Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Hmar History - Hmar tribals of Northeast India


The Hmars are a small tribe living in the North East of India. They speak the Hmar language, which G.A. Grierson placed under the Tibeto-Burman language. They claimed that Manmasi was their original ancestor. The word 'Hmar' literally means 'North'. Opinions are sharply divided on the origin of the word 'Hmar'. One opinion says that the word 'Hmar' was given to them by the Lushais because they lived to the north of them. The word 'Hmar' means 'north' in both Lushai and Hmar languages. If this were true, then 'Hmar', as a nomenclature, would be of a very recent origin. Another opinion holds that the term 'Hmar' is derived from the word 'Marh' or 'Mhar' that means tying of one's hair in a knot on the back. Tradition tells us that the ancestor of the Hmars, Tukbemsawm tied his hair in a knot on his back, and since then, he and his progenies came to be known as the Hmars. Yet another opinion contends that the term 'Hmar' arises from the Chin language 'Mar'. Lt. Col. J. Shakespeare wrote that the Chins called them Mar.

Whatever the case is, it is still not clear how the Hmars got their name. As Dena, a Hmar historian, writes, "Whatever may be the truth, this much is clear to us that the term (Hmar) had not yet gained popularity when the Hmars first came into contact with the British".

The Vais (Plain people) called them 'Kukis' when the Hmars first came into contact with them. It is not clear why the Vais called them 'Kukis but the Hmars had never identified or called themselves as 'Kukis'. They claimed that they are a distinct race different from it. J. W. Edgar, a Civil Officer who accompanied the British column to Tipaimukh on 3rd April 1872 writes that the term 'Kuki' was used by the Bengalis to refer to the hill people but that none of the people wanted to be called by this term. He continued, "…. I have never found any trace of a common name for the tribe among them, although they seem to consider different families belonging to a single group, which is certainly coexistence with what we call the Kuki tribe". Lt. Col. J. Shakespeare in his book "The Lushai Kuki Clans" put the Hmars under the common name of 'Old Kuki' and 'Khawtlang' to 'differentiate them from the Lushais and those currently known as Kukis'. The reason why the Hmars were identified by these names was that the Hmars were too clannish and preferred to be identified by the name of their clans rather than by a common nomenclature. The earlier writers, therefore could not find a common name for them, and seem to identify them, as they deemed appropriate.


The Hmars trace their origin to Sinlung. Numerous poems, songs and tales about this place has been made and handed down from generation to generation. However, the exact location of Sinlung is still open to debate. Several theories and views regarding the origin and location has been forwarded, some of which are:

a) Sinlung must be somewhere in South West China, possibly in the present Tailing or Silung of Yunan Province of today's China.
b) It might have been Sining in central China.
c) It might have been derived from the Chin Dynasty of 221-207 B.C.
d) It might have been a derivative of the Chinese king Chieulung who ruled during 1711 A.D.
e) It might have been a cave, and because it was sealed with a huge stone, it was called Sin (seal, close) Lung (stone, rock).
f) Sinlung was located at Retzawl village in North Cachar Hills of Assam and was named after the rock fortress there.
g) Sinlung was located at Aopatong in the border of Burma and China. The town was named after the chief Silung during the erection of the Great Wall of China.
h) It might be the present Sinlung, located near the Yulung River in Szechuan Province of China.

Although historians differ on the issue of the location of Sinlung and the origin of the name, the fact that they were in Sinlung, however, remains. Sinlung was said to be a city-state where a form of democracy was in existence. While in Sinlung, it was possible that they fought many a war with their neighbouring tribes. Bravery and courage was the greatest virtue and it was here that they started the practice of headhunting.

The Hmars eventually left Sinlung. Theories abound regarding why the Hmars left Sinlung. One view talks of the Hmars leaving Sinlung in search of greener pastures, while another ascribes it to the oppressive rule of the Chinese rulers and the Hmars' inability to repulse their enemies in Sinlung. One of their songs is highly suggestive:

Khaw Sinlung ah
Kawt siel ang ka zuongsuok a;
Mi le nel lo tam a e,
Hriemi hrai a.

Out of city Sinlung
I jumped out like a siel;
Innumerable were the encounters,
With the children of men.

It might be that the Hmars had to 'jump out like a siel' because of the cruelty of the Chinese rulers or because of the famine there. However, the reason why these people left Sinlung has never been clearly told and explained.

When the Hmars left Sinlung, they were probably in one of the successive waves of humanity from China towards the south some thousand years ago. Many historians talk mass movements of humanity in waves from China towards the south, into the Mediterranean basin, into India and into other parts of Southeast Asia during the last few thousand years. These people were probably forced out of China by the Ch'in Dynasty who, according to Dr. Edward Thomas Williams, a historian, "violated all the rules of courteous warfare, triumphed and took over the territory and symbols of the rule of the Chou dynasty (their predecessors)". It is believed that the Hmars might have been moving along with one of these waves towards the south, and eventually into India.

Hmar folk tales and songs tell us that the second settlement of the Hmars was in Shan, which was marked by a time of prosperity and peace. Hranglien Songate, a Hmar historian wrote, "In Shan their civilisation advanced much farther than Sinlung; and the people showed greater intelligence. They knew how to celebrate agricultural prosperity, learned better art of war, and made festival of the victory over the enemy. Furthermore, they learned the use of iron implements and moulding of pipes… This way they came to have the proper means of livelihood." Many of the Hmar festivals such as Butukhuonglawm (Spring festival), Lunglâk (Autumn festival) and Sesun (Solemn celebration) have their origin here in Shan. That they have started the practise of headhunting can be seen from one of their song:

Ka pa lamtlâk an tha'n dang,
Sinlung lamtlâk a tha'n dang;
Shan khuoah tha povin vang,
Tuoichawngin hranlu an tlunna;
Thlomu sieka kem in hril,
Za inhawngah hranlu bah kan sâl.

My father's steps were distinctively good,
Sinlung's steps were, indeed, distinctively good;
Few are the good men in Shan State,
Where Tuoichawng brought the enemy's head;
You talked of tips with eagle's claws, (meaning war)
And we hang the heads high with ropes.

Hmar historians wrote that this period of prosperity and peace in Shan was interrupted by a calamitous famine. As a result, the Hmars had to move further. And from Shan they were believed to have moved towards Kachin land, believed to be in the present Northern Burma (Myanmar), probably in and around Hukwang Valley at the foot of the Eastern Himalayas. This belief is substantiated by the similarity of language between the people of this region and the Hmar language till date. Of Kachin land they sang:

Tiena Kachin lei,
Ka pu leilung Himalawi.

Ancient Kachin,
And Himalawi the land of my forefathers.

As Hranglien Songate suggested, the name Himalaya was originally given by this people. He wrote that, as they came to the foot of the great mountains they decided, "Hi ei hma a tlang hi chu lawi el ei tih," (Let us circumvent this mountain before us). They named this mountain 'Hihmalawi tlang'. Here they met another tribe known to them as the Misimis or Mishmis. According to oral traditions, Sura, one of the forefathers and a well-known character fell in love with a Misimi girl named Thairanchawng and married her during those days. While here, they also came across a river, which they named Airawdung (Ai=crab, raw=burn, dung=valley). This river is believed to be the present Irawaddy River of Burma (Myanmar).

From Kachin the Hmars are believed to have moved to Kawlphai Khampat in the Kabaw Valley of Burma (Myanmar), probably by moving along the foot of the Patkai Hill Range. Here, they had three Rengs (chiefs) - Luopui, Lersi and Zingthlo- under whom they greatly prospered. Luopui ruled over the central part of the land while Lersi and Zingthlo ruled over the northern and southern parts respectively. While they were in Khampat, Luopui planted the now-famous Banyan tree that still remains traceable. This was mentioned in one of their song:

Simah Lersi, Hmarah Zingthlo,
Khawmalaiah Luopui;
Luoipui in lenbung a phun,
Khawthlang puolrangin tlan e.

On the south is Chief Lersi,
On the north, Chief Zingthlo;
At the center, Chief Luopui;
Luopui planted a banyan tree,
The hornbills feed on its fruits.

From Khampat, Chief Lersi was said to move towards the plains of Shan while others moved southward and settled in and around Champhai of today's Mizoram. But why did they leave Khampat? L. Keivom, a Hmar historian wrote, "Under what circumstances did …(they) leave Khampat and the Kabaw Valley - whether they abandoned it due to famine or in search of greener pastures or were pushed out by a stronger force - have never been clearly told. That they were nostalgic about the place and the fact that they were longing to return to it would suggest that they might have been forced to leave Khampat against their will. It might be that they had to flee the oppressive rule of the more powerful Shan Swabaws (princes)." Whatever the case was, it is clear that they had to leave Khampat.

From Khampat, it is believed that the Hmars followed the Rûn River (Imphal river) and made settlements on its banks. As they moved southwards, following the Rûn River, they moved along with the Raltes. This was clear from one of their song:

Rûntui kawi e,
Raltenu le Raltepa leh kan inkawia,
Rûntui kawi e.

Meandering Rûn,
We moved along with the Raltes,
Meandering Rûn.

From their settlements along the Rûn valley, the Hmars crossed the Lentlâng (A mountain range running from north to south. They are the eastern offshoots of the Himalayas) and settled in Champhai of today's Mizoram. It is believed that this was how the Hmars came to settle in Mizoram. The Hmars were one of the first to inhabit Mizoram, much before the Lushais or the Pawis. While they were in Mizoram, the names of the villages they inhabited were known by the name of the clans inhabiting them, such as Chawnsiem, Ngurte, Sungte, Zote, etc. The Hmars came to occupy not only Mizoram, but also parts of Manipur, Assam and Tripura as well. Hmar tales and songs told us that they were under Chawnhmang, a Rêngpui (something like a maharaja). There were six minor rêngs (territorial chiefs) - Neilal Thiek, Demlukim Hrangkhawl, Tanhril Saivate, Fiengpuilal Biete, Lawipa Hrangchal and Tusing Faihriem under him to help him in administration..

It is said that after several years, the supreme king Chawnhmang migrated to Tipera (Tripura), and since then, Tripura came to be known as 'Rêngpuiram' (land of the Rêngpui) to the Hmars. Before he left, Rêngpui Chawnhmang gave gifts/presents to each of his minor rêngs - a golden plate and a copper pot to Tusing Saivate, gong and horse to Lawipa Hrangchal, pure silver pot to Neilal Thiek, copper plate and copper gong to Fiengpuilal Biete, gong set and tripper horse to fathers of Demlukim Hrangkhawl, and the royal cloth or robe and kebai thi (necklace) to Tanhril Saivate. The copper pot that was given to Tusing Saivate is still in Retzawl village (Haflong, North Cachar Hills) with the Buongtes. Therefore the great Rêng of the Hmars left his own people and eventually became a Hindu convert. From there, he continued collecting taxes through his army every year, according to the agreement between him and his minor rengs.

It is said that after Chawnhmang's death, a new Rêng took his place. The new Rêng then sent his vai collectors to collect tax. But the Hmars could not understand the language that this army spoke since it was their own people who collected taxes before. When the army reached Champhai, the people shouted,

Vai an hung, vai an hung
Rengpui thal hlawm vai an hung;
An tawng fang ang hawi lova,
Ta puon ang la khawng rei aw.

Vais are coming vais are coming,
Rengpui's arrows (armies), vais are coming;
Their language is unknown to us,
I will strike them like a weaving cloth.

The Rêng's army was attacked (by the women) and their attempt to collect tax was resisted. And the army was sent back. The rêng then recruited Takam Vais and returned with full force and subdued the minor rengs. Hrangchal rêng, Lawipa and Lungtau rêng Hauhnar were arrested. The Hmars remembered this as Takam Vailien (Takam Vai invasion). The Hmar areas therefore became desolated and were left with no leaders or rêngs. Besides, it is said that the Hmars, during this time, started pahnam indo (inter-clan war), which greatly weakens them. Many of their songs talk of this pahnam indo.

Hranglien Songate suggests that these paved the way for the emergence of Lushais. The Hmars for these reasons had to flee from Champhai and its adjoining areas. Consequently the Lushais, who were beyond the Tiau River crossed over to Champhai and started raiding the Hmar areas. Hranglien Songate wrote, "Therefore, the eastern territoriy was left without any chief. This was the first dispersion of the Hmars. As there was a vacuum of power, the Lushais, who were hitherto residing on the eastern side of the river Tiau crossed over and entered the eastern territory. Vanpuia, a Lushai chief killed a hundred siels that the Hmars had left behind and made a great celebration. This was how the Lushais came to the land of the Hmars. Before, the Lushais knew that the areas where the Hmars lived were very fertile, but till then they dared not enter this land. With the invasion of the Takam Vais, and the dispersion of the Hmars, the Hmardom came to an end." This is believed to be the beginning of the end of 'Hmardom'.

Under the Lushai Chiefs, the Hmars suffered greatly. Many of the Hmars came under the Lushai chiefs and became their subjects while others who did not want to be under the Lushai chiefs left and settled in the adjoining areas. It was because of this that many Hmars lost their identity and spoke the Duhlian language. As a result, the Hmars are scattered in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (Bangladesh), Tipera (Tripura), Cachar (Assam), Manipur, Meghalaya and Mizoram to the present day. Here they lived under their own chiefs (Lal). The Hmars in Cachar and North Cachar Hills came under the British control after the First Anglo-Burmese War 1824-26. The Hmars in Mizoram came under the Government of Assam since the Lushai Expedition 1871-72, and the Hmars in Manipur came under the British Raj after the Anglo_Manipur War at Khongjom in 1872.

Till then, the Hmars has had no contact with the Western world. They still practise the barbaric way of headhunting and inter-tribal warfare. The outside world was unknown to them and they were unknown to the outside world. And this was more or less the picture when a Welsh missionary Watkin R. Roberts came with the Gospel at Senvawn village in south Manipur on February 1910. Watkin R. Roberts is fondly called and remembered by the Hmars as Pu Tlangval (Sir Youngman). With the introduction of the Gospel, a wind of change swept the Hmar community. Pudaite wrote, "…to the Hmar it was more than just the mere newness that appealed to their heart. It was the amazing transforming power of the Gospel that had captivated their hearts and imaginations. They had been headhunters but now were heart hunters. They had been savage and 'uncivilised' people but now they were counted among the (rank and file of) civilised society of the earth. They had once been filled with fear and with frustration but now with friendliness and assurance of life." 99% of the Hmars are now Christians.

Western education was introduced and their language (Hmar tawng, Khawsak tawng) reduced to writing. The contribution of Pu Buanga (James Herbert Lorraine), a Welsh missionary stationed in Aizawl, was especially significant. It was he who reduced the said language to writing. From then on their way of life underwent a sea of change. They gave up their old practices and embraced many Western culture and traditions for the better. A thatched Church building and a local Primary School became a common sight at most Hmar villages. The first Hmar book, Independent Kohran Hlabu, a hymnal was published in 1923. Among their kindred tribes, the Hmars are now one of the richest in literature. The literacy among the Hmars is now 70% approximately. Many Hmars are now well-educated and work in different service sectors. However, the majority of the Hmars are still cultivators, continuing the age-old practice of Jhumming / slash and burn cultivation.

They also participate in village and state level political activities. Realising the need to form an association or a union, the Hmar Students' Association (HSA) was formed in 1939 at Imphal, Manipur to cater to the needs of the Hmar students. The first Hmar political body, the Hmar Mongolian Federation (HMF) was formed at Lakhipur, Cachar. In 1953, another Hmar political body called the Hmar National Congress (HNC) was formed and it was renamed as the Hmar National Union (HNU) in December, the same year. Another Hmar political body, the Hmar Association was formed in 3 July 1986. That year itself, it was renamed the Hmar People's Convention (HPC). The HPC demanded an autonomous district for the Hmars in Mizoram. The Mizoram Government signed an accord with the HPC in 1994. As per the accord, Sinlung Hills Development Council was formed in the Hmar inhabited areas of Mizoram. The Council has its Headquarters at Sakawrdai, Mizoram.

The Hmars are now more or less a 'civilised' tribe. Most Hmar inhabitations are now well connected with the outside world. In the field of education they have made rapid progress in the last fifty years. Hmar students are now found in the best universities of India. There are students studying abroad as well. These students are second to none. Economically the Hmars, as a whole are well placed and are economically well off in comparison to their kindred tribes. With the abolition of the chieftainship in 1954, the Hmar villages come under an annually elected village authority. Till today, this is in practice. There is no class or caste system in Hmar society. From the richest to the poorest, the oldest to the youngest, all occupy an equal position in a Hmar society. They are now one of the recognised Scheduled Tribes of India.

Looking back at the last hundred years, the Hmars have really come a long long way. From nomadic headhunters, they have transformed into one of the most educated and advanced tribe of North East India. The introduction of Christianity and Western education has transformed them economically, socially and culturally for the better. From one of the most uncultured and backward of peoples, they have come to this present stage. This is really amazing and it is marvellous in our eyes! Yes, it is indeed, marvellous in our eyes!


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