Digging Deep

Recent excavations raise questions about Mizoram’s history

The remains of city-like architecture were found in Vangchhia, with at least 13 different terraces, a wide street, a series of man-made caves, a watch tower, pavilions, retaining walls, stairs, bunds and one of the largest necropolises in the world. Courtesy Archaelogical Survey of India Aizwal Circle
31 October, 2018

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.

The excavations at Vangchhia offer a window into the history of Mizoram and its relations with former Hindu kingdoms. According to Rohmingthanga, neighbouring Hindu kingdoms had cordial relations with the Mizos before the British arrived. The forests of the present-day Mizo hills were the hunting grounds of the tribes, boundaries were respected on both sides and certain Hindu kings even sought refuge in Mizo territories when their own kingdoms faced internal strife. After the British arrived and carved permanent boundaries for their tea gardens, Rohmingthanga said, the Hindu kingdoms began to claim that the tribal regions were owned by them. Nayan corroborated this view. “It was an oral story which was created by the Britishers who came in 1850,” he said. “They wanted to change the entire locality and they just wanted to feed that you have come from Myanmar or China … just say that you are not Indian.”

Most archaeological sites in Mizoram are scattered across the state’s eastern ranges. In 2016, when the ASI carried out the excavation of Vangchhia, several news stories assumed that its relics had Hindu origins. This displeased the Mizo community, Rohmingthanga told me, but he added that after the ASI published its report this summer, which unequivocally states that the excavations depict a culture unique to the Mizos, the community appears to be less apprehensive. However, the report also mentions certain elephant and fish motifs on an excavated rock, which the INTACH claims is not a carving but a naturally occurring design on the stone. The ASI has suggested that these motifs could be read as having Hindu origins, but Nayan told me he did not think that the animal motifs necessarily suggested any relation to Hindu gods.

Nayan was vocal about the fact that, in the light of the recent findings, the Vangchhia civilisation should be renamed as the “Indo Mizo Genus culture.” The Mizos, he insisted, “have not been affected by other cultures. They might have borrowed some parts but the settlement, the whole area, was developed according to their own resources … They developed their culture and they also spread to the eastern Myanmar border.”

Lalhmingsanga, a 31-year-old school teacher at the Vangchhe High School who was born and brought up in the now famous village, was a regular visitor of the excavation site. An active member of the local branch of the Young Mizo Association, he had known about the ruins much before the ASI arrived in his village. “As an art student, I was always fascinated by nature. Most of the time I went there, I was going only to be in touch with nature,” he told me. “Even on those days, I thought there would be some hidden remains from the past. This idea came to me because there were heaps of stones everywhere which did not, even before excavation, look natural. As the place is just near our village, many times we even passed them or walk through on our way to work.”

He was not employed on the site as a worker, but often went there to watch the excavation. “But there was a day the director asked our school to work with them as a part of Swachh Bharat Programme,” he said. That day, apart from just cleaning the surroundings, he got a chance to dig one of the water pavilions. He was fascinated by the process. “Those remains lay unnoticed for many years. It was interesting to see them having new form and new value.”

Lalhmingsanga believed the excavation could alter what we know about Mizo history. “Most of the historical records we have now are only based on what the elders say,” he told me. “But, I believe that we would soon have those records rewritten based on the archaeological finds. This would definitely change even the dating in our history.”