ETHNONYMS: Magha, Mara, Shendu
Identification. The Lakher are a Kuki tribe located in the Lushai Hills of Mizoram (north of the Arakan Hills), in India. Lakher is the name given to this people by the Mizos (who live in that part of the region extending from 22°44′ to 22°55′ N and 92°35′ to 92°47′ E). Cultural affinities have been noted between the Lakher and the Mizos, Chin, and Naga. They are also called Shendu by the Arakanese. The Lakher refer to themselves as Mara and are composed of six groups: the Tlongsai, Hawthai, Zeuhnang, Sabeu, Lialai, and Heima. Much of what is known of Lakher culture has come from the work of N. E. Parry, who studied them early in this century, and his ethnography provides the basis for most of the information summarized below.
Location. The geographical locus of Lakher culture extends from approximately 22°00′ to 23°00′ N and from 92°45′ to 93°25′ E. Lakher settlements are found, in large part, within that area bounded on the north and east by the Kolodyne River (though some villages lie outside this boundary to the west and to the northeast). The area inhabited by the Lakher is hilly (the highest peak reaching in excess of 2,100 meters), damp (in winter), and fertile (accommodating the growth of rice, flowers, trees, and several varieties of bamboo).
Demography. According to Parry, the Lakher numbered some 10,000 in his day. The 1971 census of India reported a total of 12,871. A United Bible Societies survey revealed a total Mara Chin-speaking population of 14,000 in 1983.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Lakher speak Mara Chin (Burmic Family, Tibeto-Burman Stock), a language belonging to the Sino-Tibetan Phylum.
History and Cultural Relations
The separate groups that make up the Lakher are all believed to have originated somewhere north of their present location, in the Chin Hills. The advancement of these peoples can be traced with some degree of certainty, and the original Homeland of at least three of these groups (Tlongsai, Hawthai, and Sabeu) can be posited. The Tlongsai migration began in Leisai (between Leitak and Zaphai). The original homeland of the Hawthai is believed to have been Chira (in Haka). The Sabeu are found in Chapi, but it is believed that they migrated to that location from Thlatla, which is near Haka. Before the advent of British imperial domination, intervillage conflict was the Lakher norm. Individual Lakher villages fought against one another and against neighboring peoples (e.g., the Khumis and Chins). The relationship between the British and the Lakhers was characterized by intermittent conflict, extending from the middle of the nineteenth century to 1924, at which time all the Lakher tribes were brought under British control. British nule brought both political and economic stability to the region. Villages enjoyed a period of internal and external security, slavery was eliminated, and a new market for the sale of surplus goods appeared (with a resulting shift from barter to currency as the medium of exchange). This marked the beginning of the demise of the village chiefs power and authority. With the advent of Indian home rule, the political structure of the Lakher region was reorganized. An administrative structure was established for the Lushai Hills (to which the Lakher Region sends one representative) and a regional council for the Pawi-Lakher regions (to which the Lakher Region is permitted to send four delegates). The office of village chief has been eliminated, and the Lakher are gradually being assimilated into the mainstream of Indian life as citizens of Mizoram state.
Lakher villages are usually built on sloping terrain just below the apex of a hill or mountain. Village sites are more or less permanent, with the people preferring not to relocate because this would require abandoning ancestral burial grounds. Names are selected for villages that highlight some natural feature associated with the location (e.g., Lakai, "winding path," was so named because of the circuitous road that leads to it). Temporary habitations are established in fields during the cultivation season so as to eliminate the necessity of relocating as the need for additional jhum land arises. The Construction of individual homes is asymmetrical, and rarely is there found a major thoroughfare within village boundaries. Only the tleulia area (reserved for community sacrifices) and the home of the chief are placed preferentially, the former being found in the center of the village and the latter usually being located nearby. In antiquity, each village had an internal fortress (ku ) to which retreat was made in the event of external attack, with a network of sentry posts, strategically placed clearings to prevent covert attack, and stone traps (longpa ) built along roads leading to the village. This system of fortification no longer exists in Lakher villages. The size and contents of individual homes vary according to the social status of the occupant. Building materials consist of wood, bamboo, cane rope, and palm (or bamboo) leaves.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Lakher engage in most of the major subsistence activities (i.e., hunting, fishing, animal domestication, and agriculture). Jhum agriculture (in which jungle is cut, permitted to dry, burned, and seeded) is practiced. Three implements only are used in the process: the hoe, dao (machete), and axe. While at least one report noted that the Lakher used terracing as a method, Regional climate (which is dry) and terrain (which is quite steep) suggest otherwise. Maize, millet, cucumbers, pumpkins, rice, a variety of other vegetables, spices, cotton (for the manufacture of cloth), and tobacco (for personal use) are grown in the jhum fields. Rats, elephants, bears, snakes, dogs (eaten only by men), goats (eaten only by men), and various wild birds are hunted and consumed. Gayals (used as a means of monetary exchange and in festival sacrifices), cows (for meat only), pigs, dogs, cats, pigeons, and chickens (for meat and eggs) are domesticated by the Lakher. Fish, crabs (freshwater) , and mussels are among the river creatures sought for consumption. Horses (because of their use as pack animals), leopards, tigers, and cats are not consumed.
Industrial Arts. Lakher manufactures include a variety of bamboo and cane baskets, mats, trays, and sieves (all produced by men), nonornamental metalwork (daos, knives, hoes, and axes), tools associated with cloth production (i.e., spindles, spinning wheels, and cotton gins), cotton cloth (plain), dyed cloth, various items manufactured by unmarried women and widows for domestic use (e.g., gourds, gourd spoons, plates, flasks), pipes (for smoking tobacco), jars, and certain implements of war (e.g., bows, arrows, daos, and spears before the acquisition of guns).
Trade. Trade is not a major part of the Lakher economy. During the imperial period, currency was acquired through the sale of rice to the British for military rations, the sale of cotton and sesame to the Arakanese, the transport of goods between Lungleh and Demagiri (for Lungleh merchants), and the sale of copper cooking pots (purchased, along with salt, from these same merchants) to the Chin. Bees' nests are also collected, with the wax being extracted and traded by the Lakher.
Division of Labor. Men and women participate fully in the economic life of the community. Parry has noted that women are as integral a part of the agricultural cycle as their male counterparts. He has also noted that Lakher women enjoy considerably more personal freedom than their counterparts who inhabit the Indian plains. Some tasks are reserved exclusively for either males or females. Textile manufacture (weaving and dyeing) is the province of women, and the production of earthenware items may be undertaken by unmarried women and widows only. Men produce baskets, hunt, fish, go fowling, cut jhum fields, and construct or repair houses. Women gather firewood and water, weave, feed and care for domestic animals (e.g., pigs), prepare meals, and participate fully in certain aspects of the agricultural cycle (weeding, cleaning, and harvesting).
Land Tenure. Village lands are owned by the village chief and are cultivated by members of the village only with the permission of the village chief. In exchange for the use of this land, there is a dues structure that each household must abide by. Sabai is the fee (usually amounting to one basket of rice) that must be paid to the village chief in recognition of his chieftainship. The chief must also be paid a separate fee (rapaw ) for the privilege of cultivating his land. If a Household has jhum land within the territory of more than one chief, then these fees must be paid to each chief. These lands are passed on as an inheritance within the chiefs family. His eldest son is his heir (thereby inheriting all village lands) and successor (assuming the mantle of rule upon the death of his father). Individual ownership of land does not appear to be permitted, though each household is allowed to select its jhum once the appropriate place for cultivation has been specified by the village chief and council of elders.
Kin Groups and Descent. As has been mentioned above, the Lakher are composed of six groups, each of which consists of a number of clans. The dialects spoken by each group are mutually intelligible. Each clan is believed to have taken the name of an ancestor, though it is no longer possible to trace the lineage to its point of origin. Clan solidarity is manifest particularly during life-cycle events (e.g., marriage, birth, death) as well as at certain sacrificial occasions of a private nature. For most other purposes, the central sociopolitical unit is the village. There exist no clan-based marital prohibitions, and at least four clans (the Bonghia, Thleutha, Hnaihleu, and Mihlong) may be of totemic origin. Within the overall clan hierarchy, royal clans assume primacy of place. These are followed, in descending order, by the phangsang (noble) clans and the machhi (commoners') clans. There is a discernible relationship between clan status and material wealth. Descent is patrilineal.
Kinship Terminology. Omaha-type kinship terms are employed for first cousins.
Marriage. Young men and women are allowed considerable freedom in premarital relationships. Part of the courting procedure involves the male spending the day with the female with whom he would like to form a liaison. The two of them complete their daily chores together and then the male spends the night in the female's house. If the female is interested in initiating a physical relationship, she places her bed near that of the male suitor. Liaisons are also formed during those social events when males and females gather to drink and sing. Men usually marry between the ages of 20 and 25 while women marry after having reached 20 years of age. Parents play an important role in the betrothal process. A man's parents select his bride, and individual Lakher clans are not strictly endogamous or exogamous (though the paucity of marriages within Lakher clans suggests the presence of an Earlier exogamous clan structure). Monogamous unions are the norm, but concubinage is permitted (though concubines do not enjoy the same status as wives). A bride-price (the amount of which is negotiated by representatives of the Families involved) must be paid before the ceremony may take place. The marriage is not usually consummated on the first night of the wedding feast, a period of at least one month being required before this takes place (this practice does not obtain in all villages). During this time, the wife sleeps in the house of her husband while the husband sleeps elsewhere. Postmarital residence is generally with the groom's father until the birth of the first child. After the birth of the first child, the new couple establish their own residence (though locational preference is not given). Parentally arranged child marriage, usually (though not always) involving two prepubescent children of the same age, is also permitted. These unions are generally consummated after both of the parties reach puberty. Marriage to a young woman belonging to a privileged clan and in general to a mother's brother's daughter, is preferred. Divorce is infrequent. It has been suggested that the traditionally high Lakher bride-price contributes to this (a woman's parents being required to refund payment to the husband in the event of a divorce). Divorce regulations favor the female, though it is more usual to find proceedings initiated by husbands than by wives. Impotence, madness, and adultery are all considered sufficient grounds for divorce.
Domestic Unit. Family size ranges from five to ten Persons, with five being the norm. The typical household may be larger if a married son has not established separate residence for himself and his family.
Inheritance. A man's property is inherited by his eldest son. This son is then responsible for repaying all of the Father's debts along with the father's death ru (a due paid to the mother's brother, called the pupa ). A husband is responsible for paying the death ru of his wife. If he predeceases his wife, this responsibility must then be assumed by his youngest son. While it is not required, the eldest son may give a portion of the deceased father's estate to the youngest son. Other sons are allowed no share in their father's estate. Should a man leave no male heirs, his estate would pass first to his brothers, then (in descending order) to his uncles, first cousins, distant relations, and nearest clansmen. Women are forbidden to Inherit, the one exception being if the woman is the last surviving member of her clan. An inheritance may not be refused, and one must be willing to assume the assets and debts of the deceased in full. A widow is allowed to remain in the home of her deceased husband until a memorial stone is set up. If she has children, she may remain in the marital home until she remarries. If the children are minors, the widow receives her husband's estate in trust for her eldest son. Should the widow prove unable to provide for herself and her family upon the death of her husband, either the eldest or youngest brother of her deceased husband would receive control of the estate and would provide for the needs of the surviving family.
Socialization. To a great degree, Lakher children are responsible for their own learning. There is no systematic program for the acquisition of basic life skills. Children are expected to observe the activities of their elders and imitate them. Parents appear to play an important part in the Socialization process, though the pedagogical method employed allows children considerable autonomy once they are able to work independently. Male and female dormitories, which obtain in a number of other Indian tribal groups, are absent among the Lakher. Once children have matured to the point that they can accompany their male parent on jungle excursions, they observe the methods used in hunting, fishing, etc. and master these skills by imitation (e.g., by making model traps). Boys and girls are taught how to care for jhum fields and girls are taught how to weave. Magicoreligious rites are, for the most part, mastered by means of observation. The sole exception to this norm is the Khazangpina chant (which accompanies the sacrifice offered to the god Khazangpa), which children are taught.
Social Organization. The social structure of the typical Lakher village consists of phangsang (patricians), macchi (plebeians), and tlapi (regular citizenry). A special group exists within the phangsang called the kuei. These individuals have been excluded from the obligation of paying the chief the sabai (rice due) and sahaw (meat due). This privilege is awarded to the descendants of those who have extended some special service to the village or its chief (e.g., paying the indemnity owed to a conquering village after a military defeat or extending hospitality to a chiefs guests).
Political Organization. The basic political unit in traditional Lakher society is the village, governed by the bei (chief) with the assistance of the machas (usually a noble or gifted plebeian). Other officials include: the tlaawpa (village crier who dispatches the chiefs business within the village); seudaipa (blacksmith); khireipa (village writer who handles the chiefs correspondence); the tleuliabopa (sacrificial priest) appointed by the chief who offers the tleulia (Sacrifice) to propitiate the spirits inhabiting the hill upon which the village is located) ; and the cheusapathaipa (the cook for the Khazangpina sacrifice). In traditional Lakher society, the chief is the village's central political official during peacetime and war. He personally receives a variety of fees and services from the villagers and, along with the village elders, is empowered to levy such fees and services as are necessary to ensure the continued growth and safety of the community. With the abolition of chieftainship, the Lakher are being brought gradually into the mainstream of Indian political life.
Social Control. Social control is maintained by the Lakher jurisprudential system administered by the chief and his council of elders. The chief has final authority in all legal decisions, but provision is made for the expression of popular sentiment in these proceedings. If the chief is unable to render a legal decision, there is provision made for trial by ordeal. There is also a system of fines that may be imposed for various offenses. Capital punishment does not obtain in traditional jurisprudence. Murderers were required to pay fines—100 to 300 rupees according to Parry—and were excluded from performing clan-based sacrifices and participating in communal feasts. Other fines include those imposed for theft, assault, eavesdropping, trespassing, and character defamation. Control is also maintained by a series of anas. These are prohibitions against certain types of behavior that are believed to bring bad luck or death.
Conflict. As mentioned above, prior to British rule intervillage conflict was frequent. Resistance to British imperial authority was brought to an end by 1924. Since that time, the forces of acculturation have brought the Lakher closer to the mainstream of national life. The reorganization of the Lakher region, which began in 1947, has made it possible for the Lakher to have an impact on the government of their Homeland and a voice in the administration of Mizoram, the larger state of which they are a part.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The Lakher acknowledge one god (Khazangpa/Khazangleutha) who is believed to be the creator of the cosmos, the one who decrees the fates of all creatures. He is believed to live in the mountains or in the sky. His name means "father of all" and his alternate name, Pachhapa, means "the old man." The Lakher also believe that mountains, woods, and pools have leurahripas (evil and beneficent spirits). It is also believed that every person has a zang (tutelary deity/angelic guardian) charged with his or her protection. Some leurahripas are believed to be the source of all sickness and must be propitiated regularly.
Religious Practitioners. Magicoreligious rites may be performed by any member of a household. There is no hereditary Lakher priesthood, the sole exception being the tleuliabopa who is appointed by the village chief to perform the tleulia sacrifice. In most Lakher villages, this position is held for life. Misconduct can, however, result in dismissal and replacement. Upon the death of the tleuliabopa, the office passes to his son. The services of a khazanghneipa (medium) may be obtained by those desiring fertility, cures for sickness, or knowledge of future events.
Ceremonies. Ceremonies accompany most of the major life-cycle events and other significant social events. Festival occasions are few in number and are usually associated with marriage and birth. A man of wealth may sponsor a feast upon the completion of a new home. Beer feasts may also be given by a man for his associates. The major Lakher festivals are Pazusata (a feast that marks the end of the year and during which behavioral restrictions on children are suspended), and Pakhupila (the "knee dance," occasioned by an excellent crop yield). The Siaha royal clan (the Khichha Hleuchang) departs from this norm. It has a series of six feasts designed to ensure favorable treatment in the afterlife (i.e., entrance into Paradise). In addition to these festivals, numerous additional magicoreligious rites (of a sacrificial nature) are associated with the subsistence cycle, matters of state, legal proceedings, medical practice, domestic affairs, ancestral worship, and the religious cults. Of these, the Khazangpina sacrifice (offered to Khazangpa), during which the sacrificer asks for blessings on himself and his family (e.g., wealth, health, abundance of children, good crops, and fertile domestic animals), is unsurpassed in importance.
Arts. Lakher visual art is represented by personal effects serving ornamental and other purposes (e.g., belts, hairpins, combs, earrings, bracelets, necklaces, pipes, guns, powder flasks, daos, swords, knives, nicotine-water flasks, syphons, and the lids of earthenware pots) and by tattooing. Music is of great importance and the Lakher have three classes of songs: those for daily usage; those accompanying the ia Ceremony (performed over the head of a dead enemy or the carcass of a dead animal) ; and those accompanying the Pakupila festival ("knee dance"). Instruments include gongs, flutes, drums, violins, zithers, and the chaei (a kind of mouth harp). Funerals, wakes, weddings, and feasts are all occasions for dancing. The Lakher claim that their dance patterns are based on movements characteristic of the fly. Lakher oral literature consists of a small number of proverbs, an ever-increasing corpus of folklore, and myths pertaining to cosmic origins, the exploits of primordial humanity, Khazangpa, and the nature of certain natural phenomena (earthly and celestial).
Medicine. Sickness is believed to be caused chiefly by leurahripas, who capture the soul of a person and prevent it from returning to the body. The ravages of sickness can be averted by individual or corporate sacrifice. The tleulia Sacrifice (described above), the tlaraipasi ceremony (used to prevent the outbreak of an epidemic), and the sacrifice offered to a local khisong (spirit dwelling on a mountaintop, in a pool, or in a lake) are intended to ensure village health. Personal infirmities (e.g., swelling, minor illnesses, consumption, premature aging, and impotence) can be alleviated by a variety of individual sacrifices or through the ministrations of the khazanghneipa. Medicinal cures (both indigenous and Western) are also used, but they are considered of secondary importance to the sacrificial system of healing.
Death and Afterlife. Death results when Khazangpa or a leurahripa steals an individual's soul. The dead are believed to go to one of three domains in the afterworld. The habitation known as Athikhi (literally, "the village of the dead") is occupied by those who have had an average existence. Here they live lives similar in quality to those lived on Earth. Distinctions between the wealthy and the poor continue to obtain in Athikhi. Those who have killed certain animals in the wild and have performed the ia ceremony over them may attain to Peira, a domain near that of Khazangpa. Those who die unnatural deaths or perish because of terrible diseases are confined to Sawvawkhi. Men who have never had sexual intercourse are called chhongchhongpipas. These are fated to wander on the road between the earthly realm and Athikhi. As for those souls that have lived in Athikhi for an extended period, those of chiefs die, turn to warm mist, rise heavenward, and vanish. Those of the average person are transformed into worms and are consumed by chickens. It is believed that the spirits of those who die as children transmigrate and are reincarnated in the bodies of younger siblings.
See also Mizo
Barkataki, S. (1969). Tribes of Assam. New Delhi: National Book Trust.
Löffer, L. G. (1960). "Patrilineal Lineation in Transition." Ethnos 1-2:119-150.
Parry, N. E. (1932). The Lakhers. London: Macmillan.
Shakespear, John (1912). The Lushei Kuki Clans. London: Macmillan.
HUGH R. PAGE, JR.