Prior to the early 20th century Mizos had no written records, but contemporary historians point to the Khampat area of the Kabaw Valley, Myanmar (see map), as the earliest known home of the Mizos, from where they were driven out by the powerful Shans in the early 13th century. They then settled in the Chin Hills between Tiddim and Falan and came to regard this area as their ancestral home. Rih Lake ‘Rih Dil’ lies not far from Champhai, on the eastern side of the Tiau River in Myanmar. Mizos believed that departed souls pass through this lake on their way to ‘Pialral’ or heaven (2). They first settled in the Mizo Hills around the area of Biate. In Mizo the area is called ‘Beyond the Tuichang River’. Slowly, in response to pressure from hostile neighbouring tribes the Mizo’s moved westward through the Mizo Hills (3) until they reached the borders of Tripura where they were halted by the might of the Maharajah of Tripura.
Headhunting (of enemies) was part of Mizo religious life. They were known as vicious marauders and headhunters by outsiders.
Mizoram is very rugged and consists of sinuous mountain ridges running from north to south. Some ridges rise to over 6,000 feet. Fast-flowing rivers divide them. Most are unnavigable. In the five-month monsoon season river levels may rise rapidly by up to forty feet. Forests of trees and bamboos cover the hills.
Most Mizo villages were built on the safe mountain ridges and enclosed with strong stockades. The number of villages was small and they were usually far apart with wretchedly rough paths in between.
Each village was self-contained and self-governing. Its territory extended over a wide area. Their system of agriculture was, in Mizo called ‘jhum’, or ‘slash and burn’. Every year a fresh hillside would be chosen for cultivation which would mean the village would have to be moved every 10 to 15 years. The work of the villagers on the steep hillsides was hard and unremitting, especially during the heavy monsoon weather. Mizos were accustomed and well-adapted to this semi-nomadic life. They toiled seven days a week. While the rice (and weeds) were growing the men often had to stay overnight in comfortless temporary bamboo sheds called ‘thlam’ to protect their crop from wild pigs, monkeys, bears, jungle rats and other hungry marauders.
Each village had a chief who chose his own elders. The chief’s rule was not usually harsh as it was in his interests not to alienate his subjects. The bigger the village the stronger the chief. The two largest buildings in the village were the chief’s house and the young men’s hut, or ‘zawlbûk’. Both were near the centre. All the buildings were abandoned when the village moved.
Mizo buildings were always temporary but the type of house and furniture, the way of hunting, the cultivation of crops, and the pattern of life, remained unchanged. Mizos were only beginning to acquire metal tools when they began to clash with the outside world. Land hunger caused them to move ever westwards towards Tripura, and northwards towards Cachar, motivated by increasing inter-village and inter-tribal wars.
The Mizo way of life fostered honesty, courage, self-discipline, and mutual help. A readiness to organise and be organised. It is summed up by the untranslatable Mizo word ‘Tlâwmngaihna’. This virtue was, and still is, highly prized. One cannot be regarded as ‘Tlâwmngaihna’ unless one is courteous, considerate, unselfish, courageous, industrious and ready to help others. Even at considerable inconvenience to one’s self. A ‘Tlâwmngaihna’ man or woman will always try to ensure they are not reliant on others and, as a consequence, are highly respected.
The Mizo language is Tibeto-Burmese and is very different in grammar and syntax from the languages of Northern India. Mizos, along with the Daflas, Matu, Khasis and other North-East Indian and North-West Burman tribes, all far removed from each other, share the legend that they once had a written language which they unfortunately lost.
On their migratory path to India they did not acquire a written alphabet from any of the people with whom they came into contact, nor were they affected by other religions.
The ‘Alexandrapur Incident’.
Mizos kidnap Mary Winchester ‘Zoluti’.
Prior to 1870 the interactions between the Mizos and the Burmese Government in the Chin Hills, and the Government in the Assam districts of Sylhet and Cachar, were intermittent and disagreeable. Mizo targets were the growing number of British run tea gardens in Assam (4). The Mizos had already been driven out of these hunting grounds by previous occupants and they had good reason to fear further organised encroachment on their lands.
It was the young men of the ‘zawlbûk’ who carried out raids, under the direction of the village chief, and their unpredictable nature caused fear and hatred among the peaceable tea garden workers. The managers of the tea gardens could provide nothing more than sporadic and ineffective retaliation. It was inevitable that the government would be asked to provide protection.
The Mizos had other motives too. They were just emerging, as it were, from the stone age. Metal tools and weapons were easily obtainable on the tea gardens, but nowhere else.
The gardens were run by British people as owners and managers. When Mizos first encountered them they thought they were freaks of nature and were later surprised by just how many there were.
One particular attack affected the history of Mizoram profoundly.
A Scottish tea garden manager called James Winchester, with his five-year old daughter Mary, was calling on another tea garden manager at Alexandrapur, an old school friend called George Sellar, before returning to Scotland on furlough after spending 12 years on his Cachar tea garden. James Winchester intended to leave Mary in Scotland with her grandmother to be educated.
The date was 27th January 1871. In her old age Mary ‘Zoluti’ wrote an account of what happened:
“So far as I can recollect I was out in the gardens with my ayah when quite suddenly the tea garden seemed to be in a commotion with the coolies running hither and thither. I remember distinctly seeing Mr. Sellar riding off at full gallop. As we were going toward the bungalow we were met by my father on foot. He lifted me up, a girl of five, and tried to run towards his horse tethered a little way off, but alas it was too late. The Lushais were on us. My father was shot from the back, fell, and I was extricated from his arms. He was conscious for he spoke to me. I was taken with my ayah and many coolies, and he was left to die. “I am shot, God only knows what will happen to you” were his last words. Thanks to my ayah who made good her escape, the terrible news was carried to other Planters, and by persistent demand for better protection, my release was afterwards gained (5).
“I have a mixed recollection of the journey into Lushai country, the huge fires at night in the jungle to protect us from wild animals, the upward journey passing through the various villages, with pigs and bantam cocks and hens, and then a resting place, and then a chief, and finally a bungalow with a dear old motherly woman who was so good and kind to me. There was a younger man of whom I was afraid as he threatened to kill me, but the old woman would not let him have anything to do with me. Often has it been said I romanced when I spoke of the old woman, but I am glad to have lived to prove that it was no stretch of imagination but a fact, for she was no other than Piklwangi, the grandmother of Vanchhunga, one of your native preachers at Aijal. She wove me garments, a blue striped skirt and a red tartan shawl made of silk, which I treasure not only as a relic of my life there, but of the love, Divine given, that prompted the weaving of them.
“Then came troublous times. I was threatened to be killed as being the cause of it all, but the old woman shielded me. One could see villages being burnt lower down the slopes and a general uneasiness prevailed where I was. Then I was fetched and with grief left my friends (6 & 7), and felt far from happy or settled till I had been six months in Elgin [Scotland], where my old grandparents begat confidence in my then suspectful and rebellious heart. It took many years before I could recognise the hand of God in my life, but now when I see the workings of His omniscient powers I can today say “Thy will be done” as it is best.
“My father had been father and mother to me from almost my birth, and nothing on earth has replaced him. My grandparents were devoted to me and gave me all that money and love could give, and I was glad to have been of comfort to them in their old age.
“I was given up on the 21st of January, 1872 one year except six days after being taken prisoner.”
Piklwangi, to whom Mary ‘Zoluti’ refers, is more correctly written Pi Tluangi in Mizo. Vanchhûnga was her grandson and one of the first three Christian evangelists. He and his family later moved to Aizawl. Mary Winchester ‘Zoluti’ was fortunate to have such a friend and guardian.
In the 19th century enslaved workers captured from the tea gardens were absorbed and became part of the Mizo tribe and no doubt Mary Winchester ‘Zoluti’ would have been absorbed in this way.
Several Christian Mizos from South Mizoram were taken to Britain at a later date by Savidge ‘Sap Upa’ and visited Mary Winchester ‘Zoluti’ who was still alive and well in London.
The consequences of the ‘Alexandrapur Incident’.
According to Mizo tradition it is said Mary ‘Zoluti’ soon adjusted herself to her new life in the village, shared in work and play with the other small girls, and smoked a pipe as they did. It is also said that Mary wept bitterly when she was taken from the village a year after her capture. “The foreigners will take me away” she sobbed. Her kind guardian gave her hard-boiled eggs to take with her, and she also had her Mizo clothes. On Mary’s ‘Zoluti’ part she left locks of her fair hair as keepsakes for some of the villagers.
The raid on Alexandrapur was organised by a prominent chief called Bengkhuaia, who ruled over the villages of Serchhip, Sailam, Kawlri and Thenzawl. He had the reputation of being a good and popular chief. He died in Thenzawl and a stone was erected in his memory, which sadly no longer exists.
The force sent by the government to rescue the little girl involved three columns of soldiers. A large scale attack was mounted. The first column came from Burma and failed to get through. The second column approached from the north and the third from the south. The southern column was led by an able and affable officer called Colonel Tom Lewin. The two columns reached their objective despite considerable opposition from the Mizos. Lewin set up an encampment at Thenzawl, three and a half miles away from Bengkhuaia’s main base at Serchhip. He went unarmed to meet Bengkhuaia, and three other hostile chiefs, on the banks of the River Chal in the deep valley between the two villages.
They made an agreement, and, according to Mizo tradition, a dog was sacrificed and cut in two to ratify it. The agreement was carefully observed by both sides. The chiefs agreed to release Mary ‘Zoluti’ and the other captives they held, but they soon came to resent the new restraints that were laid on them, above all, the fact that no Mizo was allowed to go outside his country without permission. In 1890 a violent and well-planned Mizo insurrection very nearly succeeded in breaking the new military control.
Pu Rosema remembers some of the past.
Darkness was very much a part of Mizo lives during their nomadic wanderings. All around every village the dark jungle lay, full of bamboo and tall trees, pathless and dense. The fear of the non-human, of the uncultivated and irrational, weighed heavily on a man in the jungle, even if he were not lost in it.
One night in 1950 Pu Rosema, one of the three original elders ordained in 1910, lifted a corner of the veil which hid the past for J. Meirion Lloyd ‘Zohmangaihi Pa’. This is a broad outline of what he said.
‘Before the coming of the Gospel we Mizos were worshippers of the ‘ramhuai’ (evil spirits). We lived in terror of them and believed they could cause illness and even death to befall us. All our domestic animals in turn were sacrificed to placate them. We were in constant dread that they could possess and injure us. We believed that we could get better and be saved by the spirits of animals. Furthermore the fears we had sprang not only from our religion and demon-worship but from our wars and the foes we had, so that we never had peace or freedom from want until the Gospel came to us. We lived in constant fear and apprehension’.
Mizo ancestral beliefs or ‘Ramhuai Bia’.
Mizos were animists and their beliefs were based on tribal memory and oral tradition. It was sensitive, complex, very widespread, and dominated every village. Their name for it was ‘Ramhuai Bia’, or ‘holding conversations with the spirits’.
The spirits were not benevolent. They were cruel, malicious and capricious. They animated and inhabited the non-human world in and around the village, the mountains, springs, trees, precipices, large rocks, and trees of an abnormal shape. The spirits were easily offended and men always needed to guard against them as they could cause illness and even death. To appease them it would need a priest, ‘bâwlpu’, to fetch some spring water, some small stones, and a cock for a sacrifice to the ‘ramhuai’, or evil jungle spirit. One particularly evil spirit was called ‘Khawhring’ and was much detested because it could cause stomachache and bewitch a man’s food. Before starting a meal a man would throw some of his food to the spirit and say “Chhuak e” (“Go away” or “Get lost”). There was a ‘bâwlpu’ in each village to deal with the spirits.
For every occasion the ‘bâwlpu’ plaited a small bamboo alter. A distinctive aspect of his work was that everything was in miniature. The bamboo alter was only a few inches high. Tiny models of things such as ‘gayals’ (wild buffalos) or amber necklaces were offered. The evil spirits were small and not too hard to deceive. When a hen was sacrificed if the beak, entrails, and claws were offered the spirits assumed they were being given the whole hen. Ugly names were given to children to prevent them being taken. It is clear Mizo spirits were not only small but of low intelligence.
There was another, more dignified village priest, called a ‘sadâwt’, on which the chief relied. It was he who undertook the public ceremonies at seedtime and harvest, and it was he who sacrificed that most precious of animals, the fully grown pig, to ensure the safety and prosperity of the village. Sacrifices of all sorts of domestic animals were made to the ancestors and it was at this time that the ‘sadâwt’ intoned words that were remembered from the past but which had gradually lost their meaning.
Mizos did believe in one high God. He had created the world. He was powerful and knew what was happening among men. He was thought to be good and kind but never interfered in people’s daily lives. Their favourite name for him was ‘Pathian’, the word later adopted by Christians for God. There were also other high beings such as ‘Lasi’, ‘Vanchung Nula’, ‘Khuana’, ‘Pu Vana’, and so on. ‘Pathian’ and these other beings were never worshipped, nor were sacrifices offered to them.
Following the rhythm of the agricultural year there were three festivals annually. Though not strictly religious there were many taboos to be observed. ‘Zu’ (rice beer) always figured largely in these events. ‘Pâwl Kût’ was held in December after harvesting was complete. ‘Chapchâr Kût’ was held every spring when a new hillside had to be cleared for sowing. ‘Mim Kût’, in September was the third of the great festivals and was for mourning the dead.
In his book ‘The Lushei-Kuki Clans’, J. Shakespear gives one of the first written accounts of Mizo belief in life after death at a time before a single Mizo had been converted:
“The Lushais believe in life after death. They picture a place exactly like this one, and probably inside the ground, where the dead are supposed to live again. They also picture a place of rest, the Paradise, where those who have performed some heroic deeds and other things will live. The hope of this rest has a great influence in the life of the Lushais.”
Tea for ‘Zu’.
The lives of the Mizos must have been harsh and monotonous and the drinking of ‘zu’ and the seasonal celebrations gave some relief. But drinking ‘zu’ was a problem for the new Christians as total abstinence was demanded of new converts. There was no milk at all in an average village. Even water was scarce. It was providential that tea was beginning to be easily available at this time coming, ironically enough, from the very areas the Mizos had once plundered. The early missionaries ensured tea was regularly sent up from the Plains.
(1). John Meirion Lloyd ‘Pu Lloyda’, and his wife Joan, arrived in Mizoram in 1944. He was Headmaster of the first Mizo High School, Principal of the Aizawl Theological College and translated the Mizo Old Testament until it was completed in 1955. He left Mizoram in 1964 and retired to Prestatyn, North Wales. He died in Prestatyn on 30th September 1998.
(2). See: Mizoram in Wikipedia.
(3). The Chakmas.
‘On 1st April 1900, the South and North Lushai Hills (then part of the Chittagong Hill Tracts) were merged to form a district of Assam province with headquarters at Aizawl. Lushai hills are now the present day Mizoram state of India. Due to revision of boundaries, the Chakma chief had to forego some of his lands as also the subjects.’ (‘Chakmas’, Wikipedia)
The Chakmas are traditionally Buddhists and, unlike the Mizos, had their own written language which uses a script almost identical to the Khmer character of Cambodia. They have their own culture, folklore, literature and traditions.
The Lushai Hills had been credited by the British as belonging to the Chakma Raja by a proclamation drawn up in 1763. This stated that the territory of the Raja included ‘All the hills from the Feni River to the Sangoo and from Nizampur Road in Chittagong to the hills of Kooki Raja’.
Today the Chakmas are the largest minority in Mizoram and the dominant tribe in the Chittagong Hill Tracts area of Bangladesh.
(4). A description of the Cachar tea gardens appeared in ‘The Times’ on 26th August 1871.
‘A very few years ago Cachar was a jungle occupied by a few native squatters and a host of wild beasts. Now it has no fewer than 122 tea gardens which last year yielded an aggregate of no less than 42 million pounds of tea and extended over an area of 24,000 acres. The value of the gardens would be under-estimated at a million and a half stirling; the local expenditure is certainly not less than 200,000 pounds sterling and about 27,000 coolies in all are employed in the tea gardens’.
Rev. J Meirion Lloyd ‘Zohmangaihi Pa’, ‘History of the Church in Mizoram’, 1991, Page 365.
(5). An account of the raid appeared in ‘The Times’ on 3rd April 1871.
‘I have just now, at nearly mealtime, received an account of the Looshai raid. The writer is Mr. Bagshaw, a planter. After stating that the first appearance of the Looshais was on 23rd January and that the inhabitants fled in every direction, he says, “exactly at 12 o’clock on the same day, the Looshais made their attack on Alexandrapore and Cuttee Cherra, about 8 miles in a direct line south of the Cachar village. The attack on Alexandrapore was by a few minutes the earlier. A small party stole up the hill behind the bungalow from a ravine leading from the high range. Messrs. Sellar and Winchester were in the bungalow and a number of women were plucking the leaves on the tulah (hill). They all ran for their lives. Mr. Sellar and those who were first just escaping the main body of Looshais who had come around the foot of the tulah. Mr. Winchester, who was carrying a little girl, was caught by this party. They cut him down with their dhows, nearly dividing his head in two. They afterwards shot him through the body, but did not scalp him.
‘The child was carried away. About 14 bodies have since been found... we are very anxious to learn what had happened at Alexandrapore. Mr. Cooke volunteered to go over with a small party and see. He found the place abandoned, most of the buildings burnt, and Mr. Winchester’s body lying on the road. On Mr. Cooke’s return I sent over a stronger party, with a charpoy and they brought the body over... we then found the bodies of several coolies, besides four or five people who were desperately wounded. The people killed were almost all sick or infirm. In almost all the cases they had been killed by a blow on the temple from a dhow (a sort of billhook, used for fighting and other purposes). Most of them had spear wounds through the body. One little girl had her stomach ripped open. None of them had been scalped.
‘...after setting fire to most of the remaining buildings and spearing all the ponies, cattle, and even goats, and a cat, they went off with their prisoners to the jungle. According to the statement of the Alexandrapore coolie woman who afterwards escaped, they took away, besides Mr. Winchester’s child, 14 or 15 people of the Alexadrapore coolies, and three from Cuttee Cherra. Of these, before we escaped, they put to death 5, either as sacrifices, or on account of their lagging behind on the road. They took great care of the little girl, carrying her all the way, and feeding her on eggs and a preparation of rice and treacle cooked in oil.
‘...in the afternoon Mr. Winchester’s body was buried... It seems during the second attack on Cuttee Cherra, 3 Looshais were wounded, and that, after being carried two days march in the jungle, they died. Their friends then cut off their heads to prevent identification, and threw the bodies down one side of the hill, and the heads down the other... among other things they picked up Mr. Winchester’s Bible and the torn pieces of a hundred rupees note. At three points on the road they found the bodies of men tied to trees; in two cases the heads had been removed, but in the third the head had been cut off and placed between the feet... Mr. Winchester’s little daughter had not yet been recovered, but I am told their is strong hope of her being so.’
Rev. J Meirion Lloyd ‘Zohmangaihi Pa’, ‘History of the Church in Mizoram’, 1991, Page 363/4.
(6). An account of the rescue of Mary Winchester ‘Zoluti’ appeared in ‘The Times’ on 26th February 1872.
‘... the best indication that the enemy are beginning to feel the pressure is their giving up the little girl Winchester, daughter of the murdered planter. The child had, at the date of the last telegraph, arrived at General Brownlow’s camp, and would be sent to Chittagong, where she would remain in the charge of the Commission till instructions were received respecting her... to his contingent have come in 56 men, 52 women, and 96 children, prisoners escaped from the Looshai; some of them have been in captivity more than thirty years, and have found freedom in the advance of our Looshai expedition’.
Rev. J Meirion Lloyd ‘Zohmangaihi Pa’, ‘History of the Church in Mizoram’, 1991, Page 365.
(7). General Brownlow describes the Lushais and the treatment of Mary Winchester ‘Zoluti’ in his report.
‘The Looshais or Kookies, for the former term, properly speaking applies only to the family from which the chiefs of all the so called tribes are descended, appear to me, in spite of their misdeeds, very far removed from the savages they are supposed to be. They live in comfortable houses on high healthy ranges. their mode of cultivation yields the most abundant and certain crops. They are surrounded by pigs and poultry, goats, gyals (a domesticated bison). They fish and shoot and brew both beer and whiskey. Their domestic and tribal arrangements appear most happy, and altogether the condition contrasts very favourably with that of many of our own subject races; so much so that I am not surprised to hear that a majority of their captives, whom they treat as their own people, would look upon a return to civilisation as a doubtful boon. The men are of middle-height, well limbed and fair, with the Indo-Chinese type of face... Mary Winchester is described as a very pretty girl of six or seven years of age, with hazel eyes and good features. She talks nothing but Kookie, smokes a pipe and orders about the Looshais with an air of authority, which shows she has not been ill treated’.
Rev. J Meirion Lloyd ‘Zohmangaihi Pa’, ‘History of the Church in Mizoram’, 1991, Page 366.