Can’t boil an egg is a phrase used for a person who cannot cook. At a festival in Mizoram last week, 500 people stuffed boiled eggs into each other’s mouths to cook up the revival of a pre-Christian custom.
In the 19th century, Welsh missionaries discouraged the celebration of Mizo festivals and practices they considered pagan. The customs included Chhawnghnawh that in the olden days entailed stuffing rice, meat and eggs into each other’s mouths and washing it down with Zu or local fermented alcohol.
The egg part of Chhawnghnawh staged a comeback during the spring-heralding Chapchar Kut festival in northern Mizoram’s Kolasib district on Friday, more than a century after it vanished from the celebrations.
Mizoram’s biggest festival, Chapchar Kut marks the clearing and readying of hill slopes for jhum or shifting cultivation.
“The return of Chhawnghnawh is part of the process to preserve culture and ethnical heritage of the Mizos and pass it on to the future generations,” said Mizoram’s horticulture minister PC Lalthanliana, who presided over the celebration.
Kolasib district is better known for the army’s Counter-Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School at Vairangte, about 130 km from Mizoram capital Aizawl.
Officials said the revival served two purposes – connect today’s generation with the ways of their forefathers and mark the progress in farm activities under the Lal Thanhawla-led Congress government’s new land use policy.
Southeast Asian link
This year’s Chapchar Kut in Kolasib district was a departure from the past in terms of showcasing lesser known dances such as Siktuithiang Lam, Khuangchawi, Tlanglam, Miraung Inchuh and Chhepchher Nena Zai. These were performed alongside the more popular Cheraw, Chai, Chheihlam and Sarlamki dances.
Cheraw, better known as the Mizo bamboo dance, entails female dancers stepping in and out of spaces created by clashing bamboo poles. The dance arguably is the Mizos’ cultural link with various ethnic groups across Southeast Asia, China and beyond in the Philippines.
Cheraw is closest to the variants of the Chin and Karen groups in Myanmar and Thailand. If the bamboo dance is more of a sport for the Lizu, Hmong and Miao communities of southeast China, it has a martial connotation for Borneo’s Murut tribe who call it Anggalang Magunatip.
The Tinikling variant in the Philippines imitates the movement of a bird that dodges bamboo traps set by rice farmers while the Singkil or Kasingkil, also in the Philippines has traditionally been a solo performance, usually by a woman showing off her steps to potential suitors.
In Thailand, the Lao-kra-top-mai is a theatrical variant. The Robam-kom-araek of Cambodia and Mua-sap of Vietnam incorporate elaborate hand gestures.
Chapchar Kut is an agricultural festival that predates Christianity in Mizoram, celebrated for almost 500 years before the arrival of the Welsh missionaries in the 1900s.
In 1960, a member of the erstwhile Mizo Hills District Council named Hrangaia reintroduced Chapchar Kut as a symbolic celebration. The dances and certain customs in tune with Christian beliefs were revived, but the egg-specific Chhawnghnawh took 56 years to stage a comeback.
Chapchar Kut is one of three annual festivals of the Mizos celebrated to mark three different stages of the agricultural cycle. The other two are Mim Kut and Pawl Kut, also revived in the last century.
Oral traditions say Chapchar Kut was first celebrated in Seipui village in adjoining Myanmar that has a sizeable population of Mizos and their ethnic cousins.
Chapchar Kut used to be celebrated to thank the gods for saving the people from harm during the clearing of forest on hill slopes for jhum cultivation at the beginning of a year.
Today, the festival is observed in the last part of February or the early part of March when the trees and bamboos felled for jhum are left to dry and the shifting cultivators have time to relax and enjoy.