When the centipede swallows the human

book of htaThe young Karen boy watches his grandmother pound the husks from the rice. She tells him the story of an old hta.

“We can only dream this,” she says. “But in your time I think it will happen. A centipede will swallow all the human beings on the earth.”

The Karen hta fascinates me. It is a form of oral poetry, only it is much more than this. For many generations it was the way in which the Karen communicated; an educational medium in fact. A way in which the older generation passed on knowledge to the younger generation. Given that contemporary Karen written communication only occurred in the 1800s you can see the importance or oral communication to Karen history.

Hta has a lyrical essence to it when spoken. It is like listening to spoken music, a lilting rhythm that when spoken well is like listening to a piece of Beethoven or the call of a whip bird.

But there is important information to be deciphered from hta. A Karen friend once told me that you could find at least seven different meanings in one spoken hta. This might seem excessive and downright impossible to ascertain a meaning, but it does serve its purpose. Hta is delivered, but it is only with personal experience and considered thought that meaning begins to emerge.

The hta above doesn’t make sense to the old Karen grandmother. However, to the grandchild it makes perfect sense. The centipede is in fact a train, its legs the many wheels on a train’s carriages. And if you think about it, now that we’ve determined it’s a train, it does in fact swallow up humans. Look from above and imagine all those people disappearing into the trains belly as they take their ride to work.

There is an element of mystical telling of the future in hta’s such as this. But there are equally important cultural practices that can be conveyed. Like how to act at a wedding or a funeral and how to undertake a courtship.


Like most oral histories they are constantly in danger of extinction. Fewer and fewer people know them and are able to pass them on. The younger generation prefers to learn the lyrics of Snoop Dog than a traditional hta. But there are some, and one can only hope that such a beautiful and important tradition will find a place in the contemporary world.



3 Responses to “When the centipede swallows the human”

  1. 1 Kyozhou December 27, 2007 at 12:33 pm

    I am very interested in the Karen Hta. I am also interested in whether there are neat old books like the one shown above that I could scan or videotape for the sake of a documentary I am working on.

  2. 2 Shirley Worland May 5, 2008 at 6:58 pm

    I am a volunteer teacher in an IDP Ksren school on the Thai-Burma border. I am very interested in teaching the students their hts in English both as a means of improving their spoken English and more importantly keeping their culture alive for future generations.
    Please tell me where I can get this book.

  1. 1 The Karen People – pronunciation:kuh-ren | Vegan Vegi PlatformVegan Vegi Platform Trackback on October 9, 2013 at 9:26 pm

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