Jarai Grave Figures from the Central Highlands of Vietnam

This exhibit was on display at the Rockefeller Library near the main floor elevators from March 2011 to March 2012.  The case exhibited two Jarai grave figures from the Central Highlands of Vietnam.  Donated by Dr. Mark Rapoport, doctor and owner of 54 Traditions Gallery in Hanoi, in 2006, these statues not only honor the Jarai aesthetic, they offer a window for understanding the Jarai world view. 

The Jarai, the largest indigenous group in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, bury their dead in a communal grave house. Wooden statues, fixed atop fence posts that surround the grave house, are carved to protect the souls of the deceased. Bereaved relatives visit, tending the grave and leaving food to express their continued love.

When the grave house is full, a grave abandoning ceremony is held. The villagers feed and entertain the loved ones, celebrate their lives, and release their spirits to join the sunset world of their ancestors. The living cut their ties to the dead, knowing they will meet them again in the afterlife. The grave house and statues are allowed to return to the elements. The villagers construct a new grave house and the cycle begins anew.

Should objects like these be exhibited by museums? Perhaps they should be left to deteriorate as was traditionally the case. On the other hand, the statues have completed their task, and are no longer viewed as sacred. The souls have departed and both the statues and the graves have been abandoned.

Displaying these sculptures also has some positive effects. They honor the Jarai aesthetic, and allow us to understand and appreciate their world view. By observing and understanding the changing style of carving and attributes of the figures (such as their clothing) these sculptures show us how the Jarai engage with today’s world.

Many Jarai mortuary statues feature men sitting, elbows on their knees, faces buried in their hands. These can be interpreted in a number of ways. Some Jarai carvers say that in ancient times, when the king died, his servants would be buried with him, and that these statues replaced the once-doomed slaves. Others say these figures represent weeping widowers. Some researchers suggest that the statues represent fetuses awaiting rebirth, consistent with Jarai belief in new life following death.

Statues of naked men and women, often copulating, as well as pregnant women are often included on Jarai grave houses, representing the cycle of birth and death. Depictions of day-to-day activities – people carrying wood or children, figures playing instruments – and animals, such as monkeys, oxen and peacocks, reference the world of the living to which the dead contribute as ancestors.