Runneihthanga remembers it as a place of shadows. “When we were children, there were hundreds of menhirs. They cast long shadows and we often played among them,” said the 69-year-old villager.
There were so numerous that no one seemed to have kept count of how many were lost over the years. “Every time someone died in the village, us children and teenagers would come here with the blacksmith. He would pound off a piece with his big hammer, large enough for us to carry, and all of us would carry one or two each and give it to the young men making the grave,” he says.
At the cemetery, older villagers would use these rocks to build a particular kind of grave, verily a casket of stone. Called tianhrang, they are no longer as common throughout Mizoram. But for many generations, there was nothing but these graves.
Whenever there was a death in the village, explains F Laldawla, a villager in his sixties, the young men would dig the ground at the cemetery, slightly bigger than would fit an average person.
Then they would line the bottom and the sides with flat pieces of rock and then — with great care and in a particular way that often ended in a cave-in if it was done otherwise — stack the rocks atop each other while leaving just a couple of feet, or even less, open. When the body arrived at the cemetery after the funeral, they would inter it by sliding it in through the mouth of this small, man-made cave, stack more rocks on top so it became a coffin of stone, and then shovel earth on it.
At Vangchhia, Champhai district, perhaps because so many flat rocks were available at the field of menhirs just outside the village, the practice was in vogue for a long time. Laldawla or his wife did not immediately remember when the practice stopped.
“Which year did Nu (aunty) Saii die? It was the year K Hminga came preaching…”
“Let me think, it was….” she mumbled, putting her open palms together as if in prayer and resting her chin on them. “K Hminga… Nu Saii… it was 2000. Yes, 2000!” she said.
“So yes, the last tianhrang I remember being made at this village was in 2000,” said Laldawla.
The best rocks were, of course, pieces hammered off from the menhirs that stood at what is now famous across Mizoram as Kawtchhuah Ropui — the first and only archaeological site to have so far been protected (and led to a full-fledged excavation project) by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in Mizoram. The current interest in the area, and sites around it, many hope, will help lift the fog over the history of how the Mizo community came to occupy the lands they do and perhaps reveal some hidden histories.
“The menhirs also stood in bunches on the hillock above this road. But they knocked down all of those,” said Laldawla, gesturing towards the dirt track that serves as the village’s arterial road.
Unknown to the villagers at Vangchhia at the time, a man in a helicopter often gazed down at the menhirs. P Rohmingthanga was the first Mizo deputy commissioner of Aizawl district back in the early 1970s, a time of violent upheaval, the first decade of a violent separatist movement, waged guerrilla-style, by the Mizo National Front against Indian armed forces.
“I often flew by helicopter to visit my group centres in the interior areas. Whenever I flew along the Champhai-Farkawn mountain range, I would observe a group of very tall stone monuments… They looked rather whitish, possibly because of sunlight being reflected back. Incidentally, they had no forest cover in those days,” says the retired IAS officer, now an octogenarian.
“Once, I enquired about the village’s name and I was told it was Vangchhia. Unfortunately, there was no road to Vangchhia in those days and it was inaccessible except by a typical inter-village footpath. The law and order situation being what it was, such a venture on foot was considered inadvisable,” he said.
Even when he took the same aerial route a quarter-century later, he was told that there was still no proper road to Vangchhia. The years passed and it was in 2009 that Rohmingthanga found himself appointed convener of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach)’s Mizoram chapter. The chapter members began touring the countryside to see and document known and lesser-known heritage sites. The first tour was fairly run-of-the-mill, but the second one would change Vangchhia forever.
It was on this trip, in the summer of 2010, that Rohmingthanga finally saw what he had often wondered about. By then, the village of Vangchhia had been preserving the menhirs for years at the behest of the local Young Mizo Association unit, a branch of Mizoram’s largest voluntary organisation, and had christened the site where they stood in rows in their hundreds as Kawtchhuah Ropui, or The Great Gateway, a name that was at once bold and possessive.
The history of the Mizo community has been orally passed down through generations. It was transcribed in written form only after the British established an administration towards the last decade of the 19th century and pioneering Christian missionaries developed a script for a lingua franca among the various dialects used by different Mizo clans.
Though periods may differ, the unanimously accepted history is that the community migrated southward from somewhere in China and entered present-day Myanmar’s Chin state several hundred years ago. A sizable chunk remained behind in Myanmar and to this day make up what is known in Mizoram as zohnahthlak, a word that denotes a branch of the community.
Some among the community ventured west from the Chin Hills across the lower reaches of the eastern Himalayas to settle in present-day Mizoram, many moving even further and settling in the eastern hills of what is now Bangladesh and the state of Tripura, with smaller populations also scattered across southern Manipur and Assam.
The main route of this migratory wave, the villagers of Vangchhia believe, was through the field of menhirs on the edge of a hill near their settlement, and that this historic movement was documented for perpetuity in the mysterious engravings on the menhirs of Kawtchhuah Ropui.
When P Rohmingthanga and the Intach team first visited the site, they were astounded. But they were also crestfallen.
“I was told that, originally, there could have been no fewer than 600 megaliths at the site, compared to the present 200 or so still existing. It was a site which needed to be protected and conserved… and which must be brought to the notice of not only the rest of India, but also the world,” he said.
The chapter then devoted its energy to grab the attention of India’s foremost archaeological body. It took several site visits by the ASI’s teams at Guwahati and often arduous follow-ups of files, proposals and the writing of letters to not only archaeologists in the Assam capital but also in New Delhi before the Ministry of Culture declared Kawtchhuah Ropui “an archaeological site of national importance” on March 18, 2014.
But that was just the beginning.
Menhirs bearing enigmatic engravings were by no means unique to Vangchhia. Entire clusters of menhirs in smaller densities were spread across the eastern hill range of Mizoram at sites near the villages of Farkawn, Lianpui, Khankawn, Khawbung, Vaphai and Dungtlang, while apparently ancient iron artefacts and old pots, both broken and whole, have been recently unearthed at Zawlsei and Khawbung. Dungtlang, in addition, has a vast hilltop site across which is spread across what appears to be the remains of an ancient settlement — stone blocks arranged as if they were once dwellings, and small man-made caves topped with menhirs taller than the average full-grown man.
At Lungphunlian, further to the north, are menhirs that bear no engravings but are many times the size of their counterparts elsewhere, the tallest among them rising almost 15 feet tall, with an estimated 5 feet buried in the ground and, at its widest point, measuring 12 feet across and 2 feet thick overall. The Intach chapter pushed for recognition of these sites, their exhortations resulting in teams visiting them.
However, the big questions still remain.
How old are these menhirs? Who erected them? Who were the artists that used them as a canvas? What do the engravings mean? How were these huge rocks fashioned in the shape they are in? Just how were they transported atop mountains when there are no apparent quarries apart from the riverbanks that are often several kilometres below, down steep and unforgiving cliffs and mountain-sides?
Finally, the ASI’s director-general Dr Rakesh Tiwari, the first archaeologist to hold the organisation’s top job in over two decades, accepted an invitation to visit not just Vangchhia but the other sites in Mizoram. He eventually spent a week in this remote and difficult terrain, where rains fall suddenly and offer very real prospects of stranding travellers.
It was on the third day of this tour, in the last week of October 2015, that Tiwari finally set foot at Kawtchhuah Ropui.
Tiwari spent over an hour observing the menhirs, discussing them with locals, Intach officials and a team of archaeologists that made up the entourage, and spent considerable time looking out across the gorge towards the Chin Hills, whose western frontier mountains rose against the clear sky.
When it came time to leave the site and head to the village for a public meeting, however, he strolled into the vegetable fields on the gentle hillside and came back with a palm full of pot-shards.
“That is not the settlement site,” he said, beaming with excitement and pointing at Kawtchhuah Ropui. Then he turned around, gestured towards the vegetable fields and declared, “That is!” Three days later, the team had visited five different sites spread over more than 150 km across Mizoram’s easternmost hill range. Just over two months after his departire, Tiwari despatched an excavation team to Vangchhia, and what they found in less than a couple of weeks would astound everyone.
On January 15, P Rohminthanga sat in his small home-office, struggling with his phone and email. With an energy that belied his 80 years, he said, “There has been great news from Vangchhia!” The team had discovered no less than 20 cobbled stone structures that could possibly turn out to be ancient graves and located several organic remains they were confident could be dated in specialised laboratories.
But more than anything else, he said, the team had been in raptures over the unearthing of a stone structure, about 200 meters across, with a certain pattern that Dr Sujit Nayan, who led the excavation, believed were reminiscent of “water pavilions”, structures used perhaps as a form of entertainment and which, if true, indicated the presence of a prosperous settlement once upon a time.
But the antiquity of the Vangchhia site, according to archaeologists, would only be determined once the carbon-dating results are out and also, less specifically perhaps, if and when they are able to compare the pot-shards with counterparts in other parts of India or some countries of South-East Asia.
In all, the team camped at Vangchhia for about a month. They would come back soon to continue the excavations.
A few weeks later, Champhai deputy commissioner Vanlalngaihsaka stood outside his official bungalow and said, “What I find most enchanting about Vangchhia is Pipute Lamlian!” Roughly translatable as “ancestors’ pathway”, the apparent remains of a footpath that meets in Vangchhia forks out in three directions — north, south and east — but has not yet been touched by the archaeologists’ trowels and hand-brooms.
“We had a discussion with the DC, and decided we would call a hnatlang (volunteer community work) and explore Pipute Lamlian,” said Vangchhia’s village council president F Malsawmtluanga when I caught up with him one evening. He pulled out his phone and flipped through the picture gallery and thrust it at me.
The photos were startling. A freshly cleared path that traversed a very steep gradient was lined with rocks that looked like a rough staircase had been built there. Others showed rock-faces bearing engravings similar to those at Kawtchhuah Ropui, such as bison-heads and clusters of human figures.
“Look at what we found in just two days!” he said, “Just two days!”