA), whilst giving a chronology of the settlement of the Karens, sees them leaving Mongolia in B.C. 2017 and making their way to East Turkistan, where, it is believed, they stayed for 147 years.7 By 1864 B.C. they had left East Turkistan to settle in Tibet, here they stayed for 476 years before moving eastwards to Yunnan.
Although there is little information as to why the Karens were constantly moving. One tradition8 does give some thoughts into their life in Yunnan, and it is this that provides some possible glimpse as to the reasons for leaving Yunnan and which then lead to their migratory steps into Southeast Asia and finally Burma itself.
The story described a conflict between the two major branches of Karen race, the Sqaw and the Pwo. According to the legend the Pwos had killed one of their own chiefs called Pu Tha Get, although it is not clear as to why, the Sqaws requested a fine be paid for the criminal act. The Pows refused and the Sqaws decided to ostracize them banning them from all social contacts and intermarriage. Through out the period in Yunnan there were periodic wars, which eventually led to the Pwo Karens beginning what is believed to be the first Karen migration into Southeast Asia.
The period in Yunnan is also believed to have led to a somewhat unbelievable theory that the Karens are actually the lost tribe of Israel. A theory no doubt that found favour amongst the many missionaries, Dr. Mason included, who where ministering to the Karens. The theory put forward the notion that the Karen began their migration from Babylon and bizarrely, despite the fact that practically all Karens have discarded such an idea, it is still to be found in at least one widely taught Karen history book. The main reason that the hypothesis was taken seriously was due to the Karens sharing similar religious traditions as told in the Old Testament. It is often believed that the foundation for similarities found in these religious traditions are a result of the Karens encountering Jewish colonies in China;9 this however seems totally improbable.10
After the conflict in Yunnan, it is believed that the Pwos were the first to enter Burma and journeyed southward following the course of the Salween river, and split off near Toungoo.11 Their course then changed Southeastwards leading towards Thailand before their eventual arrival in Tenneserim.
After further conflict with the Sqaws, who had followed during the second migration that is believed to have begun around 740 B.C.12, the Pows were forced to scatter along the entire coastline as far north as Arakan. The Sqaws meanwhile concentrated themselves on the hills of the Pegu Yomas and along the plains of the Irrawaddy Delta.
The Karens now numbering anywhere between 3-5 million people, are to be found throughout Burma as various groups split during their migration towards Southern Burma. Added to this Karen communities are also found throughout the border areas of Thailand13 as war between the two sides resulted in a number of Karen slaves being taken to the court of Ayudhaya.
The legend of Taw Mei Pah ends with the hope that the father of the Karen race will return to lead his people in the creation of a free Karen land, which is the goal the Karens still continue to seek.
Note: This article first appeared in Karen Heritage, Issue 1, Vol. 1, November 2002, Mae Sot, Thailand.
1 New Country Historical Research Journal.
2 Marshall, the Karen People of Burma, quoting E.B. Cross.
3 In response to the uncertainty of the river being the Salween, Dr. B. Laufer, Curator of Anthropology Field Columbian Museum, Chicago, suggested that it was more likely to be the Yangtze, or Yellow river.
4 It is noted that many translations of the Taw Mei Pah story omit this reference, however, Dr. Vinton and Rev. T. Thanbya included it in their ‘Karen Folklore Stories’.
5 Smeaton, “The Loyal Karens of Burma”.
8 Smeaton, ‘The Loyal Karens of Burma”.
9 Marshall, the Karen People of Burma, states that this could be possible, yet highly unlikely that the Karens met with a Jewish settlement at K’ai-fong in Hunan.
10 In China and Religion, by E. G. Parker, it is noted that there is no mention of Western religion to ancient China until 1163 A.D. The Karens at least according to the IKHRA would have begun their first migration in SE Asia as early as 1128 B.C.
12 Marshall quotes Dr. Mason recounting a legend of a hopes of settling there. On their arrival they had found the site had already been occupied by the Shan. Should the legend be true, it would actually suggest the Karens’ southward migration as taking place around 574 A.D. when Laboung was founded.
13 Approximately 50, 000.
February 19, 2005
Across the River of Running Sand: