-Dr. Cherrie L. Chhangte
Assistant Professor, Mizoram University.
Paper Presented at Woven Tales from the North East: One-Day Textile Conference, 16th June 2009 at NCPA Mumbai.
Mizoram, which became the 23rd state of the Indian Union on 20th February 1987, is a mountainous region bordered by Bangladesh in the west, Myanmar in the east, the Bay of Bengal in the South, and Assam and Manipur in the north. Tribes that inhabit the state of Mizoram include the Luseis, the Hmars, the Paites, the Pawis, and the Maras, among others.
Handlooms have always been an integral part of the Mizo life. In earlier times, every Mizo girl was expected to know the art of weaving, which met the practical needs of not only herself, but those of her family as well. The courtship of a young woman by a young man usually took place at night, with the girl often industriously making preparations for the next day’s weaving by cleaning the cotton, hanging the threads on the loom, or generally preparing the implements for weaving, and the young man conversing and assisting by her side. The main garment of the Mizo is called the Puan, which simply means cloth’. The Puan has always played a central role in the social fabric of the Mizos, transcending its mere functional aspect as a garment worn by women – and men too, in earlier days – to play a crucial role in the performance of rites, rituals and other special occasions like births, deaths, and weddings.
Even upto the last decade of the 19th century, the Mizos lived on hill tops in small villages under the protection of chiefs. The topographical condition of the area wherein they lived made them self-reliant in respect of the day to day needs. They raised their own crops through jhumming and engaged themselves in hunting on a regular basis to supplement their food. Cotton, which was among the crops grown in the fields, was collected carefully, ginned and spun out with the help of indigenously made tools to produce yarn for weaving puans to meet their needs. This was done on simple loin looms (puanbu) which enabled them to weave cloth usually not broader than thirty inches. For one puan two such pieces had to be sewn together. A puan is normally about 55” – 60” in length and 48” in breadth.
In the beginning, the Mizos did not use colored yarn, and so the cloth produced was a simple, coarse white piece for both men and women. These were called puanngo. In course of time, they discovered that certain barks, roots, herbs and leaves could yield a fast, black color, and this was subsequently used to make variations on the monotony of the existing designs, by the introduction of black borders, as well as stripes in black and white. With the passage of time, they became acquainted with other colors like red, yellow, green, and blue.
As with most other communities, art was often a reflection of the everyday preoccupations of the people. For instance, the first design produced by the Mizos is a design called kawkpuizikzial; ‘kawk’is a common leafy vegetable whose leaf tips curl in a rounded loop, and this was imitated by them, and remained a recurring motif in different traditional puans. Similarly, as innovations in design became more and more advanced, they frequently took on names on the basis of the designs used therein; thus, ‘disul’ (after a species of grass), ‘naya sawm par’(10 paise design), ‘sawhthing par’(ginger flower), ársi par (star motif) are some of the designs that are self-explanatory.
Puans have always been an intrinsic part of the Mizo wardrobe. After Mizos progressed from the siapsuap (a grass skirt), the puan became the only garment worn by both genders. It was simply worn wrapped around the body under the arms. Other types of puans were also woven and used as bedding and shawls. By the 20th century, men wore puans very rarely, since trousers had become fashionable and popular as a result of the increasing interaction with Indians from the mainland, as also the British officers and missionaries who came into Mizoram. However, women retained the use of puans, though it was now worn sarong-style, wrapped around the waist, with a blouse on top, a practice which is retained till today, although variations do occur.
The Puan also plays a major role in marriages; a collection of puans is a crucial part of the bride’s dowry, and she is required to bring a number of puans with her to her husband’s house, and these puans, after being handed over to her mother-in-law, are subsequently distributed as gifts among the female relatives of the husband. The Puan is also a significant part of the rituals associated with death in the Mizo community. People carry plain and simple puans when going to funerals, and these are used symbolically as shrouds, and parting gifts for the dead. Once the funeral rites are over, the dead person’s family usually distributes a number of these puans as keepsakes to the deceased’s near and dear ones.
The most well-known and intricate of the Mizo puans is the Puanchei. Used in festive dances and other special occasions, it is the most prized possession of a Mizo woman. Interestingly, even in present times, a woman does not get married without bringing with her a Puanchei. N. Chatterji observes:
It is also interesting to find that many of the designs of the traditional puans make their appearance in Puanchei in some way or other. Thus the two beautiful deep black compactly woven woolen bands of the ngotekherh make their conspicuous appearance in the puanchei…what is more distinctive of this weaving is that none of the colored threads on the warp are allowed to make their appearance against the above-mentioned…bands…. They also have to ensure, besides close weaving, that at no part of these stripes any shrinkage due to irregular or careless handling of weft and warp threads takes place. (Chatterji, 37)
It is not known when this puan first started to be made, but we may deduce that it evolved in course of time as the artistic expression of their natural talent for weaving, designing and color-matching.
Other puans of note are the Senior puan, the Pawndum, the Thangchhuah Puan and the Tawlhloh puan, among others. The Senior Puan traditionally has a diamond pattern, though variations may occur. Although there is no definite explanation as to why the term “senior” is used, according to some scholars, it denotes the fact that when this design was first introduced, it was worn mostly by the more senior women in the community, whereas young girls rarely wore them (Chatterji, 38).
The Pawndum (dum meaning ‘black’), of an earlier origin than the Puanchei, has bands in dark colors against a black background. Young men usually used this puan as a night cover during their stay in the men’s dormitory (zawlbuk). In earlier times, a young woman was required to weave a Pawndum and carry it with to her new home when she got married. This was to be used as a shroud to cover her dead husband’s body in the eventuality that her husband died during her lifetime. It could also be used to cover the bodies of any close relative on her husband’s side. It has a deep cultural significance, even to this day. Before Marriage, this puan was also used as a Dawnpuan phah, which means that if a girl and boy sleep together on the Pawndum with the permission of the girl’s parents, the boy must marry the girl. If he refuses to do so, he is required to pay a fine. In present times, it is still used as a mark of mourning at funerals. Thus, it is not usually worn as a garment on ordinary occasions except those involving deaths.
The Thangchhuah puan is highly significant in that it could be worn only by those who had earned the highly coveted ceremony of Thangchhuah, a ceremony which was so excessively expensive and complicated that it could usually be performed only by the exceptionally brave hunters or the exceptionally wealthy. In order to perform the Thangchhuah ceremony, a person was required to kill certain animals, or be able to throw a lavish feast for the entire village from his own produce in the field. Thus, it was a mark of social status to be able to wear such a puan. A small turban in the same design called Thangchhuah diar also exists which again could be worn only by the performer of the Thangchhuah. Incidentally, those who performed the Thangchhuah were allowed to have a window in their house, whereas in typical Mizo houses there were no windows, since it was believed this would prevent the entry of evil spirits and demons.
The Tawlhloh Puan was a puan worn by a warrior who had established his reputation for bravery. Tawlhlo in Mizo means ‘to stand firm’, ‘not to change position’, or ‘not to move backward’. It is said that this design evolved during the time when the Mizos lived between the river Run (now in Myanmar) and the river Tiau. Warriors put on this cloth when they were fighting the enemy as a token of their steadfastness and courage in the face of danger. Even during colonial times, these warriors put on the puan when facing the British soldiers as a token of their resistance and to maintain their traditional dignity. However, in course of time, this puan began to be used by ladies and rich people in times of festive occasions like marriages and the original significance attached to this cloth started to diminish, giving place to a new significance and status value of it.
Most of the tribes of Mizoram, like the Paites and the Hmars have similar puans with perhaps slight variations in terms of design and names. One of the most popular and intricate puans among Mara tribe as well as the Pawi tribe, who both inhabit the southern part of the state, is a puan known as Chyna Hno among the Maras and Nawnthumpuan among the Pawis. It is quite expensive and a prized possession not only among the Mara women, but among the entire Mizo community. In earlier times, the dye used for this puan was not fast, and therefore could not be washed. This further enhanced its value, and it was worn only on very special occasions.
One interesting puan of the Paite tribe, which seems to have evolved during the 1980s is the BA Puan, which is reserved for those who excel academically. It is usually given as a token of appreciation, and is not worn by anyone other than those who have merited it.
In an interview with a Paite gentleman1, I was told that the Paites have certain traditions with regard to the puan that are maintained to this day. For instance, the Puandum of the Paites is often gifted as a token of affection to friends and new acquaintances. The Paites are traditionally a humble, self-effacing tribe who are reluctant to call attention to themselves. Characteristically, even when they give this puan as a present, it is done in the most secretive way possible, preferably without the knowledge of the recipient. For example, if a guest brings this puan as a gift for his host at dinner, he will simply leave the package behind him without any mention of it, and most often than not, the host discovers the surreptitiously placed gift after his guest has left, thereby giving him no chance to express his thanks and consequently, cause embarrassment to his guest.
Another significance of the puan among the Hmar community is the role that it plays during the process of negotiation for marriages. The emissaries from the boy’s family carry with them a black puan in which the head of a small hoe is wrapped. If the girl’s family is amenable to the alliance, they keep this item with them. Returning it implies that they are not willing to accept the boy as their son-in-law. Incidentally, the hoe is symbolic of the fact that it may be used against the husband at a future date if he misbehaves with his wife or her family. This tradition is maintained to this day.
In contemporary times, enterprising and innovative young designers have brought the puan to an entire new level, by interspersing the traditional motifs into modern designs. Thus these woven cloths are no longer confined to the traditional sarong-style usage, but make their appearance in jackets, trousers, skirts, tops, and even bags. This fusion is seen as a healthy instance of a tradition that is evolving and keeping pace with the changing times.
To sum up, we can say that the puan plays an integral part in the social and cultural fabric of the Mizo community. Major social activities and events like marriages, deaths, festive celebrations, and so on, are incomplete without the presence of the puan. Also, it plays a deeply significant role as a symbol of identity in the psyche of the Mizo people, so much so that unofficial movements have sprung up time and again to promote and encourage traditional attire. As early as around the turn of the previous century, that is, by the late 1800s, verses were mockingly sung by Mizo lads to denigrate the practice of wearing garments that were not locally made, a practice which started as a result of the growing interactions with traders and merchants from the mainland. Women being women, perhaps for them the lure of new fashions and fabrics was harder to resist than for the men. In this light verse, for instance, the lady who wears non-Mizo clothes is disdainfully described as something of a harlot, a shameless hussy who will never find a husband since all men will turn their backs on her:
Thlawinali, thlawinali, thlawi te nali,
Mahni siamsa ziaam feng duh lo Siali,
I leng rei dawn mange thlawite nali.
(Shameless Hussy, Shameless Hussy, dear Shameless Hussy,
Scorning the creations of one’s own people, Scornful woman,
A spinster shall you remain for a very long time, Shameless Hussy).
Later, during the 1970s and 1980s, student movements once again took up the cause of wearing the puan, other traditional attire like ornaments not being deemed practical. With nationalist sentiments and anti- Indian feelings reaching a high, and to counter the growing tendency of women to wear salwar kameezes and other conspicuously ‘Indian’ garments, these movements very strongly condemned the use of these garments that were non-Mizo, and threats that those who refused to wear puans would be shunned in the community were made – a threat that was frightening in a close-knit community like that of the Mizos. Perhaps it is owing to these strictures that to this day, the habit of wearing blatantly ‘Indian’ clothes is absent in the state; few women, if any, wear the salwar kameez, and saris are never worn by Mizo women, not so much for any underlying resentment, but more out of sheer force of habit.
Although such threats and compulsions are no longer made in contemporary times, what is heartening to note is that the puan shows no sign of disappearing from the wardrobe of the modern Mizo woman; in particular, women are reluctant to attend church services without donning their favorite traditional garment. However, it is perhaps cause for alarm that the art of weaving in the traditional loin looms is slowly dying out, and contrary to the situation in earlier times when every young girl was expected to know how to weave, in modern times, this has become a thing of the past.
With the introduction of mechanized looms which are less time-consuming and therefore more commercially viable, more and more people are depending on these semi-mechanized looms to produce a variety of puans in all colors and designs2. Although this may be cause for celebration for the entrepreneur, it has deep ramifications and raises the issue of how far we are responsible for preserving folk indigenous arts and crafts. Since weaving in the traditional way is more time-consuming and strenuous, it is natural that hand-woven puans are much more expensive than the machine-made ones, which has further contributed to the decline in their popularity despite their higher quality. Within Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, laudable efforts have been made to teach youngsters this art in the PC Girls School, by making weaving a compulsory part of the curriculum. However, it is strongly felt that efforts must be made on a larger scale to promote and preserve the art of weaving these cloths. Puans, after all, serve as a repository of the history and culture, the lores and the folkways of the Mizo people in ways that are at once aesthetically pleasing and practically useful.
1. Interview with Mr. Vanneihtluanga, noted creative writer and journalist, who happens to belong to the Paite tribe.
2. In an interview with Mrs. Ruati, proprietor of L.R. Handlooms, one of the more successful handloom houses in Mizoram, she did affirm that hand-woven cloths are still preferred by the discerning customer, who will not hesitate to shell out more money for a work of higher quality. However, she states that such customers are rather few and far in between.
Lianhmingthanga, Material Culture of the Mizo, Tribal Research Institute, Department of Art and Culture, Mizoram. Firma KLM: Aizawl, 1998.
N. Chatterji, Puan, the Pride of Mizoram, Tribal Research Institute, Department of Art and Culture, Mizoram. Firma KLM: Aizawl, 1979
Mizoram State Museum Catalogue, Department of Art and Culture, Mizoram, 2008 .
Mizo Incheina, Tribal Research Institute, Department of Art and Culture, Mizoram. Mizoram Govt. Press: Aizawl, 1993.
Some of the images have been uploaded from the internet. The author wishes to apologize for any copyright infringements inadvertently committed.