A Path Less Travelled
Musings in Mizoram
During my high school years spent at the residential (Baptist) Carmel Residential School in Tezpur, Assam, I had the opportunity to make friends with many boarders who hailed from the state of Mizoram. Since quality education still eluded many in the state of Mizoram, these chinky-eyed Mizos would come in droves to get themselves educated at the renowned Carmel Residential School, which was a name to reckon with in the educational landscape of North East India.
The typical Mizo youth loves Western music and Rock bands like Aerosmith, U2, AC/DC, Metallica, Guns N' Roses and Bon Jovi are household names in Mizoram. They are predominantly Christians and fun loving. During our Christmas holidays, instead of heading home, I would pack my rucksack and move to Aizwal, the capital of Mizoram with my Mizo friends.
The scenic charm of the Mizo hills, their love of music, warm and friendly attitude and the elegant modern churches has been forever etched in my memory. Even after a decade of working as a Travel Writer and having traveled extensively all over India and abroad, those days of sheer tranquility in the Mizo hills with the guitar for company and endless partying still hypnotizes me.
North East India is a region that has witnessed major changes in the years after the Second World War. During this period, North East India watchers have always viewed this region as a ‘troubled’ and afflicted with one ‘crisis’ or the other. This crisis syndrome was what has led many prospective tourists to give this region a bye! Bye!
For a number of reasons India has always been touchy about the North East and making a visit to the North East is still a tricky proposition for many in mainland India. But let me reassure you from my own personal experience of being a resident of North East, I can convincingly state that Mizoram is one of the most peaceful state not only in the North East but India as whole.
The breathtakingly beautiful state of Mizoram is sort of a finger like extension in the extreme Southeast of India and pokes down between Burma and Bangladesh. In the local parlance the name “Mizoram” means the land of the hill people, “Mizo” for man and “Ram” for land.
In spite of its mesmerizing beauty, Mizoram is the least visited part of India primarily due to inadequate exposure in the media and lack of proper connectivity. From the commercial point of view, Mizoram has to do a lot of catching up before it can even compete with mainland India in terms of tourist traffic.
Prior to independence the state of Mizoram was a part of the undivided Assam Province. The state was beset with the problem of insurgency for more than two decades. The Mizos are courageous and adventurous lot, singularly free and independent, and scornful of any control. In the days of yore, they would even go to the extent of headhunting to seek revenge when fearing that they were being exploited.
The violent insurgency movement under the leadership of Laldenga’s Mizo National Front culminated peacefully with the signing of the “Mizoram Accord” in June 30th, 1986 with the government of India. While the government undertook steps for the resettlement and rehabilitation of the underground MNF personnel, the MNF in turn took the necessary steps to end all underground activities.
The peace loving people of Mizoram have for sometime now been exposed to complex, modern civilization. Head hunters were exposed to writing and debate, the hill tribes were initiated into the comforts of tropical and woolen garments, nomadic tribes who had not even handled a bullock cart were trained to drive jeeps and trucks, the practitioners of “Slash-and-Burn” or “Jhum Cultivation” were introduced to permanent cultivation, high-yielding crops and irrigation. And all these in one or two generations, which has resulted in the average Mizo being well off.
A visit to a neighboring village on the outskirts of Aizwal city will reveal that land, whether it be a homestead, which is the habitat of the family or land for cultivation, constitutes the lifeblood of the Mizo community, as much in Christian as in non-Christian villages. Particular locations are considered to be the dwelling place of spirits, good and evil, that have to be periodically placated. For the average Mizo, every corner of his home has its associations. The proverbial attachment of a Mizo to his land is a complex web of relationships, which is not only economic but also has something to do with tradition, family ties, religion and so on.
The first time visitor to any Mizoram village will be completely taken aback with the Mizo people’s tradition of worshipping spirits, both ancestor spirits as well as the deities of the village. The Mizos believe that the destiny of the universe is in the hands of one god – “Khazangpa”. He lives in the sky, punishes evildoers and gives handsome rewards for good deeds.
Mizoram is predominantly a Christian state. The impact of Christian missionaries on the Mizo population is spectacular. They have undergone profound changes as a result of the spread of Christian ideals among them. Christianity taught them the value of peace, tolerance and co-existence. The age-old practice of head-hunting and internecine feuds are now a thing of the past. Christian ideals of universal brotherhood and modern education, as well as the availability of the Bible in the local language brought the Mizo tribes out of seclusion and isolation. The familiarization of Mizo people with new ideals, coupled with the subsequent independence and democratization of the polity, have taken them into the modern world, with all its strengths and dangers.
If one is adventurous enough and wants to venture to the outskirts of Aizwal city and into the hilly terrain where many Mizo villages dot the landscape, one can still find traces of “Jhum Cultivation” or “Slash-and-Burn Cultivation.” The jungles are set on fire for new sites and as a result of shifting cultivation, the areas of “Jhuming” are getting reduced. In fact Jhuming is a time-honored tradition in Mizoram as it is with the other neighboring states of the North East.
In the interiors of Mizoram, Mizo tribes have been cutting down forests to make way for agriculture and when they find it difficult to dispose of the wood after the trees have been cut down, they resort to the quicker, more expedient way of setting fire to them and then clearing the debris for fresh cultivation.
The harmful effects of Jhuming is known to all, especially large-scale soil erosion. In spite of the efforts of the Central Ministry of Agriculture to control Jhuming by way of contour bonding, terracing and protective afforestation, the problem still remains. The dynamics of environmental destruction have assumed a global dimension in recent decades and Mizoram is no exception. The need of the hour is the deft and immediate handling of its fragile eco-system.
Most visitors to Mizoram try to coincide their visit to Mizoram particularly during the festival season. Check out with the Department of Tourism with regard to the exact festival dates. Not surprisingly, a majority of the Mizo festivals are in some way or the other connected to agriculture. Their festivals are conspicuous by melodious music and dance.
Of special importance is the festival of Chapchar Kut, which is a riot of colors that celebrates the advent of spring and the successful clearing of the “Jhum” debris. Often, you will come across a few Western tourists who, unable to hold their instincts join in the celebrations much to the delight of the festival crowd.
The festival of Mim Kut and Pawl Kut, too are very popular with the tourists as well as the general public. While the former is dedicated to the harvesting of Maize, the later is a post harvest festival that takes place between December-January.
The folk dances of the Mizo people are very definite expressions of the varied forms of traditions as rooted in their life and social behaviour. But, increasingly with changes in the social life by way of technological development, the arrival of Internet, variations in environment and change in lifestyles, the folk character of the music and dances are gradually changing.
The folk art forms of the Mizo tribes and other ethnic groups of Mizoram have undergone some stress and strain due to the heavy onslaught of Western music and culture along with the emergence of new age mass entertainment modes like “Rock Shows”. So much so that at any point of time, in the capital city of Aizwal, there would be one concert or the other by local Rock bands that will put to shame their more seasoned counterparts in cities like Mumbai and Delhi.
Most Mizos, who live in remote village hamlets, have to live an uncertain economic life during the time of sowing seeds till the harvesting, due to scarcity of rice. They have to make do with alternative food such as bamboo shoots, tapioca, roots and tubers of various kinds, honey, jackfruit etc.
Although the average Mizo tribe is chiefly dependent on agriculture for subsistence, they try to supplement their food by hunting and fishing as well. For hunting they use spears and for fishing they are known to use hooks, bamboo traps and nets. Many visitors find the Mizo people’s way of storing paddy rather innovative especially designed bamboo baskets; while for husking rice they use indigenously designed mortars and pestles.
One of the best ways to discover the fascinating Mizo countryside is a drive to a remote village. Usually cabs are available on hire at the Aizwal city center, but they charge exorbitantly. But it is worth every penny. The Mizo tribes in the villages live mostly in bamboo huts. Most villages are situated near a rivulet, stream, spring or waterfalls. Some villagers have found an innovative way of supplying piped drinking water to their houses, thanks to their specially designed bamboo pipes.
Marriage among the Mizos has both a religious as well as a social aspect. Marriage brings together not just two individuals, but two families in a network of social obligations. A breach of exogamy, they believe brings disaster to them. It may even entail excommunication and refusal of funeral ceremonies. However, the Mizos from Aizwal city have modern outlook and are not so rigid like their counterparts in the villages.
The capital city Aizwal is the domain of the Christians and there are elegantly designed churches at each and every corner of the city. Evening time is by far the best time to savor the myriad delights of Aizwal city. As dusk descends on the city, the tooling of the church bells resonate the entire city. 6 P.M. is the time when the whole of Aizwal goes to the worshipping mode. The churches are choc-a-bloc with their share of congregation and from a vantage position from a city hillock, one can view the breathtaking panoramic view of a city dotted with millions of lights.
Aizwal is unlike other hill stations. In Darjeeling for instance you have the Mall, the Botanical Gardens, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, the Toy Train, Tiger Hill, Batasia Loop, the Ghum monastery and a surfeit of other must-visit places. But not Aizwal. There is no specific tourist trail here.
To be honest, Aizwal is less commercialized than say for instances of hill-stations like Shimla, Darjeeling etc…when it comes to tourism. And herein lies the charm of this captivating city of North East. The whole town is an invitation to you. You have the liberty of exploring the many facets of this beautiful hill city at your own pace and at your own terms. There are no touters to barge on you and the crowd too is pretty sophisticated and multi-ethnic.
On a typical day in Aizwal, you will find its bazaars bedecked with all kinds of electronic items, gizmos, handicraft items and curios. Most visitors to Aizwal prefer to buy shoes both foreign made and local. They are a craze with the tourists.
You will find the upper class Mizos literally zooming about in their lethal 4 Wheel Drive Scorpios, Tata Safaris and modified bikes blaring all-time-hit Rock numbers from the albums of Metallica and Guns N' Roses in the hip neighborhood of Chanmari, which happens to be the town’s most trendy hangout zone. Chanmari is to Aizwal what the Mall is to Shimla.
The Aizwal city center is dotted with many trendy restaurants. If you have a penchant for Oriental cuisine, Beijing Blue is the best in town. The very best of Korean, Chinese and Japanese cuisine are on offer at this chic but small restaurant. For the cookies and Pizza lovers, Glenary’s is a good choice while for fast food staple, The Zote Bakery is undoubtedly the most happening eating joint of Aizwal. There are fringe restaurants like The Dhaba (Tandoori) and Basilica (Chinese) that are also popular with tourists.
For the avid cultural freak, there is the charming village of Kulikawn where you will come across traditional Mizo women trading in piglets in intricately woven baskets. If you have the energy, you would do well to climb uphill to Chaltlang, which is located at a height of 3,713 feet and is easily the highest point of Aizwal. The view from the top is mesmerizing as you can see the bustling city spread like a well-woven carpet. Nighttime is the best time to be here when the city springs to life.
For the benefit of outstation visitors, the Department of Tourism, Government of Mizoram has set up a fabulous Tourist Village at Berawtlang on a beautiful hillock. They offer decent accommodation but in terms of panoramic natural vistas, the Berawtlang Tourist Village is unmatched. One added attraction of the Berawtlang Tourist Village is the miniature church of Zemabawk, which is conspicuous by its ethnic wooden décor and hundreds of light bulbs that illuminates the church at night, thereby making it look like a church in a fairytale land.
If you are looking for an out-of-the-city experience, a drive to the shimmering Tamdil Lake would be just what the doctor ordered. The 85 Kms. drive through the idyllic hilly countryside is beautiful. Here you have ethnic style cottages and the amenities are barely functional or at best sketchy. However, you can be assured of hygienic food, comfortable bed and linen, clean toilets, breathtaking window views and warm and friendly support staffs who would go that extra mile just to see you smiling. Many tourists prefer to spend a night out at this lakeside cottage (Tamdil Cottage) and enjoy a campfire and bar-be-cue.
The national leaders of India had long envisaged that after Independence the northeast, the colorful corridor between the two great civilizations of India and China, would grow and forge new links between these two countries and also become “an important link between the East and the West” through East Asia. The compulsions of international politics and the inconsistencies that crop up from time to time in the Sino-Indian relationship have perhaps blurred the original vision somewhat. But then, with a determined approach, now that there is an exclusive Ministry of North East Affairs in Delhi, there is always hope.
Traveler’s Fact File:
Getting There: By air, the nearest airport is at Lengpui which an hour’s drive from Aizwal city. It is connected by Alliance Air (a subsidiary of Indian Airlines) to Calcutta. Hired cabs are easily available at Lengpui airport.
The nearest rail station is at Silchar, in the North Cachar Hills, Assam. From Silchar, it is a 6 hours drive to Aizwal covering all of 184 Kms.
By road, the journey is arduous. You take the National Highway 40 from Guwahati to Shillong, the capital of the state of Meghalaya and from their hit the National Highway 44 to Silchar and from Silchar you drive all the way down to Aizwal on the National Highway 54.
Accommodation: The city of Aizwal offers a multiplicity of accommodation options to suit every budget. Here you will not come across the usual 5 star deluxe hotels that are a feature of metropolitan India. The accommodation units are at best sketchy. Apart from the government run Berawtlang Tourist Complex, there are numerous private hotels like Hotel Chief, Hotel Ritz and Hotel Royale all with attached baths, running hot/cold water, in-house restaurant and personalized room service.
For further information contact:
Government of Mizoram,
Tel. +91- 011- 23015951
Permits: Inner Line Permits have to be obtained by both the domestic as well as foreign tourists, which is obtainable from the address mentioned above.