4/15/2011 to 6/5/2011 | India , Mizoram

A “Sap” in Mizoram: Aizawl

Mizoram is not an easy place to get to, even from the relatively nearby state of Nagaland.  I spent the better part of the first day, of my three day journey, packed in like a proverbial sardine in an Indian Railways general class compartment, there-always-room-for-one-more class, aboard the painfully slow passenger train from Simalgiri to Lumding.  I arrived in Lumding the evening, unable to procure a berth on the night train to Silchar, rather than endure an overnight version of what I had just been through in general class, I opted instead to spend a night in Lumding, and take the day train in the morning.  In addition to the comfort of a reserved seat, the day journey would allow me to enjoy the view as train meandered through this scenic hill covered region of Assam via the British hill station of Halflong.   The rugged terrain which makes the route so scenic also provides excellent cover for several insurgent groups and lawless bandits who have operated in the area for years.  This narrow gauge line between Silchar and Lumding is often referred to as the “bullet proof” train.  I figured this to be an urban legend propagated so that people would continue to take the train in the wake of in the wake of frequent attacks on the line.  After all, the windows were open, so even if the rest of the train was “bullet proof” a shot through the open window would render that particular bit of security mute.  I was surprised to read that there is truth behind the lore though it seems the engines, and engineers, are more protected than the passengers. (see here)  Things were relatively quite on the rebel/bandit front at the time I was making my journey, though there was no shortage of military presence along the way with every station watched over by camo clad Indian Army personnel and fortified bunkers manned with large caliber machine guns.

The train was late.  A statement I write not with surprise but rather as a matter fact.  Instead of arriving around 6 or 7 pm as scheduled, a decent hour to look for a room in a town where I had no information, I was instead wandering the deserted streets of Silchar around midnight searching for a room.  Eventually having to settle for $15 dollar a night “deluxe room,” about 3 times what I typically prefer to pay.  But after a half hour of roaming (relatively aimlessly) my only options were an overprice filthy closet of a room where the proprietor was trying to obviously take advantage of my situation an attempting to charge a criminally large sum of $7 for said flee pit, and the expensive but definitely nice room I ended up taking.


Ted, whom I had met in Nagaland, had given me the contact information for a Mizo woman Himpuii who he had stayed with in Aizawl, on a visit of Mizoram a year earlier.  When I gave her a call from Silchar in little more than 30 minutes she had put me in touch with a contact in Silchar, who had then booked me on the next available Sumo (shared Indian SUV) to Aizawl which left that night.  Perhaps if she knew my height she would have recommended I wait till the next morning and get a better seat.  As it turned out I was in the very back with next to no leg room and trying to avoid cracking my head against the ceiling on every bump on the 6 hour journey from Silchar to Aizawl, and there were many.  It was not the most pleasant night journey I’ve taken, and actually probably ranks near the bottom, which is saying quite a bit about the level of discomfort.  Nevertheless I arrived in Aizawl early the next morning and the hospitable Himpuii provided me with a quite comfortable room in her building where I could catch up on the sleep I didn’t get the previous night.

Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, is a nice city perched pretty location straddling a high ridge amidst the steep sided green hills of a geographically beautiful state.  A fairly affluent and well developed city by Indian standards, Aizawl is the only city I can remember visiting in India that doesn’t suffer from chronic power cuts, even at the end of the dry season when hydro power is in short supply.  Citizens are actually shocked and outraged on the rare occasions and outage it does occur, and reason for the outage is often printed in the paper the next day, unheard of elsewhere in the country.

Mizoram may be the most Christian state in the world.

Welsh Presbyterian missionaries converted the Mizo tribes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and they’ve taken to the new religion with a fervor that might make the conversion of St. Paul look tepid by comparison.  Relatively recent coverts to the faith, as is often the case with the newly converted, the Mizos make up for what they lack in historical tradition, in fervent practice, and a particularly strong missionary tradition.  In a “when I left you I was but the learner, now I am the master” moment the Mizos even proudly send missionaries to Wales.

Did I just actually make a reference to the biblical conversion of Saul to Paul and quote Darth Vader in the same paragraph?  Just checking.

The new religion quickly usurped the traditional tribal power structure, with the church elders and the pastor now wielding the respect that the village chief once might have enjoyed.  Life in Mizoram revolves around the church, in fact there are very few social outlets not connected with the church.  There are services every evening with each day focusing on a different segment of the community, be it women, youth, ect. In order that there is no excuse not to attend, all shops close by 6pm. The only exception to this self imposed curfew, being of a few pan shops, as Mizos are nearly as hooked on betel nut as their Northeastern neighbors to the west, the Kasi in Meghalaya.  On Sunday the series of services and education programs lasts all day, and not a business in town is open, again with the exception of the odd pan shop.  Every sumo or bus journey in Mizoram begins with the vehicle pulling over just outside of town so that the occupants may pray for a safe journey, probably not a bad idea given the winding narrow hillside roads that traverse most of the state.  The entire society has become interwoven with the church principle the Welsh Presbyterian church, which is alleged to have a budget equal to that of the state government.

Despite its whole hearted adoption of Christianity, and the western culture of those who brought it, remnants of the tribal society remain.  The tribal remnants are perhaps less overt than in Nagaland, but its there, especially in sense of community drawn from their common tribal roots.  Just as the various clans and villages banded together for protection, with each member of the clan or village responsible for helping and protecting the others, in the days of warring and headhunting, this sense of communal responsibility lives on. Even in Aizawl the city is broken up into various localities which operate almost like a traditional village.  Announcements are made over a loudspeaker relating news in the locality, deaths, marriages, church events, ect.  Traditionally, when a death occurred, young members of the locality would stay at the mourners’ home to help them with household tasks.  Though times are changing and while in the village when there are many more physical jobs to do this is still practiced in the Aizawl the support is becoming more financial than physical in recent times.

With Himpuii I was fortunate to be invited to one of her relative’s marriages, like metaphor for Mizoram, superficially a western, with tradition hidden beneath the surface of the white dress, veil, suites, and ties.  The wedding begins, often a few days before the church ceremony, with the distribution of the “Brides price” a largely symbolic payment of a few hundred rupees that the groom must pay to the brides family.  The money is then divided between various relatives on the bride’s side of the family.  With the accepting of the portion of the bride’s price they have a “stake” in the marriage but are also then supposed to give a “puan” the traditional skirt worn by Mizo women, which she brings to the husband’s house.  In addition to puan, more practical gifts for setting up a household are also now given, much like the wedding presents in a western marriage.  After the marriage and reception the bride escorted to her husbands home by members of her family traditionally done keep the bride safe during her journey to what may have been a village more than a days travel away.  Before the bride is allowed to enter her new husband’s home the leader of the bride’s delegation will demand something from the groom’s family.  Presently many times this portion of the tradition is often turned into a type of game where the bride’s entourage asks for some ridiculous task to be performed or difficult item to be obtained.  Though after brainstorming several ridiculous options including having the parents of the groom carry the leader of the bride’s delegation (a very large man especially by Mizos standards standing at more than 6 feet tall and weighing more than 200 lbs), my suggestion was 100 kg of betel nut (a supply that might last a Mizo a week, ok maybe a month), but in the end the rather sentimental request was made to have the groom’s parents call the bride by the name, “daughter.”

One of the first Mizo words I learned was “Sap” the word used for Caucasian foreigners like myself.  Sap is a corruption of “Sahib,” the term invoking respect used by colonial Indians to address Europeans.  While one would not be addressed as Sahib anywhere in India today, in Mizoram I was still a “Sap,” a word that still retains some of the respect of its roots.  I was told often, which actually made me a bit uncomfortable, that by virtue of my appearance “I was respected” since it was Sap’s like me who had brought Christianity to Mizoram.  With Christianity they had given the Mizos cloths and education.  Many times I would hear from Mizos in nearly the exact same words, “Before Christianity we were stupid, and naked,” a statement which always gave me a sense of sadness.  “No you weren’t stupid,” I would counter, “you just had different knowledge.” Unfortunately much of that knowledge is lost or being lost.  There are some signs for optimism as often happens when so called “old-fashioned” ways that were once common place, become rare, there is a renewed effort retain what is in the process of being lost.  In 2010 a massive performance of the traditional Mizo bamboo dance, known as Cheraw, was staged in order to set a Guinness World Record.  The obviously gimmicky event, had the beneficial effect of rallying the community around a celebration of their pre-Christian culture as thousands of school children learned the traditional dance in order to take part in the world record performance which featured 10,736 dancers, according to guinnessworldrecords.com.  Hopeful events like this and will enable more and more Mizos to not only be proud of their recent Christian tradition but also the tribal traditions that predated the arrivals of the “Sap” missionaries.


4 comments to A “Sap” in Mizoram: Aizawl

  • Absolutely amazing pictures representing culture and life of people of Aizawl.An Excellent post by Mr Hanson,after reading your post I decided to visit Miazoram and Aizawl in near Future.I would like to appreciate your writing skills. The post is written in a good quality as well as it keeps the reader engaged in reading it.Thank you posting it.

  • Thanks glad you enjoyed it. Enjoy Mizoram.

  • Marapasaw

    I’ve enjoyed reading this post too. You may want to correct just one word which you seem to be typing wrongly and repeatedly. Instead of the word “their”, you have been using “there”. I notice this in the post related to “Saiha…” and here as well at the last sentence. Quote: “.. Mizos to not only be proud of there recent Christian tradition….”.

    Another correction you may want to make is the spelling of STATES (it reads Sates, instead of States, I guess) in the right column of the website, indicating your current status. It reads: “Currently back in the Sates visiting:
    Moorpark, CA, USA”.

    By the way, I was wondering why some people you encountered said they were stupid and naked before the arrival of the Zo Sap! Their choice of word seem unreasonable to me as well.

    And interestingly, we, the Maras do not use the word “Sap”, we simply called Caucasians as “Mongyu” – which means White. Thanks for sharing your observation and the photos.

  • Marapawaw, thanks for the corrections I don’t proof read to the point I should and my mild dyslexia doesn’t help.

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