Mayasvi festival of the Tsou oF Taiwan
Dr Budha Kamei
The Tsou ethnic group is one of the 14 (fourteen) recognized indigenous peoples of Taiwan. They speak a branch of Austronesian language, languages spoken by aboriginals in Australia and people in the south Pacific not the languages spoken by people in China or Southeast Asia. They are a people of both beauty and power, like the mountains of Alishan which they call home. They are also a people of age old traditions, many of which remain closely interwoven in the fabric of their life today. Their culture (from costume and customs to festivals and food) does continue to convey the spirit and passion of these early settlers of Alishan. In the distant past, they prospered throughout the central and southern parts of Taiwan, but war and epidemic greatly decreased their population to only 7000 people, concentrated on the southwest side of Yushan in Chiayi County. They are now divided into southern and northern groups: the southern group makes their home at the upper reaches of the Nanzihsian River in Sanmin township, Kaohsiung County and the northern group inhabits the upper reaches of the Zengwen River, the left bank of the Chenyoulan River, and the upper reaches of the Cingshuei River in Alishan Township, Chiayi County. The northern Tsou group is further divided into two subgroups: the Tapangu (Dabang) and the Tfuya (Tefuye). Each group has kept some distinct characteristics in language and culture. In keeping their unique spiritual roots while consolidating the Tsou identity, they (three groups) have re-established their traditional ceremonies and celebrations. In a year, they perform three major celebrations with prayer for heaven’s blessings, hoping that the God will grant them good fortune and prosperity and avert evil and disaster. This attitude applies to all aspects of society, from agriculture, war and hunting to architecture, religion and everyday life. The paper is a humble attempt to delve into the socio-cultural significance of the Mayasvi festival of the Tsou tribe of Taiwan.
A few days ahead of the festival, young men of the tribe under the guidance of old men start to organize sacred objects in the Kuba (meeting place for tribal males), maintaining the Kuba, and cleaning major roads of the tribe. Female members of the tribe prepare wine, sticky rice cakes etc. for the ceremony.
Mayasvi is the grandest annual celebration of the Alishan Tsou tribe. Traditionally, Mayasvi was celebrated upon the return of tribal warriors from war or a hunt, the building of a Kuba, or when the tribe did experience a major change or setback. For centuries, they celebrated the war festival to honor its Gods and warriors. Head hunting has long been banned by the Government. Today, they celebrate the festival to protect their cultural identity and it lasts for two days. The festival does bring together the male members of the tribe for two days of singing, rites of passage, and the blessing of newborn boys. In fact, the festival has compounded a number of rituals, with a very rich content, and deep meaning of praying for victory, prosperity and strengthening the tribe. According to Chi Hao James Lo, “Mayasvi is notably the most important celebration of the indigenous Tsou people. Mayasvi is to the Tsou what Chinese New year is to the Chinese, usually resulting in the celebration being mistaken for the Tsou equivalent of an indigenous harvest festival held in high esteem by other groups. This would be wrong, as the Tsous celebrate their harvest during Homeyaya, making Mayasvi more accurately translated as “Festival of War and Triumph,” celebrated by the Tsou to serve two purposes: To invite the Gods into their village to bless the people with prosperity and triumph, as well as a rite of passage for new born baby boys to be recognized by the Gods.”
In Tsou tradition, the elders choose the date of the festival after the Homeyaya (harvesting festival) considering factors like hunting results (head hunting), whether the Kuba requires reconstruction and situations that affect the tribe such as natural disasters/other incidents. Due to factors like social environment and changes of tribal life, the Dabang and Tfuya villages hold the festival in rotation; now, the date of the festival falls on around in the middle of February every year.
Kuba is a sacred building of males. It can be seen in the patriarchy-oriented Tsou village and is surrounded by local houses. It is always built high above ground so that a constant fire symbolizing the Tsou’s everlasting flourishing and passion be burnt in the center of the ground floor. Women are not allowed to enter and touch the Kuba. All important decisions are taken by a conjoint meeting of village males in the Kuba. Traditionally, old men of the tribe clean and repair the roof of the Kuba with the assistance of young men prior to Mayasvi festival. This does serve as a chance to pass age-old traditions as well as presenting a seldom found bonding opportunity between generations.
On the first day of Mayasvi, the warriors of the tribe will rise early, and put on their traditional attire in the Kuba. The tribe chief will lead the warriors downstairs to transfer the sacred fire that burns under the Kuba to a prepared open square located not far from the Kuba, where the fire will burn for two days before being extinguished; they gather near the Yono trees, a flora sacred to the Tsous. Then, a boar will be brought in front of the trees, and with an order from the elders, the male members/warriors will use knives to stab. Then, they will lift their knives stained with boar blood towards the tree leaves, and wipe the blood onto the sacred trees as a sacrifice for the God of war and the God of life. A few warriors will then climb up the sacred trees and repair the foliage.
The sacred trees serve as a stairway for the Tsou God of war and the Tsou God of life during the welcoming ceremony, so after cutting down the branches, three will be left, pointing towards the Kuba and the chief’s home symbolizing a road cleared for the Gods. The Gods will eventually be led to the festival in the Kuba, where they will bless the village. Under the leadership of the elders, the crowd will hold hands into a semi-circle formation, singing a solemn welcoming god tune. After singing, the men will go onto the Kuba, and the other members will run back to their houses and bring back other offerings like wine, sticky rice cake and boar meat. On their way, they will shout incessantly as a way to report to Gods and then come back to the Kuba for more rituals.
In the Kuba, the tribe elders mix up the wine, cakes and meat brought by the warriors together and then the mixture is distributed to every household symbolizing tribal unity. Just before that they will offer wine to the God of war for strength and unity. The most important ceremonies of the unity ritual are the Patkaya and Yasmoyuska- both are rite of passage for the boys in the Tsou culture. Patkaya introduces newborn boys of the tribe to the residing Gods in the Kuba. Usually, presented by a maternal uncle, a baby boy will be introduced to the Gods by surrounding warriors who will chant the Tsou victory scripture, the Tu,e followed by blessings from elders with wine. Then, teenage boys are brought into the Kuba, where they will be whipped with a vine and presented with their first leather hat from elders. The leader will then lead the now grown up men to the village chief to receive rice wine and encouragement to commemorate their rite of passage. This act symbolizes the passage from a teenager to an adult.
After the rituals in the Kuba, the warriors will walk into the square again, engaging in the sending off ceremony. Everyone will gather in front of the sacred trees again in a semi-circle, singing four songs. In the middle, female members of the tribe will also enter the formation with torches, signifying the unification with the tribal fire and the Kuba’s sacred fire. At the end of the song, they will send off the Gods through the sacred trees back into the sky. Later on, they will perform a ceremonial cleansing of the village to purge from evils.
In the evening, the elders will lead the tribe members in a dance with all kind of songs, praising the God of war and the heroic deeds of their ancestors. Each clan will also praise and present gift each other, signifying their close ties. The festival usually lasts a period of two days, until the midnight of the last day. All the men attending will chant again their song of gratitude before putting out the fire in the square, which closes the celebration of Mayasvi festival.
In the distant past, inter-village war was a common occurrence among the tribal peoples. The warriors of the village at the cost of their lives defended the village from enemy’s attacks. The practice of head hunting was gone. However, it is preserved in the form of narrative. The war rituals continue without the violence in the Mayasvi festival for prosperity, strength and victory. It protects and promotes the rich culture and traditions of the peoples. It may be treated as survival of culture. Young members also have the opportunity to learn the historic culture, social ethics and ancestor’s wisdom through the process of the festival. Besides, festival serves as a reunion of family members, relatives, and friends.