by Malsawmi Jacob
Since the dawn of civilasation, most people groups seem to have believed that human life does not end with the-here-and-now. The ancient Egyptians embalmed their dead to prepare them for the next world. The Greeks had their stories about Hades. The great Indian epic Mahabharata closes with a description of the hero Yudhishthira in 'swarga' or heaven. Before the teaching of Christianity came to the Mizos, they also had their own system of belief and fascinating tales about life after death.
Mizoram, or the land of Mizo people, is one of the states in north-east India. It is bordered by Bangladesh on the south and Burma or Myanmar on the east. Here is an old Mizo myth about the dead.
The forefathers believed that at death the spirits leave the body and go to live in another world called Pialral (literally translated ‘beyond earth’). On their way they have to pass through Rih Dil, a lake in the border between Mizoram and Myanmar. Though the lake lies amidst cultivated fields now, it was surrounded by thick forests in olden days. There must have been something eerie about the lake that fired the imagination then, as many strange tales are told about it.
Rih Dil Tales
Once, a man camped out hunting on the shores of Rih lake. The whole area was thick jungle, inhabited by wild animals and birds. At night he was awakened from his sleep by the sound of human voices. Startled, he sat up and listened. The voices came nearer. He was even more surprised to hear the voice of his own wife saying "O, I forgot to tell my children that there is smoked meat in the pot on the shelf over the hearth. Their father has gone out hunting and won't be back for some days. Unless they find it, they will be eating plain rice until their father returns".
On hearing this, the man got up and stood in wait to catch his wife. Finding her from her voice though it was too dark to see, he caught hold of her and said "Where are you going? Why have you left the children alone in my absence? Go back home at once!"
"I have to go on", she replied. "Do not delay me, let me go. See, my friends have passed on and I'm lagging behind."
"I won't let you go", he said and held her tight. At this, she turned into a male goat and butted him. But he held on. Then she turned into a caterpillar and tried to wriggle free. He still would not let go. Finally, she turned into a firefly, slipped through his fingers and flew away. The man hurried home as soon as it was daylight. There he found that his wife had died the previous day.
It is also said that there are wild fowls known as 'Rih ar' around the lake. If someone picks up an egg of this fowl and carries it, they may go on walking for a long time but never leave the place.
The water of the lake is also supposed to be inhabited by strange beings. It is said that once, a group of young men went swimming in the Rih lake. One of them dived under water and came up after a long time. He told his friends that under the water he saw an old man shaping split bamboo for weaving, who told him to go back at once and never come again, or he would die. His friends laughed and taunted him for lying. When he asserted that he was speaking truth, they challenged him to go back and bring some of the bamboo shavings to prove his word. At last he reluctantly agreed. He asked them to tie a rope to his ankle, and to pull him up at once if he kicked. After a while he started kicking about and they hauled him up. The body came up, with the head cut off, holding bamboo shavings in one hand.
The World of the Dead
After passing through Rih lake, the spirits reach a high hill called Hringlang Tlang (meaning 'hill from where human habitation is visible'). From there they look back at their old villages and other places familiar to them, and weep with regret that they have to leave it all. Then they reluctantly proceed on the journey.
By and by, they reach a valley full of beautiful flowers, known as Hawilo par ( or 'Flowers of no turning '). When they see these flowers they cannot but pluck some and wear them on their hair. As soon as they do this, they refuse to look back to their old world and hurry on. After some time they reach a stream of clear cool water, called Lunglo Tui ( or 'water of forgetting '). They cannot help but drink from this stream and then forget all about their old life, and look forward to reaching the other world.
Finally, they reach the gate of Pialral, where stands a giant watchman named Pawla , carrying a catapult, with pellets the size of hen's eggs. They say that the pellet wound takes at least two years to heal. But Pawla does not dare shoot people who were heroes in their life time. Such people come accompanied by all the animals they had killed. A great hunter comes in riding on a stag on whose antler a python curls round, followed by tigers, bears, boars and other animals. 'Pu Pawla' or 'Sir Pawla' allows such great persons to pass on in peace.
Another group that Pawla dares not catapult are babies. A baby, it is said, clenches its fist and stamps its foot shouting "Why did you take away my life so early? Had I lived on, I might have grown up to be a hero!"
When a young child died, they used to bury an egg along with the body. This was because they feared that the child would not know the way to Pialral. They thought that the egg would roll on and the child would chase it and reach the world of the dead.
Once inside the gate, the heroes lead princely lives. They are fed and served by others and do not have to do any work. But ordinary people have to go on much in the same way as in this world.
One story that gives a picture of what life in the other world is like, is the story of Tlingi and Ngama
Tlingi and Ngama.
Once there was a married couple who loved each other dearly. The man's name was Ngama, and the wife's name was Tlingi. Tlingi died, and the grieving Ngama visited her grave daily with fresh flowers. He was surprised to note that each time he came, the flowers he had placed there the previous day would be gone. So one day he decided to keep watch and catch the thief.
A little later, a wild cat came and picked up the flowers. Ngama jumped out of his hiding and caught it. "Let me go, Pi Tlingi sent me to fetch the flowers", said the wild cat.
"Then you must take me to her. I'm coming with you", Ngama replied. So the wild cat told him to hold on its tail, and off they went.
At length, they came to the land of the dead where Tlingi received him with surprise and joy. The next morning, Ngama watched some men cutting down a yam plant and splitting the stalk with great difficulty. Ngama came to their help and cut it easily with his hands.
Another day, the men were going out to hunt and Ngama joined the party. When they reached the forest, the men whispered that there was a bear ahead and prepared to attack. Ngama could not see any bear. He accidentally stamped on a black hairy caterpillar and killed it. The others gave a great shout saying that he had killed the bear. They carried it home and cut it up.
Yet another day, they went fishing and caught floating leaves in a shallow stream. On the way back it got dark. All Ngama's companions turned into fireflies and flew home. But Ngama could not do so and had to walk back alone.
Soon it was time for Ngama to return to the land of the living. Tlingi sent the wild cat to escort him back.
After a while Ngama also died and came to live in Pialral with Tlingi. He found her living in a good house made of wood. She told him that the wood was what he had torn with his hands on his first visit. And there was a large stock of smoked meat, and his wife said that it was the meat of the bear he had killed.
And so Tlingi and Ngama lived happily together in the land of the dead.
All these are a far cry from the Biblical picture of a beautiful heaven and a horrible hell. But it is interesting to note that the olden-day Mizos, in all their simplicity, conceived of a life after death in common with the sophisticated nations of the world.