Zawlbuk - a traditional bachelor's dormitory which is the pillar of modern Mizo society

Zawlbuk or traditional bachelor's dormitory (photo: ner_luv)

The system of bachelors’ dormitory were prevailed among many tribes of north east India particularly the Karbis, the Tiwas, The Mishings, the Dimasas, etc. of Assam and the Nagas of Nagaland and Manipur, the Mizos of Mizoram and some other ethic tribes of Tripura, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh.

Today we will discuss about a unique system of bachelors’ dormitory known as ‘Zawlbuk’ prevailed among the Mizos until the Christianity penetrated the Mizo social life after the First World War.

‘Zawlbuk’ is a Duhlian word which, if effect, means bachelors’ dormitory. It is however much deeper in its significance than what can be understood from such a simple meaning. It is the social organization which has a prominent role in shaping the youths into responsible adult members of the society. Zawlbuk occupied a central position in the organization and administration of the Mizo village and functioned as the most potent institutionalized mechanism of social control. 

In zawlbuk system, the age-old social mores and values with due respect towards the traditions and customs were projected before the youth. It was believed that the perpetuation of these values could hardly be effected through effective teaching in the right direction. Before the formal education system established zawlbuk was the only system to educate the youth. The real needs of the society were counteracted through the collective mechanism of the zawlbuk. The family and the society formed a symbiotic whole and functioned in complete reciprocity through the zawlbuk. The modern Mizo society appeared to have evolved through this zawlbuk – a self sufficient educational device. The simple forms of education for life evolved in zawlbuk through their various activities, codes of conduct and modes of living ensuring healthy relationship among different age groups. Zawlbuk posed as a balancing unit between the old and the new generation with its built-in recognition of the rights and needs of each and every individual in the society without disturbing the age old social psyche. The reproductive and repetitive activities of the zawlbuk provided and adequate educational structure what shaped haphazard and inefficient movement of the youth in their early childhood into functional activities both at the individual and collective levels through well-sustained programme at the zawlbuk ensuring healthy and peaceful social life. 

‘Youths’, according to Dr. (Mrs.) N. Chatterji, ‘are the most potent revitalizing agents of the society prepared themselves for their future role with very little emotional strain and easy transformation of the ‘forced discipline’ of their early life into a well established form of ‘free discipline’ fully in keeping with the requirements of the society they meant to perpetuate.’ The zawlbuk brings forth a unique style of living in the Mizo society by implementing a deep love of freedom and respect for community based social organization.

Zawlbuk used to be located invariably at the most central place in a Mizo village, close proximity with the chief’s residence. It used to be a very large dwelling place capable of accommodating all young men and boys in the village, which is constructed through the free labour by the youth erected on stout timber stilts on the slope of a steep ridge. It is made up of wooden poles and mature bamboos fixed horizontally and crosswise. Number of poles varies according to the size of the zawlbuk. 

The central line – the backbone of the zawlbuk was called ‘tlung’. To provide support to the slopping roofs on all the sides of the central line timber and bamboo rafters were fixed up and a crosswise pattern which was known as ‘chhun’. At the end of the sloping roof long leaves known as ‘diso' in Mizo language were allowed to protrude from the thatches giving zawlbuk a distinctive look. Sometime cane leaves were used in place of thatches or sungrasses. At the point of the entrance a bamboo wall was fixed up with the entire roof breadthwise leaving about five feet below it over the platform. The vacant shape between the wall and the floor was known as ‘awkpaka’. One or sometime two huge seze logs used to place a bit inside the entrance so as to use as verandah which were known as ‘bawhbel’ – a very precious possession of a zawlbuk, which is also known as ‘pawmpual’ in southern Mizoram. It provided protection on the inner side of the firewood stock. The floor of the zawlbuk consisted of a strong bamboo mat carefully woven in a particular design known as ‘chhuatpuitah’ and just below this split half ripe bamboos were placed at right angles closely knit. The front entrance opening was called ‘awkpakawngka’ and the rear opening as ‘awkpaka’ – according to some living zawlbuk dwellers.

On the two sides of the zawlbuk, walls made of strong interwoven split bamboos were provided. In most of the cases a particular design known a ‘bawhtah’ was used. Inside the room a central portion was set apart for the zawlbuk fireplace. This used to be a square structure walled up with timber logs rising from the ground underneath the floor and coming upto about six inches below the surface of the floor. To protect the roof from catching fire as also to prevent it from being discoloured by smoke, a bamboo woven mat used to be hung from the roof over the fireplace. At the back portion of the zawlbuk room there used to be a raised platform known as ‘dawvan’ about six feet wide and one foot high covering the whole breadth of the zawlbuk, where the young dwellers often sit together to witness gymnastic feats, wrestling and other acts. It was also used as a sleeping place in the night.

Function: The chief of the village was the supreme head and the father figure of the zawlbuk. But zawlbuk as a whole was an independent organization worked out through the self-government, except in emergency when the interference of the chief was sought. The most industrious, courageous and efficient hunter among the group with a leadership quality was chosen as the ‘val upa’ by the chief. In this case ‘val upa’ resembling the role of a chief minister and the ‘chief’ as the governor of the modern Indian administration system. The ‘val upa’ was responsible for organizing the group to take up definite responsibilities in looking after the welfare and exercising all round vigilance over the needs of the village. A number of monitors were appointed to whom different tasks were distributed for proper functioning of the zawlbuk system.

Zawlbuk consisted of two types of members – adults and boys. Adults were the full members whereas the boys were kept to assist in various odd tasks. A boy was only accepted as a full member upon reaching puberty as well as passing a test fulfilling the norms of adulthood. Adults were called ‘tlangvals’ and the boys were called ‘thingnawifawm’.

Benefits of the zawlbuk :--
1. It was easy to find all the young people of the village under a single roof in emergency.
2. It was the platform for learning strict disciplines in life which become habitual in later life.
3. Systematic inculcation of desirable habits and cherished values.
4. Inculcate work culture.
5. To prepare the young folk with administrative capabilities and self-governance.

Zawlbuk was the platform to hone the young dwellers with positive political expertise, social obligations and cooperative working habits. It can also be compared with a university where young ones were accepted as scholars to gain knowledge, of course, mostly practical by nature. It was a platform to give a sense of togetherness and attachment towards their clan as a big, compact Mizo family.

Zawlbuk was mostly prevalent in Lushai and Pawi villages. The Raltes did not have this system but adopted it after coming under influence of the Lushais. The Paites did not have zawlbuk as such but young men would sleep in the verandah or front porch of the houses of influential men of the village who would provide adequate sleeping arrangement for this purpose. On the other hand, the Lakhers did not have a zawlbuk system. N.E.Parry while citing the indisciplined behaviour of the Lakhers, mentioned in his book ‘A Monograph on the Lushai Customs and Ceremonies’, - ‘The lack of control in the Lakher village contrasts very strongly with the excellent discipline maintained among Lushais. I ascribe much of the indiscipline among the Lushais to the fact that they do not have any bachelors’ house or other equivalent to the Lushai ‘zawlbuk’ where strict discipline is maintained.’

Tlawmngaihna: There was an excellent custom called ‘tlawmngaihna’ by which one was duty bound to help others possessing the qualities of unselfishness and cooperation. This was an excellent custom in the daily life of a Lushai. Tlawmngaihna permeated all sheres of life. If a cultivator became sick, it was the duty of the other to cultivate the plot for him. Extend warm hospitality to the travelers and help in need which was called ‘thlenindan’. Help the sick in time willingly. Similarly extending help to the fellow members of the society in carrying out different tasks during any ritual, ceremonies and during natural calamities. Contribution of food, clothing, utensils, etc. during crisis or ‘mautam’ was integral part of tlawmngaihna. Tlawmngaihna owes its allegiance to the zawlbuk. A person who possesses tlawmngaihna must be courteous, considerate, unselfish, courageous and industrious. In theory tlawmngaihna should enter into every branch of a Lushai’s life. A man who practices the precepts of tlawmngaihna is looked up to and respected.

I, as a writer of this article, would like to cite my personal encounter with the people with high dignity who still possess the quality of tlawmngaihna and cooperativeness. Today though zawlbuk is almost extict physically, but some of the qualities are still inherited property of the modern young men(tlangval) and young ladies(Nula), who keep alive the traces of their age-old tradition in the shape of new organizations like Young Mizo Association(Y.M.A.), Mizo Zirlai Pawl(M.Z.P.), Kristian Thalai Pawl(K.T.P.) and similar other groups and organizations.

There are two reasons behind the extinction of zawlbuk system. ---
1. Advent of Christianity.
2. Raw and misleading knowledge about the materialism prevailed in the western world through the First World War returnees who belonged to Mizo community and as a result the new generation led to think of zawlbuk way of life less futile and little conducive to their material growth.

Conclusion: It will, however, be wrong to conclude that the foreign missionaries, who came and lived amongst the Mizos facing great hardship and personal inconveniences, were really responsible for the liquidation of the zawlbuk system. In fact, they were no less eager to restrain themselves from interfering with their indigenous way of life than the British rulers themselves. While they gave them a religion and converted their dialect into a language, they also made honest effort to preserve all that was good in their old ways of life. Rev. F.J. Raper of the Baptist Mission, Serkawn, Lunglei, made some efforts to revive zawlbuk in several villages in the south. David Edward also conceived of an adaptation of zawlbuk through different social welfare organizations. It was they who encouraged the formation of young Lushai Organisations like Y.M.A. guided and supported through public acceptance. Today the moral ethics that zawlbuk provided in ancient days are still active in disguise through some code of social conducts among the Mizos. ---
1. Stealing and touching other’s unclaimed items, money and valuables are very rare among the Mizos which is considered punishable act in the eyes of God.
2. Friendly and helpful by nature.
3. Warm yet informal welcome, of course, mostly in villages, even to the strangers.
4. Love and fear to the God.

Today it is a known fact that the Mizos are the most peaceful among many other tribes of north east India. Once disturbed the erstwhile Lushai Hills District of Assam is the most peaceful Mizoram today, who must be proud to be the recipient of the President of India’s Peace Prize in the year 2000. This is nothing but the outcome of age-old tradition and impact of zawlbuk system which was a unique institution – a forerunner of a dignified living standard in a remote pocket of the sub continent – a matter to be proud of. LONG LIVE MIZORAM AND MIZO IDELOGIES.

- by Ankur Deka
Shillong, India.

References :
1. ‘A Monograph on Lushai Customs and Ceremonies’, N.E. Parry, Tribal Research Institute, Aizawl, 1988 (reprint)
2. ‘Education and Missionaries in Mizoram’, J.V. Hluna, 1992
3. ‘Mizoram’, Animesh Ray, NBT, India, 1993
4. ‘The Lushais 1878 – 1889’, Tribal Research Institute, 1978 (First Indian Reprint)
5. ‘The Lushai Expedition’, R.G. Woodthorpe, Tribal Research Institute, 1978 (Indian Reprint)
6. ‘Wild Races of South – Eastern India, Capt. T.H. Lewin, Tribal Research Institute, 1978
7. ‘Zawlbuk as a Social Institution in the Mizo Society’, Dr. N. Chatterji, Tribal Research Institute, Aizawl, Mizoram, 1975.

Photo - Flickr