The intangible as cultural heritage.
The history of the Mizo (used here as a generic term to denote all tribes and subtribes who claim common descent) is somewhat amorphous in character, primarily due to the fact that it has been gleaned and constructed from oral traditions in the absence of more tangible historical sources. The attempt to valorize the past, to claim the existence of former glory' or a once great tradition for one's tribe, community, or nation, is prevalent among cultures and not a new thing. The Mizo are no exception. Their cohesive communitarian way of life characterized by a highly developed civic sense of concern for the welfare of others, of selfless sharing, respect for elders, and the indispensable code of tlawmngaihna, a code of honour entailing selfless sacrifice and giving of. (1) oneself for the service of others without expectation of recognition or reward, is a unique tradition they are proud of Attempts have in fact been made of late, by church and voluntary groups, to revive this tradition aptly termed zonunmawi, which when translated means "the Mizo way of life that is beautiful". This attempt reflects present-day concerns about perceived moral degeneration and corruption making inroads into Mizo society. This revivalist movement for zonunmawi is accompanied by nostalgia and the romanticization of a past which is appealing but now impossible to recall in an age of globalization, consumerism, and the culture of individualism, all of which have already begun to impact contemporary Mizo life.
This essay makes no attempt to bring in comparative studies of other tribal cultures. It looks in isolation at specific situations which can be deemed to be unique to the Mizo, though no doubt, the very idea of uniqueness can be contested since cultures, in one form or other, do happen to share or have linkages in their worldviews and indigenous ways of life. The attempt here is to trace and highlight some aspects of the lives and times of the Mizo forefathers whose many traditional practices and institutions such as big game hunting, traditional courting of maidens, chieftainship, and the zawlbuk or men's dormitory, to name a few, have died a natural death due to the demands of changing times. But this does not necessarily denote the death of the accompanying lessons of life, knowledge systems, and moral/ethical values embedded in the old way of life. These can continue to be adapted for zonunmawi today and comprise the intangible that is the Mizo cultural heritage focused on here in this essay.
In the old days, rivalries and raids were common between villages ruled by different chiefs. The nomadic Mizo forefathers always chose to establish their habitation atop hills for purposes of security as well as for health reasons. The practice was to also have their jhums or farm lands in the areas surrounding the village as this ensured security from enemies and wild beasts. Once the land was depleted after four to five years, the elders of the village, often accompanied by their chief, would go in search of a new village site. This was serious work and could take several days. The main deciding factor was a good water source with surrounding lands for the jhums, but certain taboos and superstitions were also present in the selection of such sites. If the cockerel brought along by the party failed to crow the next morning, it was a sign that the place was unhealthy and unfit for human habitation. The presence of odd and deformed tree roots, tree trunks, or vines/branches, a gibbon's skull at the site, or a bad dream or nightmare experienced by a member of the group, were other factors that were considered inauspicious and valid reasons for the rejection of an otherwise suitable place.
Once the new site for the village was selected, the chief's house was built on the choicest spot, usually an elevated spur of the hill. The houses of the chief's elders and the zawlbuk were built within its vicinity, thus forming the heart of the village or the village square as it were, wherein all big feasts and celebrations would take place. The rest of the village community built their houses farther off. The unspoken hierarchy and order remained undisrupted. The move to the new place was disciplined and not allowed to be marred by the use of abusive or bad language on the way Since the houses were in a sense deemed temporary, they were thatched and built with bamboos, but though inferior in quality, they were built on stilts and it was believed that this accounted for the Mizo's general good health. The most remarkable factor worth mention here was the community spirit and willing hands that helped each other build their new homes. The elderly and the sick would be carried to the new place by the stronger members of the village and their houses built for them, so also with widows and orphans. Stealing what belonged to others was rare and considered taboo. Any thief or troublemaker was banished from the village by the chief without much ado.
Due to this highly developed community life of the old days, the Mizo today continues to inherit a mindset wherein close neighbours (thenawm) are considered family because they are the first to lend a helping hand in times of need and also the first to learn the worst about each other. The old Mizo saying that "to be at war with seven villages is preferable to being at war with one's neighbour" is still given credence today. Inviting neighbours was a must at any celebratory feast, and if one had a neighbour living on the hillside below one's house, known as kawmthlang, the tradition was to gift them sa mawngping (2) of a slaughtered pig along with some broth and other pieces of cooked pork. This was considered a neighbourly gesture of thanks for putting up with the drainage and sweepings from the house above. Besides sharing of paddy and other produce from their jhums and working alongside on common tasks, neighbours visited each other's homes and exchanged conversation and small talk in the evenings after supper. Such close interaction even led them to address each other not by name but as kawmthlangpa/kawmthlangnu and kawmchhakpa/kawmchhaknu. (3) In such a community, the fear of offending one's neighbour by word or deed went a long way towards contributing to the harmony and peace of village life in general.
Another aspect of the old way of life was a practice called inlawm, of helping one another in any kind of work for mutual advantage as well as enjoyment. What will be highlighted here is how this practice contributed towards friendship and the forming of relationships between young men and women in a village, sometimes even culminating in marriage. Since cultivation was their main occupation, people set off to work early and returned home in the evening after a hard day's work at the jhum, with the women carrying their heavy load of vegetables and other needs in their woven bamboo baskets called em, (4) while the menfolk walked home relatively free of load.
The practice of inlawm at the jhum meant that the young men and women took turns to help out at each other's jhums thereby not only lightening the grim and burdensome work of weeding and clearing, but also providing fun, laughter, and companionship during work. Early morning would find the young people hurriedly completing their household chores so as to not keep their friends waiting. The young ladies would offer to carry the simple leaf-packed lunch of cooked rice and work tools of their lawmpa (male work partner) in their baskets. The long trek to the jhum would be accompanied by playful teasing and laughter.
On arrival and after a brief rest in the jhum hut, work at the jhum would start in earnest. If anyone dallied and started work later than the others, he/she would in future not be considered a fit work partner. Neither the rain nor the hot sun could drive the lawmpa to take even a brief break from work, nor would he touch any melons and cucumbers that he found in the jhum he was weeding, unless these were offered to him by the owners. When noon break arrived, repeated coaxing was required to pry him away from work, so too in the evening when it was time to leave for home. It would never do for the lawmpa to show eagerness to stop work or take a break, because of the code of tlawmngaihna. His satisfaction and happiness lay in working in the presence of his work companion and he would express this through the occasional chanting of appropriate lines, while the soft singing of the maiden would waft to him even as she left work to fetch cool water to drink from the nearby stream or when, towards evening, she moved off to collect vegetables to take home. The work-day was thus shortened by the joy of friendship which often bloomed into happy courtship.
During the lean period of work at the jhum, hunting parties comprising ten to twelve young men led by a few val upas' and the pasalthra 6 of the village would depart for a week or more to hunt big game in the deep forests. A successful hunt would be an occasion for celebration in the village called salu lawm which sometimes lasted two days or more, and was spent in dancing, singing, and the drinking of rice beer. This also involved the ritual of ai or cub which was to sacrifice a domestic animal and perform a ceremony for the game killed by the pasalthra with a view to getting the spirit of the slain animal into the power of the slayer after death, and also to protect the slayer from evil consequences during his lifetime.
The old Mizo way of courting maidens by young men of the village, known as nula rim, is a practice that has gradually phased itself out. While it had a charm of its own, it would now be out of sync with the times. Yet, there are some invaluable lessons to be learnt here too. After a day of hard labour at the jhums, the young men, having cleaned up and had their supper, would proceed to the zatvlbuk until it was time to go courting. The maidens in turn, having completed all their household chores by then would be hard at work at their spinning even as they supervised and fuelled the fires that cooked food for the pigs. As a few young men arrived one by one at her house, a girl would welcome them and offer to light their pipes with a live ember from the fire. The mark of a truly worthy maiden was in the manner in which she conducted herself throughout the long night. Never would she reveal her preference for any of the young men, nor could anyone suspect her of harbouring special feelings for any one of them. She kept them all happy with her constant attention to the lighting of their pipes, laughing at their jokes, and serving them cooked yam or maize. Such was her discretion and diplomacy that with the first crowing of the cock, referred to as leng hawn ar (the crowing that signals the time to take leave), as the young men prepared to go, the maiden would plead with them to remain, not revealing any tiredness at their extended visit. The long night did not deter her from rising at dawn to perform her daily chores of fetching water from the stream, pounding paddy and cooking the morning meal, feeding the pigs, and letting out the chickens from their coop.
The concept of the dormitory system in most tribal communities, for young men and in some cases young women, and the crucial role that dormitories played as social institutions, is well known. The Mizo forefathers practised the dormitory system for bachelors known as the zawlbuk. Ironically enough, an English administrator named N.E. Parry (1924-28) recognized its crucial role as a socio-cultural institution for the Mizo, and made an attempt to revive it through an order in 1926 that compelled all villages of the then Lushai Hills to rebuild their dormitories. Though the order was obeyed, it proved ineffective as times had changed and the Mizo realized he had indeed outgrown the institution due to the advent of Christianity and the spread of education.
A study of this social institution is fascinating for several reasons, but especially so as it was a power structure that literally controlled every aspect of village life. It was centrally located in the village for a specific purpose: to facilitate quick action from the young men of the village whom the chief could call out for emergency errands with regard to security. They were the protectors of the village in times of enemy raids, attack by wild beasts, or when a calamity such as fire occurred, as well as being responsible for the maintenance of peace and harmony in the village against miscreants and troublemakers. They were also the voluntary village workforce that helped construct houses for the needy, repair the chief's house, and perform any of the other numerous tasks pertaining to the welfare and security of the community. The zawlbuk was thus an institution that kept alive the concept of tlawmngaihna in its purest form.
The dormitory was a place of learning and the repository of indigenous knowledge. It was here that the val upas through conversations and story-telling sessions transmitted oral traditions and folk knowledge, history of the past, tales of brave warriors, and important lessons of life that instilled pride and a competitive spirit in the hearts of the listeners. It was a place where plans were mapped out for big game hunting and raiding parties to enemy villages, besides being a centre for village administration, second only to the council of the village chief and his elders. The respect and status accorded to the zawlbuk was such that the chief and his council rarely contradicted its decisions. The zawlbuk was indeed the backbone of village community life.
The zawlbuk was a cultural centre as well that sustained and generated the skills of traditional bamboo craft, skills to repair and hone weapons and work implements, and so on. Traditional songs, dances, chants, and sports were learnt here, and it was the norm for a male visitor from another village to avail of the zawlbuk hospitality where he would invariably be challenged to a bout of wrestling in the evening in order to break the ice and make him feel at home. Tall tales of exploits during war and hunting expeditions were exchanged around the huge fireplace late into the night, accompanied by playful pranks and uproarious laughter, relaxation and camaraderie.
One of the most important social functions of the zawlbuk was as a training ground for young boys to become worthy men through inculcation of the values of tlawmngaihna. Boys from the age of nine would be divided into work groups and given the responsibility of daily collection of at least two bundles of firewood for the men's dormitory from the forest. There were others who were delegated with the task of fetching drinking water in bamboo containers, or of sweeping and cleaning the dormitory. The last chore was not a light one for the dormitory was a huge structure. The large fireplace had to be cleared of ashes and prepared for the evening, and the piles of bedding had also to be tidied up and cleaned of bed bugs. The rotation of such duties taught the young adolescents responsibility, the importance of team work and competition, as well as respect for elders.
An old practice of Mizo forefathers called mi zawn inchuh (which again is likely to be unique to this tribal community) is worth mention here. Simply put, it entailed fighting for possession of a stretcher or bier that carried either the sick and infirm, or a dead body, to the village to which the individual belonged. Such competition usually took place between villages that were more or less equal in strength and whose relationship was marked by friendly rivalry. It was carried out in the spirit of a sport which provided the opportunity for young men to display their prowess and to see whose village was the more tlawmngai and capable of protecting its honour. It was deemed shameful for the village to which the sick or dead person belonged, if it failed to take possession of the stretcher from the rival village whose men had come with the purpose of reaching the stretcher to the village themselves. Because this sport-fight sometimes took almost half a day, the family of a sick person would plead to be excused in order to avoid discomfort to the invalid. Such requests were invariably honoured.
But this was not so in the case of the dead body. It was the practice to send a zualko or messenger to the other village carrying the news that a party was on its way bearing the dead. The town crier would immediately alert all the able-bodied men of the village who would then enthusiastically set off in a big group to the boundary of their village to await the other party. They too would have come prepared with a large and excited group whose sole intent was to reach the stretcher to its destination come what may. When the two parties met, the tension and excitement about what was to follow became palpable, with loud shouts and roars raised by both sides. The extent of the importance given to this practice was clear from the presence of the elders and sometimes the chiefs of both villages who would come to witness the fight and, more importantly, to provide a check to the event, calling a halt to the fight if necessary.
The pattern of the fight for possession of the stretcher (from which the body was taken and put at a safe distance), would start with members of the other group forcefully taking hold of the bamboo handles in an attempt to wrest these away from those firmly gripping them. The others would clash en masse in a free-for-all, the unwritten rule being that no one engaged for too long with a single opponent. They would topple each other down the slopes or pin each other to the ground. Because everyone engaged to the utmost, the vanquished fighters would always crawl back and join the struggle with renewed strength, until it seemed there would be no end to it. If either party succeeded in bringing the stretcher into the village, well and good; but if it ended in a stalemate, the village to which the dead person belonged was permitted to take over, but not before sharing a round of jokes and some pipe smoking. Often such occasions ended with a friendly wrestling match long after the body was taken away.
Mizo society has undergone tremendous change within a very short span of time and the younger generation today are not conversant with their past. It must be acknowledged that it takes foresight and courage for a people to shed certain traditional practices that are deemed regressive, yet it is equally important to recognize, sustain, and adapt the old knowledge systems and values along with the new Even as we recognize and celebrate the great worth of our forefathers and their immeasurable contribution towards the very existence of the tribe today in a world of lost cultures and lost tribes, we must also understand that the privilege of moving on to make an impact on the welfare of the community in a globalized world rests with us.
All photographs courtesy DIPR, Government of Mizoram.
(1) The Mizo claim that tlawmngaihna is unique to their culture and that its flame is kept alive in particular by the Young Mizo Association.
(2) Part of a sac connected with the intestine, which is filled with blood and converted into a delicious dish when cooked and solidified.
(3) Palnu denotes the man/woman of the house. Kawmchhak is the opposite of kawmthlang--referring to the neighbour whose house is on the hillside above one's house.
(4) Woven bamboo baskets are carried on the back with the help of a hnam, a plaited cane band which rests over the top of the head and, with its attached ropes on both sides, supports the em at the back.
(5) Mature men of an older age group who occupied a special status in the village and zawlbuk and who, by virtue of their rich experience in hunting, warfare, and village administration, were considered by both chief and community as the indispensable backbone of society.
(6) One who has proven his mettle as a brave warrior at war, and his prowess in big game hunting, and who has earned the privilege of drinking zu (rice beer) from the nopui (horn of the gayal--the domesticated mithun, Bos frontalis; the possession of many gayals denoted wealth in the old days), usually proffered by the chief and his elders.
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