The Zou as a Minority Community

The Zou tribe is a less well-known indigenous community living along Indo-Burma frontier. In India, Zous are officially recognized as a “Scheduled Tribe” within the state of Manipur (See List of Scheduled Tribes of India, Modification 1956). Though there are no official figures, the Zou population in India is estimated to be around 20,000 to 25,000. The community is concentrated in Churachandpur and Chandel districts of Manipur in North-East India. The Zou language is one of the prescribed MIL (Major Indian Languages) in the high schools and higher secondary schools of Manipur. The Zou community has a script of its own known as “Zolai”. Zou youngsters learn their script as a piece of curiosity; but the Roman script is the official script used by the Zomis of Burma and India. Bible translations in the Zomi language too adopted the Roman script and it served their purpose very well. The bulk of Zo people or Zomis lived in the Chin Hills of Upper Burma. With a slight variation in spelling convention, the Burmese Zous called themselves “Zo“. The Indian Zou and Burmese Zo belong to the same dialectal community. The Zou dialectal group is only a branch of the larger Chin-Kuki-Lushai ethnic group. Like their ethnic Mizo cousins, the Zous are a tribal Christian community undergoing profound social change and modernization since mid-20th century.

Historical Background

The early history of the Zou people is lost in myths and legends. Linguistic and racial evidence suggest the Indo-Chinese origin of the people. Linguists classified the Zomi language as “Tibeto-Burman“. Perhaps one of the earliest recorded references to Zomi as a people is found in the travel account of an Italian missionary called Father Vencentius Sangermano who resided at Ava and Rangoon from 1783 to 1806. In his widely circulated memoir, Sangermano recorded his observation of the Zomis at the beginning of the nineteenth century A.D., writing: “To the east of the Chin mountains, … is a petty nation called Jo [Yaw]. They are supposed to have been Chien … These Jò generally pass for necromancers and sorcerers, and are for this reason feared by the Burmese, who dare not ill-treat them for fear of their revenging themselves by some enchantment” (Sangermano 1833: 43).

Since it was recognisable to the Italian observer that the Zomis ‘are supposed to have been Chien [Chin]’, the context suggests that Sangermano was referring to the same group of people later known as Chin-Kuki-Lushais, of whom the Zomi tribe is a historical component today.

In South-east Asia, there had been dynasties, places and people that bear the label, Zou – with spelling variations. However, no definite connection can be established between such terms.

The American Baptist missionary, J.H. Cope, made an attempt to trace the pre-colonial history of the Chin Hills in a church journal, Tedim Thu Kizakna Lai. [1] The journal (edited by Cope) provides a glimpse of the Zomis in Chin Hills before the arrival of British imperialism. Under the Manlun chiefs – Manlun is the name of a clan of the Zotes who are a subtribe of the Zomis, had a bitter struggle with the Kamhau-Suktes over the control of the hill tracts between Manipur (India) and Chin hills (Burma). Inter-village raids were frequent; but they never resulted in decisive victory. The fortification of Tedim village by Kamhau finally gave him the upper hand over his Zote rivals. British records about the Zomis became available towards the end of the nineteenth century.

Upper Burma (including the Chin hills) was officially annexed by the British at the end of the Third Anglo-Burmese War (1885-1887). On 28 September 1892, the Political Officer of Chin Hills submitted ‘a scheme in detail for the future administration of the Chin Hills’ (NAI 1892). The Yoe (Zo) – this must have been the Zotes mentioned above – was enumerated as one of the five tribes inhabiting the Northern Chin Hills. The others were Nwite (Guite), Thado and Kamhow (Kamhau), and Siyin (Sihzang). Not only these five tribes but all those who inhabited the region which is now called Chin State in Burma, along with all the tribes known as Mizos in Mizoram State in India and Paites in Manipur State in India, are one and the smae Zomis. The Zomi tribe was placed under the jurisdiction of the Tedim post; but the new scheme of boundary demarcation proposed to ‘award’ majority of the Zomi population to Manipur in India. British interest in revenue collection in the Chin Hills produced statistical information for Zomi villages. Official statistics for the year 1893 showed that the Zomi tribe consisted of nineteen villages and 630 households, inhabiting a tract lying between 60 and 90 miles north and north-west of Fort White. The tribe had the second largest number of villages in Northern Chin Hills, next only to the Thado tribe (See NAI 1893).

The Etymology of Zou

Oral tradition maintains that the Zomis hailed from the first three Zomi brothers – Songthu alias Chongthu, Songza and Zahong. Zomi origin myth accounts their first home in a Cave variously known as “Khul” or “Chhinlung”, “Sinlung” or Khur. This site is near a village called Saizang in the so-called Chin State in North Western part of Burma, where the descendants of Songthu became Thawmte tribe. This site can be verified by evidence to support such a claim. In fact, Thawmte Tribe has a story of how their ancestors from Songthu lived there for at least nine generations until one of his offsprings Mang Sum.

Vum Kho Hau says that all the Zomi clans of this particular Tibeto-Burman group descended from a common ancestor. The same opinion was held by Capt. Pu Khupzathang, a Zomi genealogist who authored Zo Khang Suutna Laibu (Genealogy of the Zomis). He constructs an elaborate genealogical tree to substantiate his case. Current ethnonationalist sentiments too in favour of such geanological interpretation.

At another level, Zo (literally meaning “highland”) has a geographical as well as genealogical connotations. In fact, local poets get inspiration from the hilly landscape of the Zo habitat; they are never tired of praising the beauty of their vales, dales and hills. Even after centuries of shifting cultivation devastated the land of the Zomis, the romantic tradition of praising their “beautiful” hills still continues.

The term Zo is an indigenous usage that dates back to antiquity, or (at least) pre-modern history. Before the Zomi society evolved from clan-based lineages to tribe-based identity, historical records referred them as Yaw, Jo, Chou, and Zhou. Such references are found in the Shan (Pong) Chronicles from AD 80 —1604.

Today the term Zo is used in a rather confusing way in Manipur (India) and the Chin Hills of Burma. While colonial records referred to the Zo tribe variously as ‘Yo’ or ‘Yaw’, the Zomi community living in Manipur inscribed their name rather stylishly as ‘Jou’. The first Christian church established by the Zomi tribe in Manipur was called Jou Christian Association (JCA) on 20 February 1954 . But the Government of India officially recognised the name of this tribe as ‘Zou’ in 1956. Sometimes, the term Zomi is also used interchangeably with the word Zou so that the apex political organisation of the Zo is called United Zomi Organisation (UZO). To add to this confusion of terms, the Zos in Myanmar called themselves ‘Zomi’ , which is actually a generic term used to replace the hyphenated term, Chin-Kuki-Lushai in current academic and political discourse. The term ‘Zomi’ is a collective name by which the Tedim s of Myanmar, the Paite and Vaiphei of Manipur generally identified themselves. Noting at the very outset, the variations in spelling and usage of the terms Zo, Zou, and Zomi to mean the same people – the Zomi tribe – in certain geographical contexts on the one hand, and also as a generic term to refer to the larger Chin-Kuki-Lushai ethnic group on the other, will save us unnecessary confusion later. This conflicting usage of the same term (signifier) for different meanings (significance) has been highlighted by a Zo scholar, Sing Khaw Khai:

“While all clans and families belonging to the tribe who call their chief Topa designated themselves with ‘Yo’ or ‘Zo’, they in turn apply their common name to a particular clan. The Yos [Zous] are most unique in the sense of the name they bear and the culture they practice in reflection of the ancient Zo tradition … No proper study has yet been made as to why the generic Yo as spelt in former literature was applied to them”’ (Khai 1995: 22).

Speculations on Zou Origin

“Zou” or “Zo” as a generic name

According to a Burmese scholar Thantun, Tibeto-Burmans probably once inhabited the T’ao valley of Kansu province in north-west China. Because of frequent Chinese incursions, the Zomis might have moved to the north east of Tibet around 200 BC. In order to avoid them, the Zomis traveled across ridges and forests and move further south. The journey probably took hundreds of years and eventually landed in Upper Burma. But it is difficult to substantiate such claims with hard evidence.

In the year 862 AD, a Chinese historian, Fan Ch’o Hao in his book already used the word Zo to call a peculiar ethnic group of people. Another scholar, a Catholic Father Vincent, in his book published in 1783 mentioned a group of people known as Zo. Sir Henry Yule’s narrative of the Mission to the court of Ava in 1885 showed the Chindwin plains and the area west of Chindwin River as Zo district. FK Lehman, a renowned Social Anthropologist in this book ‘Structure of the Chin Society’ reiterated the fact that the so called Kuki-Chin linguistic groups have a special term for themselves variously spelt as Zo, Yo etc.

Dr. Vumkhohau, a Zo scholar and diplomat from Burma, in his profile of the ‘Burmese Frontier Man’ has affirmed that “we called ourselves Zomi from time immemorial”. There are different theories regarding the etymology of the root word Zo. The Zomi ethnic community is known by others as Kuki in Manipur, Nagaland and Assam; Chin in Burma and Lushai in Mizoram, Tripura and other Zomi occupied areas. B.S. Carey and Tuck says that there can be no doubt that the Chins and the Kukis, are one and the same race; for their appearance, manners, customs and languages point to this conclusion.

The words Kuki, Chin and Lushai have neither any bearing on the culture of these peoples. In the absence of a centralized state formation, the Zo people or Zomis were vulnerable to their formidable neighbours, the Shan, the Burmese, and finally British imperialism subjugated them during the late 19th century.

The South-East Asian Connection

Metternich says that ‘The man who made history have no time to write it’. Indeed, the story and legacy of the Zo is less well-known even today. Though Zo history is still sketchy and static, they clearly belong to Tibeto-Burman lingistic group which is of Mongolian stock. The possible link between the Indo-Burma Zomis and the Zhou dynasty (c.1050-771 BC) in Western China [2] has been an intriguing question for some time. The Zhou in ancient China are thought to have originated from the areas west to the Shang strongholds, possibly Shangxi and Gansu provinces (Braghin 1998: 279). However, there is not enough evidence at present to establish the link between the Zhou dynasty and the Indo-Burmese Zou.

Another speculation was that the Zo came from Yunnan province of China (cf. “Yao” people of Yunnan) [3] before they were harassed and driven south by the Mongol invasion into Upper Burma along the Chindwin River. They reached Yaw valley-upper Chindwin extending up to Kabaw valley sometime in the eight century AD. In this Yaw valley, they practiced wet-rice cultivation and gave up their nomadic life. When they approached from south west China up to Kabaw valley, they faced no warlords, except some skirmishes with the expeditions of the Shan States, who then begin their infiltration in the Upper Burma following the Irrawaddy river towards the end of the 13th century (Aung-Thwin 1996).

In due course of time, they settled around Khampat, and established their kingdom which survived from the 13th to the 15th century AD. At the beginning of the 15th century AD, they confronted a threat from the Shans who aimed at expanding their suzerainty. The Zomis were the second people to face the onslaught of the Thai imperialist who moved upward with their mighty Tai (Thai) force marauding the Burmese and Zomis on their way to Assam.

Then, they moved about further south up to the present Chin Hills and started settling in the hill regions, which was then No Man’s Land. After leaving Khampat kingdom, it appears that there was none to trumpet their conscience. From there they scattered all along the hill ranges in different directions, divided into clan-based leadership. Some Zomis settled in the Chin Hills and made Tonzang as their headquarters under the leadership of Pu Khanthuam.

Legacy of Anti-colonial Resistance: Zou Gal (1917-19)

The Zo tribe joined the so-called ‘Kuki Rising’ in Manipur against the British from 1917 to 1919. Hiangtam and Gotengkot Forts were two main centres of resistance among the Zomis. Pu Do Ngul Taithul was the chief of Gotengkot, which was a fairly big and fortified Zo village. Captain Steadman was the man responsible for suppressing Gotengkot with considerable casualties on both sides. The Zo tribe was a non-Thado tribe to have participated in this abortive, yet bold attempt to oust the white imperialist from Manipur, even as a local folk song composed on the occasion of the revolt runs in the Zou dialect as follows:

Tuizum Mangkang kiil bang hing khang/ Zota kual zil bang liing e/ Pianna ka gamlei hi e! phal si’ng e!/ Ka naamtem hiam a, i Zogamlei laal kanaw/ Sansii’n zeel e!/ Ngalliam vontawi ka laulou lai e.
Free translation:

The seafaring White Imperialist coils like the ‘kill’ plant,Tremors of earthquake do quiver the Zo world,’Tis the land of my birth: I shall not part with it!Stain’d with blood is my SwordThat has routed the adversaries of Zoland,I shall yet fight with the wild Boar, injured [4].

This folk song of the Zou dialect, reflecting the collective mind of the natives, indicated that the anti-imperial fervour was very high in 1918; and interestingly the Britishers were compared by the native mind with the wild Boar, or with a native wild creeper-plant called ‘kill’. Independent India justifiably took pride in its legacy of colonial resistance. In Manipur, the Palace uprising and Rani Gaidinlieu‘s movement are relatively well-known. However, the “Kuki Rising” and the participation of the Zou tribe was less well-known. There stands a dilapidated, tin-roofed hall called “Zogal Memorial Hall” at Zoveng, Churachandpur (Manipur) built in honour of the Zomis who fought against British colonizers. The anti-colonial legacy of the Zou is a tribute to the multi-etnnic people of Manipur itself. However, the dilapidated condition of Zogal Memorial Hall reflects the lack of official patronage for its shared history and collective memory.

Zous in Manipur: A Tribe in Transition

Crisis of traditional religion (Sakhua)

The Zou people resisted the British Raj and its colonial culture, including Christian conversion. The Maharajah of Manipur too did not permit Christian missionaries to work in the Imphal valley. However, a missionary called Watkin Roberts arrived at Senvawn village in the southern hills of Manipur in 1910. The Zou community did not come directly in contact with any Western missionary. While their neighbouring communities converted to Christianity, the Zous clung on to their traditional religion called Sakhua. The old Sakhua used to be self-sufficient; but the Zou colonial encounter resulted in cracks in the old system. Things began to fall apart. The experience of many young Zomis as a labour corps in World War I made them more open to Western education. The NEIG Mission Compound at Old Churachand (Suangpi) became the centre of literate culture in southern Manipur since 1930. By the time of India’s independence, many neo-literates among the Zomis were convinced about the power of Western education and medicine: the native mind somehow perceived such objects as synonymous with Christianity itself.

Local Church Movement under JCA

The new Zou Christian converts joined different dialectal groups, especially the Paite and Thado Christian groups. To stem the tide of this social crisis, some intelligent Zou youngsters organised on 20 Feb. 1954 the first Zou Conference at Daizang village. The JCA (Jou Christian Association) conference deliberated on issues related to the social and religious life of the community. The JCA agenda was not exclusively religious. Besides Pu Kamzakhup, the pillars of the JCA in its initial days were the three educated figures of Pu Thawng Hang, Pu Sem Khua Pau, and Pu Kai Za Kham. The trio leaders were still students at Imphal at that point of time, and they were entrusted with the task of drafting a ‘Constitution’ for JCA, which was finally adopted at the Daizang assembly.

However, there seemed to be a lot of spade work before the JCA assembly could be convened on 20 February 1954. A preliminary meeting was held at Tuaitengphai village on the occasion of ‘Haitha’ (First Fruit) festival in which the villages of Daizang, Boh Lui and Khiang Lam were scheduled to participate; but the last two did not turned up. A migrant from Mawngawn village, Pu Kam Za Khup became a resident of Daizang village since 1951. His arrival in Daizang made that village a hub of Christian activities in the 1950s. Despite his humble occupation as a peasant, Kam Za Khup appeared to be a born reformer. He was consumed with zeal to initiate a local church movement among his tribespeople – the Zou dialect community. When he moved into Daizang in 1951, there were reportedly just four Christian villages out of the total sixty-six Zou villages. Enthused with the challenge of initiating a new movement, this layman would share his social vision with his confident named Thawng Za Khup. Both jointly managed to bring the village elders for a public discussion at Tuaitengphai in 1952. But nothing concrete came out of the meeting. Still undaunted, Pu Kam Za Khup continued his campaign for a cause close to his heart. The reformist duo (Kam Za Khup and Thawng Za Khup) would excitedly talk about their future project even while working in the wet rice field. The first important outcome of all those untiring discussion and persuasion was the staging of a partially successful joint meeting between Daizang and Tuaitengphai in 1953. That, in turn, provided a solid foundation for a more spectacular success. It actually became a prelude to the historic JCA meeting at Daizang on 20 February 1954 (see JCA Minute Book).

Finally, one may wonder: where did Pu Kam Za Khup catch his Gospel fire? The clue lies in his early residence at Mawngawn village. The social environment of Mawngawn in the 1940s – swept by waves of Christian conversion – must have contributed significantly to the making of this Zou social reformer.

Patriarchy and the tribal Christianity

Contrary to the charges of de-tribilasation by some scholars, the Zous today perserve the best part of their traditional culture through their indigenous local church. Their customary laws related to marriage practices have been institutionalized by the church. Their tribal musical instrument (khuang made of wood and animal skin) is an integral part of church music. The Bible translations and hymnals preserved the best part of their traditional vacabulary harnessed to a different purpose.

Access to modern education since the 1950s and 60s empowered some Zou women in the “secular” sphere and the job market. But ironically women are still discriminated in the “secred” sphere of the church on gender basis. The Zou society, despite Christian conversion, still staunchly maintains its old patriarchal structure. The first generation of educated Zomi women like Ms. Khan Niang and Ms. Geneve Vung Za Mawi championed the cause of female education as late as the 1970s (Lalnunmawi 1996). A handful of Zou women (eg. Ms. Dim Kho Chin, Ms. Ning Hoih Kim, Ms. Ngai Vung, etc) graduated in theology in the 1980s. There is limited space for women theologians within the formal church structure which is jealously guarded as a privileged male enclave. The church hierarchy still excludes women from any position of authority and “ordained” offices like that of ministers or elders. Despite the advances made by women in the secular world, a recent study suggests that the status of women has been degraded (not upgraded) within the patriarchal world of the tribal church (cf. Downs 1996: 80-81). For instance, the tribal church never condemn and always condone domestic violence (including wife beating & child abuse) despite all the talks about building “Christian family”. Women’s right to use the pulpit was grudgingly granted, or sometimes denied . Female employment within the salaried jobs of the two main Zou churches (Presbyterian & Lutheran) is a pathetic 3 per cent or thereabouts.

However, women are encouraged in fundraising projects where they have made excellent contributions through innovative strategies like antang pham (handful of rice collection), thabituh (annual labour targets), veipung (profitable micro-investment), etc. The money collected by ladies are seldom invested in projects that benefit women as a specific group.

Journals in Zou language

Zopatong” – A monthly news magazine publised at Zomi Colony, Churachandpur, Manipur (India)
Khristian Tangkou” – A Christian journal published by the Zo Presbyterian Synod, Churachandpur, Manipur.

Gospel Tangkou” – A Christian journal published by the Manipur Evangelical Lutheran Church


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