Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Glimpses of Mizo Literature - RL Thanzawna

Ninety one years ago, not a single Mizo could read or write for the Mizo alphabet as we know it today, was only codified by the pioneer missionaries, Rev FJ Savidge and Rev JH Lorrain who landed in a small hamlet near Sairang by the banks of the river Tlawng in Mizoram in the chilly winter of 1894. If the true meaning of literature is to be taken literally, it may perhaps be a little presumptuous to claim the existence of any Mizo literature prior to that date.

Oral Literature
If we remember, however, that long before man wrote down his thoughts and emotions, he expresses them in songs. Untouched by learned influences from without, these songs are crystallized into the living language of the people – folksongs and folk stories were born out of such full and spontaneous expression which were then orally passed on from generation to generation. As we follow history of any literature through all its transformations, we are brought into direct and living contact with the motive forces of the inner life of each successive generation, and learn at first hand how it looked at life and how it thought about it, what were the things in which it was most willing to be amused, by what passions it was most deeply stirred, by what standard of conduct and of taste it was governed, and what types of characters it deemed worthy of its admiration.

Mizo Literature begins with the history of the people
Mizo literature, we would therefore, claim did not begin with the day when the Duhlian dialect we now call the Mizo language was reduced into writing in the Roman script but in fact, started with the history of the Mizo people. Anything that, for good or evil, has entered into the making of Mizo society has also entered into the texture of Mizo literature – whether it was the travails of their migration, their fierce battles and ambuscades or the sweat and toils of raising their crops, their festivals and folk dances, all go to their general life, belief and aspirations which were profoundly imprinted in their literature.

What we now call Mizo literature consists not only of the creation of literate writers or translations of the Bible and other western literature but also of the collection of those folk songs and folk stories which go under the anonymous name of the people’s creation.

Beginning of Written Literature
Thanks to the hard work of the pioneering missionaries, their earlier converts and to subsequent generations, no less, Mizo literature has now gained, within a span of less than a century, a status which is considered fit to be included in the curriculum right up to the university degree courses. The tales told by grandmas to the children, war chants and love songs provided the necessary ingredients to the literature. All these not only generate existence of Mizo literature but also inspire and promote its development.

Earlier Literature
The earliest Mizo songs are those which can be called nursery songs or cradle songs, most of which are apparently nonsensical repetitive mnemonic rhymes but on closer look they reveal the imprint of the simple milieu of yesteryears of Mizo society. Perhaps the earliest Mizo songs we know of are the following –

“Ur ur tak kai, ur ur tak kai
Hnung hnung tak kai, hnung hnung tak kai”
“Khawmhma pal a er an ti,
A duh duhin er rawh se”
Mothers carrying their babies on their backs would put their darlings to sleep with a lullaby like this –

“A khiah khian lungpui a lo lum dawn e,
Ka nauvi kha a del hang e, suan rawh u”

(High up from the hill is a rock rolling down
Remove my little darling, lest the rock will crush him)

“A khiah khian rammu an kal dial dial e,
Ka nauvi pa tel ve maw, ral that ve maw?”

(Yonder o’er there go the warriors
Does my darling’s dad join there, did he too kill an enemy?”)

Influence of Neighbouring Communities and Christianity
Cradle songs such as these connote the primitive – animistic belief and their headhunting proclivities and their admiration for those who vanquished their enemies. In course of their migration towards the west from Central Asia, the Mizos established a big settled village in the fertile valley of Chindwin in Burma where they tarried for a considerable time until they were forced by a stronger tribe, such as the Chins, to move westwards to present Mizoram. Their stay in this valley of Run (a tributary of Chindwin) was marked by a number of songs and interesting tales. Their songs and stories wer indicative of their intercourse with other communities. Many of their songs talk of the marauding Chins who ransacked their villages, held their daughters to ransom, and took the men as captives while most of their war chants or Hlado as they were called, are interspersed with Chin dialect. Some Mizo tales like Khena leh Rama, Rairahtea leh Chhawnabawrahza, Mauruangi and many others smack of a faint acquaintance with Hindu mythology or the existence of some powerful Raja somewhere. It is presumed that such knowledge was gained by them through their contacts with the people of Cachar, tripura, Manipur or Chittagong areas. What is evident, however, is that some version of Hindu mythologies had been passed on to the forefathers of the Mizos long before Christianity made its entry into their society. Having first learnt something about the tenets of Hinduism, it is not known why not a single Mizo has embraced that religion. This can be an interesting subject for research.

The history of the literature of the Mizos is, truly, the history of the Mizos. For reasons unexplainable by any glib interpretation, Mizos embraced the Christian en masse; since 1894 till now, within such a short time almost a hundred percent claim to be Christians. Since this date, ie 1894, Mizo history is an entirely new chapter.

How Mizo Script was Formulated
Mizo language has no script of its own. Credit for reducing it into writing in the Roman script has been given to the pioneer missionaries. Their efforts were, however, preceded by commendable exercises of enterprising officers like Lt. Col. Thomas Herbert Lewin (affectionately called Thangliana by the Mizos – a corruption of Tom Lewin) who wrote Progressive Colloquial Exercise in the Lushai Dialect in 1874. Dr Brojo Nath Saha, a civil medical officer of Chittagong, also published a book called Grammar of the Lushai Language. Yet another British officer called C.A. Soppitt had compiled Rangkhol-Kuki-Lushai Grammar way back in 1885. All these efforts paved the way to the more systematic and organized efforts of the missionaries.

First Book Published
Having taught the art of writing and reading to the Mizos, one of the first things the missionaries did was produce some literature to read. Portions of the Bible particularly the Gospels, were translated into Mizo – first came the Mizo version of Luke (1896), then John (1898), then the Acts of the Apostles (1899). Then came the first Mizo Primer – Mizo Zirtir Bu (1903). The Mizo version of the Bible remains the standard for Mizo literature today.

Original Works of Mizo Poets
Following publication of the Mizo Bible, a number of books on religious matters including translations of Christian hymns were published which were avidly learned by the new literates. Their thirst for more literature to read was nursed with the publication of the Mizo version of the Pilgrim’s Progress (Kristiana Vanram Kawngzawh) translated by Rev Chuautera which remains one of the most readable books, apart from the Bible, in Mizo literature today. The contribution of the missionaries and the churches towards the development of Mizo literature cannot be overemphasized; they do not only provide the printed material but opened up their eyes to wider horizons to the world of literature and changed their outlook on life and life after death. Not being content with the translated hymns of the western composers, many gifted Mizo poets came up with poems written in their own idioms and in tune with their own indigenious ethos and conception of Christianity. Such songs of worship are called Lengkhawm Zai and are sung in the traditional Mizo way with a drum. In style and profoundity these songs are dearest to the hearts of the adult members of the society and are original contributions to the wealth of Mizo literature.

The codification of Mizo language and publication of Christian literature in that language not only paved the way for the development of Mizo literature but also resulted in the emergence of the Mizo language as the only language, the lingua franca as it were, for the entire Mizoram. Barring the Mara (Lakher) and the Chakmas, all the sub-tribes who used their own dialects switched over to the Mizo language. This has had a salutary effect on all aspects of development and the growth of literature.

The Role Of Journalism
Having been exposed to the world of literature, the need for publication of things mundane and secular was soon felt. The first Mizo journal of a sort called Mizo Chanchin Laishuih was published in 1898; it was a cyclostyled tabloid. This publication did not last long. A monthly journal published by the Superintendent of Lushai Hills and printed in Sylhet came out in 1902. This monthly journal called Mizo leh Vai Chanchin was in circulation for several years. Contributors to this journal were the first educated Mizos who were held in high esteem by the people. Their writings on human interest did a yeoman’s service to the people. Then came the Kristian Tlangau, a monthly mouthpiece of the Presbyterian Mission from Aizawl in 1911. The Baptist Mission of Lunglei also came up with a monthly magazine called Tlawmngaihna (1934). This magazine, though with an emphasis was more interested in highlighting whatever is good and worthwhile in Mizo tradition like Tlawngaihna and so on. Another monthly Kohhran Beng from the Baptist Church of Serkawn came out in 1947. This again is the mouthpiece of the church and is still in circulation. But the journal which took up the development of Mizo literature as its main object was the monthly mouthpiece of the Lushai Students’ Association (LSA) which came out in 1935 till it ceased publication in 1980. The LSA was later changed to MZP – Mizo Zirlai Pawl. This magazine published, among other things, essays and other writings of purely literary nature. Many other newspapers and journals have since come up but the ones which have contributed most to the development of Mizo literature are those that have been enumerated. At the moment there is only one literary magazine called Thu leh Hla, a mouthpiece of the Mizo Academy of Letters.

Contemporary Literature
A study of contemporary Mizo literature reveals considerable maturity and depth from the 30s onwards with poets and writers producing works of lasting value on secular subjects. From Serkawn High School under the leadership of the headmaster Lalmama and Rev H.W. Carter a number of poems called Sekawn Concert Hla have been produced. These poems eulogise the legendary heroes of the Mizos and praise traditional values in Mizo society, the beauty of nature and other human interests. This type of poetry called Hla Lenglawng (Community songs) set a new chapter in Mizo literature. In the traditional Mizo style the creations of Awithangpa, Bualkunga and a host of others blossomed forth. In originality and content, the works of Kamlala stood out prominently. World War II and its aftermath saw the blossoming of many beautiful lovesongs from the pen of C. Lalzova, Vankhama, Lalzuia and others. The devastation caused by World War II and the political awakening which followed also brought about the spirit of nationalism and the need for moral development all over the world which also inspired writers like Rokunga and others to produce poems of inspiration and thought-provoking nature. The essays and writings of Biakliana, K.C.Lalvunga, C. Thuamluaia, J. Malsawma and others set the pace for literary prose writings.

No sufficient justice can be done to describe the spurt of literature coming up in recent years without a full length study. Suffice it to say that the literary award given to Rev Liangkhaia by the Mizo Academy of Letters in 1978, and the Padma Shree award to James Dokhuma for literature in 1985 by the President of India, confirm that given the opportunity and necessary patronage, the door is open now for the massive development of Mizo literature.

Impediments to the Growth
The greatest impediments to the growth of Mizo literature is lack of funds. Printing of books cost much money. In a small community, the number of books that could be sold is very small. Publication of any literary works, unless it happens to be a textbook or supported by the government or church organization, is a losing proposition which no individual writer can afford. There is, at the moment, a great interest in the development of literature which is evident from the number of manuscripts and cyclostyled copies lying with individual writers. If only there could be an agency of the government which could assist with the publication of works of literary value, it will be a monumental contribution to the growth of Mizo literature and to society.

R.L.Thanzawna was a trailblazer and pioneer for Mizoram during an illustrious bureaucratic career spanning the 60s to the 90s. With a wide array of interests and deeply knowledgeable in Mizo culture and history, as head of the newly created Department of Information and Public Relations and Tourism in the early 70s, he spearheaded a flurry of publicity for Mizoram, opening it up to the world. With great empathy for the younger generation, he organized the influential Beat Contests of the 70s. He was also interested in the print media and was instrumental in the creation of Mizoram Today, a classy tourist-oriented monthly magazine chronicling official developments in fine quality print, and organized several workshops for young journalists whom he personally trained in reporting ethics and know-how. He co-authored A History of the Mizos with CG Verghese in 1997, besides writing several authoritative articles on Mizo arts and culture. He died on the 5th November, 1998.

I am deeply grateful to his son Lalhmingliana for giving me free access to his father's works and allowing me to reproduce online this essay which was first published in Mizoram News Magazine, 1985.


  1. Thanks for this informative.

  2. ...and yes, I read it word for word :)

  3. Thanks for putting this, J...very helpful.

  4. Pa Zawntea hi Mizo pa zingah ka ngaihsan leh nel pawl tak a ni thin.

  5. I'm sure Pa Zawna would have been delighted to know how helpful his research and writings are to people today.

  6. This is a great site - thank you for the initiative.

  7. After a visit to the north east, I am crazy about anything remotely close to NE. This blog is a rich guide to many facets that are unknown. How I wish our media focuses more on the region!!

    Thank You!!

  8. Thank you too, shiva. It's not often we get non-Mizo visitors to this blog who appreciate the stuff that's in here :)

  9. Hi Story Teller, I am really looking for how I can learn Mizo spoken language at least few basics. I came across your bog, I thought if you may help me in guiding where I can get such help.


  10. Hei aia chipchiar zawk hi a awm em le?

  11. Thank you so much for this informative article about mizo literature. I needed thi information for my school project. Unfortunately it seems like, mizoram is not known much by other people. I hope that people will get to know about it as time passes. I am from Bihar myself and there is almost no literature here*Sigh*
    Anyways, Thanks!!

  12. Hey Thoughts, thank you so much, good to know! That's partly what this blog is here for.