Tai wedding textile traditions have been explored and conserved by a Thai academic who believes the Tai, not the Chinese, created silk
Newspaper section: Brunch
The Tai, who are the indigenous people of Southeast Asia and descendants of the oldest Eastern man who lived about 2.5 million years ago, wear distinctive and exquisite costumes, especially on their wedding day.
"The Tai peoples' costumes indicate which town they are from, and not just which group they belong to. Motifs can tell. Their wedding gowns reflect the uniqueness of each group who dress differently, and choose the most beautiful clothes for their weddings," said Orathai Pholdi, the director of Kasetsart University's Office of Agricultural Museum and Culture, who has a big collection of Tai costumes.
According to her research, Prehistory and Distinctive Dress of the Tai, the Tai people, also known as Ai Lao, established the Tai Meuang Empire about 5,000 years ago. When this empire fell, the Tai migrated southward in two groups. The first was the Tai Yai, who founded the Mao Luang Empire by the Salween river some 2,600 years ago, and the second being the Tai Noi, who established the Ai Lao Empire in China about 2,150 years ago.
At present, speakers of the Tai family of languages numbering 90 million are divided into 80 groups, and inhabit a broad region, according to the Australian Humanities Institute.
Ms Orathai says Tai royals were trendsetters for commoners, whose once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dress like royals was on their wedding day. Still, there are certain differences. The commoners used ordinary sin, or lower garments, while royals used imported exquisite textiles and exquisite sin, woven with gold and silver threads - for example, the luntaya acheik sin, reserved for Tai Yai princesses, and the mai kham sin, reserved for Tai Khoen princesses only.
Likewise, the Tai Lao brides and grooms in Luang Prabang, Laos, dress similar to the ancient royals, except for their lower garments, which are woven with artificial rather than genuine gold and silver threads.
Ms Orathai said the Tai Lao, or Tai Isan, of the Lan Xang Kingdom, have the longest history of any Tai groups.
About two centuries ago, two groups of Lao people migrated from northeastern Laos and settled in Lanna. During the Thon Buri period (1767 to 1782), tens of thousands of Lao were forced to move from Vientiane and resettle in present-day Saraburi province. During the early Bangkok period, many Lao people moved from upper Laos and settled within the borders of present-day Thailand.
Thai Isan brides wear a fitted long-sleeved blouse with rows of silver buttons down the front. They also don a silk matmi (ikat) sin and wrap a cloth or a sabai
(a long piece of cloth) across the chest. Thai Isan grooms wore a long-sleeved shirt, trousers, a khit cloth over their shoulder and a pha khao ma around their waist. Alternatively, they wore a chequered sarong, a hang krarok silk sarong or a jongkraben.
Meanwhile, the Tai Yai people of the Mao Luang Kingdom near the Salween river wore white attire _ their group's symbol.
Tai Khoen men of Chiang Tung in Shan state, Burma, dressed like Tai Yai men. Tai Khoen women wore a long sin that reached their feet and was either in a solid colour or with horizontal stripes. A distinctive feature of their sin was a green lower border, woven with gold threads. The seam between the border and the sin was decorated with gold threads or a delicately embroidered strip. And they wore a jacket, decorated with strips of coloured cloth at the opening in front, and at the ends of the sleeves. It is similar to the seua pat jacket of the Tai Leu but longer, coming down to the hips. The women also wrapped their heads with pink, green and yellow garments _ based on the colours of the plumage of a peacock, the tribe's symbol.
The Tai Yuan of the Lanna Kingdom are descendants of Tai Meuang, or Tai Mung, who migrated from the Tai Meuang Kingdom in Yunnan, southern China about 2,000 years ago. And it was founded by the Yonok Kingdom on the Mekong River Basin. On their wedding day, Tai Yuan men wore a high-collared long-sleeved shirt, trousers and a cloth called a pha chet over one shoulder.
Tai Yuan women in the Long district of Phrae province wore a high-collared long-sleeved blouse, a sabai _ woven using the jok technique _ and a sin, of which only the lower part was woven using the same technique.
Tai Yuan women in Laplae district in Uttaradit wore a sin that used the jok technique on the lower part and was weaved in a pearly green colour.
The Southern Tai of the Kingdom of Srivijaya, which lasted from the mid-sixth century to the mid-10th century with Chaiya as its centre, was famous for its delicately woven yok fabrics. In ancient times, the ruling class wore silk yok fabrics woven with gold and silver threads while the rich wore ordinary silk yok fabrics, and the commoners wore cotton yok fabrics.
For weddings, the men and women wore a jongkraben with a fitted top, covered with a sabai over the shoulder.
According to Ms Orathai's research, the ancient Tai developed the sophisticated weaving techniques of matmi, khit, yok and jok. The matmi technique, which involves complicated tying, dyeing and weaving, originated in mainland Southeast Asia about four millennia ago and was called mat kan by the Tai people.
About 2,500 years ago, the proto-Malay people received the mat kan technique from the Tai and called it manikat, which was later shortened to ikat, meaning ''to tie''.
The technique of yok fabric was created by the Tai in prehistoric times as well.
Silk yok fabrics more than 2,500 years old with floral motifs were recovered from the grave of a Tai noblewoman in a cemetery dating back to the time of the Han Dynasty in Ma-wang-tui, Ch'ang-sha of Hunan province, China. The motifs found included a 'phak kut', 'khom' and one similar to 'phum khao bin'.
The khit technique is believed to be the oldest of the techniques since almost all of the Tai peoples wove traditional motifs including nak (naga), chang (elephant), dawk kaeo (bullet-wood tree flower), dawk jan (nutmeg flower) and khaw (hook). Likewise, the jok technique, which is the most complicated, was found among nearly all Tai people.
According to Ms Orathai's research, evidence that silk was a product of the Tai _ a piece of woven silk fabric dating back to approximately 4,800 years old was found in a bamboo basket at a Lungshan site at Chien-shan-yang in Wu Ching, Sikiang province, China. This was considered the oldest Neolithic site where silk was recovered.
The oldest known silk fabrics were found in the grave of that Tai noblewoman in the Ma-Wang-Tui cemetery, which included sheer silk fabrics and silk with sophisticated floral motifs, hemp fabrics, floral print fabrics, pieces of embroidered silk as well as silk fabrics painted as narrative scenes. These items reflect the Tai people's ability to produce textiles using advanced techniques in prehistoric times.
''Thai motifs originated from the time of Ma-Wang-Tui. The Tai people didn't learn how to weave from any other nationalities. They created these techniques over 2,000 years ago. The Tai people, not the Chinese, were the creator of silk,'' Ms Orathai said proudly.
Traditional Tai costumes and wedding textiles are on permanent display at Kasetsart University, Office of Agricultural Museum and Culture. Call 02-942-8711/2.