Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mizo Women in Myth and Reality - Vanlalveni Pachuau

There is a Mizo saying which, roughly translated, states, "The same story differs with the one doing the telling." This is in reference to the fact that Mizo folklore is of the oral tradition and therefore, a story may have several versions. However, the basic elements remain the same. While it may be easy to dismiss folktales as fanciful tales spun by old warriors and housewives, there is, in fact, a deep correlation between folktales and social reality. Lily Kong and Elaine Goh have explored this relation between folktales and reality and have surmised that these tales are not just ‘fictive constructs’ but represent ‘fictive, historical and projected realities’:

'Fictive reality' is a construct of the narrative imagination and is bound by the rules that govern each genre. In the folktale, this fictive reality is presented as apart from the narrator's world. However, far from being purely imaginative, fictive reality can be a part of transformed 'historical reality'. Past customs, beliefs and social organisation 'survive' as fictive reality in the folktale, although to the narrators, they may have ceased to be either historical or current social reality. Hence, they may have undergone a transformation from history into fiction, from reality into fantasy. Apart from historical realities, a third kind of reality-'projected reality'-results when the present is incorporated into folktales. This projected reality can be seen in the variations that occur in the same tale told by different narrators who project their own culture, social class and personal psychology into the fictive realities of the folktale. [Kong and Goh, p. 261-2]

This paper aims to show how the treatment of Mizo women in folklore reflects social reality through the stories of three women, namely Mauruangi, Tualvungi and Zangkaki. Mizo folktales have an abundance of women characters, but since these stories are generally viewed through the male perspective, these characters tend to fall into a standard precept- either the woman is a hopeless victim or a cruel victimiser. The feminist dictionary defines fairytales as, “a harmful cross-cultural educative story told to unsuspecting children that shows women as passive, opportunistic or cruel” [Cheris, 149], and while this may be applicable, to an extent, to the projection of women in Mizo folktales, the purpose of this paper, however, is not to dwell upon sexism or the repression of women, but rather on the representation of women in Mizo folklore. Through this, this study attempts to explore the social realities of Mizo culture pertaining to the status of women and their societal roles.

Mauruangi - the Mizo Cinderella:

Mauruangi’s story is similar to Cinderella’s in that she too was a helpless victim under a wicked stepmother, a jealous stepsister and a neglectful father. She also had help, though in the form of her dead mother’s spirit rather than a fairy godmother, and she also escaped her hard life through marriage to a ‘prince’. Mauruangi’s story is a magical one, with her mother’s spirit alternately taking the forms of a catfish and a tree, and giving Mauruangi food when she was overworked and starved by her step-mother. Mauruangi grew into a lovely maiden whose hospitality and kindness impressed the servants of a vai lalpa1, who took her home to their master who married her. Her step-mother invited her back home, and there, she murdered Mauruangi by pouring boiling water over her. Her dead body, however, was found by a serow who, by blowing over her, brought her back to life and took her home to be his babysitter. Meanwhile, Mauruangi’s step-sister Bingtaii had persuaded vai lalpa and his servants that she was Mauruangi, and despite their doubts, they had grudgingly accepted her. However, vai lalpa’s servants found Mauruangi rocking the serow’s baby, and they brought her home. Vai lalpa made the two women fight a duel, and Mauruangi, who had been given better weapons, killed Bingtaii and she was finally reinstated to her rightful place. 

Mauruangi has often been cited as the epitome of the ideal Mizo woman. Humble, subservient, hospitable, kind, and skilled in spinning, farming and weaving, she is in direct juxtaposition to her step-sister Bingtaii, who is lazy, vindictive, manipulative and unskilled. While Mauruangi’s fantastical story may seem other-wordly, it is representative of the qualities valued in Mizo women. Mizo women were a hardworking lot - they had to get up early to fetch water and kindling, then perform their domestic chores before they set off to work all day in the fields. Then when they got back home, after preparing and eating supper, they had to spin or weave by the light of the fireplace. All the while, they had to entertain their inleng2 who usually stayed till midnight. As such, the qualities exemplified by Mauruangi were seen as the ideal of Mizo womanhood, and her story served as a lesson to young women on the merits of conforming to that ideal. Fairy tales often consolidate the belief that it is in a woman’s best interest to get married and beget children. As such, Bingtaii’s unwed state exemplified the perils of not submitting to these ideals.

Interestingly, while most western fairytales have only a neglectful and ineffectual father as the counterpart of the wicked stepmother, Mauruangi’s father serves as a perfect foil to his murdering second wife. He had pushed Mauruangi’s mother into a river where she had drowned, perhaps because he had grown tired of her. He had also been complicit in the maltreatment of Mauruangi by agreeing to kill the catfish and to cut down the tree which had housed his previous wife’s soul. While we may now be shocked by the callousness of Mauruangi’s father and her step-mother, their behaviour is indicative of the status of wives and of orphans in Mizo society. The matter-of-fact way that the murder of Mauruangi’s mother is narrated reveals that the loss of a wife was not that devastating. A constantly warring race, sons were prized in the Mizo community. Women were necessary to beget sons who would ultimately help to protect their lands. But if a wife died, men could and often, remarried, so that sons would be born to help propagate their race. Mizos also tended to regard orphans and widows as third-class citizens. Mauruangi, though technically not an orphan, was clearly unwanted and the fact that no one intervened in the harsh treatment meted out to her is indicative of the lowliness of her station. Mauruangi’s story, therefore, though it might seem entirely fictional, is actually reflective of past Mizo society and its social customs and beliefs, especially pertaining to women’s social roles. 

Tualvungi - the trophy:

Tualvungi and her husband Zawlpala are famed lovers in Mizo folklore. A happily married couple, their happiness was marred/ended when Phuntiha, a rajah from Tripura heard stories of Tualvungi’s beauty and came to see whether the stories were true or not. When he saw Tualvungi, Phuntiha, thinking that Zawlpala was her brother, immediately asked Zawlpala for Tualvungi’s hand in marriage. Zawlpala, who was inordinately proud of his wife’s beauty, proceeded to play along so as to see to what lengths Phuntiha was willing to go to secure Tualvungi. Zawlpala demanded an exorbitant amount of goods as Tualvungi’s customary bride price, confident that Phuntiha would never be able to meet it. However, Phuntiha was an exceedingly rich man and he arrived a few days later with the requisite amount of goods. Tualvungi begged and pled with Zawlpala to not let her be married to Phuntiha, but Zawlpala had given his word and he had to honour it. And so the young lovers parted sadly. Phuntiha had by now realised that Zawlpala was indeed Tualvungi’s husband and he grew extremely jealous of him, especially since Tualvungi continued to pine for him despite his showering her with affection. Phuntiha, therefore, decided to have Zawlpala killed and with this purpose in mind, he invited him to visit. When Zawlpala arrived, Phuntiha had him poisoned and the grieved Tualvungi told him to go back to his village at once. There, Zawlpala managed to tell the elders what had transpired before he died. A messenger in the form of a wood pigeon was sent to Tualvungi to break the sad news to her, and on hearing of Zawlpala’s death, Tualvungi sought out ways in which she could evade Phuntiha so that she could visit Zawlpala’s grave. She managed to make her way to his grave, and on reaching there, persuaded an old woman to kill her so that she too might forever rest beside her dead lover. Phuntiha had followed Tualvungi and unable to relinquish her to Zawlpala even in death, he also persuaded the old woman to kill him so that he might follow them. The spirits of Zawlpala and Tualvungi turned into butterflies so as to escape Phuntiha, but his soul too took the form of a butterfly, and he followed them relentlessly, though never quite catching up.

A romantic tale of star-crossed lovers, the story of Tualvungi and Zawlpala is another tale that reflects the status of Mizo women in society. Though Zawlpala was deeply in love with her, his honour meant more to him than she did. Tualvungi had absolutely no say in the matter of her marriage. Her fate hung entirely on the whims of the man responsible for her - whether it was a father, a brother or a husband. Admittedly, she took matters into her own hands by defying Phuntiha, but her defiance was not borne out of rebellion but out of the desire to be with the man who had sold her for a boast. Tualvungi was in actuality a trophy to be wrested and fought over, herself having little or no say over her own life.

A woman in Mizo society in fact, had little say over who she wanted as a husband. She might be given to anyone of her parents’ choosing, and she was to accept without demur. When her inlengs came calling, she was not in any way, by word or deed, to indicate any preference for a particular man. To do so would label her as forward, shameless and self-governing, qualities which were highly undesirable in a wife. She also was not to appear to be rude to any inleng, no matter how undesirable; if a man said that a maiden had not treated him hospitably, the young men of the community tore down the maiden’s hut. In indulgent families, though, daughters were asked their opinions about the choice of husband that her parents had made for them. However, even in the most indulgent of households, a daughter could never directly give assent or dissent. She could either say, “As you wish”, if she found her parents’ choice acceptable or, “You can have him yourself if you want him” if she was displeased with their choice. However, the ultimate decision lay with the father and to go against his wishes was unthinkable. That Phuntiha approached Zawlpala instead of Tualvungi on the matter of marriage, and that Tualvungi acceded, albeit reluctantly to Zawlpala’s decision, indicates the lack of say that women had in the matter of their own marriages.

As mentioned before, women needed to possess certain qualities if she was to be deemed fit for marriage. Apart from that, in cases where the prospective husband came from an important family, the prospective bride had to undergo strict scrutiny before she was declared eligible. Prospective brides of important men were stripped and their bodies were examined minutely to check for birthmarks or moles. Their genealogy was also examined to weed out any undesirable traits like kleptomania, epilepsy and madness, since those were considered to be heritable. Sometimes, the excrement was also checked since it could be an indication of her health, which determined whether she might be fit to bear many sons. In cases where two or more men asked for the same woman in marriage, she would usually be given to the one who would pay the highest bride price - the highest bidder, as it were. Daughters were married to strengthen familial ties, to elevate one’s social position, or to form alliances. Her choice was rarely taken into consideration. 

Zangkaki - the sorceress:

Zangkaki is actually not a central character, but a villainess who entered the story of Lalruanga towards the end of his life; in fact, Zangkaki was a powerful sorceress who outwitted and killed Lalruanga, the most powerful sorcerer in Mizo folklore. Zangkaki is a powerful female character who, through feminine wiles and trickery, managed to outwit Lalruanga the master trickster himself. Lalruanga was a Quixotic character, noted more for his powerful magic and cunning rather than any heroic quality. He first proved his magical prowess against his father, who was also a noted sorcerer. He then captured and wrested magical secrets from Vanhrika, a heavenly being, before killing him. He then outwitted Keichala, a ferocious were-tiger, and his whole tribe of were-tigers. When Keichala’s brothers killed Lalruanga’s brother, the two declared war on each other, with the promise that the victor would honour the defeated with Hrangsaipuia’s famed bullhorn3. Lalruanga used his cunning to defeat Keichala and went to take Hrangsaipuia’s bullhorn. Hrangsaipuia was also a famed sorcerer and the two dueled using all the magic they had at their disposal. Lalruanga inevitably defeated Hrangsaipuia resoundingly and so, he seized the famed bullhorn.

While it was that Lalruanga seemed invincible, he met his defeat at the hands of a sorceress who was less powerful but more cunning than he. Zangkaki was a beautiful sorceress and she lured Lalruanga with the secret purpose of defeating him. Lalruanga took his most powerful dawibur4 with him and Zangkaki knew she would not be able to defeat him just then. So she lulled him into a false sense of security by pretending to fall in love with him. A few days after Lalruanga went home, Zangkaki sent word, asking him to visit her again and telling him that she was expecting his child. This time Lalruanga, suspecting nothing, took his less powerful dawibur with him and he had a pleasant time with Zangkaki, who had been secretly observing him. Sensing that he was no longer as powerful as he had been before, Zangkaki imprisoned Lalruanga inside a stone fortress that Lalruanga, with his limited powers could not break through. He sent an ant to fetch his strongest dawibur but the ant dropped the dawibur into a river where it was swept away by the current. Lalruanga, unable to defeat Zangkaki, finally met his end in the stone fortress in which she had imprisoned him.

Zangkaki in this story is pojected as a licentious seductress who used her feminine charms to defeat the hitherto undefeatable Lalruanga. Her very name is indicative of her amoral nature- Zangkaki’s name is actually Chhuzangkaki; however the first syllable has been dropped in subsequent retellings of the story since the word is a derogatory term referring to the female genitalia. Zangkaki epitomises the destructive feminine stereotype, whose sexuality is cunningly utilised to bring about the downfall of the male species. Folklores and legends are replete with this image of the powerful temptress who, like Delilah, could deceive even the strongest of men like Samson. The fact that Zangkaki’s name contains a derogatory word for the female genitalia is indicative of past Mizo society’s mistrust of women whose sexuality is obvious.

Virility was much prized in Mizo men, while chastity in a woman was highly desirable. A telling Mizo joke recounts how, when asked about their youth, all Mizo men claim to have had lovers, while all Mizo women claim to be virgins. The question arises - which one of them is lying? Mizos believed that Pu Pawla stands at the gates of Pialral5 where he asks each man whether he has been tried or not, and if the man is untried, Pu Pawla would inflict a telling injury on the man which would publicly proclaim his lack of virility. Women, on the other hand, were expected to be chaste and modest, and any woman who did not conform to this expectation was regarded as unnatural, immoral and dangerous. A Mizo woman’s reputation, once damaged, can never be repaired, and a fallen woman, even if she finds a man foolish enough to marry her, carries her shame over to the next generation, where her children and her children’s children will forever be tainted by association with the unfortunate woman. It is therefore, telling that the only person able to defeat Lalruanga is a woman who does not hesitate to use her sexuality to attack a man where he is weakest- his sexuality. The derogatory name given to Zangkaki indicates Mizo society’s vilification of such women. 

Early Mizo religion was a mixture of Pantheistic and spiritual elements, replete with superstitious beliefs. Closely attuned with the natural world, the Mizos believed that nature was infused with spirits, good and bad, both of them needing to be appeased. They also believed that spirits of dead persons often took the form of animals or resided in rivers, mountains or forests. Hence, though these tales may seem fanciful with their talking animals, magic and fantastical acts, they also depict the religious and superstitious beliefs of the past Mizos. Mizos also had a strict moral code which dictated valour and bravery for men, and submissiveness, chastity and domestic prowess for women. This paper seeks to demonstrate that folklore, though they have often been relegated to fantasy or children’s tales, actually contain within them a rich source of information pertaining to a society’s culture and their beliefs. The stories mentioned here are not mere imaginative stories but are actually indicative of what Kong and Goh call fictive, historical and projected realities. The stories told here of three Mizo female characters give a very accurate picture of the social status of Mizo women in Mizo society, and lend support to the feminist belief that gender roles are socially and not biologically constructed. 

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Vanlalveni Pachuau completed her Masters in English Literature from Mizoram University and also recently earned an M.Phil. degree from the same. She wrote and presented this paper at a seminar on folklore organised by the International Society for Folk Narrative Research at NEHU in Shillong in February 2011. I am indebted to her for allowing me to reproduce it here.

Note: Plagiarism or appropriation of any content herein for any purpose will not be tolerated. In the event of interest for usage or partial reproduction of contents, kindly contact me at the email address given on the home page for necessary action. 


  1. This paper drew a lot of attention and comments at the seminar. Our rich folk literature has a rich potential for research. Even the projection of Mizo women in our tales, as this paper indicates,invites a lot of research and closer scrutiny. Were they subjugated?Were they subversive? Were they ever dominant?Were they abusive?Were they passive? These are just some of the few questions out of the many that can be examined. I am also certain there are other interesting issues that can generate deeper inspection.

  2. You're right, this is an invaluable paper which should be rich fodder for researchers of Mizo social history, both now and in the future.

  3. In response to jay-me's comment. The authoress has categorically chosen three women in Mizo folktales.Well, they can't be said to represent the Mizo womenfolk.In folktales of other tribes/communities, we often find female stereotypes like young daughters, mothers, wives, step-mothers and old women. All these categories are in different situations and are treated differently by patriarchal society.

  4. kudos to kuku (bows head and raises arms). can the writer or anyone give the approximates as to how old these folktales are? im assuming that they all occupy relatively different chronological spaces in mizo history.

  5. @kim: The paper focuses on the stereotypification of Mizo women in our folktales. Agree with you that they don't represent Mizo women, but they do reflect the Madonna-whore dichotomy that is found in many European tales and earlier male-centric literature and also in our own.

    @Al: Been unable to find out how old these tales are, mahse Lalruanga's story might have been around by the 1530's whereabouts, when the word "lusei" started to come into existence. Mauruangi's and Tualvungi's might be more recent, since they include "Vai Lalpa" and Phuntiha, who might have been from Tripura. Nothing definite, though