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Jacques Ivanoff, The Moken Boat: Symbolic Technology

Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 171 p., with texts, photos, and drawings by P. Ivanoff, B. Ivanoff, and L. Gansser, translated from the French by F. Nicolle.
François Robinne
Référence(s) :

Jacques Ivanoff, The Moken Boat: Symbolic Technology, Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 171 p., with texts, photos, and drawings by P. Ivanoff, B Ivanoff, and L. Gansser, translated from the French by F. Nicolle.

Texte intégral

1Following shortly after a first volume on the Moken: Sea-Gypsies of the Andaman Sea (1997), who migrated from the Malacca Straits in the south to the Mergui Archipelago in the north, this remarkable monograph features the Moken’s identity through the symbolism contained in the structure of their boats. A review of this beautiful book cannot begin without first remarking on the high quality of the many pictures (black-and-white and color) and drawings. More than a mere representation duplicating the text, the iconography strengthens and completes the demonstration; in particular, great care was taken to show gestures. As the case is rare in academic publications, one must stress that this book is as beautiful to look at as it is pleasant and interesting to read.

2It is divided into two major sections. The first concerns more especially boat-building techniques, with detailed descriptions of the monoxylon’s construction – including the cooperative stages of tree felling, hollowing out the hull, and stretching it – and of the three main tools used in the construction of the broadsides and hull: the adze, the gouge-adze, and the modern ax. The second section is an analysis of the boat symbolism and of flotilla grouping, following the rules of exogamy and uroxilocality, the rules of nomadism, according to which the Moken, by choice rather than unfitness or incapacity, do not accumulate; it ends with an analysis of the various souls of the boat and of the rituals accompanying them. The book includes a very useful botanical glossary, with precise identification and use of the plants involved in boat construction (Appendix 2), an English-French lexicon of maritime terms and techniques (Appendix 3), and a glossary of Moken maritime terminology.

  • 1 See, in particular, Technological choices. Transformation in material cultures since the Neolithi (...)

3Beyond the so-called “realization of nomad objectives” (p. 8), the concept of choice – especially technological choice, on which P. Lemonnier focused his research1 – leads to important developments linked with the sea nomads’ successive migrations and with the risks of sedentarization to which they were confronted repeatedly through space and time: the Moken’s choice to “use their boats as a means of mobility, and to affirm their identity, rather than as a means of production” (p. 111). Ivanoff analyzes the different stages of nomadism: “The boats described are in fact the reflection of an intermediate historical stage between sedentary Malay or Proto-Malay fishermen and Moken nomads, all of them Austronesian” (p. 8). By doing so, he takes us into the Moken’s close relationship to Nature, owing to their dual social organization, between the earth and the sea: “During the dry season […] they refuse to fish, just as they refuse to do any farming during the rainy season. This is their way of affirming their identity as a group” (p. 7).

4All along his demonstration, Ivanoff links, back and forth, the technical and symbolic dimensions, in a constantly meaningful way. Linguistically and symbolically, the boat reproduces a body: its prow is a mouth that eats the sea and its stern an anus; “The fissures in the bark, which make it possible to see the heart and the soul of the tree, are called nyawa, a term which is used also for the human soul; the veins are called olat, ‘ligaments,’ and so on” (p. 118) ; “the ropes, which enable to control the wind, are the unalterable flux of life,” the reason why the wind is linked to the blood (p. 120). Moreover, “the monoxylon speaks of man’s condition, while the superstructure speaks of social organisation and, consequently, of the differences in age and sex” (p. 68): Chapter 7 is entitled “To have a boat is to have a woman,” after a vernacular expression.

5The structural tie between the material and the symbolic dimensions is expressed by constant reference to myths, partly the settled Moklen’s myth of Sampan, but mainly the Moken’s myth of Gaman: “If it cuts into the bark it will enter my body and break my bones,” says Kèn (p. 31) ; the traditional “plus one,” po, is understood as Kèn’s request for the sake of the beauty of the boat’s measurements; the ingenious mo broadsides recall “the judgement made by Sibian when she condemned her sister Kèn to be immersed, lemo kèn” (p. 53); again, it was Gaman who allocated specific places to the boat equipment on the deck (p. 75). (Long extracts from the epic poem of Gaman are given in Appendix 1.) The myths refer to foreign contacts, last of which was with the Burmese; undoubtedly, the name of “the tyrannical Prince Pugam [who] took Gaman and the Moken to Thailand and then brought them back to Burma” (p. 54) is derived from the old Burmese kingdom of Pagan (9th-14th c. A.D.), which extended far to the south (Puga is the transliteration form of Pagan).

  • 2 See C. Archaimbaut, “La course des pirogues au Laos : un complexe rituel,” Artibus Asiae, suppl. (...)
  • 3 See F. Robinne, Fils et maîtres du Lac. Relations interethniques dans l’État shan de Birmanie, Pa (...)

6Despite recent technical developments, the symbolic value of the Moken boat’s structural parts must be perpetuated, even if they are “no longer of any technical importance” (p. 132). Such is the case of the longitudinal stakes supporting the broadsides: as markers of identity and nomadism, they are still present in most contemporary Moken boats, while the traditional stipites of planks have disappeared. Regarding the symbolic function of notches, one may remark that, on the river boats of the Lao2 (Thai-Kadai family) and Intha3 (Tibeto-Burmese family), notches represent the head of a Naga – the mythical dragon capable of moving in the air and water alike, whose power of fertility is explicitly called upon during boat races on both the Mekong River and Inle Lake (Southern Shan State of Burma) – and, thus, that this might also be true of the sea boats of the Moken (Austronesian family).

  • 4 See F. Robinne, “Les yeux, la tête et les œufs du Naga. Mythes fondateurs et pratiques rituelles (...)

7Questioning the boat’s various uses (as a means of production and of movement, as a dwelling) and cultural dynamism, Ivanoff notes that it can be also a “sanctuary for guardian spirits or [a] sepulchre.” And, whether or not it is connected, he lists the many forms and meanings of the stern post: “[a] representation of the eye (Burma and almost everywhere in the world) or a bird (Moluccas) or a naga (Borneo, China), or a crocodile (Borneo)” Actually, Burmese boatmen explain that eyes ­adorning the prow of their boats are of three kinds: the eye of the mythical Hamsa bird, the eye of the Galon (Garuda), and the eye of their mortal enemy, the Naga,4 which leads us to suggest that the prow of the Moken kabang is also associated with the head of an ophidian Naga.

8For particular sociological reasons clearly explained by the author, it appears that the symbolic prevails on the technical. Those among the Moken who do not perpetuate the primordial symbolic dimension of the various parts of their boats, even if these become technically useless, forsake their ethnic identity: “The Moken who remain in the Phuket area have themselves destroyed their culture, and the Burmese Moken, by filling in the holes of their boats and destroying their notches, have ­committed cultural suicide,” Ivanoff concludes (p. 135).

9Considering these various aspects of symbolic technology, he points out in a final and brilliant demonstration three levels of analysis by which the kabang grants access to an understanding of Moken society viewed as a whole: “a) the monoxylon, symbol of the human body and the physical reflection of the mythical epic poem; b) the level of daily: the deck with its kitchen, diving gear, spears, water jars, and so on; c) the historical level: the carved poles on the deck, which remain of the Malay past” (p. 126).

  • 5 See V. Sukanda-Tessier, Le triomphe de Sri en pays sundanais : études ethno-philologique des tech (...)

10Some notes or extracts of the myth of Gaman appear here and there as an invitation to a more comparative approach. For example, when Kesoy, a female ancestor of the Moken, “invoked the four eyes of the wind” (p. 121), it reminds us of the four eyes of the temporal sequence on which the ancient Sundanese kingdom of Gulah based its concepts of time: the cycle of the seasons and, subsequently, the four directions of the eye of the wind and its center5 There may be a common origin – or else, the influence of both the Thai and Burmese Buddhism – to explain the four openings of the spirit altar representing the universe (p. 17).

11Finally, let us hope that, like the three carved masts on the kabang, which symbolize a couple of Malay guardian spirits and their daughter, Ivanoff’s two books are heralding a third volume of the same quality, to complete a comparative triptych on the sea-nomad societies of Southeast Asia.

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Notes

1 See, in particular, Technological choices. Transformation in material cultures since the Neolithic, P. Lemonnier (Ed.), London & New York: Routledge, 1993, 420 p.

2 See C. Archaimbaut, “La course des pirogues au Laos : un complexe rituel,” Artibus Asiae, suppl. No. xxix, 1972 ; and Structures religieuses lao (rites et mythes), Vientiane : Vithagna, 1973, p. 38.

3 See F. Robinne, Fils et maîtres du Lac. Relations interethniques dans l’État shan de Birmanie, Paris : CNRS/MSH, 2000, p. 278.

4 See F. Robinne, “Les yeux, la tête et les œufs du Naga. Mythes fondateurs et pratiques rituelles en Birmanie,” in Les monstres marins, A. Geistdoerfer & J. Ivanoff (Eds.), forthcoming.

5 See V. Sukanda-Tessier, Le triomphe de Sri en pays sundanais : études ethno-philologique des techniques et rites agraires et des structures socio-culturelles, Paris : EFEO, 1977.

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François Robinne, « Jacques Ivanoff, The Moken Boat: Symbolic Technology »Moussons [En ligne], 2 | 2000, mis en ligne le 16 janvier 2020, consulté le 08 juillet 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/moussons/5828

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François Robinne

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Les contenus de la revue Moussons sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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