Day 3: Rih Dil lake to Chawngtlai village
We visited Chawngtlai with no idea what we were in for. During all my assiduous research on places to visit in Mizoram, this village name had not turned up. So after the mesmerizing visit to Rih Dil lakje, it was with a very sceptical mind, that we set out on the road to Chawngtlai, hoping that it would not prove to be a disappointment. This segment of the trip was Mr Zoliana’s brainwave and I just prayed that he had understood our requirements on what kind of places we wanted to visit. But was I wrong to even doubt the maestro! The visit to Chawngtlai, my readers, was the highlight of the Mizoram trip and hence has an entire blog post devoted to it.
Just to recap, this visit was on the same day as Rih Dil lake in Myanmar, so think of this blog post as Day 3.5! We drove straight to Champhai from the lake, and after a huge lunch at the Champhai Tourist Lodge we set out for a hitherto unknown destination trusting solely in the word of Pu Zoliana.
The village of Chawngtlai lies in Champhai district, in southeast Mizoram. The distance from Champhai, the nearest town, is forty five kilometers, which we estimated would be an hour’s drive along the hilly terrain. I remember that all of us dozed off on the journey, tired from our busy itinerary. We were woken up by Zira, our driver’s voice, asking for directions on his phone. So this part was new to him too, I realised. A little further along, we came to a crossing with the signboard saying, ‘Mizo Historical Village, Chawngtlai’.
Not knowing what to expect we were about to get down and ask around when we were approached by a gentleman. He introduced himself as Mr Raltawna, a retired school teacher and told us that he was our guide. We were slightly taken aback. So far in Mizoram we’d been getting along just fine relying on the services of the trusty Zira, our driver, who would helpfully translate (only in Hindi) wherever we faced a problem, so the concept of an official guide felt strange.
Behind Mr Raltawna came trailing a whole lot of paan-chewing men. Everyone seemed to be a guide! A round of big friendly smiles, nodding heads and handshakes ensued. Endless stream of introductions and chibais followed, delaying us by nearly half an hour. Language was definitely a barrier and we strained to understand our guide. Everyone was very excited. All the men seemed to be in extraordinary good cheer; I reasoned to myself that after all it was their Feast Day . It looked to me that we just might be the first non-Manipuri tourists to visit the newly-designated village.
Mr Raltawna explained that a recent decision, as late as 2015, had been taken to declare Chawngtlai as a historical village based on the discovery of artefacts and antiquities which can be traced back to Mizo forefathers. He was going to take us to visit these sites.
We drove up the winding narrow village roads until we came to a divergent pathway, where we were told that the car would go no further and we had to walk the rest of the way. A steeply-inclined, narrow hillside trail led up to a clearing with a tree in the center. The entire scene struck me as eerie but exciting at the same time. Looking up into the branches of the tree a really horrific sight met us. There seemed to be hanging from their scalps very lifelike human heads with flowing hair and signs of dried blood oozing out from wounds. The scalps gently swayed to and fro in the breeze. It was all too much to take in or understand. Were they real? Were these people still secretly head hunting?
Light was falling fast and the most important step was for us to photograph everything as fast as possible. Meanwhile whipping out my notebook I started to jot down whatever our guide was telling us. A black stone in the clearing had an English inscription which read as follows:
Our Mizo ancestors were those who raided and fought against our bitter enemies. Bringing home with them the head of the enemies they killed, they used to hold a dance around a fire and the heads were hanged on the Sahlam tree after raising a hunter’s cry over them. Each and every young male born Mizo was made to chop the head so as to have the name ‘Man Hunter’. This Sahlam is known to be the sole tree to exist in the entire world on which the heads of dead men were hung.
“So, is this the Sahlam tree? Are those real heads?” I enquired nervously.
“Yes this is the famous Sahlam tree. No no, not real. These are replicas”, Mr Raltawna assured me.”The Sahlam tree is so called because, Sah means ‘to strike with a sword’, and lam means ‘dance’, he explained.
I carried on reading the inscription.
Chief Nikuala and his noble warriors fought valiantly and killed every enemy who could have subjugated Mizoram wholly. As the heads of these foreign invaders had already been hanged on this very tree the sahlam tree is crucially important. A world’s heroically undefeated village Chawngtlai. A famous village where we do dance.” The greatest knight Nikuala Pasaltha Te (1886-1892), and his valiant warriors, 35 in all, had their names inscribed on the black stone.
I marvelled at this ancient custom which might seem barbaric to us, but to a warrior tribe, justice was instantaneous and well deserved. Looking around, I spied something next to the Sahlam tree – huge monolithic slabs of stone with prehistoric carvings of men, women and animals. Our guide explained, that these monoliths were discovered in the densely forested hillsides.
It was quite an amazing site. Now I slowly started to understand why Chawngtlai village had declared itself a Mizo Historical Village. The villagers still celebrate their ancestor, Chief Nikuala’s 1891 victory over the invading tribes from the east, now Myanmar side. This battle marked the historic end of the head hunting practice of the Mizos, especially so, when the British took a grave view of Nikuala’s barbaric act of killing seven enemies and hanging their heads from a tree. Chief Nikuala was imprisoned and ultimately died in the Alipore Jail in Calcutta.
In those days frequent wars were fought not only among the various Mizo villages at the time, but they fought wars among themselves as well — a warrior who brought home the heads of enemies was considered a great fighter and entire village community considered him as their protector. I looked up at the heads (gory wooden replicas) hanging high upon the branches of the trees, swaying in the slight wind and tried to imagine life in this peaceful village of today some one hundred and twenty five years back, not too long ago indeed and a shiver went up my spine.
Mr Raltawna told us that there were many more places in the village which we must visit, but our main concern was that light was too bad for any photographs. We were then taken to the Great Knight Hranghleia’s tombstone In front was a Selupham, or a tall single wooden log, on which the hunted heads of Mithun were kept. There was so much to see and so little time.
As we climbed the steep path to look at the under-construction Nikuala Memorial Stone, the sun set majestically in the far off horizon casting an orange hue on the whole of the village laid out below.
On our way back, we saw that the villagers had kept their village spotlessly clean. Everywhere, I saw placards and small green dustbins as part of the Swachh Bharat Mission. I was told that the village comprises of around 400 houses and the villagers are mostly farmers growing grapes and passion fruit, many work as government employees and others in the small quarries dotting the mountainside.
It seemed to us that word of our visit had spread and nearly the whole village had turned out to see us. The genuine warmth and hospitality was evident in their huge smiles. We met Mr Ngurdingpuia Pachuau, who told me to call him Dingpuia, the General Secretary of Mizoram Pradesh Youth Congress. He invited us all over to his house for tea. He lives in Aizawl and was visiting his parents.His wife called Malawmi, works as Programme Executive in Doordarshan, at the Aizawl Station.
Sipping tea in his house, we heard the astounding lost and found story of Ramthangi, a 62, year old woman, from Malawmi. Way back in 1972, at the tender age of nineteen, Ramthangi fell in love with a man from Andhra Pradesh who was then working with the Border Roads Organisation and building roads in her village, Chawngtlai. After marriage, she and her husband left the village and since then they have been untraceable. Only recently, Praveen Kumar, a Christian, came across Ramthangi, in a remote Andhra village. When he found her, she was a sad widow having lost both her husband and her daughter. She was living from hand to mouth with her grandson. Kumar came to know that this woman, who had changed her name from Ramthangi to Ram Than Ji, hailed from Mizoram and wanted to go back home to her village Chawngtlai. She spoke only Telugu, and remembered only a few Mizo words like Nu (Mother) and Pa (Father). With great difficulty, she managed to name her siblings. After a great deal of enquiries, Kumar managed to contact the Chawngtlai Welfare Committee’s Chairman, Ngurdingpuia Pachuau and tell the story. Photographs were exchanged and finally when Ramthangi’s sister was shown her photo that she was able to confirm that this was indeed her long lost sister, believed dead. The Good Samaritan, Kumar, brought Ramthangi all the way from Andhra Pradesh to Chawngtlai and after forty three years a hitherto unheard of reunion took place.
To me, sitting in the chair in front of me, Ramthangi, looked a little lost and forlorn. Not able to understand her own mother toungue any more, she seemed unaware of the buzz surrounding her. It was touching to see how everyone was very protective and treat her with great kindness. It was evident, that to them, finding Ramthangi after forty-three years was a victory in itself and their happiness was evident. Clearly, this village thrived on love and community despite its fierce past.
Though it was just after 5 pm, it was totally dark outside and we still had to reach our lodgings for the night. I just wish that could have spent more time with these lovely warm people. The villagers were inordinately proud of their village and they were right to be so. Chawngtlai village still claims a role in the historical tradition of the Mizo people. Bidding reluctant farewells to Mr Raltawna and all the villagers who came to see us off, we started on our two hour drive to Kawlkhul Tourist Lodge.
NOTE: This post was written after our December 2015 visit. Much has happened to the village and anyone can visit their facebook page Mizo Historical Village – Chawngtlai at
or contact Mr Dingpuia Pachuau on his Facebook page for further information or Mr Raltawna on 9862538351.