The bottle-gourd is among the first plants to have been cultivated in Southeast Asia. Many ethnic groups in the region recount myths that tell o humankind's rebirth from a magic gourd, following a great flood that covered the world. While this myth is absent among the minority peoples of Vietnam's Tay Nguyen (Central Highlands), the bottle-gourd plays an important role in the lives of many Highlanders.
The gourds used to make jars are bitter ones, different from the varieties that are eaten. According to a Sedang legend, there once lived a woman named Lady Croa, who was ordered to gather all of the edible gourds in the world. At that time, the earth was covered in gourds, and the lady was furious at having been assigned such a time-consuming task. She spread her breast milk on the young gourds and cursed them, after which they became too bitter to eat.
A bottle-gourd is shaped like two balls, a smaller one sitting atop of a larger one. When selecting gourds, people choose ones with symmetrical shapes.
In the Tay Nguyen, it is the women who sow the gourd seeds in mountain fields and process the hardened shells. When the gourds are ripe, they discard the seeds and pulp and dry the shells, which are then soaked in water. Soot and mud are rubbed onto the shells to darken them. After this, the women rub the shells with special leaves and bark. Once or twice a day for several days they polish the gourds, creating a shiny black finish that is extraordinarily durable.
Once processed, the gourds have many uses. Many traditional musical instruments employ bottle-gourds as resonators, including the brook and brang lutes of the Sedang, the goong lute and ding buot klut flute of the Ede, and the kmboat mouth organ and bre flute of the Ma. Some instruments have two gourd resonators, such as the ting ning lute of the Bahnar.
On a more practical level, bottle-gourds make fine containers. They are commonly used to store seeds, tobacco, rice, wine, and water. The Sedang of Kon Turn province claim that Highlanders once survived largely on gourds. According to legend, some wild forest dogs became tangled in the vines and urinated over the gourds, causing the gourds to become inedible.
In the Tay Nguyen, women are responsible for collecting water, whether from springs, mountain streams, or bamboo aqueducts. Every morning and evening the women carry their bottle-gourds to a water source. Each person also has his or her own water flask, carried on outings into the forest or to the swidden fields.
Flasks made from bottle-gourds are light, durable and able to keep water cool. While some highlanders use lo o bamboo tubes to store water for cooking and cleaning, drinking water is kept in gourds.
According to highland beliefs, there is a strong connection between women and gourds. The wooden statues around tomb houses in Giarai and Bahnar cemeteries include depictions of women (never men) holding water-gourds.
According to an Ede legend, there once lived a young man named Y Wing, who created the first ding nam mouth organ from six bamboo tubes, a gourd and some beeswax. Y Wing explained that the six bamboo tubes are siblings, while the gourd and the beeswax are mother and father.
The gourd hold the essence of traditional highland life
For people living in Vietnam's remote Central Highlands, the bottle-gourd is both a useful object and a cultural symbol. While some highland communities now use vessels of glass and plastic, the gourd has not yet been replaced. Along with their mundane uses, these gourds hold the essence of traditional highland life.