Palanquins are a traditional means of transportation which are now very rare. It became a custom, not only in Africa but also in Latin America, Asia and Europe, taking many different names and shapes.
Today we travel in time to understand the origin of palanquins and how it became part of Ghanaian culture from the 17th to the 20th century.
Origins of the palanquin
The word palanquin has roots in a Sanskrit word which literally means ‘travelling bed’. As the practice of carrying people in palanquins grew, the Portuguese added a nasal twist to the pronunciation.
Before the age of cars, motorbikes and trains, there were various means of transportation. One of the transportation methods was with the palanquin. Being carried in a palanquin was a sign of elevated status – a VIP treatment in today’s terms.
Types of palanquins
To portray and communicate affluence, the palanquins came in many different shapes and sizes – works of art. It was usually carried on the shoulders of two or more men (bearers) depending on its size.
Doli was the Indian name that was given to the smallest palanquins which were carried by only two individuals. Due to the nature of Palanquins, the number of people who carry it are always a multiple of two or even numbered.
Odd number of bearers create an imbalance in the weight distribution. Some of the aristocrats had palanquins that were in the shape of beds or had curtains for a bit of comfort and privacy. If the palanquin turns out to be too large or too heavy, it would be dragged by beasts of burden.
Where were they used?
An evolution of the palanquin started to be seen in the 18th to 19th century Latin America, where simpler palanquins called Silla (Spanish for Seat or chair) were used by the aristocrats. What triggered the evolution was that the steep and narrow roads in the Southern American region at that time became unsuited for the European and Indian-styled palanquins.
So the palanquins of those days consisted of a wooden chair attached to a tumpline, while the occupant faced backwards for the entire journey. During those days one could employ people to carry the palanquin and pay them later. So more and more middle-class people began to afford palanquins.
Palanquins in Ghana
Palanquins are called “Apakan” in the Akan and “Akpakan” in the Ga dialect. In precolonial times, the Ga did not use palanquins, but carried their Chiefs on human shoulders. They were initially not part of the culture or cultural display of Ghanaians. During the colonial periods, the European colonizers and traders used them and they were carried by enslaved and hired bearers and this is probably where palanquin use was borrowed from.
The tribes in Ghana had their own methods of transporting their chiefs during events. The Akans are known for their boat-shaped palanquins. These were introduced into the region by the Akwamu people in the 17th century.
Over the course of the 20th century, some tribes and ethnic groups along the southern and coastal parts of Ghana have resorted to figurative use of the palanquins. The Ashanti people also adopted the practice of palanquin use for their royalty. They use gold palanquins as a way of communicating their status and wealth during durbars and other occasions.
Akan and Ga-Adangbe chiefs ride in palanquins during state durbars and festivals. In such occasions these palanquins are akin to the European use of a State Coach, Carriage or a well decorated horse as used by some tribes in Northern Ghana.
The 21st Century has seen a decline in the figurative use of palanquins and some of them have been morphed into figurative and styled coffins which have become popular among the Ga people.
Significance in Ghanaian culture
Palanquins have had major significance on Ghanaian culture for instance, A Ga chief whose clan uses the lion as a totem must therefore use a palanquin in the form of a lion. The totems and symbols of a tribe is the representation of that tribe, more like every country has its coat of arms that is representative of them. Usually, objects selected as totems usually stem from historical occurrences and qualities that they aspire to embrace.
Traditional Ghanaians believe that when a chief sits in a palanquin that has the totem of the tribe, the spirits that are connected to the respective totem provide protection. The Ga’s distinguish themselves from the Akans by the way they make their palanquins figurative through the use of certain totems and decorations.
Its importance is usually seen in both the enstoolment and outdooring of chiefs. After its use in inaugural ceremonies and festivals like the Odwira Festival or Homowo, the palanquins are usually kept as emblems for the Royal Family and are kept hidden from sight until it is time for it to be used again.
They come in various forms where the chief or queen-mother may sit with legs stretched or upright when it’s modelled like a chair.
Use in rituals and ceremonies
In the Ga culture, birth and death are complements of each other and therefore, enstoolment and funerals of traditional chiefs must have a complementary character. The dead chief must be buried in the same way as they were set up in office or initiated. However, palanquins, which are royal emblems, are usually not buried. Consequently, those chiefs who used a figurative palanquin at their installation ceremony are usually buried in a substitute.
Although outwardly they look identical, figurative coffins and palanquins are classified differently: palanquins are royal emblems made to last and kept in the family house after the demise of the patriarch, and figurative coffins are usually buried together with the dead.
A palanquin which is not buried along with the dead become regarded as sacred emblems for the family and they are kept with the belief that it becomes a contact point between the living and the dead. For the royals, it becomes the evidence of the legitimacy of their rule.
The Ga, unlike the Akan people reserve the palanquins for only the chiefs and subchiefs. The queen mothers and spiritual leaders (wulomei) do not ride palanquins.
Since figurative palanquins are rarely shown in public, they have been rarely seen by foreigners. Until relatively recent times, the figurative palanquins have not been seen by the western art market, even though they have been and are identical to the figurative coffins that are well known.
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