Worship customs of the Co-tu
The Co-tu, a Mon-Khmer language ethnic minority group, are native inhabitants living in Vietnam-Laos border areas in Quang Nam and Thua Thien Hue central provinces.

Associate Prof. Dr. BUI XUAN DINH, Ethnologist

The Co-tu, a Mon-Khmer language ethnic minority group, are native inhabitants living in Vietnam-Laos border areas in Quang Nam and Thua Thien Hue central provinces.

With a population of over 50,000, the Co-tu live on upland cultivation in combination with hunting, animal raising and exploitation of forest products. For the last 50 years, they have also grown wet rice and subsidiary crops and reared fish.

Co-tu people live in small patriarchal families. A Co-tu stilt house has a tortoise shell-shaped roof in the gables. Some 40-50 years ago, many generations of a Co-tu family lived together in a traditional long house which, however, had private spaces for couples with small children. Smaller families’ privacy is reflected by the presence of their own cooking fires in addition to the big family’s main stove and another exclusively for guests. These cooking fires were usually arranged in one or two lines along the house. A house’s inner half is for grandparents and parents and the outer part is for children and young family members.

According to their customs, Co-tu people must lay in parallel with a cooking fire or with their legs toward it. If lying with their heads toward a stove, they are believed to suffer a nosebleed.

A Co-tu house has four doors at its gables and sides. A guest is supposed to enter a house through its main entrance doors which are the ones at the gables or the front side. Nowadays, in many places, Co-tu traditional houses are replaced by brick ones like the Viet.

Co-tu men play an active role in marriage. A wife lives with her husband’s family right after the wedding. Apart from prohibiting marriage between those bearing the same family name, Co-tu people follow the three-family marriage principle, i.e., if family A marries a daughter to a son of family B, family B must not marry a daughter back to a son of family A, but to another family line. The Co-tu favor marriage between children of brothers and sisters, i.e., the son of a sister marries the daughter of her brother because they believe such marriage would strengthen kinship while wedding offerings are not lost to outsiders, but stay within a family line.

According to Co-tu customs, a younger brother may marry the wife of his brother who has died, but an older brother may not do so. A man who marries a widow must compensate her former husband’s family the property the family has paid for her wedding if he does not bear her former husband’s family name.

Divorce and adultery rarely happen with the Co-tu because they believe adultery will infuriate village ghosts, thus taking its toll on not only the insiders but the whole village as well. A single woman who gets into trouble will be expelled from the village while an adulterous man must mix the blood of a bat (or flying squirrel), a white dog, a goby and the cover of a shedder spider with soot and water in a bamboo container for applying on every villager in the wish that deities will not punish them. He also has to bring a white pig to every house in the village, marking on each villager’s forehead with the blood taken from the pig’s ears. This pig is then given to the village patriarch as an offering in a ceremony to beg the heaven and earth’s forgiveness. Only old men in the village may eat this pig. The sinful man also has to offer the village a goat and a buffalo for another ceremony held in the village’s ground to pray for peace.

The Co-tu have many family lines each of which has its own legend on progenitors and a taboo on a particular animal, plant or act related to their progenitors. For instance, family Zo-ram has a taboo against eating dog meat, family Ara, against hog bear meat, and family A lang, against ha-lang, a kind of wild plant growing in forests.

The Co-tu’s residential unit is village which is called vel, buol or crnol, depending on each region. Guol - the village’s communal house, like rong house of Bana, Xo-dang and Gia-rai people, which is the biggest, highest and most beautiful one, is built in the middle of the village. In front of guol is a pole where buffalo sacrifice ceremonies are held. All houses in the village look to guol. Guol, which is built by villagers rather than outsiders, is the place for the village to receive men guests (who are entertained by families in turn); discuss common affairs or hold meetings; display hunted big animals or birds; or hold ceremonies on occasions related to rice cultivation, hunting, or the lunar new year. It is also a sleeping place for single men (aged 10-12 till they get married) and old men and where male villagers gather at nights, during free time, or when there is an unusual event.

A Co-tu village has different areas, including the residential area which is surrounded by a high and thick fence made of wood and bamboo to ward off dangerous animals and robbers. There are also a reserve residential area, a production area, a reserve cultivation area (due to the Co-tu’s rotational cultivation) and a cemetery. The border of a village is marked by a mountain range, a stream or an ancient tree. A village is usually named after a stream, mountain or valley.

A Co-tu village is independent and closed. Land under the village’s management is public property, but each family may possess land lots reclaimed by itself for cultivation. A village is headed by a prestigious patriarch who deeply understands the village’s customs and is good at business and communication. A village patriarch may decide on village affairs and judge conflicts and disputes in the village. Villagers can also consult him on their family affairs such as wedding and funeral.

The Co-tu preserve many ceremonies which are associated with crop-related taboos. In the first or second lunar month, Co-tu people conduct a crop-starting ritual on a land plot adjacent to the village. Nobody is allowed to intrude into this area, especially not relieving themselves on it. For three days, only representatives of families are allowed to sow some paddies and maize, praying for a bumper crop.

When paddies ripe on this plot, families will hold a harvesting ceremony. The wife of the family host will play the role of the paddy mother who will mark on the paddies sowed at the crop-starting ceremony with the blood of a chicken (or also pig and goat), informing the paddy ghost of the harvesting and praying for a bumper harvest. After that, she will pick up some paddies which are enough for cooking a meal and contributing to the village’s common offerings. Before eating this rice, the family must offer it to its ancestors. The offerings include a bowl of new rice, a cup of wine, the head and some meat of the sacrificed animal. After that, the whole village will hold a common ceremony in guol. On this day, Co-tu people do not receive guests for fear that strangers will drive away the paddy soul. The next day, nobody in the village is allowed to go to upland fields for fear of annoying the paddy ghost, thus causing loss to the crop. A person breaking this rule must give a chicken or pig in fines for the village to offer the paddy ghost. Only on the third day that villagers are allowed to go to the field for harvesting. A guest who wants to go the field must be accompanied by a villager. After harvesting, families will only bring home some rice, leaving the rest at their stores on the field. After running out of the rice at home, the wife of the family host will choose a good day for holding a ceremony to open the store. The family has a taboo against receiving guests for 3-6 days or only the paddy mother has to observe this taboo and have meals at the store alone. Ending the taboo period, the paddy mother will hold a ceremony to offer the paddy ghost a chicken, water and some branches of edible wild fruits. After that, the family will invite villagers to a party. During the harvesting period, Co-tu people do not eat wild boar meat.-

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