Lai people

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Strictly speaking, Lai are the people belonging to the Lai Autonomous District Council of Mizoram, North-East India. From a historical point of view, Lai is a dominant tribe of the so-called Chin-Kuki–Lushai, the community is scattered in different parts of the world, mainly concentrating in Mizoram, Chin Hills of Burma, South Bangladesh (identified as Bawm), Manipur, etc.


Total population is around 1,700,000 in 1991.[1] Lai is an ethnic identity to call all the tribes of Chins, the Pawis, the Bawms, etc.


  1. Anu
  2. Chawnhlun
  3. Chawngthu
  4. Bawm
  5. Chuntei
  6. Thangnge
  7. Sialling
  8. Hnamler
  9. Hnialum
  10. Hranglung
  11. Mualcin
  12. Khuangsai
  13. Pang
  14. Sim
  15. Tlanglau
  16. Zahau
  17. Zangiat
  18. Zathang
  19. Zinhlawng
  20. Hlawndo
  21. Lithing
  22. Chinzah
  23. Renthlei
  24. Fanai
  25. Thi-hlum
  26. Bawitlung
  27. Fanchun
  28. Zinhlawng
  29. Hlawnchhing
  30. Hauheng
  31. Sathing
  32. Canada[citation needed]

Ethnic origin[edit]

The Lai who are living in the Lai Autonomous District of Mizoram are but a segment community of the much larger Lai (Hakha) population of Burma and elsewhere to whom whatever name may be given. Regarding their origin, they share common ancestry with those of any mongoloid race in the Northeast India. Further back, a historic tradition has it that Lai were a people who had once lived in China. They migrated through the Tibetan mountains moving further towards the East to become a major tribal group in the Chin Hills of Burma from where same few came the to present habitat (Mizoram) in the beginning of the 18th century or earlier.

Historians and anthropologists[who?] are of the opinion that the Lai community belongs to Tibeto-Burman of the Mongoloid stock. Their language is related to Tibeto-Chinese. A philologist, G.A. Grierson, who has made an extensive and comprehensive linguistic survey in India and Burma, did classify the Tibeto-Burman families into four groups, namely, Northern China, Central Chins, Old Kukis and Southern Chins.¹ So far, there is no rival opinion against the argument that the Lai are none other than the Mongoloid stock. However, the Lai people have been given various names in different places, Chin or Halkha in Burma, Zo or Laizo in different places in India, Bangladesh and elsewhere, Pawi or Mizo in Mizoram.

The term Chin or Zo or Laizo or Mizo is a genetic name that is used to denote a group communities who claimed themselves Kuki-Chin-Mizo Group or Zo (Mizo), in a modern saying.

The word Chin is generally used by the Burmese to denote the various tribes inhabiting the country of the Lushai hills. They do not recognized themselves the name Chin, but call themselves Zo or Yo in the North and Lai in the centre.[1]

A.S. Reid, a medical officer-in-charge in the British Military Service in India, had made a similar remark relating to this issue as, "Chin is a Burmese term .…. . The Hakha called themselves Lai,". The word Chin is a generic term and is used to denote the Lai and their kin. The Lai also called Zo or Yo in some places as Vumson, an outstanding researcher from Zo community says, "The Pawi (Lai) themselves do not call themselves Pawi but Lai, which and for all the Zo people."

The above quoted statement tells that the Lai can never be the sub-tribe of Zo, rather the main tree of the kin.

The Lai people call themselves 'Lai' or 'Laimi' (people of Lai) or 'Laifa' (children of Lai) since time immemorial. Maj. J. Shakespeare (1887–1905), the first superintendent of the then Lushai Hills, is cited[by whom?] to have said that the people whom he knew as Shendhu, Chin, Kuki, Naga etc. did not know themselves by such names. Similarly, the people of Chin Hills did not know that they were "Pawi", a name probably given by the Luseis. James Herbert Lorrain, an English missionary, makes no mention of the collective noun 'Lai' in his Lushai-English Dictionary. Instead, he renders 'Pawi' to demote all tribes such as Chins, Lakhers (Mara) and Fanai etc. "who do not wear their hair knot at the back of the head as the Lushai do".

For more than a century, the Lai were known as Pawi in Mizoram and elsewhere. It is difficult to trace the exact date when the Lai were called Pawi, what happened and why they were called so. One thing is clear,[citation needed] that the Lai were never called Pawi in their history till they entered Mizoram. It is probable that the Lai might have been named Pawi soon after they entered Mizoram. However, census report of India 1901 shows that the term Pawi already existed in Mizoram with a population of 15.

Population of the Lushai Hills in 1901:

Name of clan Population
Hmar 10 411
Lushai 36 332
Pawi 15 038
Ralte 13 829
Paite 2 870
Total 78 480

According to oral tradition of the Lai, the term Pawi was given to the Lai people, since the Lai youngman claimed himself pawite during the war between the North and the South Mizoram (most probably in 1800–1900). It is said[by whom?] that the Lushai believed that the Lai claimed themselves to be Pawi because of their hair knot on their forehead. Therefore, whoever keeps the same hair style was called Pawi. Even the Punjabi, who knot their hair on their forehead, was also called Vai Pawi at one time in Mizoram. In this case, the Pawi seemed to be named after their hair style, but the term Pawite literally means leopard in Lai language. It is therefore probable that the term Pawi was not given to the Lai after their hair style; rather they were recognized from their hairstyle.

The Lai are also believed to be the main tree of the Jin Dynasty. The Bible which is commonly used in Chin Hills is called the Lai-Hoka Bible. It is also said that the word Shendoo or Shendu, which was frequently used to denote the Lakher (Mara) in the Britisher's record, were said to be the offspring of Lai. F. Chhawnmanga, a retired District Adult Education Officer, under the State Government of Mizoram, who has conducted an extensive personal interview with some chiefs of Lakher, tells.

The Lakher chief Mr. Kilkhara of Saiha and Tawngliana of Serkawr Villages were the descendants of Lianchi and Alkheng respectively of Hlawnchhing family of Haha. They spoke Lai language. However, after coming down to Mizoram, their names were translated into Lakher dialect and Themselves Kikhaw and Thylai.

The above arguments seem to be supported by the statement of Vumson, thus:

The Lakher (Mara) are the branch of Lai tribe and speak a language closely related to Lai. They are the same people as Shendoo to whom Col. Lewin made constant reference in his various works and are still called Shendoo by the Arakanis.

There are many common clan names like Hlawnchhing, Chinzah, Khenglawt, Thianhlun, etc. which are found between the Lai and Maras. This is an incation of the fact that Lai and Mara are one and the same people.

Apart from the above-mentioned groups, there are other linguistic groups that were found to have the same culture and customs, speak similar language with the Lai. These groups do qualify for Lai in terms of social, cultural and linguistic. Those groups are Bom and Tlanglau living in the western part of Mizoram and Bangladesh.

Historical origin[edit]

The Lai historical researchers proposed three main sources, such as, Biblical theory, deluge theory and Chhinlung theory. The first two theories are found non-analytical and needed much more sufficient research, therefore seem to be less convincing. Despite the fact that the third theory is considered more reliable to trace on origin of Lai. As a result, this work is based upon it.

Peoples of every group of Mizo language families have the same tradition that all are originated from Chhinlung. Tradition ascribe that the Lais originally came out of 'Chhinlung', not a mythical rock as said by some, but a hole in the ground covered with a stone, in the east of the Shan State, in the Falam Sub-Division of the Chin Hills District in Burma. It was believed that Lai tribes originate from somewhere in China. Chindwin Valley and the Chin Hills and finally came to the present Lairam. The areas inhabited by the Lai are contiguous to one another although they are at present in different administrative units. Their concept of Chhinlung is something like a cave from which all of the Mizo language family came out. The tradition goes that the progenitors of the Lai came out of the cave that was believed to be somewhere in Northern China, or between China and Tibet. The limitation of this theory is that human came out of the cave is biologically impossible. Therefore, the modern historians are of the opinion that the Chhinlung from where the Lai people came out could be the Great Wall of China, which was built during the reign of the Prince Chung called Chin shih Hwangti. He started to reign in China in B.C. 221, and the construction of the Great Wall of China was started in B.C. 214. Therefore, the Lai and all other Mizo language family were believed to have come out of the Great Wall of China due to heavy workload that was beyond their ability to bear. Hence, they made their way towards Burma and North East India where they settled down till today.

Basing on the history of China, written by Wan Shu Tang in 1955, Hniarkio, a research scholar from the Chin Hills, or Burma says:

"The Lai, with other groups of peoples like Mioo, Yoa, Tung, Chouli, Kualo, Leng, etc. lived in China."

Hniarkio further tells that the archaeological evidence which was unearthed in 1974 proved that the Lai people served the King Shis Hwangti as the guards and as a defence service. The statues of the guards found in the King's compound who have knotted hair over their foreheads have shown this. For Hniakio except the Lai people were believed to have kept their hairstyle in China. This argument is in fact related to the above-mentioned Chhinlung theory. Therefore, the Lai Original home could be somewhere in China. Among the Lai, there is also a belief that some of the Lai people still remain in China and nearby. Sangkkunga, a Medical Officer of the Lai community, who had been to Singapore in 1981 tells,

"I have visited the Lai pharmacy in people's Park in Singapore. The owner of the pharmacy and his wife, both physicians are Lai and came from China."[1]

He further tells that there are some Lai among the Chinese.

This eyewitness is more convincing to lead us[who?] to believe that the Lai people came from China. This claim required much deeper study basing on cultural and linguistic dimensions.

Chhuanawm Lahnim, a Lai by tribe and a learned man,[citation needed] has written an article basing on G. A. Grierson, a linguist and F. K. Lehman, an anthropologist. Grierson who had done a linguistic survey in India and Burma resolved that 'Lai' means 'middle' signifying that the Lais lived in the middle of Chin Hills. University of Illinois proposed that 'Lai' implies "Centre" or more appropriately 'intermediate'. From these explanations Lahnim infers that 'Lai' in its conceptual meaning, is "civilized" or "Superior" or "unprecedented". He further associates this meaning with the middle kingdom complex that had already been existed among the Chinese thousands of years ago. However, this will require deeper study for its affirmation .

Contrary to this opinion, B. Lalthangliana argues that it is impossible to link the history of the people in Mizoram with the Great Wall of China, as the age distance is too long. Any way, whether the tradition of Chhinlung is convincing or not the existence of Chhinlung seems to be true, that one of the Chinese has established a Restaurant continues to exist till today. So, the Chhinlung theory as well as an existence of Chhinlung in China in any form proved that the origin of the Lai, which is traced back to China, is possible.

Relying on the work of M.G. Tetpyo, Customary Law of the Chin Tribes, 1884, Mr. Hengmanga, the then Historical Research Officer, under Lai Autonomous District Council, Lawngtlai, asserted that:

"The Lai people made their way from Northern China via Tibet to Burma through the Hukawng Valley. The approximate date when they crossed the Hukawng valley could be around 400 AD."

[citation needed]

The Lai people might have spent some time at Kabaw and Khampat, where most of the Zo group were said to have once lived together for several years as Mangkhasat Kipgen, a research scholar from Manipur State has mentioned in his work, Christianity and Zo Culture, as,

"The time spent in Khampat is regarded as one of the most glorious periods in Zo History. Most of the major clans, who now inhabit the Chin State of Burma, Mizoram, Manipur and Tripura are believed to have lived together there"

According to the legend handed down from generation to generation among the Lai, they traced back their origin to Lailum. This is situated in Chin Hills near Falam. Around this people, there were some Lai historical places like Chin Mual, Lai VA, and Lai Kulh. Chumawi argues that

"These historical places proved that the Lai people have been living for some generations."[1]

[citation needed]

The Lai language becomes the Lingua Franca in Chin Hills. Nishipada Deva Choudhury, an Archeologist rightly says,

"Lai bids fair to become the general means of communication in the Chin Hills."[1]

In tracing out the origin of Lai, most of the Indian and British researchers could establish that the Lai people moved towards the north west along the Chindwin River, then settled down in the Chin Hills. The possible date of their settlement there, as suggested by F. K. Lehman, is 750 A.D. Haka, the present capital of the Chin Hills (Laitlang) State, was said to have founded by the young prince of Lai, Hluansang by name. Subsequently, many places such as Thlantlang, Lungzarh, Khuafo, Sunthla, Thlanrawn etc. were founded in which the clans, Chinzah, Zathang, Hlawnchhing, Khenglawt, Hlawncheu, Zahau, Fanai etc. were found living there. After some generations, in an effort to stretch them out, they moved towards the north and west, crossing the River Boinu (Kaladan), and settled in Manipur, Bangladesh and Mizoram, where they live till today. The first group who left the Chin Hills in 1770 under the leadership of Vanhnuaitlira, the prince of Sunthla, moved towards the south west and settled down at Rengtlang, Chittagong Hill Tract, and Bangladesh. The migratory way to the next group is read in the Book of Pawi Chanchin, published by the Tribal Research Institution, Mizoram, thus,

They crossed the River Tiau near Champhai and made their way in the Forest towards Bungzung. Then moved to North Vanlaiphai, Sangau, Lungtian from where they had spread in all different places in south Mizoram.

After coming down to the present Mizoram, they occupied the whole eastern belt of Mizoram. Mr. L. Chinzah, a veteran political leader of Lai, has mentioned in his memorandum submitted to the Government of Assam, in 1970. The Memorandum reads.

The entire eastern belt of the Mizo district, as far as the Tuichang River on the West and Champhai on the North, and the entire areas South of Lunglei are Pawi (Lai) territories.[1]

By examining available sources, oral or written, there is no rival opinion that the Lai came down from China through Burma as many people still live in Chin Hills. Then they came and settled down in South and Eastern belt of Mizoram, where they enjoy self-administration in the name of Lai Autonomous District Council, Lawngtlai, as its headquarters.[citation needed]

Distinctive Identity[edit]

Lai culture[edit]

Lai are the people of rich culture, customs and traditions distinct from that of their neighbours. Their cultural heritage include language, folk songs or folklore, moral and social ethics, legends, myth, festivals, dances etc. Their cultural values are well preserved in the form of archival system. (The Art and Culture Department of the Lai Autonomous District Council, Lawngtlai may be consulted in this regard)


Rev. Th. Vanlalzauva gave a gist of some Lai popular dances in the following-

The ancient glory of the Lai culture has never been decaying as some might presume; it is alive and is flourishing today. This reality is expressed by the fact that some cultural dances of Lai origin have gained wide popularity and some them like Sarlamkai and Rawkhatlak (Bamboo dance) are often performed on national celebrations. However, most Lai dances are adopted and modified with the passage of time. Here is a gist of the selected dances to be performed at this time.


This article about Ruakkhatlak was originated in Chin State of Myanmar, Hakha Township, Dumva Village.


The most admired dance almost analogous to the western rock or disco is this dance performed normally by a group of youngsters with proportionate male and female ratio. It has a great variety of rhythmic bits, among the Lai dance this dance particularly exhibits the glory and supremacy of Lai culture. In the olden days. Conglaizonh was performed on the day when a chief or a person of prominence died. It commemorates the achievement of the person either for his/her greatness or prowess. The ball is not to mourn, but to honour the deceased. It is a dance of homage.


The most fiery-looking dance symbolizing the habitation of the Lai warriors, the known cruel headhunters is Sarlamkai, which is also known as Solakia to the Maras, a sub-tribe of the Lai. Hunting for head or wild animal was a favourite game as well as a way of building the social career. On killing their enemies the heads were carried home as trophy so that celebrations could take place. Traditions have something to say about the origination of this dance. This dance celebrates the victory of the hunters. Sarlaamkai not only demonstrates the bravery of the warrior, it assures the villagers of their security.


Among all others, this is perhaps the only dance which the Britishers who settled in the land used to enjoy. It is a Lai national dance. As a dance of delight and gaiety. Pawhlohtlawh is performed on any day of celebrations and social gatherings viz victorious ceremony, public feast, festival, marriage day, jubilee, carnival etc. this emotional dance conveys the spirit of freedom, peace and love. Its manner excites all, the performers and the onlookers. Pawhlo dance is luxurious and inviting and is a taste to everyone.


The Lai people do qualify to seek a Regional or District Council in which they could protect their own customs and culture, and to develop their own language and ways of living.

The Pawi-Lakher Company was developed into Chin Association and able to contact the Advisory Council known as Mizo Hills District Advisory Council in 1947. As the time passed by the political Development was in progress among the Lai. They determined to get a separate Regional Council along with the Mizo District Council, which was constituted for north Mizoram.

In order to bring out their political will, The Pawi-Lakher Tribal Union was founded on 25 October 1949. The Principal aim and objective of the Union included the integration of the Lai and the Mara (Pawi-Lakher) into a single Administrative Unit, obtaining of a regional Council and safeguarding of their ethnic identities.

The hard labour of the Pawi-Lakher Tribal Union and the Lai-Mara members of the Mizo District Council eventually paid off when the Pawi–Lakher Regional Council was constituted by the Government of Assam, under the Sixth Schedule, The Pawi–Lakher Autonomous Region Rules, 1952 was enacted The Council had 12 members, 9 elected by the people and 3 nominated by the Governor of Assam on the recommendation of the Chief Executive Member of the Council. The first election of the Pawi-Lakher Regional Council was held in 1953.

After some years of administrative experience in the Regional Council, the leaders of Lai, Mara and Chakma felt the need to have a separate district council for each community in order to safeguard their respective customs, culture and language. Upon their constant demand, the government granted to them separate three district councils, for the Lai (Pawi), Mara (Lakher) and the Chakma, with headquarters at Lawngtlai, Saiha and Chawngte respectively, on 2 April 1972. Meanwhile, Union Territory was also constituted in Mizoram. The Pawi-Lakher Regional Council automatically dissolved. The newly created Pawi Autonomous District Council started functioning with effect from 29 April 1972, with 14 members strength, of which 12 were elected by the people and 2 were nominated.

Although the Lai never called themselves Pawi, the government recognized them as Pawi even before India's Independence. Since the Lai people were not happy to bear the name Pawi and sought to change the nomenclature into Lai, upon their request the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution of India Amendment Act 1988 (No 67 of 1988) changed the name Pawi to Lai. Subsequently, the name of the District Council was changed to Lai Autonomous District Council on May, 1989. At present (2000–2001) The Lai Autonomous District Council has a strength of 27 members, of which 23 are elected and 4 are nominated. 21 subjects have been granted by the government with a recurring grant of Rs.255798,000 of which 71.5 million as Plan and 1542.98 as Non-Plan. Total amount of its revenue collection is Rs.2.2 million.

Under the Lai Autonomous District Council ate there are six towns and 81 villages, and the total number of families is 9020, with a total population of 51,884.

In the eve of India's Independence, in 1947 the British seemed to have been conscious of their past mistake of the 'divide and rule' and wanted to correct it by setting out the plan to reintegrate the break-ups.

It is recorded thus, "Under the constitution for the union of Burma drawn up in 1947 provision was made for the recognition of the special interest of the Chin people living in the tangle of forested hills between India and Burma". A proposal of the British was to establish a 'Crown Colony' to cover up the Lais inhabited area in the Arakan hills state with the object of building the Akyab to be the harbour capital city. However, this suggestion was vehemently opposed by a veteran politician by name Ch. Chaprawnga as it could mean the loss of an ethnic gravity of the Lusei community, thereby weakening its supremecy over the other tribes.

Since then, the politics of the Lushai hills was under the control of the Lusei community. The Luseism became a centrifugal magnet into which all other tribes like Hmar, paite, Ralte, Lai (Pawi and Lakher) have been gradually absorbed. As a political step forward for uniting all the tribes within Mizo district a political party called 'Mizo Union' was formed in 1946 under the leadership of Mr. R. Vanlawma. The rationale behind the Mizo politics was to submerge all the tribes into the mainstream of the Mizo. In the midst of oppositions and resistance from the Mizo, the Lais had struggled a lot to maintain their ethnic identity by initiating a series of political-ethographical movements. Certain political organizations based on the Lai ethnicity includes Pawi-Lakher company, Chin Association, Tribal Union in the late 40's and Chin National Front in 1965 and so on. The CNF was particularly aimed at "reuniting the Pawis". An instances of the opposition, Lais were resisted against their membership to the Mizo Advisory Council, the tribal union party being strongly opposed by the Mizo Union, and the CNF was jeopardised by the MNF which as formed on 22 October 1962. However, the Lais were granted a Regional Council in the name of Pawi Lakher on 23 April 1953, a year after the Mizo district council was accorded on 22 April 1952. When Mizoram was upgraded into Union Territory in 1972, the Lai, Mara and Chakma were also given each separate Autonomous District Councils.

The struggle of the Lai people for identity seems to be largely determined by the oppressive structure of the Mizo Nationalism. As Lais suffer the pain of separation from the major section of their own community their political dream always cherishes a spirit of integration with their own flesh and blood who are now drifted apart. So, the constituent Assembly accepted the proposal for District and Regional Councils, and it was brought into the Sixth Schedules to the Constitution of India. Lushai District Council was opened on 23 April 1952. Later it became Union Territory, and finally obtained its State-hood on 1986 as a "Government of Mizoram. During this period the Lai people were not being a silence listener and watcher. They became aware to the Politics, and would like to know more a bout the Sixth Scheduled, since they were a different tribe, they wanted to preserve their own culture and heritage. The first movement was started in the name of Pawi-Lakher Company, that is something like a commercial institution. However, the main reason behind the formation of this institution was to build the Lai (Pawi) and Mara (Lakher) political awareness and to draw unity between the two communities, since ethnically they are of the same family as mentioned earlier. This company brought back the scattered Lai people and it enable them to a concrete political party for the Lai community such as the Chin Association founded on 21 January 1947.

The formation of Pawi-Lakher Company is the fact that has brought the Lai people to the knowledge of Government of Assam.

After careful examination of the situation of Hill areas of Assam, as well as its political demand, the Cabinet Mission of the British Government in India discussed ways and means to protect the interests of the tribal people and the backward classed after India becomes Independence. As propounded by the Cabinet Mission an Advisory Committee was set up, and the Advisory Committee set up a sub- committee known as North Eastern Frontier Tribal and excluded Committee, to be headed by Gopinath Bardoloi, the Premier of Assam, as he was then known. The recommendation of this Sub-Committee (also known as Bardoloi Committee) thus resulted to constitute the so-called Sixth Schedule to the Constitution of India, in 1950. Under the articles 224 (2) and 275 (1) of Sixth of the Constitution of India, a special provision for the administration of Hills District of the present North East India was envisaged. The Constitution goes

  1. Autonomous Districts and Autonomous Regions. Subject to the provisions of this paragraph, the tribal area in each item of (Parts I, II and II A) in part III of the Table appended to Para 20 of this schedule shall be an Autonomous District.
  2. Constitution of District Council and Regional Council.
  1. There shall be a District Council for each Autonomous District consisting of not more than thirty members.
  2. There shall be a separate Regional Council of each area constituted an Autonomous Region under the Sub-paragraph (2) of Para I of this schedule.


  1. ^ a b c d e f Lalthangliana, B.: History and Culture of Mizo in India, Burma and Bangladesh, 2001. RTM Press. Aizawl. pp. 101–102.