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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Eventually, the zawlbuk faded away, never again to be resurrected into its original form.
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.
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.
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.
One of the greatest heroes of the Mizos, Khuangchera was born in 1850 at the village Parvatui, which was then under the Chieftainship of Lianphunga. He later moved to the villages of Kanghmun and Reiek near present-day Aizawl. Reiek was then ruled by Sailianpuia, a chief from the Sailo clan of the Lushais. Khuangchera was gentle, brave and fearless, and was deeply concerned about the welfare of his people. As a child, Khuangchera was blessed with extraordinary physical strength. By virtue of his selfless and self-sacrificing qualities of bravery and righteousness, he was quickly able to win over the hearts of his people. He was also a reformer of the society in which he lived.
While Khuangchera was the leader of the youths of Parvatui village, he took many important steps to reform their character and also taught them the importance of being self-dependent. It is said that there was not a single incidence of elder youths meting out ill-treatment to the younger ones in Parvatui village during the lifetime of Khuangchera. He soon became a popular figure and a beloved leader of Parvatui. His life was a source of inspiration, a role-model for the people. In due course of time, Khuangchera’s services to the community became indispensable, so much so that the chief Lianphunga used to mention his name whenever he was in distress or whenever he sensed any danger looming around his territory.
Being extremely well-built and physically fit, Khuangchera fought head-on against his enemies as much as he fought against the wild beasts in the jungles. Many a times, the greatness and success of the Lushai chiefs in war depended to a large extent upon the number of Pasalthas they possessed in their Chiefdom. Among the many Pasalthas of that time, Khuangchera was especially well-known for his bravery, whereas Vanapa was reputed as a distinguished military tactician. Zampuimanga and Chawngbawla were famous for their hunting prowess, while Taitesena was a man of valour who taught tough lessons to the enemy.
Khuangchera was a reputed warrior of Changsil, a village located on the banks of the Dhaleswari river near Sairang where the British troops were stationed. Initially, Khuangchera did not participate in the second Chin-Lushai military expedition of 1889-90 as he was observing Naulaihrilh – take-off period for both the parents after childbirth, prevalent in the pre-Christian Lushai society. He had already trained his men to launch a surprise attack on the British. But, the chief of Changsil was annoyed by the absence of Khuangchera during the expedition. He then left for the Changsil Fort and ordered his men to immediately send for Khuangchera, since he was an outstanding military leader and strategist.
Khuangchera’s superior military tactics had, by now, become the talk of the town. The Pasalthas made simultaneous attacks on the British forces. Since they knew the area well and were already familiar with the difficult mountainous terrain, they could carry out hunting operations even in the middle of the night and take the British by surprise. The strategy was to keep track of the movements of the British intruders for days together and then strike them hard when they least expected it. During the British expedition of 1889-90, the Lushai warriors cut off all communication lines between the Lushai hills and Cachar and between Aijal and Changsil, so that the enemy side was unable to assist one another.
Khuangchera was then in Ailawng village, about 30 km from Aijal. In September 1890, Capt. Browne left Aijal on his way to Shillong. The chiefs who were the descendants of Manga and Kalkhama and their people had, very strategically, pre-planned the murder of Browne. Under the guidance and directions of Khuangchera, Capt. Browne and his entourage were attacked by the men of Liankunga, Kalkhama, Manga, Tulera, and Khama on the road to Changsil. At first, they shot all his followers. After this, Saithawma, who had been deprived of his Chieftainship, exclaimed with finality the challenging words – “Let the chief fight the chief.” He then shot Capt. Browne who was still mounted on his horse.
Seriously wounded, Capt. Browne immediately fell off his horse with a thud. Along with one of his servants, the Officer retreated. With immense difficulty, he crawled all the way to reach the Changsil post. But, very soon after reaching there, he became unconscious and succumbed to his injuries. This incident took place on the 9th of September, 1890. Aijal was also attacked in strength by the men of Khuangchera. The British officials were apparently surprised. Virtually, no resistance was offered by the police. In the firing that followed, Ngurbawnga, Khuangchera’s contemporary and another brave yet lesser-known warrior, was shot at his right thigh.
According to the then prevailing customs of the Lushais, the dead/injured body of a friend and fellow warrior is never left behind alone nor forsaken in the battlefield. A Pasaltha would never do that. Khuangchera carried his friend’s dead body on his back while at the same time using his dao/spear as a sign of his refusal to surrender. But, the British soldiers kept firing at him continuously from the Changsil Fort, a few kilometres away from Sairang. Both Khuangchera and Ngurbawnga laid down their precious lives while trying to save their beloved land by resisting the advancing British forces, who now had more than enough ammunition to face any eventuality.
The Lushai warriors soon ran out of ammunition, even while the British fired shots in quick succession and were thus able to outflank them. Both Khuangchera and Ngurbawnga became two of the earliest Lushai freedom fighters to have attained martyrdom. The Khuangchera Memorial Committee has commemorated the site of his death at Changsil with a stone slab. There are many villages in Mizoram today where one can see the erection of such memorial stones in the memory of the brave Mizo warriors of the past. Their heroic exploits were an inspiration to the succeeding generations. Khuangchera never surrendered and fought till his last breath. He left a simple four-point code based on his own wisdom and experience for the villagers to follow in his absence. The main teachings of this code were:
1. Always build your own jhum hut on the main spur of a hill lest you fall prey to the stalking beasts;
2. Never attack your enemy, human or animal, just because you are not afraid of him. There is a time to attack and a time to withdraw. Though one must be proud, never let pride get the better of you;
3. Never speak to anybody arrogantly. Always speak words of comfort;
4. It is needless to get angry with the womenfolk whom you have already overcome by nature.
Lesser-known warriors like Khuangchera have been a neglected lot in Indian history textbooks. There were many other Pasalthas who performed their duties faithfully for their chiefs and the entire community. But, it is an extremely sad part of history that the life-histories of these Pasalthas were not recorded. They have habitually been marginalised from the mainstream historical accounts. A study of the life histories of these heroes can be particularly illuminating in understanding the different patterns of movements, migrations, warfare and inter-clan relations, including the socio-political and cultural conditions that existed during their times.
The writer is associated with the Center for Indic Studies, Indus University, Ahmedabad as an Assistant Professor. Her area of interest is North East India, it's history, culture and civilization before the advent of Christianity in the region. She is also a public speaker, writer and Columnist.
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