Monday, February 9, 2009

Tualvungi and Zawlpala

A Mizo folktale transcreated by Margaret Ch. Zama

Once upon a time there lived a young man named Zawlpala who fell in love with Tualvungi, a maiden renowned for her beauty. They eventually married and were very happy together. At this time lived a raja from Tripura holding sway over a small principality called Theihai Ram. He was named Phuntiha by his subjects, a very apt name really since it meant that no one dared to complain in his presence. He was of a tyrannical disposition, always wanting to possess the best of everything. It was no wonder then, that when he heard of Tualvungi’s great beauty, he at once set off to visit her village with the intention of marrying her should her beauty please him. On Zawlpala’s village, Phuntiha found Zawlpala happily keeping his wife company at her weaving loom.

Setting eyes on Tualvungi, Phuntiha found her beauty far exceeded his expectations, and fell in love with her. So he inquired of Zawlpala if she was his wife or sister, to which the latter replied “my sister”. Zawlpala answered thus because he knew full well that Phuntiha wanted Tualvungi for his wife, and was quite capable of killing him if his true status was revealed. To the “brother’s” reply, Phuntiha at once offered a proposal of marriage, inquiring about her man, the Mizo customary bride price quoted by the bride’s family before marriage. At this, Zawlpala deliberately quoted a stupendous sum which he hoped the raja would be unable to fulfill and thereafter leave them in peace. The brideprice he quoted was thus : enough mithans to number every post and pillar of his house to which they will be tethered; beaded necklaces and Mizo puans (traditional woven cloth) so great in number that they break every railing and clothesline in the house with their weight, and lastly, Mizo chempui or big daos numbering every crevice of the woven bamboo walls into which they shall be tucked. To Zawlpala’s great chagrin, Phuntiha accepted his terms without much ado, and left immediately for his village to make preparations.

A few days later, Phuntiha returned not only with Zawlpala’s demand, but with a huge entourage of villagers as well, all eager to escort home the new bride. Tualvungi was the first to sight them while they were yet some miles away, with Phuntiha in the lead wearing a bright red lungi which stood out brazenly even from the distance. Distressed greatly, she turned to her husband and pleaded with him thus:

I can see them yonder
Herding in countless mithans
And carrying great numbers of puans
Tell them Tualvungi is with child
O my love Zawlpala

But her desperation was matched by Zawlpala’s loss for words at the turn of events and he was unable to offer her any consolation. So the now hated Phuntiha arrived and proceeded to fulfill his obligations with great gusto. Mithans were tethered to each and every post of Zawlpala’s house; beaded necklaces and woven puans were hung on to every available railing and clothesline in the house, snapping them all in no time with their weight; and lastly, the Mizo daos were firmly tucked into all the visible cracks and crevices of the bamboo walls. Thus Phuntiha claimed the unhappy Tualvungi as his lawful wife and led her away to his village. Zawlpala stood helpless, watching them leave and bitterly regretting his folly but all too late, for he had spoken as a man, and had to honour his words.

Now, although Phuntiha had feigned ignorance, he knew that Zawlpala was Tualvungi’s husband and not her brother, and knowing of the great love they shared though now parted, his jealousy was greatly roused. This determined him to do away with his rival. In spite of his shortcomings, Phuntiha truly loved and cherished Tualvungi, and catered to her every wish in the hope that she might forget her beloved. But Tualvungi never ceased to pine for her beloved, and this made Phuntiha even more possessive of her and jealous of Zawlpala. One day, Phuntiha said to his wife, “I suggest you invite your brother to visit us for as long as he wishes as we have not seen each other for a long time. And now seems to be as good a time as any, besides my pigs are fat enough to be slaughtered.” Too naive to comprehend his true intentions, Tualvungi eagerly sent a messenger to Zawlpala with the good news.

When Zawlpala received the message, he too was taken in by Phuntiha’s supposed goodwill, and wishing to reciprocate, at once set out for their village. Phuntiha played the perfect host to his guest, but before long, Tualvungi began to have her suspicions. So she warned Zawlpala to beware and not accept any food from Phuntiha’s hands. But due to his prolonged stay it soon became impossible for Zawlpala to continually refuse his host’s offers and so one day accepted rice beer and arum bulbs that the latter gave him. Immediately after having them, he started experiencing stomach cramps, for the food had been poisoned just as Tualvungi had feared. Greatly grieved and not knowing what course to take, she sent him home at once, and doing so, Zawlpala was able to reveal the true circumstances of his condition to the village elders before he finally died. He was buried with due honour, and his grave was decorated with numerous mithan skulls that had been slaughtered in his honour. This Mizo tradition is called thlaichhiah, which means sacrificing of animals for the dead, so that the spirits of the slained animals may accompany the departed into the next world.

Now came the task of finding a messenger to break the sad news to Tualvungi. But no one dared to volunteer as all were afraid of Phuntiha whom they knew would not hesitate to kill in his jealous rage.

In the hunt for a messenger, the first candidate was a Chakai (crab) who, when asked how it would address Tualvungi replied ai, ai. This displeased the villagers and they stamped it aside, which is why, we are told, the crab still walks sideways today. Second came a Choak (raven) who was asked the same question. It’s reply ak, ak disgusted the villagers and they threw indigo dye on it, which explains the blue-back colour of the raven today. Then along came a tlaiberh (bul-bul bird) whose call berek, berek again failed to satisfy the villagers. As punishment, they impaled the bird on a fence, which is why the feathers under the tail of the bul-bul remains red till today.

Finally, a vahui (wood pigeon) turned up and its performance so pleased them that they elected it to be the bearer of the tragic news. After feeding it on rice and meat, they sent it on its way. The bird flew for many, many days before arriving at Tualvungi’s village. On reaching there, it perched on a nearby tree next to her house, and began to plaintively warble out its song, telling her to go and pay her respects to her dead husband Zawlpala. Tualvungi, who was busy weaving in the verandah, heard the song and exclaimed to the bird, “If you are singing to me, come closer and repeat your song”. So the bird flew closer and perched on a railing nearby. After it had sung, Tualvungi was heartbroken but still unable to believe the sad tidings, again asked it to hop even closer and sing its song again. So the little wood pigeon sat on the bars at the end of her loom and sang its heart out. After this, Tualvungi could no longer doubt the message, and broke down with grief for her lost love.

Tualvungi thought out of ways in which she could deceive Phuntiha, and leave for her old village as soon as possible. She finally came up with the excuse that she wished to vist her ailing brother Zawlpala, as he was quite unwell when he last left them. Phuntiha of course knew that Zawlpala was long dead by now due to the poison, but not wanting to seem inconsiderate to his wife by refusing her outright, he invented a string of excuses in order to prevent her from leaving. The first of his excuses was that he wanted her to wait for their newly hatched chicks to grow big, but when this was done, he insisted that their dog give birth to its litter first, and when this too came about and the puppies grew big, he was still reluctant to let her go. So once again, he asked her to be patient and wait for their goat to give birth, then next came the sow giving birth to her litter, and finally came the mithan having her calf. During this long delay, Phuntiha hoped that Zawlpala’s body would decompose completely and Tualvungi’s feelings of tenderness towards him gradually wane. Meanwhile, Tualvungi patiently tolerated the delay, but her feelings for the dead Zawlpala remained ever strong.

Phuntiha, having run out of excuses to delay Tualvungi, sought other means of preventing her from leaving as he was still extremely jealous of his dead rival. So, his reasoning clouded with envy and jealousy, he sharpened his dao and placed it edge facing upwards, just outside their main door, which Tualvungi would be sure to step upon, on leaving the house. As intended, Tualvungi cut her foot deeply and was unable to do anything for many days. This put Phuntiha’s mind at ease and he departed for game hunting for a few days. Tualvungi, on her part, sought to avail of this opportunity and daily nursed her wound in order to be fit for the long journey ahead. It was not long in healing, and having bandaged it thoroughly, she packed all her more valuable possessions and puans in a bundle and set off on her own.

The journey was a long and difficult one, and Tualvungi suffered and grieved for Zawlpala all the way. Once she came across a group of children playing kawibah (a popular game among Mizo youngsters, played with the large bean-like seeds of a species of hardy creepers), and asked them,

You little children playing yonder,
Have you seen Zawlpala’s grave,
My beloved Zawlpala.

to which the children replied,

The open space round Zawlpala’s grave
Is filled with trees in bloom
And solemnly lined with mithan skulls.

A short distance away, she again passed by some children tending their grazing herd and made the same query thus :

You little children tending your herd
Have you seen Zawlpala’s grave,
My beloved Zawlpala.

and they replied

The open space round Zawlpala’s grave
Is filled with trees in bloom
And solemnly lined with mithan skulls.

When Tualvungi finally arrived at her beloved’s grave, there was no mistaking it. It was just as the children had told her, lined with mithan skulls and trees in full bloom. Weary from her long journey, fatigued from her wound, and now, the sight of Zawlpala’s grave, proved too much for her. Her spirit broke and she began to weep bitterly over the grave. An old woman who happened to pass by, took pity on her, and tried to comfort her. But Tualvungi would not be consoled, and instead pleaded to the old lady thus, “If you truly pity me, do away with my life instead as I know I am not going to survive this anyway. You may take my belongings and keep them for your own.” The old lady reluctantly agreed, and together they started digging up Zawlpala’s grave in order to make room for Tualvungi to lie down. When his bones were sighted, so the story goes, they moved over in order to make room for her. Lying down beside the remains of her beloved, Tualvungi gave up her life to the old woman.

Meanwhile, Phuntiha on his return from his hunt in the deep forest, flew into a jealous rage when he realised that his wife had slipped away. He at once set out after her, but all too late, for Tualvungi had achieved her union with Zawlpala in death. Not to be outdone by the two lovers, he too lay down beside them and got the old woman to kill him. But the spirits of Zawlpala and Tualvungi, determined never more to be parted by Phuntiha, flew out of the grave together in form of beautiful butterflies. The persistent Phuntiha flew out after them, and this is why today, a butterfly couple flying together are always followed by the third behind them - never quite catching up.

Dr. Margaret Ch. Zama is a professor in the English dept. of Mizoram University. She is deeply involved in the transcreation of Mizo folk literature and bringing it to national and international readers and audiences.

Picture: Zawlpala thlan in hmu em, oil on canvas by Tlangrokhuma


  1. Good work Miss J and all the writers who had contributed for this blog..

  2. On behalf of all my generous contributors and on my personal behalf, thank you! :)

  3. Beautiful translation.. reminds me of my childhhood days when my grandmom would tell us Mizo folktales before bed..
    It was simple to understand and makes for a very interesting read.. Great work.. More please..

  4. A tha hle mai. Tour Guide ka ni a. Hnamdang chhiar theih tur a awm hi ka lawm ani.

  5. Dawithiam phuntiaha tih te Khan an sawi a, ka buai e

    1. Folktales te hi chu sawi dan hrang hrang hi a awm lo thei lo a, ziak a dah thlap ni ve ta si lo chu. Buaithlakna chen chu a awm ve ang