The Green Hills of Mizoram

The state of Mizoram comprises of long, narrow ranges of densely wooded hills and valleys which run along the border with Myanmar. Its small population of a little over one million is predominantly Christian and the Roman alphabet was adopted for the Mizo language with the arrival of British missionaries during the nineteenth century. They didn’t impose a style of writing so much as devise a system for transcribing a heretofore unwritten language and, since this state now has some of the highest literacy rates in the country, they didn’t do such a bad job. Well, so far: so much guidebook information but nothing could really have prepared me for such a dramatic change in landscape and culture as we crossed the border from the south eastern tip of Assam.

The winding, and at times heavily pitted, road to the capital passed gorgeous vistas of steep, bamboo and palm-clad hillsides giving way to endless additional ranges of hills fading to blue in the distance. I expect you would have to wait for an exceptionally clear day to get a prizewinning photograph though, because all that vegetation produces quite a pervasive haze. Eventually we got to the capital, Aizawl, where almost half the population of the state live in near-vertical profusion across the sides of several adjoining hills. The only institutions that have benefited from any levelling of ground are the football clubs and the larger churches. Everything else, including markets, schools, hospitals and government buildings occupy multi-coloured, multi-storied concrete boxes accessed by dramatic hairpin bends or long flights of steps. Youths on motorcycles, whose yellow helmets bear the word “TAXI” cluster at intersections and the city’s residents can indeed be seen to climb on behind them with impunity.

After settling in at my hotel (of which more later) I was taken for the obligatory night view of the city from a nearby hilltop. It was certainly spectacular and I even managed a couple of pictures before the local youths came over to try out their English. Not bad. My guide for this section of the trip was a delightfully earnest Mizo chap (ethnically akin to Chinese – more explanation later) who, unlike most of our previous guides in the North East, had not studied tourism specifically but was apparently largely self-taught. He was at great pains to explain that his state was so new to tourism that many amenities had yet to be introduced and, since tomorrow was Sunday and everything would be closed, there really wouldn’t be much for me to do on my only full day in Aizawl except go to church.

As it turned out, a little bit of research on the hotel Floria’s first class internet service and a little bit more persuasion on my part meant that we made extremely good use of the day after all.

First we had to return for another try at Foreigner Registration for this is another state that has only very recently been declared safe for outsiders to visit. The North East has a longstanding reputation for political unrest, difficult if not dangerous travel conditions and heavy-handed intervention by central government. However, it appears that nowadays these minority tribal people have suddenly been declared “picturesque” and instructed to put out the tourist welcome mat. A courteous police officer drove up to open the office specially for me and, passport duly stamped, we were soon off to church with most of the the rest of the city.

Solomon’s Temple comes as quite a surprise. Without any outside funding this snow-white, 2000 capacity, interdenominational monstrosity took twenty years to complete and was finally inaugurated in 2017. In keeping with its name it boasts 32 full length windows, 12 doors, 7 stars of David atop 4 towers and 2 archangels blowing their trumpets for all they are worth. When I read a little of a helpfully supplied English missal, I understood why. Interdenominational this church may claim to be but its message is totally evangelical and completely doctrinaire. I found heavily biased interpretations of the Old Testament which spoke repeatedly of the temptations of “drunkenness and harlotry” and advised that too much examination of conscience or questioning of the scriptures was a sure path to Satan. When I got to the bit that attempted to rationalise Darwin’s theory of evolution so that it proved all humans to be directly descended from Adam and Eve, I put down the book and whispered to my guide that, despite his kind invitation, I simply could not stay for the two hour service.

I asked him to try for the KV Paradise despite the fact that he was not sure whether it would be open or not. Our driver negotiated the hairpin bends to this white domed, hilltop shrine, built in memory of Roasangpuii Varte by her distraught husband, Khawlhring, who dedicated his life to good works after her untimely death from a motor accident in 2001. The views were spectacular and the Shakespearean quotations heartrending (And I as rich in having such a jewel: As twenty seas, if all their sands were pearl) but I was not so sure about the glass cases containing collections of her clothes, shoes and handbags. especially the ones she was wearing when she was killed. But while waiting for the doorman to open up we had been back down the hill a bit in search of chai and the sound of traditional hymns being enthusiastically accompanied by native instruments had drawn me up some steps to an unadorned little Presbyterian church. Warm smiles and gestures had enticed me inside and when Mr Dika returned with the tea he found me clapping and dancing (more of a shuffle actually) along with everyone else. So I did get to church after all and my guide, who along with most of the population of this state obviously considered Sabbath day observation to be absolutely essential, was visibly relieved.

The final destination for the day, the Falkawn Zokhua (a model village), also needed several phone calls to arrange a special VIP opening but the charming caretaker family who live their with their chickens, dogs, kittens and the obligatory pig were happy to help. I was extremely grateful for the opportunity to see the palm-thatched, bamboo structures all laid out like a typical, tribal hilltop village because the distances involved meant that there wouldn’t be an opportunity for me to see the real thing on this trip. As we walked around the sparsely appointed chief’s house I ask my guide “how many wives?” for I too had heard the stories. “Oh, just one, we don’t practice polygamy in Mizoram”, so it turns out that the infamous Ziona Chana, living in the Mizo village of Baktawng with his 39 wives and 127 offspring is simply the proponent of a recently formed cult. Apparently, he has avidly sought places in the record books, is now arranging accommodation for outside visitors in accordance with his celebrity status and is seriously considering taking on an American bride. Why am I not surprised?

Mizoram may not receive many international visitors yet but it really looks after those that it does. Jungle Travels but me up at the Floria Hotel which is has spectacular views out over the hilltops and every facility is carefully overseen by the delightful Madame Thangzami from her adjoining textile business. Before my afternoon flight I was taken to the official handicraft shop to try out one of the traditional looms, to the multi-scented, multi-storied indoor market and, yes, of course the Mizoram State Museum was opened specially for me. Here, I found out a little more about the Mizo heritage, an ethnically distinct tribe, believed to be descended from the labourers who built the Great Wall of China although whether that was after the Qin dynasty or the Ming I was at a loss to comprehend. There are vast stretches of forest in the southern districts of this state, little visited by outsiders except for a few intrepid bird watchers and botanists. I’m told that spectacular, lofty waterfalls cascade down through the jungles and orchid blossoms festoon the trees; let’s hope that limited accessibility and a complete lack of traditional Hindu pilgrimage sites serves to keep mass tourism at bay for the foreseeable future.

 

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