Eight years ago, a team from the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage travelled to the eastern hills of Mizoram and identified a few potential heritage sites. One of these was in the village of Vangchhia, in Champhai district, where they stumbled across around 170 menhirs—tall, upright stones from prehistoric times—of varying heights. They were embossed with scenes from what appeared to be traditional Mizo hunting practices, and images of Mizo musical instruments and heroes from the community’s legends. In May this year, following an excavation that had begun in January, the Archaeological Survey of India announced that it had found the remains of a lost civilisation.
Vangchhia was not a new discovery for 82-year-old P Rohmingthanga, who has been the convenor of INTACH’s Mizoram branch since 2009. When we met in Delhi this May, he told me he had caught a glimpse of Vangchhia in 1973, while on a helicopter tour during his first deputation as an Indian Administrative Services officer. He recounted seeing a hilltop without any forest cover, and massive erected stones. At the time, Vangchhia had no motorable road connecting it and could only be reached by foot. Rohmingthanga left Mizoram in 1976. Although he returned in the late 1980s as chief secretary, his planned trips to Vangchhia were repeatedly deferred because of the insurgency in the area or road repairs. Two decades on, he decided to pursue his interest in Mizo culture.
When he was appointed convenor in 2009, he told me, most of INTACH’s conservation activities in the state revolved around the capital, Aizawl. He wanted to change this practice, and was particularly drawn to the archaeological remains at Vangchhia. The local branch of the Young Mizo Association had secured the site and named it “Kawtchhuah Ropui”—the great gateway—but over a hundred menhirs had already been destroyed. Most of the tallest stones, which Rohmingthanga had spotted in 1973, had been used by villagers to line the walls of burial pits. “The tallest ones were the first targets for collection of stones for burials. Every stone was the target but the biggest stone was the first one because they yield the maximum,” he said.
Rohmingthanga contacted the ASI headquarters in 2010, indicating that he may have found the remains of an ancient civilisation. He told me that he uses the word “civilisation” with great caution, and would prefer the phrase “highly cultured people.” The craftsmanship and sheer number of menhirs found, he said, suggests that the inhabitants who created them had “a lot of income with a lot of leisure time.”
According to its July 2018 report, ASI found the remains of city-like architecture in Vangchhia, with at least 13 different terraces, a wide street, a series of manmade caves, a watch tower, pavilions, retention walls, stairs, bunds and one of the largest necropolises in the world. Sujeet Nayan, the director of the Vangchhia excavations, said he was startled by the discovery of water pavilions—a group of mostly circular holes in rocks, up to one metre deep, which were found at multiple locations across the 10-square-kilometre area that was excavated. He suspects that each hole led to a source of natural water or was used to catch rainwater. Villagers had told him that local Mizo folklore confirms that structures such as the pavilions were built to avoid having a single storage tank that could be easily poisoned by an enemy. “It is one of the best examples of a rainwater harvesting system,” he said.