Page 21: Mautam disaster.

The Mautam of 1911/12.

Mizoram suffers periodic famines, some light and some severe. The flowering of the common bamboo or ‘proper bamboo’, as Mizos call it, causes the greatest famine.

This particular species of bamboo only flowers every 48 years. This occurred during 1911, 1961 [and in 2007]. The bamboo flowers, produces its fruit, and withers away. The fruit or seed seem to contain some vitamin which makes the rats which feed on them unusually big and fertile. When the seeds are all consumed the rat population reaches pestilential proportions. They devour everything edible in sight and loose all fear of man. The standing crops are devoured just before harvest. The slender bamboo walls of the traditional Mizo house offers no protection from their voracious appetite. They boldly invade houses, run across the rafters, steal and defile the rice in the rice bin in the corner of the house, and even sink their teeth into the flesh of the unwary as they sleep in bed. The rats also carry infection.

In the years 1911/12 the villagers planted their rice and saw the bamboo blossoming. Most had never seen bamboo flowers before but they sighed and noted the omen. “We are planting what we shall never eat”, they told each other. So it proved, though the rice grew as usual. In fact Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ comments the harvest looked unusually promising. But as the rice grain was about to ripen the rats appeared overnight, as if by magic. The catastrophic harvest compelled villagers to scrabble for jungle roots, delving ever deeper into the jungle as the weeks went on. The survivors lived on this unpalatable diet and on what little rice they could obtain.

While the famine raged many people moved away from their native villages, going as far as to settle over the border in Tripura, Manipur, or Western Burma, thus causing further changes to the social pattern. Considerable numbers died of malnutrition and starvation. It is said that the children were always the last to suffer, and that pagan parents as well as Christian often collapsed in their efforts to find food for their little ones.

Gifts of money came from the Welsh churches in Britain to be distributed by Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ and Fraser. The dining room of Jones’ ‘Zosaphluia’ new bungalow was converted into a store room where he placed stocks of rice he had bought and brought up from the Plains where there was no plague. Silchar and Karimganj were able to give considerable support to the Mizos.

The Government of India set up two relief centres for the distribution of rice. Streams of stricken people were soon travelling great distances to these relief centres. Already weakened by famine they could only cope with light loads. They also found, to their dismay, they also had to pay for the rice. This involved them in heavy debts which took years to repay. Some felt this to be hard and unjust and vowed they would rather starve than incur such debts again.

Christians share food.

Lorrain ‘Pu Buanga’ in South Mizoram asserts that a notable difference between this and previous famines lay in the willingness of Christians to share whatever food they had with their less prosperous brethren, both Christian and non-Christian.

During every famine certain villages, by circumstances, manage to escape the plague of rats better than others, and consequently had more food in reserve. A loop in a nearby river sometimes accounted for this. The lucky villages used to erect stockades to keep out their famine-stricken neighbours as though they were enemies. Some of the hungry in desperation would storm the ramparts and were usually killed in the attempt. But in the famine of 1911/12 great brotherliness and generosity was shown and the non-Christians admitted that this was due to the influence of the Gospel. It made a great impression on them.

The scourge of cholera.

As a consequence of the famine cholera proved a scourge, and terrified the villagers. Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ describes an incident where a man went to fetch rice from 35 miles from his own village. On his return he developed cholera. The sick man was dragged outside the village before he was dead and was buried there. His relations went to their ‘jhum’ hut in the fields and those who lived in the dead man’s street fled the village in all directions, which made the situation worse. Cholera was raging in Aizawl so they were told not to go there. Within three days they returned to their houses. Another man was taken ill and the chief gave orders that no one was to run away. All the people planted green branches in front of their houses to keep away the spirit of disease. His narrative captures the horror felt by people who had no medical help or advice, stricken by famine, and trapped by cholera.


(1). Mautam / Thingtam famines.

After the bamboo flowers it produces an abundance of fruit which causes rodent feeding frenzies. The Mautam / Thingtam always leads to dramatic increases in local rat populations as well as swarms of insects which consume crops and food stocks.

The first Thingtam famine is known to have occurred in 1739 and was followed by a Mautam famine in 1769.

See: Wikipedia.

Mautam in 1862

Thingtam in 1881

Mautam in 1911

Thingtam in 1929

Mautam in 1959

Thingtam in 1959

Mautam in 2007

Thingtam in 2025

See: Google Books

Mizoram, and the Indian and Myanmar states surrounding it, suffer a predictable natural disaster every 48 years called ‘Mautam’, and a less serious disaster some 30 years later called ‘Thingtam’, which few in the West can comprehend. They cause famine, disease and death. Most Mizos will have experienced a Mautam or a Thingtam and few will have been untouched by it. Some preparations can be made to ease the suffering but nothing can be done to prevent either famine.

A Mautam is caused by the synchronous flowering of a common species of bamboo whose Latin name is ‘Meloccana baccifera’ (in Mizo ‘Mautak’) about every 48 years. A Thingtam is caused by the synchronous flowering of the slightly rarer species of bamboo whose Latin name is ‘Bambusa Tulsa’ (in Mizo ‘Rawthing’) about every 48 years. A Thingtam follows a Mautam some 30 years later. There is then a gap of 18 years before the next Mautam. (1) (Source: Wikipedia.)

Ronald Ellis, 2010.