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Geography & Topography

Region with Significant Population: Burma (Myanmar)

Capital: Nay Pyi Taw

Area: 676,552 km² (261,218 square miles)

Language: S’ghaw (pronounced as Skaw), Eastern Pwo Karen, Western Pwo Karen

Religion: Theravada Buddhism, Christianity, Animism, Muslim

Currency: Kyat




The Karen people are an ethnic group in South-East Asia, rich in cultural and linguistic diversity. Within the Karen there are many different sub-groups with different languages, customs and religions. While most Karen people are Skaw Karen, there are other cultural and language groups such as Pwo Karen and Bwe Karen. Thought to be one of the earliest settlers in Burma (presently know as Myanmar), the Karens were generally believed to be one of the Mongolian Tribes that traversed across Central Asia, some moving further east into China, others turned south into South Western China and Burma and further down south into Northern Thailand. Today, the majority of Karen people can be found living in Burma.

Most Karen people make a living through farming, harvesting crops and raising animals in small mountain villages. Buddhism and traditionally, Animism (spirit worship), are practiced as part of their religious beliefs and rituals. These teachings coexist happily and have since strongly influenced most forms of art in the community such as music, painting, wood carving and sculpture.

Performing Arts


The folk music of the Karen is beautiful and simple, with melodies and storytelling reflecting life in tropical jungles of the region. Instruments include the Kana, a homemade mandolin, the Gweh, a reeded horn made from buffalo horn or bamboo and the Ta ki, a mouth harp.

The most recognisable instruments in traditional Karen music are:


A Karen lady showing how to strum a Kana


Kana: A homemade mandolin typically with a hollow wooden body and a tailpiece that holds one end of the strings, a floating bridge, a neck with a flat fretted fingerboard and a nut. Like any plucked instrument, mandolin notes decay to silence rather than sound out continuously as with a bowed note on a violin. This instrument is usually played during courting and festivals.


A man performing with a Gweh


Gweh: A reeded horn made from buffalo horn or bamboo. These horns are used during festivals, courting and for announcing ceremonies.

Karen Harp







Karen Harp: An eight-string arched harp that is slung around the shoulders and held to the body like a guitar. This instrument is usually played during courting ceremonies with the accompaniment of singing.


Examples of traditional Karen dances are:

Bamboo Dance

Bamboo Dance

Dohn: An intricate choreographed routine of men and women that can last for 20 minutes, accompanied by the dancer’s shouts and the beat of large drums

Bamboo Dance: Music that uses the repetitive beat of metal gongs accompanies dances such as the bamboo dance as well as wedding processions. In the bamboo dance, sets of eight to twelve long bamboo poles are placed in a grid. Participants kneel on the ground and band the poles together in time to the music, while dancers step in and out of the opening in the grid.



Some interesting facts:

  • Most Karen people practise Buddhism and Animism (spirit worship) but about 15% are Christian.
  • One unique characteristic of the Karen languages includes the use of pitch and tone to distinguish between words that would otherwise seem identical.
  • Traditionally, Karens do not shake hands or bow. However, due to the influence of Western culture, the people today shake hands. Karens usually shake with their right hand, supporting the right forearm with the left hand as it is a sign of respect to use both hands in a hand-shake.
  • “N’aw May Wele Ha” which means “Have you Eaten Rice” is a way of Karens saying “How are you?”


Karen Community in Australia


More information on the Karens: