The Akha People and Their Ornaments
The most striking characteristic of the Akha people are the ornate headdresses worn daily by the women you see in the photos. The many different sub-groups of the Akha maintain different shapes and adornment traditions; in Laos, the Akha Puli are the largest sub-group and are represented in these photos.
The headdress begins with a strip of bamboo that is molded into a ring that encircles the head; a black cotton cloth is then carefully wrapped around the ring and head. Most of the headdresses weight is older silver coins, minted by the French for Indochina in the early 20th century (some are Indian rupees as well). Local silversmiths also fashion bells, buttons, half-shells, chains and other “bling” to adorn the headdress. Books tell us about how the power inherent in the headdress appeases the spirits and protects the woman, and also that the head is considered a bodies’ sacred vessel and is not to be touched by others. Despite this, we never sensed any fear or embarrassment if the headdress was not yet in place or was in the laundry (and we often saw women washing the ornaments or hanging them out to dry). A certain pragmatism seems to permeate their daily living routines.
A girl’s first headdress, as a young adolescent, would more likely feature less expensive, non-silver ornamentation. The Akha Puli leave the back head-panel void of decoration until marriage, when a dowry then affords the recognition. Certainly, a woman’s status is related to the quality and weight of the adornments. Many Akha, for financial reasons, use aluminum or nickel-bronze in place of silver; women may, over time, trade up to higher quality ornaments when economics allows. A full silver headdress costs well over a thousand dollars even in the local economy!
Above the Fray does not usually seek to obtain silver ornamentation, and we do carry some beautiful and unique authentic earrings and accessories made of other metals. If, however, you are interested in silver tribal arts, please introduce your desires. We certainly do enjoy personal shopping!