The Forgotten Story of Pasalthas – 1

November 15, 2021 Authored by: Dr. Ankita Dutta

After the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the colonial occupation of Bengal was complete. The British were establishing their authority through either territorial annexation or forcible military occupation of one province after the other in Poorvottar Bharat. Prior to the arrival of the British in the Lushai hills (today’s Mizoram, earlier known as the Zo country), the people lived in a conglomeration of independent units (villages) consisting of 50-300 families under the control of a hereditary chief called Lal, on whom all power of land and people was vested. The livelihoods of the people were dependent upon agriculture, largely shifting cultivation, and hunting for meat.

The institution of Chieftainship was deeply rooted in the traditional society of the Lushais. It was a vital constituent of their political life. Regarding the origins of this institution, it is presumed that in the beginning, the privilege to govern the people was bestowed on those persons who wielded the power and the capability to command a certain group of individuals and repulse any onslaught by their enemies. It is thus apparent that those persons who had the capability and flair to gather and organise a competent militia eventually became the chief (Lal). Initially, chieftainship among the Lushais was strongly fought for; however, with the passage of time, it became hereditary.

Each village was an independent entity, ruled over by its own Lal who had sovereign power over his subjects. After the British occupation of Bengal, the Lals were arbitrarily stripped of their political powers, e.g. they could no longer wage wars, award capital punishments, decide upon making their sons the next chiefs, and collect taxes and tributes of various kinds, etc. Having crushed the powerful rebellion against its rule in India in 1857, the British power was at its peak in the 1860s. The administration therefore took vigorous steps to consolidate their hold over the Indian Empire.

The imperial superpower had traversed many tortuous terrains earlier as well. With their vast experience, the nature of the geography was hardly an obstacle when they entered the Lushai hills. But, it was the uncompromisingly independent nature of the Lushais under the able leadership of their Lals which, in fact, posed a greater hurdle in the way of accomplishment of the colonial designs. Earlier, in dealing with the different groups and communities of people living in the inhospitable hilly regions, the British were successful in some areas using their ‘carrot and stick’ policy. They first crushed them with their military might and granted them rewards for cooperating with them.

However, to the utter surprise and dismay of the colonial power, these policies bore little or almost no fruit in case of the frontier ‘hill tribes’ of Poorvottar Bharat. The Lushai chiefs of various clans living between the Run and Tiau rivers in the Chin Hills of Myanmar, used to undertake regular retaliatory expeditions to save their territories from British incursions. The arrival of the British in this region brought about significant changes in the social, political, cultural and religious aspects of the people’s lives. This transformation affected the Lushai society at large, which greatly embittered the chiefs and the common people alike.

Coming of the Christian Missionaries

As it was true for other places, the colonial policy of divide and rule achieved considerable success in the Lushai hills too, and eventually paved the way for Christian Missions. The latter followed on the heels of the British conquest to win over the Lushai Hills ‘for God and Empire’. The idea gradually began to develop that everything associated with the traditional religion and culture of the Lushai society was pagan and profane, hence not fit to be followed anymore by the new converts to Christianity. There was a planned destruction of the traditional knowledge systems of different communities through organised crime at the behest of Western colonialism and Christianity.

Colonial officers like J. Shakespear, A.G. McCall, etc. and Western missionaries like J.H. Lorrain, J.M. Llyod, Lewis E. Mendus, etc. held a Eurocentric, pre-determined Christian theological view in interpreting the traditional religion of the Lushais and the associated beliefs and practices. They described it as “crude animism” in their different writings on the Lushais. E.B. Taylor, a 19th century anthropologist, defined ‘animism’ as a doctrine of ‘Spiritual Beings’. The different cultural and spiritual aspects underlying these beliefs were either left undefined or mis-interpreted by the colonial rulers.

Decline of Traditional Belief Systems and Institutions

Most importantly, with the arrival of Christianity, the traditional institution of the Lushais called the zawlbuk (bachelors’ dormitories/bachelors’ quarters, commonly understood as a traditional Mizo educational institution) witnessed a gradual decline. In the words of Lalbiak Thanga, zawlbuk literally means ‘a big house built for young men to sleep together and keep a vigil at night against enemies’. The zawlbuk was a social welfare institution entrusted with the responsibility of maintaining peace and security in the village. It served as sleeping quarters and a recreational centre for unmarried as well as young married men.

The zawlbuk imparted training, both mental and physical, and discipline to the young boys. It also served as an inn for guests. Similar to a gurukulam, in the zawlbuk too, young men learned the techniques of warfare and fighting, wrestling, singing, traditional arts and handicrafts, stories of bravery, valour and all other essential customs and etiquettes deemed worthwhile for leading a physically and mentally satisfying life, and on how to conduct oneself among others in the society. Except the children who were below ten years of age, all unmarried males in the village came under the discipline of the zawlbuk, their lives being almost completely shaped according to the practices and conventions prevailing therein. Here, young boys had to serve and obey their elders, besides being associated with agriculture and other social activities.

The zawlbuks thus helped instil the spirit of service to the community among men from a very young age. It was the nerve centre of the pre-Christian Lushai society for it played an indispensable role in training the youth to become responsible adult members. In other words, as a powerful social and community institution, the zawlbuk exercised a great sway in establishing social norms and customs among the Lushais before the arrival of Christianity. The new education system introduced by the missionaries with the support of the colonial administration prevented many boys from staying in the zawlbuk for a long period of time. The local students who were educated in the mission schools and went back to their villages, began narrating to their friends what they learnt in these schools.

Capitalising on these, the missions started schools in the villages employing the students who had already passed out from the schools at either Aijal (Aizawl) or Lunglei. In a way, education was used by the Christian missions as an essential means to consolidate their social base and win “souls”, thereby achieving the goal of proselytisation among the non-Christian populace prior to the preaching of the Gospel. Where there was already a school run by the Christian missions, the missionaries usually organised a Sunday school in which stories from the Bible were taught. Popularly known as Sande Sikul, these were started from almost the beginning of the Christian missions in the Lushai hills since the 1890s.

It was later in 1924-28 that N.E. Parry, the then Superintendent of the Lushai hills wrote that in those villages where there were zawlbuks in existence, the people were comparatively better disciplined, more industrious, and expert hunters than in the villages where there were none. The British Government realized during the very early years of their rule that the institution of the zawlbuk must come to an end so as to further their political and religious agenda of proselytsation. Several such zawlbuks were burnt during the British-led military expeditions of 1888-91. Copies of the Mizo Ramayana that were kept in these zawlbuks also met the same fate. Eventually, the zawlbuk faded away, never again to be resurrected into its original form.

It was the then Governor of Assam, Sir Bamfield Fuller, who played an important role in handing over the education system of the zawlbuks in the Lushai hills to the missionaries. This admittedly changed the landscape of the Lushai society forever. The missionaries preached that the moral teachings and ethical principles of Christianity were already well-incorporated into the Lushai religious pantheon, and that if the newly-converted Christians among the Lushais observed the rules of the Church, their souls would be saved from burning in hell. The observance of these rules was declared by the Church as a means for attaining salvation. This was a vast change in the traditional beliefs and practices of the hill people, which was not accepted and welcomed by them at ease.

Beginning of the Conflict

Gradually, the Lushai traditional beliefs and practices were distorted by Christianity to establish a new set of doctrines and beliefs. Many social and cultural elements of the Lushai society were either modified or transformed and then reinterpreted by the missionaries with completely new meanings. The moral and ethical principles of the traditional religious beliefs of the Lushais now came to be redefined in the light of the Gospel. Over and above all these, the British officials imposed forced labour and house tax on every village and its people. This policy was met with fierce resistance from the Lals. Successive expeditions now took place from the Lushai hills on the British camps.

A lesser-known freedom fighter, Pasaltha Khuangchera, played a pivotal role in these expeditions. Fed up with the British demand for the payment of taxes, the Chieftainness of Denlung Ropuiliani, had remarked, “It is for the Pasalthas (brave warriors) to settle the matter.” The Pasalthas soon became a constant source of menace to the legitimacy of the colonial state. Their fight was driven by the demands of political autonomy as much as it was about defending their people by safeguarding their religious belief systems from “digestion” into a foreign faith. In fact, it was because of the valiant leadership of Pasalthas like Khuangchera that the Lushais were able to fight back the British army as it began its invasion.

Who was a Pasaltha?

It needs to be mentioned here that the word Pasaltha in the Mizo language implies a hero, although not in the modern sense of the term ‘hero’. It also means hunter who is equally a fighter. The spirit of Tlawmngaihna, a term used to denote the Lushai “code of morals” before the coming of Christianity, was a highly prized virtue that found expression in the lives of the Lushai heroes or Pasalthas. In the words of Lalthanliana, “the Pasaltha is a brave man, not simply enabling the village and its inhabitants to feel safe but the one who was imbued with Mizo tlawmngaihna.” Tlawmngaihna is a traditional virtue, an ethno-moralistic concept/code of conduct which encapsulated the Lushai society in its entirety. It enjoined a person to be selfless and self-sacrificing, to be helpful towards others, and also to be persevering and hard-working.

Kipgen defines Pasaltha as “a brave and manly person” who had proven his integrity of character by deeds of Tlawmngaihna. Such persons were revered and respected not only in the zawlbuk but also by the Lals of all other villages and their people. They looked upto him and honoured him in times of festivals as well. All the prerequisites of training for becoming a Pasaltha were received in the zawlbuk. The Pasaltha was an apt personification of the Lushai passion to safeguard their ways of living, dignity and honour. He always carried a long sword by his side, which was a mark of his sharp hunting skills and his responsibility as the protector of his village, its land and people. The credit and honour for the Pasaltha was symbolised by a special huge mug (usually made from bison horn) of zu no pui (rice beer) called Taima zu no or Huai zu no, that was offered to him by the Lal on the occasion of ceremonies and feasts.

In the traditional Lushai society, there were many persons who were regarded as Pasaltha or notable and successful hunters. They were accorded a special status for being the protectors and saviours of the village and their community. According to James Dokhuma, “The Pasaltha is not only a skilled hunter but also the one who is claimed to be famous for his prowess in taking heads of the enemies.” In fact, a Pasaltha usually brought several captives, numbering around ten. This also depended to a large extent upon the bravery and strength of the Pasaltha. Undoubtedly, the roles of the Pasalthas were far more conspicuous than others in the pre-Christian Lushai society. Its egalitarian character can be understood from the fact that any commoner could attain the status of a Pasaltha by dint of his bravery and service to the society. It was therefore a non-hereditary position.

Because of their daring, fearless and undaunted spirit, the Pasalthas were the pillars of strength for their community. They helped the poor and the sick, the destitute and the downtrodden in times of their need. The title Pasaltha itself was a mark of honorary dignity in recognition of the services rendered to the society. The Tribal Institute, Art and Culture Department, Government of Mizoram, has listed more than 24 ‘Mizo Heroes’ who were mostly active during the pre-colonial period and upto the first decade of the colonial administration of the Lushai hills, prior to the coming of the Christian missionaries. In most of the writings, no distinctions were made between the Pasaltha, warrior and tlawmngaihna or huaisen. If and when a man was successful in his mission of defeating the enemy or taming wild animals, he gradually became famous as Pasaltha not only within the village but also beyond his neighbour’s villages.

When a Pasaltha successfully saved the lives of his chiefs or elders, he was often rewarded in kind. He was someone who travelled to far-off lands to annihilate enemies, and brought home their heads. He was held in high esteem by all the village households, especially women. Apart from fighting enemies, hunting of wild animals was one of the main goals of the Pasalthas. The Pasaltha would sing a local Lushai song called Hlado after a successful hunt, proudly proclaiming his brave deeds at the entry point of the village. Another type of song called Bawhhla was sung by him from a distance at a very high pitch while coming back home with the heads of the slain enemies.

In the pre-colonial Lushai society, it was a common practice amongst parents that upon giving birth to a baby boy, the said baby was usually blessed to be a ‘great hunter and warrior’. Right from his childhood, the male child was imbibed with the traditional virtue of taking the enemy upon himself as one of his social obligations. It was the custom in every village household to let the newborn male baby hold a chem (a Mizo knife/dao), to convey the message that the future belonged to him and that he would also become resourceful to the society. The main objective was to kill as many wild animals and enemies as possible and especially bring back home their heads. In this way, he would be recognised as mi huaisen, meaning a ‘brave hero’. As a defender of the society, the Pasalthas were the symbols of security and social justice.

[To be continued …]

Centre For Indic studies