Mizo religion, culture, beliefs, songs, oral literature
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'Patriarchy and Christianity in the Mizo Church: A Feminist Critique' (excerpted and condensed from)
By Lalrinawmi Ralte Lalrinawmi Ralte/ www.womenutc.com
With additional inputs from MizoStory
The Mizo people once believed in an indigenous religion, but in 1894 Christianity was brought to Mizoram by the Welsh Presbyterian church. Today, [almost] one hundred percent of the Mizo population is Christian.
The English term "religion" is translated Sakhua in Mizo. Sakhua is a combination of the two syllables Sa and Khua. There are different opinions about whether Sakhua is a separate syllable or one word.
KHUA: Khua means "divine" and is derived from the word Khuanu. Khua is divinity in relation to the empowerment of the community. Nu is feminine gender which relates to "mother." Khua is much the same as Sa but of a higher nature because of Khuanu.
SAKHUA: According to Sadawt Lianzika Pachuau, Sakhua is inseparable and is one word. He said that when our ancestors were in trouble and when they were sick, they believed that there were beings who could provide healing and blessing. They named those beings Pathian and Khuanu. They often appealed to them. Our ancestors did their best to gain access to them and to understand them better. Then, the word sakhua was born. Sakhua means those good spirits Pathian and Khuanu who the Mizo believed looked after the people. Mizo also used to say Khuanu related to people in the below-world (this world) and Pathian related to people in the above world (after life).
One of the most prominent pastors in Mizoram, the Rev. Liangkhaia, suggests that the two words were entirely different because the worship style is different. Our ancestors worshipped Sa with a pig, and Khua with a bison. Khua worship was called Chawng. This might be the reason why Rev. Rokhuma could say that Khua is much the same as sa but of a higher order.
A. KHUANU IS THE EMPOWERMENT OF MIZO WOMEN
1. Khuanu shaped Mizo religion
Khuanu was divine and was very important in the traditional belief system of the Mizo but she has almost disappeared now. Some people consider Khuanu to be "tangthawm" in the Mizo society. 'Tangthawm' is a Mizo word meaning something of which we are suspicious and do not trust.
Stirrings of atavistism
The "Young Mizo Association," (a statewide youth organization), had a social gathering one night in the Primary School and sang about Khuanu.
Some church elders said to me that [this is] like "the dog eating its vomit", and "the pig birthing at the mud water."
These sayings may come from the idea that Christianity is better than our old religion. Prior to the arrival of Christianity, the Mizo religion was well on the way to leaving its matriarchal roots behind and moving towards patriarchal religion. A male God Pathian appeared. When the missionaries came and translated the Bible into Mizo, they used the name Pathian as the word for the Christian God. Although Christians claim God has no gender, they still use the male god Pathian for God and symbols like father and king. “
Christianity brings changes
Thus Khuanu disappeared from the divine in Christianity.
In the history of our religion as put forth by Rev. Liangkhaia, it appears that there was an attempt to suppress the presence of Khuanu. Thus Upa Malsawma, a Christian leader, denies the gender of the divine, saying "When we said Khuanu we did not mean the feminine divine. Likewise when we said Pathian we did not mean the masculine divine either." Upa Malsawma continues to say, "I do not deny that the root of Mizo religion came from Khuanu, but it is not confined to the feminine divine only, but to masculine and neuter aspects as well."
However, from the language construction and the way Khuanu was addressed, it was very clear to me that Khuanu was feminine. The reason is that the word Khua means 'protector' and nu means 'mother.' Hence, Khuanu meant the protector mother. It was purely feminine.
H.Thangkhuma and Mr. Zadala Hrahsel believe Khuanu was a protector. They signify Khuanu with the feminine gender. The same authors highlight how the people prayed to Khuanu before they went out hunting and requested Khuanu to bless them.
Khuanu in Mizo songs
There are also a number of ways Mizo song composers acknowledged the existence of Khuanu in our lives.
First of all, Khuanu is the creator of the universe. Khuanu represents the earth. Khuanu is the mother earth. Even elements in nature are sometimes referred to in feminine terms, as when some people address the moon and stars as mother. Mr. Rokunga, a Mizo song writer, affirms that Khuanu is the queen of the universe. In order to acknowledge the glory of Khuanu, Mr. Rokunga invites people to look at the stars in the sky. Each star goes its own way with a quietness and a happiness that confirms Khuanu's presence and empowerment. Evidence of Khuanu's presence is also clear in bad situations, for example when there is an orphan child in the village.
If the mother dies, Mizo worry very much about the child's future. In Mizo society, fathers do not seem to take care of their children. Being without a mother is like being without life. When all hopes is gone for the orphan child, the Mizo hope Khuanu will embrace that child and he/she will survive. The orphans who need most help are comforted and guided by Khuanu. Khuanu is the only hope for the hopeless, the only life for the lifeless. In the song that follows,
Mr. Rokunga requests the laborers in the harvest field to harvest enough to include the small ones: for Khuanu will multiply the food for the orphans. There will be sufficient food for the orphans because Khuanu is symbolically the primordial mother of every child born into the physical world. As such, she must not be forgotten.
She deserves periodic offerings or even sacrifices, especially when the baby is newly born, when it is without a mother. It is repeatedly mentioned that a baby without a mother is in a terrible situation from tears and crying, hungery and without love. The orphan baby's life is desperate, hopeless without a mother's milk especially at night. The night is long and to spend a night with an orphan baby is called the 'dark night.' There is only one hope for the orphan and that is Khuanu. Khuanu carries, nurses, heals, comforts, and clothes her human child. Because of Khuanu's character, the orphan will be able to sleep peacefully and restfully.
One of the customs of Mizo community life is for people to come out from one's house after dinner and make a fire. Children sing their own song and play on their own. Adults chat by the fire, enjoying the light of the moon and stars. The moon moves towards the western horizon. Mr. Rokunga declares that movements of the stars and moon exalt Khuanu, their creator.
The supreme power of Khuanu is expressed through miracles. When the first school was built for young boys and girls in Mizoram, it was the wish of everyone to seeit succeed. At the same time there was a fear that strong winds, etc. might destroy the school because of its location on top of a hill. K. Saibela invited Khuanu to protect the school from any kind of destruction, and to empower the school and enable its pupils to grow through their studies for the country as well as for God.Mr. L. Keivom blessed the Mizo people in Mizoram in the name of Khuanu in order that their life might be empowered and their dependence upon Khuanu increased. Mr. Keivom also related how at one time he was desperately in need of a Vanlalruat's (singers) cassette, and that this was given to him by Khuanu.
Our great grandparents praised Khuanu for her good deeds. They did not see any negative side to Khuanu. All their feelings toward her are warm and positive.
The reason we continue to believe in Khuanu is because of the nature of her work as a mother who nurtures the people and who takes care of the people.in the Mizo religious tradition, Khuanu exemplifies compassion, balance, knowledge, harmony, power, and ultimate spiritual strength. Khuanu is the nurturing divine feminine being who brings a prosperous life to the people, healing them from their pain and suffering and protecting them from the fear of evil spirits who could harm them or cause them illness.
2. Resistance to Khuanu
Before Christianity's arrival, the Mizo were not bothered by the sex [gender] of the supreme beings as some people are today. But now some people deny there ever was a feminine divinity in the Mizo religion. Fanai Hrangkhuma says that Khuanu is a poetical word. Ms. Vanlaltlani also believes for example, that Khuanu was the poetical word for Pathian. She believes that Khuanu was the wife of Pathian, and the manifestation of Pathian. Hrangkhuma and Vanlaltlani deny Khuanu's divinity, but they do not deny the attributes of Khuanu.
Hrangkhuma denies the origin of the Mizo Sakhua and its connection with Khuanu. Hrangkhuma identifies Khuanu with Pathian, making Khuanu a non-person. This is unfair for Khuanu. There seems to be no definite reason why the title Khuanu is still popular among Mizo Christians. Perhaps it is so because it signifies the motherly nature of deity, taking care of the village and the villagers. Besides, the word Khuanu sounds very poetic and therefore is used often in poems.
Most Mizo theologians cannot understand the function of the feminine divine because their minds are fixed on the Christian understanding of God as the Father. They come from a patriarchal culture where a woman's role was not much appreciated; hence they have a hard time understanding women's importance. If they would widen their perspective and imagination, they would understand more easily the way the idea of the feminine divine developed in Mizo religious belief.
The prophetess is called Zawlneinu in Mizo. "Zawl" means relation, 'nei' means a being or a person who takes initiative in a relationships, 'nu' means female or mother. The role of the prophetess was neither inherited nor by appointment, but was affirmed by the divine. The prophetess still maintained her dignity as a woman.
It is interesting to note that in the Mizo traditional religion, there were no male prophets. Prophetesses roles were specifically for women ministry. In some areas, her roles seemed to overlap with those of the priest. The prophetess' role was mostly related to sacrifice for healing and blessing. The prophetess was related to the divine Supreme Spirits who held the power of blessing and healing. When someone was ill, they believed that huai caused illness and demanded sacrifice. People went to the prophetess to find out the causes of illness and the appropriate rituals to perform. There were also non-animal sacrifice for both healing and blessing.
In the case of animal sacrifice, "the prophetesses would examine the illness of the person, and prescribe what kind of animals to sacrifice, what color, and what parts of the body." The sacrificial animal had to be perfect without any blemish on the body or handicap. That means the animal had to be the best they had.
J. Shakespeare narrated this story about the prophettess in relation to the healing sacrifice: Lianthangi (woman) was a Khuavang-zawl *. There was much sickness in the village. One night Khuavang came to her in her dreams and said, "If each house-owner will make a clay metna and place it outside his or her house the sickness will cease." So they did this and the next day they observed as 'hrilh' (told) and within 20 days everyone was well again.
(a) Sacrifice for healing
Health was as important in the past as it is today for the Mizo. Mizo in the past were nomadic for a long time; they moved from place to place. Whenever they moved their village, they would send some people to explore the new location. They performed rituals to discover a good location. They looked for a location which was healthy with enough fresh air and water. They always settled the hillside because they could get better air there and it was healthy.
The Mizo had their own natural medicines which seemed to be effective. Prophetesses were the ones who did that natural healing. I will later describe how the prophetess was replaced by ‘Bible Women’ in Christianity.
Sacrifice was expensive, and not everyone could afford it especially the sacrifice of big animals. So, the prophetess seemed to prescribe animal sacrifice based on the economy of the family. This was not noticed by the public, but it was justice done by the prophetess to the community. Interestingly, there were also non-animal offerings of food and clothes. Natural medicine was very popular as well.
The important part of killing the animal and using it to offer sacrifice was its blood. For Mizo, blood was very powerful as blood was a symbol of healing. So it was said that there was no healing without blood. This idea was very clear when Upa Malsawma said that even when they offered animal sacrifice, they did not pay much attention to the meat/flesh of the animal. Even when they offered the meat for sacrifice they never offered the good parts of the body to the Huais (e.g. if the chicken was offered, they would offer the liver, the gizzard, and the wing), because the blood was more than enough.
C. WISDOM TRADITION
Mizo wisdom was based on advice. When a person needed advice for any situation, he/she would go to his/her most trusted advisor to ask for help. These people were called "wise people." Wise people were the living symbols of the divine. Women were often known as the 'wise people.'
1. Women's wisdom in Mizo tales
My grandmother Lalluaii told me one Mizo tale. There were two brothers in a village. The elder brother was Liandova, and the younger brother was Tuaisiala. Nearby there lived a rich king named Lersia. One day Lersia visited Liandova and Tuaisiala's village. He dressed like a poor man wearing torn and dirty clothing in order to learn how the village people treated visitors. He sat in the middle of the village near the community fire place. It was late in the evening and at first no one invited him to stay in their house. The two brothers felt sympathy for Lersia and humbly invited him to stay with them in their simple abode. They had little to eat that evening but there was a fire to warm them up.
The king was pleased to have at least one invitation from that village. He left the village the next day. Later on, king Lersia invited Liandova and Tuaisiala to visit him. When they visited the king, he offered them a choice of the best among his animals. Since the king had so many cows, oxen, sheep, goats and bison, Liandova did not know which one: he did not know which one to choose. So Liandova went to an elderly woman who was known for her wisdom to ask for advice. The elderly woman advised him to choose the least attractive bison.
The king released his animals from the cabin one by one and asked Liandova and Tuaisiala to select the one they wanted best. Tuaisiala was very impatient and angry with his brother when he passed on many of the good animals, but Liandova was patiently waiting for the right bison, following the advice of the elderly woman. At last, when the ugliest and smallest bison came, Liandova caught her with his rope. It was not as big and attractive as the others and it did not look productive. But Liandova wanted to accept the advice of the wise woman because of her reputation for giving successful advice. Tuaisiala, however, was very unhappy with the animal because he had not heard about the woman's wisdom.
Soon after that, the bison gave birth to a lot of babies. Having animals was one of the Mizo criteria for wealth because the poor people could not afford to have animals. The two orphan boys thus became very rich. The people in the village who had never respected them before now tried to be their friends. Because Liandova did according to the old woman's advice, he and Tuaisiala became very rich.
Another version of this tale tells us that once Keichala told Lalruanga to pluck Keisaithi, which was a bead to be used in a necklace commonly worn by Mizo women. Mizo woman's wealth depended on how many Keisialthi beads they had. Keichala promised to give Lalruanga one branch of the bead tree. Lalruanga went to the old woman, who told him to pick the best branch, and that is how Lalruanga became rich.
The months and seasons
The second group of tales I want to relate have to do with the calendar. The Mizo had no idea of the calendar, but depended upon the movement of the sun during the day to tell time. They told their time by the sun and had names for the times different activities were done. If it was a cloudy day, it was be very difficult to tell the time.
Seasons were divided according to the harvest. My grandmother told me that there was a wise woman in the village. She was known by her son's name. That was a way of showing respect for the woman. I asked my grandmother why she was known by her son's name. She told me that a mother and a father were often known by their first born child's name, no matter what the sex might be. Hence that woman was called Lianmanganu, that means "Lianmanga's mother."
Lianmanganu was the only one who knew the longest day of the year which was June 22. On that day Lianmanganu clearly had all her friends to work in her rice field
Therefore, she was considered wise, and was highly respected by the people.
This woman was presumably middle-aged because she was still working in her rice field. It was not known whether she had a husband because her husband was not mentioned in the story.
We can see the egalitarianism of Mizo society from those other areas where women status was based on bad sayings. From this story, we see traditional Mizo community life in the past. Community life was a "Community of Caring." An individual was inseparable from the community. To survive people had to depend on one another. Therefore, when one person was blessed, the whole community was blessed. This community blessing was called Kawngpui sial.
Finally, there is a third Mizo tale about women's wisdom. Mr. P.S. Dahrawka tells a story of one young lady who was known for her wisdom. Her father and her uncle (her father's elder brother) had a conflict regarding inheritance. The chief was going to make a decision based on their answers to three questions. The questions were:
(a) What is the strongest thing in the world?
(b) What is the fattest thing in the world?
(c) What is the most precious thing in the world?
The younger brother's daughter's name was Chemteii. Chemteii gave her father the answers to the three questions.*
- That strongest thing in the world is "mind." Second, the fattiest thing in the world is the "world." Even all the human beings and the natures enjoyed the richness of the earth, but could not suck up its fat. There is always plenty for people, animals and nature. Third, the most precious thing in the world is "sleeping" because while sleeping we do not envy anyone and feel happy.
The chief was impressed by the answers and asked Chemteii's father "Who gave you those answers?" The father said, "My daughter Chemteii." Then he was successful in becoming his parents' heir because of his daughter's wisdom. Later on, the king married Chemteii.
From the story of the young girl, we can see that women's wisdom was not limited to elderly women, only instead it also extended to younger girls. This story contradicts the old sayings: "The fruits of taitaw lying on the ground and a marriageable young girl can be picked up by any one who comes first." It contradicts this saying because to be a king's wife was very powerful, dignified position.
2. Composers of songs
Mizo are a sentimental, singing people. We have many songs for different occasions. Even in Christianity, our songs are multifarious.
In the past, the song composers were more powerful than they are today in Mizo life. Their wisdom was acknowledged, and they were highly respected by the villagers. They were very powerful because villagers looked to them for wisdom. Their songs were very important because they reflected the social life. The song composers were not only famous for their songs, but also for their tunes. In addition, the songs were often named after their composers.
For example, Pi Hmuaki zai (Ms. Hmuaki's song, or a song composed by Pi Hmuaki). The tunes varied from composer to composer. Interestingly enough, the most popular song composers in the past were women such as Aikhiangi, Darlenglehi, Darpawngi, Pi Hmuaki, Hrangchhawni, Laltheri, Lianchhiari, Lianrikhumi, Thailungi, Saikuti.
Aikhiangi was remembered for her beauty. She was a pretty woman and many young boys liked her. Thailungi was an orphan girl. She was sold by her step mother to the neighbouring merchants in exchange for goods. Pi Hmuaki was a sentimental, good woman. Her songs were liked by the people. Her songs reflected her sentimental and romantic life.
But then the chief and the people started hating her. Since, the chief and the ruling people hated her so much that they buried her alive. She was buried because of jealousy. Song composers were powerful, and a lot of people envied her for that. She was innocent and a good woman.
Laltheri was remembered for her songs of bliss and happiness. The people of the village that she co-ruled with her husband were happy people. Lianchhiari was known for her love of a man whom she had planned to marry. Their plan had been treacherously aborted. But their marriages to others did not prevent them from maintaining their love for one other. Lianchhiari's songs tell of her undying love. Saikuti's many songs about the exploits of warriors are immensely popular. She was well known for her ability to compose a song on any theme at any time.
Darpawngi is known for her many songs about love. She also wrote about the jealousy and frustration that she felt as a result of the unfaithfulness of her lovers, and the loss of her children and friends. These Mizo women song composers clearly had high social status in their own times. It was very difficult for them to be so wise and powerful. They were envied by the chiefs and the local male leaders. When the chief decided to kill them, the public seemed not to care. This was especially true in Pi Hmuaki's case. The community did not hate her, but no one dared to say anything against the chief.
Worship of the ‘ramhuai’ (evil spirits)
One night in 1950 Pu Rosema, one of the three original elders ordained in 1910, 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.
Three festivals annually
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.
Life after death
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.”
Lake Rih Dil
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