Thursday, June 2, 2016

Mythical Creatures from Mizo Legends - Jacqueline Zote

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when people say “North-East India”? Is it the food? Is it the picturesque landscape and mountains? Or is it the culture? Whatever it is that you associate with this region, let me introduce you to a side that you might have never heard about – the mythical creatures from our folklore. Since I wasn’t able to get much contribution from friends in the other parts of this region, I’m going to focus on folklore from Mizoram.

I have to admit, there aren’t many written documentations for these stories. Most of them have been passed along for generations through word-of-mouth, so you might find some inaccuracies in the details. Regardless of that, these creatures have fascinated me since childhood and I hope you love reading about them too. Here goes:

1. Pheichham Pheichham is the name given to a creature that is most likely a djinn or a type of goblin. The exact definition isn't clear since there aren't many written accounts of these creatures. Instead of causing harm to humans, they do the opposite - bring them good fortune. These creatures are one-legged, so when they fall down it’s extremely difficult for them to get back up. If anyone comes across a Pheichham that has fallen down and helps it up, they are granted a wish. Till date, the term “Pheichham man” or “catching a Pheichham” is still used to describe having immense luck.

2. Lasi – The exact translation for these creatures vary. Most translate them as fairies, while a few call them demons. The description of a Lasi also differs from story to story. In many legends, these creatures disguise themselves as beautiful women and try to seduce hunters. If a hunter falls in love with a Lasi, the creature guides him in his hunting expeditions and he would never come home empty-handed from a hunt. The problem is that the hunter can never tell anyone about the Lasi nor be free from it without ending up dead. These creatures somewhat remind me of the succubus to a significant extent.

Some legends also claim that the eyes of a Lasi are vertical (just try to picture that before you go to bed). Many believe that these creatures can run extremely fast despite the fact that their feet are turned backwards. There’s one story about a boy who was being chased by a Lasi. He hides under the bed and notices that the creature’s feet are turned backwards. Thinking that the creature is going away, the boy slowly creeps out from under the bed only to be eaten by it. Now if that’s not creepy, I don’t know what is.

3. Keimi – My personal favourite is the keimi, which is basically a weretiger or a human that can turn itself into a tiger. The literal translation for “keimi” is “tiger-person” – “kei” stands for tiger and “mi” for person.  If I’ve heard correctly, tales about these creatures are also told in other regions of the North East like Nagaland and Manipur (correct me if I’m wrong).

There’s one story involving a keimi that’s stayed with me since childhood. It’s the story of a girl named Kungawrhi, who is practically the Mizo version of Thumbelina. Like the fairytale character, this girl was also born from a thumb. Unlike Thumbelina, however, she grows up a normal-sized girl.
In fact, she grows up to be the most beautiful maiden in the village and therefore, gets plenty of suitors. Among her suitors is a keimi, who steals Kungawrhi’s footprint and sets it upon the stove. The girl becomes seriously ill because of this and her father declares that whoever can cure Kungawrhi will win her hand in marriage. This keimi then takes the footprint off the stove, curing the girl from her illness and then ends up marrying her. 

Seems to me like this dude was performing some sort of voodoo on the girl. The story goes on where two brothers set out on a quest to the village of weretigers to save her after her father discovered the true identity of Kungawrhi’s husband.

4. Phung – Like the Lasi, the translation for Phung varies. Some would call them ogres, while others again define them as a type of demon. In many stories, the Phung is described as a horrendous humanoid creature with wild hair and pitch-black skin (?). 

These creatures are found in a lot of Mizo folktales, such as the story of Chhurbura. The story goes that Chhurbura tied a makeshift swing outside his farmhouse and would swing there every day.  At some point he realizes that a Phung (in this case, it’s a Phungpuinu which might refer to a mother Phung) would use his swing as soon as he leaves for home.

Chhurbura then decides to catch this creature. He pretends to leave home while hiding and waiting for the Phungpuinu to come out.  As soon as the creature is convinced Chhurbura has gone home, she happily swings on the makeshift swing, singing, “Chhurbura awm ta love...” This means “Chhurbura is finally gone”.  Taking his chance, Chhurbura manages to jump on the Phungpuinu from the back and catches her.

Scared out of her wits, the creature tries to strike a deal with him so he can let her go. Finally, she offers to give him a Sekibuhchhuak, which is a magical horn that gives out rice from one side and meat from the other when coaxed using a specific chant. This is basically like the cornucopia or the horn of plenty. 

These two characters (Chhurbura and the Phungpuinu) have been mentioned together in a few more stories. In one of them, Chhurbura captures the creature’s children and roasts them (brutal, I know). 

5. Huai – “Huai” is a broad term for demons in Mizo folklore. Some claim that the Huais aren’t demons but evil spirits. There are different types of Huais, mostly named according to the place in which they’re found. The Ramhuai is found in the forest and the literal translation is “forest demon” or “forest spirit”. The Sihhuai is found in a sort of watering hole, which is again apt in that “sih” refers to a type of watering hole.  A Pukhuai is found in caves, the term translating to “cave demon” or “cave spirit”.

Most of these demons are bad, causing sickness and bad luck to humans. The Huai of the banyan tree, for instance, was believed to cause insanity. A watering hole rumoured to have a Huai was avoided by the entire village. Whenever our ancestors believed that a Huai was angry with them, they’d try to appease it by performing animal sacrifice. The sacrifice was performed by the Bawl Pu or witch doctor.

6. Van Chung Nula – I think this is most likely an angel (maybe a harpy or a valkyrie according to my friend) and is portrayed as female. “Van” means “sky”, "chung" means "above", and “nula” means “maiden”, so the translation for this creature is a Sky Maiden or maiden from above the sky (sounds lovely already). They are defined as beautiful women with long, flowing hair and large, bird-like wings. 

One of my favourite Mizo folktales is of a man who chances upon one of these creatures bathing at a watering hole. He captures the creature, whose name was Sichangneii (I think this translates to woman with wings). The man then marries her after he clips her wings and hides them (so Maleficent). They end up having seven sons, the youngest of whom happens to discover his mother’s wings tucked away somewhere. The kid asks his mother what the wings were, unknowingly aiding her in her escape. She takes the wings and flies back home to heaven. 

The father, in grief, decides to crack one of his testicles with a hammer (Ouch!). He was probably trying to emotionally blackmail Sichangneii to come back to earth. When she does not come back, he then cracks his other testicle, killing himself in the process. 

7. KhuavangKhuavang is another type of demon that is fairly smaller than a human. I personally imagine them as goblins. Some say they perform magic and are largely in control of nature. There are some terms like “khuavang kal lai”, which means “pin-drop silence”. The literal translation, though, refers to a moment in which the Khuavangs walk amongst us (?). A common saying, which was existent even in my childhood, was that the first person to talk after a pin-drop silence gets marked by the Khuavang with a mole. Incidentally, the mole is referred to as “khuavang chhinchhiah” or “marking of a Khuavang” in Mizo.

8. Khawhring – This is an interesting character in Mizo folktales and was not considered so mythical back in the day. A Khawhring can be defined as a type of spirit that enters a person’s body, causing severe stomach cramps. When the family suspects that the person was possessed, they would ask it to reveal its identity and desires.

By speaking through the person, the spirit would reveal the name of a person and demand the sacrifice of a pig or hen. The accused person is then believed to own the spirit, although they’d be completely unaware of this. The tragic part of this is that the person ends up being ostracized by the entire community, sometimes even being chased out of the village along with their whole family. 

The fact that the accused person is usually a pretty maiden has recently given rise to the suspicion that they were, in fact, victims of jealous rivals or disgruntled suitors. During those days, no one would be willing to marry these girls.

9. Thla Ai – A Thla Ai is a spirit associated with a human being that is on the verge of death from illness. To cure the sickness, a volunteer ventures into the forest in an attempt to bring home the spirit. The creepy part is that the Thla Ai follows the volunteer, making strange noises and screams all along the way. If the volunteer turns around even just a little bit, the spirit would fly away. “Thla Ai koh” or “calling a Thla Ai” was a ritual performed even until the recent past.

10. Milian – Just like folklore from all parts of the world, the Mizos also have the story giants or Milian. There is the story of Mualzavata, who is mostly referred to as a strong man and a giant by some. His name literally translates to someone who can clear a hundred ranges of land. It was fabled that he can do this in one day. His wife was able to clear ninety ranges of land in one day.

There is a cave called “Puk Zing Cave”, which is about 75-feet wide, near Puk Zing Village. Legend has it that the cave was carved out by Mualzavata using only his hairpin. According to the stories of his strength, he was clearly capable of doing that. However, his hairpin also had to be humongous since it was used to carve stone. So, he couldn’t have been just a strong man but also a giant.

Not-so-mythical noteworthy mentions

Although the creatures mentioned above are purely (?) mythical, derived from a collection of fables and rumours of the Mizo community; there are also a few strange characters that were found in the olden days. Some of them were still found in the recent past and many seniors today can attest to that. Here are a few that I found worth mentioning:

1. Zun hin dawt – These aren’t really creatures per se, but humans that go out in the night drinking people’s urine (ugh! I know you just cringed).  Decades back, the Mizos did not have indoor plumbing. People had to go out and attend to nature’s calls at the porch of their bamboo houses. The zun hin dawt would lurk around houses and wait for someone to come out and urinate. It will then suck up the urine that’s collected in the ground (I have no clue how this would benefit them but hey, they did it).

I’d like to point out that these people really existed. Even when my late grandmother was a young girl, she encountered one of them and actually chased after it when most people would have run away at the mere sight of a zun hin dawt. Yes, my grandmother had balls and she was awesome. 

2. Tual sum su – Like the zun hin dawt, tual sum su also refers to humans who come out in the night to do weird shit. They would seem like perfectly normal human beings during the daytime. When night comes, they’d go around the streets hopping upside down on their heads. That might have been a horrendous sight, don’t you think? They wake up the next morning with no memory whatsoever of what had happened the previous night. The only reminder was a massive headache.

These are only a few of the many mythical (some not-so-mythical) creatures and characters found in Mizo folklore. I was unable to mention several more of my favourite creatures due to lack of detailed sources. I’m sure a lot of the details I’ve mentioned are also inaccurate, so please feel free to leave your comments and help me make corrections.

Jacqueline Zote is a freelance content writer currently living in Aizawl. She developed an early fascination for mythical beings and fairy tales. She hopes to have a book published some day. 

She also has an intriguing blog called Little Box of Secrets and this particular write-up on the fascinating collection of spirits and ghouls from Mizo folklore and legends is one many will enjoy and find very informative - probably more so among the younger generation of Mizos who grew up in the post-Christian era with only the sketchiest of ideas about these mythical creatures. This write-up was also featured on which is where I happened to stumble onto this very promising young writer via a good friend (thanks, Missy!)