The Discovery of Vangchhia: The mystery of Mizoram’s monoliths

Runneihthanga remembers it as a place of shadows.

“When we were children, there were hundreds of monoliths. They cast long shadows and we often played among them,” said the 69-year-old villager from Vangchhia.

They were so numerous, in fact, that no one seemed to have kept count of how many were lost over the years.

“Every time someone died in the village, we children and teenagers would come here with the blacksmith. He would pound off a piece with his big hammer, large enough for us to carry, and all of us would carry one or two each and give it to the young men making the grave,” he says.

PHOTO: A view of Vangchhia’s Kawtchhuah Ropui

At the cemetery, older villagers would use these rocks to build a particular kind of grave, verily a casket of stone. Called tianhrang, they are no longer as common throughout Mizoram. But for many generations, there was nothing but these graves.

Whenever there was a death in the village, explains F Laldawla, a villager in his sixties, the young men would dig the ground at the cemetery, slightly bigger than would fit an average person.

Then they would line the bottom and the sides with flat pieces of rock and then — with great care and in a particular way that often ended in a cave-in if it was done otherwise — stack the rocks atop each other while leaving just a couple of feet, or even less, open.

When the body arrived at the cemetery after the funeral, they would inter it by sliding it in through the mouth of this small, man-made cave, stack more rocks on top so it became a coffin of stone, and then shovel earth on it.

At Vangchhia, perhaps because so many flat rocks were available at the field of monoliths just outside the village, the practice was in vogue for a long time. Laldawla or his wife did not immediately remember when the practice stopped.

“Which year did Nu (aunty) Saii die? It was the year K Hminga came preaching…”

“Let me think, it was….” she mumbled, putting her open palms together as if in prayer and resting her chin on them. “K Hminga… Nu Saii… it was 2000. Yes, 2000!” she said.

“So yes, the last tianhrang I remember being made at this village was in 2000,” said Laldawla.

The best rocks were, of course, pieces hammered off from the monoliths that stood at what is now famous across Mizoram as Kawtchhuah Ropui — the first and only archaeological site to have so far been protected (and led to a full-fledged excavation project) by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in Mizoram.

Many hope the current interest in the area located in the state’s eastern border with Myanmar, and sites around it, will help lift the fog over the history of how the Mizo community came to occupy the lands they do and perhaps reveal some hidden histories.

“The monoliths also stood in bunches on the hillock above this road. But they knocked down all of those,” said Laldawla, gesturing towards the dirt track that serves as the village’s arterial road.

Unknown to the villagers at Vangchhia at the time, a man in a helicopter often gazed down at the monoliths.

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PHOTO: Vangchhia villagers stand near some of the monoliths at Kawtchhuah Ropui

The pioneer

P Rohmingthanga was the first Mizo deputy commissioner of Aizawl district back in the early 1970s, a time of violent upheaval, the first decade of a violent separatist movement, waged guerrilla-style, by the Mizo National Front against Indian armed forces.

“I often flew by helicopter to visit my group centres in the interior areas. Whenever I flew along the Champhai-Farkawn mountain range, I would observe a group of very tall stone monuments… They looked rather whitish, possibly because of sunlight being reflected back. Incidentally, they had no forest cover in those days,” says the retired IAS officer, now an octogenarian.

“Once, I enquired about the village’s name and I was told it was Vangchhia. Unfortunately, there was no road to Vangchhia in those days and it was inaccessible except by a typical inter-village footpath. The law and order situation being what it was, such a venture on foot was considered inadvisable,” he said.

Even when he took the same aerial route a quarter-century later, he was told that there was still no proper road to Vangchhia. The years passed and it was in 2009 that Rohmingthanga found himself appointed convener of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach)’s Mizoram chapter. The chapter members began touring the countryside to see and document known and lesser-known heritage sites. The first tour was fairly run-of-the-mill, but the second one would change Vangchhia forever.

It was on this trip, in the summer of 2010, that Rohmingthanga finally saw what he had often wondered about. By then, the village of Vangchhia had been preserving the monoliths for years at the behest of the local Young Mizo Association unit, a branch of Mizoram’s largest voluntary organisation, and had christened the site where they stood in rows in their hundreds as Kawtchhuah Ropui, or The Great Gateway, a name that was at once bold and possessive.

PHOTO: A well-preserved carving on an otherwise broken monoliths lying on its back within Kawtchhuah Ropui

Before the written word: talk and images

The history of the Mizo community has been orally passed down through generations. It was transcribed in written form only after the British established an administration towards the last decade of the 19th century and pioneering Christian missionaries developed a script for a lingua franca among the various dialects used by different Mizo clans.

Though periods may differ, the unanimously accepted history is that the community migrated southward from somewhere in China and entered present-day Myanmar’s Chin state several hundred years ago. A sizable chunk remained behind in Myanmar and to this day make up what is known in Mizoram as Zohnahthlak, a word that denotes ethnic Mizos.

Some among the community ventured west from the Chin Hills across the lower reaches of the eastern Himalayas to settle in present-day Mizoram, many moving even further and settling in the eastern hills of what is now Bangladesh and the state of Tripura, with smaller populations also scattered across southern Manipur and Assam.

The main route of this migratory wave, the villagers of Vangchhia believe, was through the field of monoliths on the edge of a hill near their settlement, and that this historic movement was documented for perpetuity in the mysterious engravings on the monoliths of Kawtchhuah Ropui.

When P Rohmingthanga and the INTACH team first visited the site, they were astounded. But they were also crestfallen.

“I was told that, originally, there could have been no fewer than 600 megaliths at the site, compared to the present 200 or so still existing. It was a site which needed to be protected and conserved… and which must be brought to the notice of not only the rest of India, but also the world,” he said.

The chapter then devoted its energy to grab the attention of India’s foremost archaeological body. It took several site visits by the ASI’s teams at Guwahati and often arduous follow-ups of files, proposals and the writing of letters to not only archaeologists in the Assam capital but also in New Delhi before the Ministry of Culture declared Kawtchhuah Ropui “an archaeological site of national importance” on March 18, 2014.

But that was just the beginning.

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PHOTO: An almost whole pot unearthed from the campus of a school at Zawlsei village. This is not the only recent excavation by locals, however. They have also dug up pieces of metal that appear to be swords or some kind of weapon.

Swords of strangers

Monoliths bearing enigmatic engravings are by no means unique to Vangchhia. Entire clusters of monoliths in smaller densities are spread across the eastern hill range of Mizoram at sites near the villages of Farkawn, Lianpui, Khankawn, Khawbung, Vaphai and Dungtlang, while apparently ancient iron artefacts and old pots, both broken and whole, have been recently unearthed at Zawlsei and Khawbung.

Zawlsei is, according to residents, the former site of the first large Mizo settlement known to folklore and oral history as Selesih Sangsarih (7000). They say apparent artefacts such as pots, pieces of hair, cloth and even metal weapons have been unearthed in the past.

When the ASI team visited Vangchhia and other sites at the beginning of the winter in 2015, they chanced upon these weapons, which had been kept safe by the local YMA leaders after it was unearthed during a road construction project in the recent past.

On the face of it, these rusted pieces of metal appear to have been swords large and small, spear-heads and even ornaments.

Dr Milan Kumar Chauley, the ASI’s Superintending Archaeologist at Guwahati and others minutely examined the metal weapons even as one YMA leader present said an almost entirely whole pot had been unearthed even more recently at the village school – bursts of rain had washed away the soil in the schoolyard and exposed the top portion of the pot, which community leaders and teachers dug out and kept at the staff room.

An ancient city on a hilltop?

Dungtlang, in addition, has a vast hilltop site across which is spread what appears to be the remains of an ancient settlement — stone blocks arranged as if they were once dwellings, and small man-made caves topped with monoliths taller than the average full-grown man.

“In 1994, we cleared about 3 sq.kms of jungle for cultivation. That time, we counted no less than 3,800 house sites, but that was before we were aware of the need to protect these ancient remains. Eventually we destroyed what must have been about 2,000 sites,” said P B Rosanga, a resident and community leader at Dungtlang and a long-time leader of the Tuipuiral group YMA, which holds sway over the hill range from Farkawn to Leisenzo and Lianpui.

From 2012 onwards, however, Dungtlang began to preserve the area and even declared the site of the apparent settlement a “protected area”. From clearing the jungles just two decades ago, they have been carrying out periodic clearing to make sure weeds and wild plants do not damage the site.

PHOTO: A small artificial cave topped by a monolith at the far end of the apparent settlement site above Dungtlang

But it is not just a settlement site that adorns the hill over Dungtlang, which is known to many Mizos as Lianchhiari Lunglen Tlang, the site of a large rock that juts out over a gorge and where a chief’s daughter often looked out for her self-exiled lover. The hilltop stretches for several kilometres, much of it under dense hillside jungles. It is here that the villagers of Dungtlang have recently found many other apparent artefacts, among them monoliths, what seem to be man-made caves, old pottery and even tooth.

Villagers have transplanted some of the monoliths to a site just below Lianchhiari Lunglen Tlang, where they have built a small show-piece village resembling an old Mizo settlement, complete with a Zawlbuk (bachelors’ dormitory), a chief’s home, the home of his elders and the village blacksmith as well as commoners.

They built the village using material from different places to make it as original as possible, such as thatch from Khawbung and bamboo from Biate (the higher reaches of these hill ranges do not have bamboo in abundance unlike most of the state), evidence that villagers have indeed woken up to the need to preserve the heritage sites in their area although they have little clue who left them behind.

This enthusiasm has spread across the hills, and in early 2015, they kept aside their lack of knowledge about the genesis of these artefacts (which no one anyway can say with authority) and undertook an exercise that any professionally-run expert body would begin with: they started documenting these ancient sites.

The amateur archaeologist

H Lalnunmawia is better known throughout the Tuipuiral area (the hill-range east of the Tuipui river in Champhai District) as well as his home village of Khawbung as Mapuia.

The schoolteacher is a trained anthropologist as well as a stringer for the Doordarshan network. But for the past half-decade, he has donned the hat of an amateur archaeologist who has been busy documenting the presence of potential archaeological sites and artefacts across the hill range.

His foray into the discipline began while he was a Masters student of anthropology at Shillong’s North-Eastern Hill University back in 2011.

“Madam Valentina asked us students to document probable archaeological sites in and around the places where we each live as an assignment. That’s when I formally began to document the presence of these artefacts,” he said.

It was before there were any proper motor-able roads (even now the road to Vangchhia is no more than a fair-weather track), and Mapuia trekked up the hill to what has been christened Kawtchhuah Ropui near Vangchhia village with a camera and note-book to see for himself the monoliths there.

“If I remember correctly there were just 42 monoliths standing at the time. The others were mostly lying around the place. Some of those bearing very clear engravings now had fallen face-down. I suppose the engravings were preserved like that. Even the large menhir near the entrance was lying face-down when I first visited. Perhaps that’s why the engraving is still so clear,” he remembers.

His documentation work has continued well after his course at NEHU, and in his possession are photographs of scores of artefacts (mostly of rocks bearing different kinds of engravings as well as apparently more recently arranged rock formations) and notes about whatever locals themselves know or believe to be the genesis of these artefacts.

His romance with these continues well into the present, and over a long telephone conversation recently, he narrated how he went to see what he described as a fort-like structure near Khankawn village which rivals the apparent settlement site at nearby Dungtlang. To his dismay, he had no time to visit what locals describe as three caves not too far away but in an uninhabited area.

The tour of Khankawn was just one in a long line of tours he has undertaken over the years, many of them while on assignments for the TV network he contributes to as well as on work concerning the YMA, the voluntary organisation of which he is a an active member and leader.

An exercise in archaeological crowd sourcing

It was less than two years ago that the Tuipuiral group YMA headed by Dungtlang community leader P B Rosanga decided to keep as a document the various sites, artefacts and folklore found in the numerous villages within its jurisdiction.

The various branches in the group pooled in money they could save up from the small government-works they were able to undertake as community projects and published a small book laden with pictures and short descriptions of the scores of sites and artefacts in the area.

It is in the pages of this book – titled “Tuipuiral – Zofate Lungkham Ram” (roughly translatable as ‘the land that tugs at the heart of the children of Zo’) – that perhaps the first proper documentation of the regions rich archaeological droppings, much of it from the personal archives of H Lalnunmawia, can be found.

In memory of a female chieftain

Three kilometres from the village of Farkawn, in the far east of Mizoram that on the map juts out into the Myanmar, stands a menhir with a strange image carved into it. The image, to an untrained eye, looks a little like those found at Vangchhia and Lianpui at first glance. It appears to be of a person (possibly a woman), with beads of elaborate necklaces around the neck and what appears to be a spiky crown atop the head. In its right hand is what may be a spear, or even a long knife, and at the back of its head, there seems to be a knot of hair. But atop the figure is a hole drilled into the menhir, almost like it was meant to host a string and the entire menhir worn like pendant.

There is a folktale behind this menhir, and the hole. It goes something like this: Once upon a time, a woman named Darthiangi, whom some say is a Chief, migrated from what is now Sagaing in western Myanmar and crossed the Tiau river (the present international border between Mizoram and Myanmar). She moved from settlement to settlement, first to Bawlte, then to Dungtlang, then back to Bawlte and later on to Muallungthu, not far from where Aizawl sits today. Darthiangi was a very sentimental person, the lore goes, and she was immensely sad because she could not bear her husband Chertuaka any children. Matters came to such a point that the couple decided to end their lives, and did so with the permission of their relatives. The menhir outside Farkawn is called Darthiangi Lung (rock), in memory of the female chief.

But what of the hole on the top? The present consensus is that this hole is the passageway through which the soul of the dead passes through in its journey to the afterlife.

Archaeologists and their local guide examine a rock that seems identical in its markings to what is preserved and displayed elsewhere in Farkawn village and called Chhura Chi Rawt Lung

A folk hero and his giant pestles

Farkawn is perhaps the most fertile field of artefacts among all the 23 villages featured in the book. Among those highlighted is another strange imperfectly cylindrical rock (actually a pair of rocks) that stands about 5 feet tall and about 4 feet in diameter, with four small cavities neatly carved in a straight line on just one side, the entire rock cut in such a way it looks like a phallic structure.

Villagers have simply called its Chhura Chi Rawt Lung or Chhura’s pestle, falling victim to the all-too-common habit of relating something mysterious to the comic folktale hero.  The rock stands on a small field just outside the village, while another, very similar-looking, lies among grass and weeds perhaps a hundred metres below on a hillside. The pair was a subject of interest among visiting archaeologists when they visited back in October last year, and who suspect there may be others in the vicinity not yet discovered.

Not too far down the hill is another strange artefact, not erect like Chhura’s Pestle or its apparent companion, but rather detailed drawings on a vast sheet of hard rock that slopes down the hillside for several metres. This too, has its own folktale.

A grieving man makes art on a hillside of rock

The story goes that Pualdenga was grief-stricken when his daughter was killed by a tiger. In his sadness, he took a rock and began to draw images on a flat rock that stretches several metres down the hill east of what is now Farkawn.

From a distance, it resembles the stripes of a tiger or even the coat of a leopard. That is why it is known in these hills as Lungkeiphaw Tial, or ‘Rock Striped like a Tiger’.

Upon closer examination, however, the images on this flat, sloping rock are not random or simply striped or spotted.

One can easily make out images of spearheads, bison heads, beads, pots and the like; not very different from the images on monoliths found all along this eastern hill range.

In fact, monoliths are not that far away either.

PHOTO: A detail from Lungkeiphaw tial, Farkawn village

The hilltop of plain monoliths

Down the hill and across the Tuidum river rises a peak known as Farpui Tlang, or ‘Great Pine Mountain’.

It is a steep climb to the top, and densely wooded, but along the way are promising artefacts that point to what awaits at the summit.

Large rocks evidently fashioned by hand into the shape of monoliths lie along the path, seemingly left behind by those trying to transport them uphill.

Then, once at the top are as many as 64 monoliths, at least 54 of them standing tall and erect.

As far as shape and size are concerned – these monoliths are similar to the ones found at Vangchhia and Lianpui.

About a score are even taller (perhaps because they still remain intact as they are some distance from human settlements) and stand between six to eight feet tall.

But the difference between the monoliths of Farpui Tlang and the more well-known monoliths elsewhere is that the majority of the former bear no images except for perhaps two located in the centre and on which can be found images of bison heads and some weapons.

As everywhere else along these hills, the question always is, who did this?

So, whodunit?

Some believe the answer just might lie in a cave about 16 kms from Farkawn, a cave that hides in a cliff that acts as the border between Farkawn and Samthang.

This cave, known as Lamsial Puk (cave) after the name of the cliff that hosts it, is famous throughout Mizoram, mostly because it is one of the few sites that bear human remains.

Large skeletons – some say much larger than an average man and so likely giants in their time and age – once lay scattered in this cave. Many have been lost, and many others kept in a container so they are not taken away.

According to the Farkawn Heritage Preservation Society, which looks after the handful of historic sites associated with known Mizo history in the village’s vicinity, the human bones at Lamsial Puk have been scientifically dated to be from the mid-17th century.

It is generally believed the bones are the remains of members of a community that inhabited present-day Mizoram before the current population moved in from Myanmar after having migrated south from China’s southern regions.

But what kind of connection can really be made between these bones (even if they are giants) and the monoliths and drawing found across the region?

Would it have been possible – without the use of large, trained animals or some kind of rudimentary engineering technology – to have even transported these rocks in the first place?

Take the monoliths of Lungphunlian, for example, larger than any other menhir elsewhere.

The tallest among them rises almost 15 feet tall, with an estimated 5 feet buried in the ground and, at its widest point, measuring 12 feet across and 2 feet thick overall.

How did humans erect structures such as these on such a steep, craggy and overall inhospitable landscape?

How old are these monoliths? Who erected them? Who were the artists that used them as a canvas? What do the engravings mean? How were these huge rocks fashioned in the shape they are in?

These remain the biggest questions, and the answers are only starting to show.

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PHOTO: ASI Director-General Dr Rakesh Tiwari near the largest monolith at Lungphunlian village

Glimmerings of an answer

The ASI’s director-general Dr Rakesh Tiwari, the first archaeologist to hold the organisation’s top job in over two decades, accepted an invitation to visit not just Vangchhia but the other sites in Mizoram. He eventually spent a week in this remote and difficult terrain, where rains fall suddenly and offer very real prospects of stranding travellers.

It was on the third day of this tour, in the last week of October 2015, that Tiwari finally set foot at Kawtchhuah Ropui.

Tiwari spent over an hour observing the monoliths, discussing them with locals, Intach officials and a team of archaeologists that made up the entourage, and spent considerable time looking out across the gorge towards the Chin Hills, whose western frontier mountains rose against the clear sky.

When it came time to leave the site and head to the village for a public meeting, however, he strolled into the vegetable fields on the gentle hillside and came back with a palm full of pot-shards.

“That is not the settlement site,” he said, beaming with excitement and pointing at Kawtchhuah Ropui. Then he turned around, gestured towards the vegetable fields and declared, “That is!”

Three days later, the team had visited five different sites spread over more than 150 km across Mizoram’s easternmost hill range. Just over two months after his departure, Tiwari despatched an excavation team to Vangchhia, and what they found in less than a couple of weeks would astound everyone.

Signs of a civilisation

On January 15, 2016, P Rohminthanga sat in his small home-office, struggling with his phone and email. With an energy that belied his 80 years, he said, “There has been great news from Vangchhia!” The team had discovered no less than 20 cobbled stone structures that could possibly turn out to be ancient graves and located several organic remains they were confident could be dated in specialised laboratories.

But more than anything else, he said, the team had been in raptures over the unearthing of a stone structure, about 200 meters across, with a certain pattern that Dr Sujit Nayan, who led the excavation, believed were reminiscent of “water pavilions”, structures used perhaps as a form of entertainment and which, if true, indicated the presence of a prosperous settlement once upon a time.

In all, the team camped at Vangchhia for less than a month. Specifically, 22 days. In that short period and with the help of roughly 45 villagers who helped with the labours, they unearthed more than 30 different structures. The discoveries are astounding, but their mere presence is not the most surprising aspect of the explorations at Vanghhia. The most surprising aspect is what some archaeologists are beginning to suspect from whatever material they have found so far.

PHOTO: The excavation at Vangchhia revealed what appears to be some kind of settlement not far from Kawtchhuah Ropui. The apparent flight of stairs in the photograph is part of the details exposed after archaeologists dug up the site

Vanlalhuma Singson has for many been years been the only trained archaeologist in Mizoram, where he works in the Art and Culture Department.

His credentials have made sure he has been actively participating in the discoveries, or more precisely, the bringing to wider public view of various artefacts across Mizoram over the past several years before the ASI formally began forays.

When he visited the scene of the excavation at Vangchhia earlier this year, he had already been there many times before. But this time, it was different, not only because he too laid eyes on the newly excavated structures near Kawtchhuah Ropui, but also because, he said, the excavation had unearthed two different sets of materials.

“There were red pot-shards and grey pot-shards. This means there is a possibility that two cultures settled at Vangchhia once upon a time,” said Singson.

Another thing he and other archaeologists noticed at the excavation site was that the walls, which appear to be retaining walls that propped up other structures atop them, are at once not uniform but compactly held together.

If the rocks making up the walls are uniform, it could be the handiwork of detailed craftsmanship. But their very non-uniformity, he said, presents before experts “the mystery of what were used to cement them together.”

“The rocks are not uniform, so there must have been some sort of mortar that held them together and kept them from falling apart. What that mortar is remains a mystery,” he explained.

Whatever post-excavation studies – including in specialised laboratories – throw up about Vangchhia will likely provide answers at a future date. But the curiosity generated by the site has also prompted others to go ahead with other discoveries nearby.

Paths of our ancestors

A sunny day in March, Champhai Deputy Commissioner Vanlalngaihsaka stood outside his official bungalow and said, “What I find most enchanting about Vangchhia is Pipute Lamlian!”

Roughly translatable as “ancestors’ pathway”, the apparent remains of a footpath that meets in Vangchhia forks out in three directions — north, south and east — but has not yet been touched by the archaeologists’ trowels and hand-brooms.

I had visited Vangchhia a few days earlier and, with the help of some locals, drove down the rugged jeepable road to the Tiau river, stopping at a clearing and walking uphill to the site of perhaps the most exquisite menhir – Lungphunropui.

Standing more than six feet tall and about 10 feet wide, the menhir is unlike any other found at Kawtchhuah Ropui, a steep climb through thick forest roughly two kilometres uphill.

When we arrived, there were unmistakable signs of fresh human intervention: just a few feet from Lungphunropui and stretching uphill towards Kawtchhuah Ropui and downhill towards the Tiau river, men had hacked their way through the thick jungle to reveal what appeared to be an ancient pathway.

“We had a discussion with the DC, and decided we would call a hnatlang (volunteer community work) and explore Pipute Lamlian,” said Vangchhia’s Village Council president F Malsawmtluanga when I caught up with him one evening at Khawbung, where he was attending a meeting.

He pulled out his phone and flipped through the picture gallery and thrust it at me.

The photos were startling. A freshly cleared path that traversed a very steep gradient was lined with rocks that looked like a rough staircase had been built there. Others showed rock-faces bearing engravings similar to those at Kawtchhuah Ropui, such as bison-heads and clusters of human figures.

“Look at what we found in just two days!” he said, “Just two days!”

This piece is an extended version of the story written by the Editor of The Frontier Despatch and published in The Indian Express’ Sunday Eye Magazine on April3, 2016.

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