In Miyako, visiting deities covered in mud wearing terrifying wooden masks chase children down the street and smear mud across the villages. Paantu is a sacred tradition which reflects the deep, distinct culture of the Ryukyus.
Paantu is an annual 2-day ritual held in the island of Miyako (Miya) in the Ryukyu Archipelago on the ninth month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar.
The Paantu ‘visit’ Miyako once a year. Covered in mud and vegetation with terrifying wooden masks, three men walk down the streets of Miyakoan villages, covering houses, cars and onlookers with mud in the process.
Children get chased down the streets, some enjoying the moment they get covered in a foul mud with a stench that lasts for days.
Paantu is one of the two rituals practiced on Miyako island. The lesser known Satiparai meaning village purification takes place in Nobaru village.
Unlike the Paantu ritual, Satiparai is mud-less, and involves just one mask instead of the three seen in the Paantu ritual.
The Paantu can be differentiated by the faces of their masks: Uya-Paantu (Parent), Nnaka-Paantu (‘Middle’) and Ffa-Paantu (‘Child’).
On the day, reporters, photographers and tourists as well as of course the local Miyako people wait for the Paantu in anticipation. As they appear, the Paantu immediately plaster mud on anyone within their reach.
The Paantu make their presence visible through the mud plastered across cars, houses and people as they make their way to give prayers to the Mutuyaa of the village.
Mutuyaa are the historically important houses of a town / village once home to the founders of the village.
Once this journey is complete, they continue on give the gift of mud to the entire community, for their health and protection.
Usually, having mud thrown at you and your property would be a cause for angry reactions, but this emotion is strictly forbidden during Paantu visits.
“If it’s Paantu, even if they get you muddy, you don’t get angry!” said a 12 year old when asked about the Paantu.
Anger is an emotion antithetical to the ritual, which is meant to bring fortune and good luck.
Angry emotions have the potential to bring about misfortune and disaster, making it a strictly taboo to express anger when receiving the muddy gifts of the Paantu.
Instead, you thank the Paantu for their gift, as it is a gift filled with fortune and luck, not only for the individual but for the whole community.
Paantu are gods, and are sacred beings so anger as a taboo emotion was always implicit, but only enforced since the advent of the increased amount of tourism to the island.
People who were unaware of the ritual on the island misunderstand what happens, and can become resentful of the practice.
It is believed that the ritual originated from when one of the Paantu masks was found washed ashore at Kubama, the beach just outside of Shimajiri, a village famous for hosting the Paantu Punaha.
When the mask was found, Ryukyuans were in the midst of an epidemic.
The Paantu successfully drove the illness away, marking the establishment of the Paantu Punaha.
However, how the sole mask found ashore turning into three is not known, nor the vine costuming.
Folklorist Kate Schramm notes how it may be ‘attributed generally to the supernaturally charged advice of the yuta shaman at that time, perhaps on many occasions throughout the Paantu’s history.’
The Masks: Uya, Ffa & NNaka:
When looking closely at the masks, each mask have distinct features.
Uya-Paantu is the easiest to spot, having swooping eyebrows and narrowed eyes.
The nnaka-paantu and ffa-paantu are a little more difficult to tell apart, as they both seem to bear an expression of perpetual surprise, with lifted eyebrows and rounded mouths.
However, the child paantu’s chin is more rounded, lending it a youthful delight, the nnaka-paantu just seems pleased.
When gripped through the mouth hole and covered with mud, however, there is the impression that perhaps they are held, or, perhaps, are gripping the bearers’ hands with their mouths.
Kyaan & The Gift of Mud
The mud of Paantu isn’t just normal mud. Traditionally, it is a mud that is black, with a distinct foul smell that lingers in your clothes by up to a week. ‘Kyaan’ are the vines used for the costume, made up of heavy leafed vines.
Locals, especially fishermen help the organisers find suitable vines for costuming, saving weeds and leaves just for the special occasion.
These weeds and vines are discarded back into nature, allowing it to be decomposed.
Due to increased construction of paved roads and buildings obstructing the natural growth of the real Kyaan used for Paantu, non-Kyaan leaves have been used instead.
Not only Kyaan, but the mud used in Paantu has also been affected by the encroachment of new buildings, roads and shops, with many elders noting how the mud found nowadays is much lighter in colour.
The availability of Kyaan has also been significantly affected by stronger storms, an island already known to experience strong winds during Typhoons.
These small changes in the flora and fauna which were never noticed before highlights the ever changing landscape of Miyako as well as the real threat of climate change.
The use of natural materials for costuming reflects the harmonious relationship that Ryukyuans have always had with the nature around them.
Rather than humans and nature existing independently of each other, Ryukyuans have always believed we are a part of nature.
Much of the broken relationship humans have with nature has been through misunderstanding the symbiotic nature humans have with their surrounding environment.
The Divine Priestesses
In some villages in Miyako, Tsukasa Priestesses follow the Paantu on their journey through the village, making poetic prayers at the Mutuya as well as the sacred sites.
Although Paantu is performed by men and are male deities, there are actually two visiting deities.
The female deity, unlike the Paantu who are more symbolic in their representation of the deity, the female deities are embodied through songs, chants and dances of the divine priestesses and do not wear masks.
But in some villages, priestesses can be notably absent due to the factors such as relocation, economic pressures which have influenced the ability and willingness of women to become priestesses.
The Struggle for Preservation
In November 2018, Paantu was designated as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO, but like the dwindling numbers of Tsukasa priestesses, the preservation of the Paantu Punaha remains under threat.
Depopulation and relocation of young men as well as the changing landscape of Miyako all influence the survival of the tradition.
Geopolitical pressures also influence cultural preservation, namely the construction of military bases on Miyako, especially on top of sacred prayer sites (Utaki), and the increased presence of Hotel chains on the island.
Tourists who are unaware of the ritual can threaten to sue the organisers, as well as bring negative attention to the sacred ritual as they have experienced previously.
Organisers have discussed ways to raise funds to preserve the tradition, something ever more important as the landscape changes around the local people.
The Paantu ritual is a sacred one and needs to be protected without diminishing its original meaning.
Although the Paantu ritual has been at the site of commodification as a means to attract more tourism to Miyako, everyone agrees that it has to be done in a way that benefits the local community.
If you would like to support the jichenkai (organisers) through purchasing their small handmade goods, which directly go towards helping preserve this beautiful, unique sacred ritual, you can follow them via their Facebook page here.
Special thanks to Kate Schramm for her Dissertation on the Paantu, which you can find here.
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