Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Traditional Songs, Music and Instruments - Malsawmdawngliana and R. Lalsangpuii


In the fields of musicology and cultural historiography, it is a widely acknowledged fact that each distinct culture possesses its unique musical expressions, often manifesting through traditional folk songs. These folk songs and musical traditions serve as profound reflections of the cultural ethos and worldview inherent to a particular society, underpinned by an interplay between cultural elements and the complex negotiation of identity within a given cultural milieu.

An attempt to trace the early origins of Mizo music has yielded evidence suggesting the emergence of certain musical forms during the settlement of Thantlang in Burma, estimated to have taken place between the 13th and 14th centuries AD. According to B. Lalthangliana’s records, this period witnessed the development of folk songs that encompassed various themes, including Dar hla (songs featuring gongs), Bawh hla (war chants), Hla do (chants associated with hunting), and Nauawih hla (cradle songs). It is worth noting that these early musical expressions primarily reflect individual experiences, lacking the philosophical depth or rational attitudes towards life often found in later forms of Mizo music (Lalthangliana 1993,76).

The Mizos eventually established themselves in what is now Mizoram during the late 17
th century. The pre-colonial period, spanning the 18th and 19th centuries AD, marked a significant era in the history of Mizo folk literature and music (Thanmawia, 2024). Prior to the British annexation of the region, the Mizo community had inhabited the present-day Mizoram for two centuries, and during this time, their folk songs evolved in terms of quantity, form, and content. These songs exhibited a higher degree of linguistic refinement and musical sophistication. Furthermore, many songs from this period bore the names of their composers, underscoring the development of individual authorship in Mizo music.

8.1 Traditional Songs:

The Mizos have traditionally classified their folk songs using an indigenous system that encompasses approximately one hundred distinct song types (Lalruanga, 1984). However, according to RL Thanmawia these songs can be broadly categorised into ten primary classifications:

8.1.1 Bawh Hla:

This category includes chants or cries uttered by warriors upon their return from successful raids. The purpose of chanting Bawh Hla was to assert their dominance over the enemy and inform their community of the successful raid. Only the warrior responsible for killing the enemy had the privilege of chanting Bawh Hla.

8.1.2 Hlado:

Chants or cries raised by hunters to celebrate successful hunting expeditions. Hlado chants could occur on the spot, on the journey home, before entering the village, or during celebratory gatherings. Anyone who witnessed a successful hunt could participate in chanting Hlado.

8.1.3 Thiam hla & Dawi hla (Invocation & Incantation):

These verse forms were reserved for use by priests and witches during ceremonial rituals.

8.1.4 Dar Hla:

These songs were instrumental in nature, and intended for musical instruments rather than human voices. Dar hla, meaning ‘song for the gong,’ represents the most prominent category within this classification, featuring songs associated with various instruments, with the gong being the most popular. These songs typically consisted of three musical notes.

8.1.5 Puipun Hla:

These songs were inspired by merry and festive occasions and were particularly popular among the Mizo people. They were often sung in conjunction with dancing during festive events.

8.1.6 Lengzem Zai:

Love songs, named after the theme of love. These songs lacked a distinctive form but were categorised based on their thematic content.

8.1.7 Songs named after Tribes:

Some song forms were named after specific tribes, such as Sailo zai and Saivate zai.

8.1.8 Songs named after Villages:

A subset of songs bore the names of villages, like Lumtui zai and Dar lung zai.

8.1.9 Songs named after modulation of the voice:

These songs were named based on the modulation of voice or sound, exemplified by names like Kawrnu zai, Zai nem, Vai zawi zai, and Puma zai. For instance, Kawrnu zai was named after the gentle and low voice of a cicada known as Kawrnu.

 8.1.10 Songs named after individuals:

A significant portion of Mizo folk songs bore the names of individuals, often referencing both the original composer and the melodic tunes. Some songs were named after beautiful women or tribal heroes. The first six categories primarily featured individual expressions, while the remaining four were meant for group singing. Although some songs could be sung individually, the essence of Mizo folk music typically lay in collective performances accompanied by music.

The major themes prevalent in Mizo folk songs include war, hunting, love, nature, and patriotism. Love songs occupied a central place in Mizo folk music, reflecting the natural affinity of the Mizo people with the elements of nature. These songs often employed symbolism through birds and animals as messengers of love. Likewise, hunting songs celebrated the role of successful hunters, referred to as “Pasaltha,” who were highly esteemed in Mizo society. These songs revealed the social and domestic implications of hunting.

War chants and songs were significant due to the frequent conflicts the Mizo people faced, either in battles with neighbouring tribes or inter-village warfare. A unique practice in Mizo warfare was the trampling of the enemy’s dead body, symbolizing the conqueror’s victory. The chanting of war-chants, such as “Bawh hla,” served to dispel fear related to the enemy’s soul, ensuring its safe and peaceful passage to the afterlife (Zawla 2011, 82).

Patriotism was evident in songs named after villages, where individuals expressed their deep affection for their native places and emphasized their might and other positive attributes. Such songs aimed to boost the morale of warriors and discourage potential raids by other villages.

An essential characteristic of Mizo folk songs was their self-sufficiency within each stanza or musical couplet. Each couplet or triplet conveyed its own message, reflecting a typical structure found in folk songs. Mizo traditional music was closely associated with dance and drama, serving as an integral part of their cultural expressions.

8.2 Traditional Music Instruments:

Throughout their history, the Mizo people have utilized a diverse array of musical instruments. These instruments, however, present challenges when attempting to trace their precise origins. It is suggested that during the late 10th to 13th centuries AD, while residing in the Kabaw Valley, the Mizo community developed a musical tradition that laid the foundation for their contemporary practices (Lalthangliana 1997, 71). These traditional Mizo musical instruments exhibit simplicity and rudimentary characteristics compared to other Indian musical instruments, representing a departure from modern musical equipment. RL Thanmawia categorized the musical instruments of the Mizos into three primary groups: Striking Instruments, Wind Instruments, and String Instruments.


8.2.1 Striking Instruments

These instruments are predominantly used during festivals and dances. Notable examples include various types of Khuang and Dar, along with instruments like Bengbung, Seki, and Talhkhuang.

- Khuang (Drum): Khuang instruments, crafted from hollow tree trunks covered with animal skin, hold a significant role in Mizo social and religious life. They are categorized by size and length, such as Khuangpui (Big drum), Khuanglai (Middle-sized drum), and Khuangte (Little drum).

- Dar (Gong): Brass gongs are another prominent category of Mizo musical instruments. They come in various sizes and sets, examples include Darkhuang, Darbu, and Darmang.

- Bengbung: This instrument, reminiscent of a xylophone, features flat wooden bars that produce musical notes. It is typically played by girls during leisure.

- Talhkhuang: Similar in construction to Bengbung but larger, this instrument comprises curved wooden pieces of varying depths, producing different notes when struck with a wooden hammer. Talhkhuang is used for specific occasions, such as during the erection of memorial stones.

- Seki: Seki involves beating the hollow horns of domesticated mithun cattle to provide timing cues during traditional group dances.

8.2.2 Wind Instruments

Mizo culture features six types of wind instruments which are - Rawchhem, Tumphit, Mautawtawrawt, Phenglawng, Buhchangkuang, and Hnahtum.

- Rawchhem: Resembling a bagpipe or sheng, Rawchhem features nine small bamboo pipes or reeds inserted into a dried gourd. Musicians control sound production through finger placement while blowing into the mouthpiece.

- Tumphit: Tumphit consists of three bamboo tubes of different sizes and lengths tied together. Musicians blow into the open ends to produce notes based on tube length.

- Mautawtawrawt: This bamboo trumpet comprises various bamboo tubes of different sizes joined together. Musicians blow into one end to produce distinct musical notes.

- Phenglawng: A bamboo flute, Phenglawng initially had three holes producing three distinct sounds, similar to flutes used in other Indian musical traditions.

- Buhchangkuang: Another type of bamboo flute, constructed from reeds or paddy stalks, was primarily played by girls.

- Hnahtum: Mizo boys fashioned simple indigenous musical instruments from various tree leaves, creating unique sounds by blowing on folded leaves.

8.2.3 Stringed Instruments

The Mizo musical tradition includes three types of stringed instruments: |ing\ang, Lemlawi, and Tuiumdar.

- Tingtang: Resembling a fiddle or violin, tingtang features a single string and a bamboo shaft fixed in a hollow gourd. The string is made from Thangtung, the fiber of the Malay Sago palm, and the gourd is covered with a dry animal bladder.

- Lemlawi: Although belonging to the Jew’s harp family, Lemlawi differs in shape and size. It is constructed from small bamboo pieces and produces sound when manipulated in the mouth.

- Tuiumdar: Crafted from bamboo, Tuiumdar features three strings, each producing distinct notes. Musicians play it similarly to a guitar.

n summary, the traditional Mizo music and the associated array of musical instruments serve as invaluable repositories of cultural heritage and historical narratives within the Mizo community. Over the course of centuries, these musical expressions have undergone gradual transformations, encapsulating a range of thematic motifs encompassing love, warfare, nature, and patriotism. The multifaceted nature of Mizo music, spanning from vocal chants to intricate instrumental compositions, extends its influence beyond mere entertainment, permeating into the realms of rituals, communal celebrations, and assertions of cultural identity.

Despite the ostensibly uncomplicated and rudimentary designs characterizing traditional Mizo musical instruments, their cultural significance remains profound. These instruments, spanning striking percussion devices like drums and gongs, wind instruments exemplified by the Rawchhem, and stringed instruments typified by the tingtang, each occupy a distinctive niche in Mizo society and historical context. Even amidst the introduction of contemporary musical elements driven by modern influences, these traditional instruments continue to command a unique and cherished role within the hearts of the Mizo populace.

From a broader perspective, the enduring presence of Mizo music and its associated instruments attests to the indomitable spirit of a community deeply entrenched in its cultural lineage. This cultural dynamism manifests as a harmonious amalgamation of tradition and adaptation, reflecting the ever-evolving tapestry of their cultural identity. The enduring legacy of Mizo music and its instruments resonates as a living testament to the Mizo people’s commitment to preserving and celebrating their rich heritage, thus ensuring its perpetuation for generations to come.


Lalthangliana, B. History of Mizo in Burma. Aizawl: Zawlbuk Agencies. 1997.

B.Thangliana, Mizo Literature, 1993  P.76

Lalruanga. A Study on Mizo Folk Literature, Unpublished Thesis, Gauhati University. 1984.

Lianhmingthanga. Material Culture of the Mizo, 1998.

Thanmawia, RL. Heritage of Mizo Traditional Music. https://mizoram.nic.in/about/music1.htm accessed on 27th Jan 2024

Zawla, K. Mizo Pi Pute Leh An Thlahte Chanchin. first Published in 1964. Aizawl: Lalnipuii at Lengchhawn Press, 2011.


Dr. Malsawmdawngliana and his wife, Dr. R. Lalsangpuii collaborated on the excellent "Windows to the Past: Cultural Heritage of the Mizo" recently published by South-Eastern Book Agencies, from which this chapter is extracted. The book offers a comprehensive delineation of the Zo ethnic tribes' cultural heritage and traditions, including history, craft heritage and traditional practices. I have little doubt the book will prove to be be a useful and invaluable handbook for anyone interested in researching Mizo cultural history. 
I also express deep appreciation to the authors for allowing me to publish this extract here.