The village was quiet and deserted Thursday except for the football field at the bottom of the hill where hundreds of men, women, teenagers and children danced to celebrate the 72nd anniversary of a religious sect that gave birth to the world’s largest family — the patriarch Zion, his 38 wives and his children and grandchildren, a total of 162 people, all living under one roof.
The singing and dancing, synchronised but often freestyle, was interspersed with religious speeches as Zion sat in the gallery. The annual Bawkte Kut (festival of the hut) got under way with a parade of the “Chhuanthar Military (the name given to the sect’s group of married men)” and the students of the sect’s primary, middle and high schools. The three contingents moved in and out of a circle formed by the faithful seated on wooden benches placed on the dusty football field built by sect members without any machinery and with their own money.
The “Lalpa Kohhran Thar or God’s New Church” sect that calls itself kawngpui zawhtute (followers of the great way) began in 1942 under the leadership of Khuangtuaha, a veteran of the First World War. He broke away from the dominant Presbyterian Church where he was a choir conductor and established a bawk or hamlet called Hmawngkawn, where he and his followers lived.
When he died on March 30, 1955, his younger brother Chana took on the role of hotupa or leader. A little over a decade later, Hmawngkawn was shifted and merged with hamlets in nearby Baktawng by the Army as part of its counterinsurgency operations.
The sect continued to flourish there in spite of constant criticism by much of Mizo society, where polygamy is not followed. The sect follows polygamy as a will of God. Today, the southern half of Baktawng is exclusively populated by sect members, who now number 2,055, including the world’s largest family. Chana, who with seven wives had two more than his brother, died in 1997. His role was taken up by his eldest son Zion, who turns 70 this July.
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The Lalpa Kohhran Thar draws its doctrine from the Bible. Zion picks “relevant” verses to write weekly lessons for Sunday school. The sect focuses on “preparing the body to occupy the new earth”, which they believe will be established somewhere once Armageddon begins. According to Ronghaka, Khuangtuaha’s grandson, “We do not observe rituals of cleansing as such but believe that preparing the body for the new earth is more about having a good character and working hard.”
The sect has attracted many former government officials and professionals. One of them is C Lalrinthanga, who was a paramilitary official before becoming a banker with a nationalised bank. “I respect the way they live and work and wanted my children and grandchildren to grow up in this environment,” he says. Zion is a shy man rarely seen in public. When The Indian Express met him just before the ceremony, he smiled briefly, shook hands and walked away hurriedly.