Monday, August 18, 2008

Mauruangi, Ideal Woman of Mizo Folklore

There are some human qualities that Mizos of all times value highly. These qualities are epitomized in Mauruangi, a folklore heroine. The tale is retold here by Malsawmi Jacob

Folklores express the ethos of a people. They are means of passing on value systems from one generation to another.There are some human qualities that Mizos, both ancient and modern, regard highly.Some of these are courage, patience, perseverance, diligence and skill with work. Along with these, beauty, humility, hospitality and skill in spinning and weaving are considered very desirable in women in particular.

Mauruangi, a legendary heroine, is perhaps the epitome of ideal womanhood. In spite of all imaginable suffering under a callous father and true-to-tradition wicked step mother, she grows up into a lovely woman. She possesses all the virtues, triumphs over all odds and has a happy ending. Here is her life story.

Mauruangi was a little girl who lived with her parents in a village. One day, the parents went out to fetch pumphir (a type of bamboo). On the way they had to cross a wooden bridge that was soft with age and rot. The wife remarked, "How frightening it will be to walk on this bridge when we come back carrying burdens!" The husband responded, "When we come back, whoever is afraid to cross this bridge must be pushed down."

They reached the field and began to pack their loads. The husband tied a heavy bundle for his wife to carry, while he took a light one for himself. When they came to the bridge again, the husband crossed it easily but the wife was afraid to cross. "Remember what I said? The coward has to be pushed down," said he, and pushed his wife down into the river. She fell in the water and turned into a giant catfish.

Meanwhile, Mauruangi was impatiently waiting for her parents to return. When her father came home alone she asked him, 'Father, where is Mother?"
"She is washing my turban in the river," he replied.
Some time later she asked again, "Father, why is Mother taking so long?"
"She is washing clothes," he answered.
Mauruangi kept looking out for her mother but she did not come even when it got dark. She asked her father once again, "Father, why hasn't Mother come home?" He finally told her, "I pushed her into the river because she was afraid to cross the bridge".
At this Mauruangi was heart broken and wept dejectedly.

The next morning, Mauruangi tried to start the fire but all the embers in the fireplace had died out. So she went to the neighbour's house to ask for some. The neighbour was a widow witha daughter named Bingtaii, about Mauruangi's age. When she asked for fire the woman replied, "I will give it only if your father promises to marry me."

Mauruangi ran home and told her father what the woman said. He replied, "Perhaps we will marry some day."

After some time, Mauruangi's father and Bingtaii's mother got married. At first the stepmother treated Mauruangi kindly, but gradually began to ill treat her as time passed. There came a time when she became outright cruel, and did not allow Mauruangi to eat normal food but gave her rice husk. Of course, she could not eat that, and so grew thinner day by day.

One day Mauruangi, grieving for her mother, went to the river. Her mother the catfish saw her and said, "I am your mother. Your father pushed me down here so I became a giant catfish. How are you managing without me? And why are you so thin?"

At this, Mauruangi told her mother all about her life, how her stepmother mistreated her and starved her. The giant catfish gave Mauruangi a good meal of rice and meat and sent her home, telling her to come back whenever she was hungry.

The stepmother pampered and spoiled her own daughter. Bingtaii slept when she pleased, sat when she pleased, and went roaming when she pleased. But Mauruangi was given harsh treatment, made to do all the hard work and starved. In spite of all this, she looked healthy and well fed. This made the stepmother curious, and she said to her daughter, "How is it that Mauruangi looks so fat and healthy though I give her only husk to eat? Find out and tell me."

So Bingtaii started spying on Mauruangi. When she saw her stealing away towards the river she followed at a distance, and watched as she ate the food served by the catfish. She went back to her mother and reported, "I have found out how Mauruangi got fat. She goes to the river, where a big fish gives her rice and meat to eat."

On hearing this, the step mother persuaded her husband to call the men together to catch the giant catfish. When Mauruangi heard it she ran ahead to her mother and told her their plan and said, "When they come to catch you, if I shout 'Run up the river', run down it. And if I shout 'Go to the middle', go to the side."

When the men arrived and chased the giant catfish, Mauruangi shouted, "Mother, run up!". The men ran up the river on hearing this, but the catfish ran downstream. Then she shouted "Run to the middle!" but the catfish swam to the side. This went on. The men were confused by Mauruangi's directions and the catfish would escape meanwhile, so they could not catch her. At last some one shouted, "It's because of that little girl. Gag her with a rag and take her away." So they gagged Mauruangi and led her away. They soon caught the giant catfish after that.

The village folk feasted on the fish's meat but Mauruangi refused to eat it. Instead, she collected the bones and buried them in the garden. A plant sprouted out of the bones, grew into a phunchawng¹ tree and bloomed profusely. Mauruangi, starving again, would stand under the tree and sing :
“Bend down, O, my mother,
Mother phunchawng Darnghiangi,
Bend down, O, my mother.”
At this, the branches would bend down low enough for the girl to reach, and she would suck nectar from the flowers.

Once more, the stepmother noticed that Mauruangi was looking healthy again. She said to her daughter, "Mauruangi's fish mother is dead and eaten. But some one must be feeding her, she is growing fat again. Find out and tell me". Bingtaii again spied on her stepsister and found out the secret. She ran to her mother and said, "Mauruangi sucks nectar from the phunchawng flowers in the garden, that is how she gets fat. She stands under the tree and sings, then the branches bend down and she drinks the nectar."

On hearing this, the stepmother persuaded her husband to cut down the tree. He called the neighbours together and they chopped at it with their axes. All the while Mauruangi stood near by singing—
“Hold on, O, my mother,
Mother phunchawng Darnghiangi,
Hold on, O, my mother.”
The tree held on fast and refused to fall. The cuts they made on it kept filling up again. Some one shouted "Gag that girl with a rag and take her away". So they gagged Mauruangi and led her away, and they felled the tree without any more trouble.

Though ill treated and starved, Mauruangi somehow grew up along with her stepsister Bingtaii. It was now time for both of them to start cultivation work. The stepmother said, "Now it is time for you both to cultivate crops, so go and choose a patch for yourselves". Then she gave the best seeds to her daughter to sow in her field, but gave the worst, worm eaten ones to Mauruangi. They both set out to the fields.
Bingtaii, used to being idle, did not work at all but lay in the shelter, fried and ate the dry maize meant for seed, and lazed about all day. Mauruangi, on the other hand, laboured hard. When evening came and they went home, Bingtaii told her mother, "I was working hard but Mauruangi did not work but lazed all day." The stepmother scolded Mauruangi and called her a lazy good for nothing. But she just kept quiet.

As Mauruangi worked diligently every day, her field thrived and yielded crops. But Bingtaii's field had nothing but weeds growing. One day, some men passed by Mauruangi's field while she was working. They were the servants of vai lalpa (lord of plains men). As they were hungry, they asked Mauruangi if she would let them have some cucumber and maize. She replied, "By all means, eat as much as you wish". She plucked some of the best ones and gave them. They were very pleased at her kindness and hospitality. Before parting they said, "We are in search of a wife for our master. Would you be willing to marry him?"

"My stepmother will not allow me, as she has her own daughter to marry off. So the only way out is, come to our house and ask for Bingtaii's hand. I will follow to see her off, and after passing the village you can leave her and take me along instead."

So that evening the men came and asked for Bingtaii to be their master's wife. Her mother was very pleased, and sent her with them the next day. The mother told Mauruangi, “See your sister off, Mauruang. You can’t even get a husband for yourself, so be happy for her!” So Mauruangi followed the party as if to bid Bingtaii goodbye. When they passed the village, the men dropped Bingtaii, whom they were carrying, and carried Mauruangi instead. Bingtaii went back home crying.

Vai lalpa was very happy when he saw Mauruangi. They got married and started living together happily. But the step mother was burning with anger and jealousy at Mauruangi's good fortune, and plotted evil against her. She sent a message that said, "Let Mauruangi come home for a few days, we are going to kill a pig." Mauruangi went.

One day, the stepmother was sitting at her loom when she called out to Mauruangi, "I have dropped my quill under the house. Go and pick it for me." (Porcupine quills were used for picking and straightening thread while weaving. Mizo houses were built on stilts, with crushed bamboo for floor). As Mauruangi was looking for the quill, the stepmother poured boiling water on her and she died. Her body was thrown out among the bushes. A serow found the dead body, blew on it and brought it back to life, and employed her as his baby-sitter.

Meanwhile, vai lalpa missed his wife who had been absent for such a long time. So he sent his servants to bring her back. When they reached Mauruangi's old home and asked for her, the stepmother presented Bingtaii to them. "Here is your master's wife, you may take her back," she told them. The men answered, "No, this one is not our master's wife. She is different." But Bingtaii's mother insisted that she was the person, so they had to carry her home to their master.

One big toe of Mauruangi, which did not get wet when the stepmother poured hot water on her, turned into a little bird. As the servants carried Bingtaii, the little bird flew behind them and sang—

“Don't carry her, don't carry her,
She's Bingtaii, not Mauruangi,
Bump her bottom, bump!”.
The men then bumped her on the ground. Bingtaii scolded and cursed the little bird.

When they reached home, their master looked at his supposed wife and said, "No, this is not my wife. Just see how round her face is, and how red her nose!" Then he had an idea. "My wife was very good at weaving. Give her the loom and see how well this one can weave." So they gave her Mauruangi's loom, but Bingtaii could not weave at all. The little bird came and sang to her :
“The top strands, put them down below
Lower strands, bring them up above
I say ir liak ir liak e.”
Bingtaii was annoyed and tried to hit the little bird with a stick saying, "You noisy bird, keep quiet!" But try as she might, she could not work the loom at all and had to put it away.

One day as vai lalpa's servants were passing through the woods, they heard a woman's voice singing inside a cave. The voice sounded like their old mistress's, so they looked in to see. Sure enough, there was Mauruangi, rocking the serow's baby to sleep and singing :
“Once was I a vai lalpa's wife.
But today a serow's nursemaid.
A i e i u aw aw.”
Greatly surprised but happy, the men addressed her and asked her how she came to be there. Mauruangi narrated how her stepmother killed her and how the serow brought her back to life. They tried to take her home at once, but she said, "Please wait for the serow to come home and ask his permission." When the serow came back from work, he was afraid to get into the cave when he saw the men. But they called him in a friendly tone. When he finally came in they said, "This lady, your baby sitter, is our master's wife. May we take her back home? We will give you a lot of money in return." The serow replied, "If she is so, take her back. I do not care for money. I will be satisfied with a bunch of bananas." So they gave him a bunch of bananas and carried Mauruangi home.
When they got back to the master's house, he was very happy to see Mauruangi. He wanted to get rid of the impostor, and decided to let the two women fight a duel. He covered Mauruangi with a thick new blanket and gave her a sharp sword. But he wrapped Bingtaii in thin clothes and gave her a blunt sword. When they were ready, Mauruangi said to her step sister, "Cut me first." Bingtaii hit her with the sword but could not hurt her at all. Then Mauruangi attacked and killed her with the sharp sword.

Then Mauruangi and vai lalpa lived together again.

The theme of a lovely, sweet natured, virtuous girl harassed by a wicked step mother seems to be of universal interest. Mauruangi may be seen as representing her western counterparts, the fairy tale heroines like Cinderella and Snowwhite. Like them, she also finds escape from her hard life in marriage to a 'prince'.

¹ Silk cotton tree


  1. "I pushed her into the river because she was afraid to cross the bridge".

    while i realise that this incident highlights the callousness of the father, the senseless and casual violence in some of the mizo folk tales sometimes shocks me. there was another where a girl chops up and cooks her sister. and all this in a rather matter-of-fact tone!

  2. The senseless violence and callousness depicted in many folk tales are really puzzling. The stepmother of Rahtea demands to eat his liver and lungs. Sichangneii's father tried to kill her seven sons,(his own grandsons) and thinking they had got burned to ashes, ate the ashes... Such brutalities in the folk stories of Mizos, so caring even to dead bodies, is very hard to explain. But isn't that true of English fairy tales too?

  3. i have heard that the english/european folk tales are a lot darker and bloody than the bed time story versions we have now.

    while i honestly know little of the european psyche, i am as surprised as you are about the violence. just not something i associate with mizos.

    or, is it that these stories point to a darker subconscious steak of extreme violence?

  4. violence, yes, but the kind of casual, senseless and extremely brutal... i've no idea. cutting off heads and drinking and dancing in celebration was there, but that was in 'war', which of course, doesn't lessen the brutality. and yes, there is a case of a village chief ordering the murder of his daughter's lover because he was a commoner. his head was hung on a pole for several days. but other sadistic foms like torture, i'm not sure.

  5. I suppose in folklore which depict days of yore when human existence was lived on a much more simplistic level, many dark deeds such as casual killings, beheadings etc that horrify us today were accepted as quite normal. And as mesjay says, we also have to keep in mind that Mizos were headhunters who took tremendous pride in displaying heads of slain enemies as trophies in public places.

    Off the war/battle front, Mizos were usually very callous towards widows, orphans and the like. And while the advent of Christianity tamed beastly hearts to a great extent, isolated incidents of stepmothers ill-treating their stepchildren still exist. Like just a couple of years ago, we had one case where a woman was hauled up and jailed for pouring hot water on her stepdaughters' arms and backs or something equally grisly.

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