On our way back from Champhai, our seats were booked on a shared Sumo to Lunglei which was supposed to start at 6:00 AM. We were to be dropped off on the way at Thenzawl, a town famed for hand-loom weaving. That was the plan.
As punctual, brown travelers keen not to miss our transport, wife dear and yours truly started at 5:30 AM and reached the Sumo counter well in time. The people manning the Sumo counter where we booked our tickets redirected us to another counter a bit further up the road. When we reached there however, we were told that we did not have seat reservations.
While initially flabbergasted, we did finally manage to coordinate between the counters and figure out what the confusion was. Rama, our cab driver, helped immensely, given that after a point, charades were simply inadequate to communicate our requirements due to the persistent language issues. There were apparently two routes to Lunglei, the final destination of the Sumo. We were told that the vehicle would go via Thenzawl when we booked the tickets. However, now we were being told that the vehicle was taking an alternate route, since whoever recorded our reservation forgot to mention that we would disembark on the way. We tried to argue and negotiate our way into redirecting the vehicle through Thenzawl, but to no avail. They seemingly had a reservation from another passenger who would get on the vehicle somewhere on the alternate route and were not keen to re-route the vehicle to accommodate two backpack lugging strangers.
Instead, the people manning the counter offered to drop us off at all sorts of places including Aizawl and Lunglei. However, travelling to these places would take us the better part of the day, and getting from these places to Thenzawl would likely take us better part of another day, days we could ill afford to spend in travel. When it became increasingly clear that the Sumo to Lunglei would leave without us, we started looking for transport to Serchhip, a town near Thenzawl. However, there seemed to be no Sumos going there either. Finally, based on a recommendation from Rama, we decided to go to the village of Keitum, which was on the way to Lunglei and try our luck at flagging down a passing vehicle to Thenzawl. Just as I was about to handover the ticket fare to the cowboy hatted dimwit manning the counter, we heard someone shouting out that there was a Sumo going to Serchhip.
Thanking our lucky stars, I snatched the money right out of the cowboyhatter’s hands and ran after the voice through the drizzle which had started in earnest by this time. There indeed was a Sumo to Serchhip. The vehicle usually carried only cargo. However, on this particular day, there were a couple of soldiers from Assam Rifles, a federal paramilitary force, going towards Serchhip to join their unit there. Since there were four of us looking around for transport, the cargo vehicle was repurposed to get all of us to the town. The soldiers, an Oriya called Jena and a Naga called Imli, were friendly and talkative. They both had been posted in Northeast India for over a decade in various locations. The four of us waited together chatting in front of the Sumo counter, sheltered from the persistent drizzle by the roof overhang above a shop. There were two more passengers joining us, who would reach the place only by about 7 AM. After binding all our luggage to the top of the vehicle and covering it with tarp, we finally left Champhai by 7:30 AM. By this time, it was raining cats and dogs.
The scenery on the way was spectacular. Lofty mountains played peekaboo with us through the thick fog. The forests surrounding the road appeared greener as the rain washed the dust off the leaves. A kaleidoscope of colors emerged on the horizon as the bleary sunlight stole occasional peeks through the overcast sky. The rain had given birth to a hundred muddy waterfalls, a few small streams even tumbling off the cliffs above on to the sides of the road.
One unique sight that captured our attention on the way was the presence of unmanned shops. On farms by the roadside, farmers left their produce on raised platforms for sale with prices written down in chalk. A jar was kept nearby for accepting payment. We mused at the level of trust needed to put these up and wondered if something of this sort would be feasible in the rest of the country.
We stopped at a restaurant in a tiny village on the way for some much-needed sustenance. Other Sumos had also stopped there. On the back of one Sumo, piglets were being transported in bamboo baskets tied to the backdoor.
After a tasty breakfast, we started again. The road deteriorated a bit. Persistent rain had resulted in rivulets running through the roads, but it still was not bad as other roads we had encountered in Mizoram. At the village of Lugdar, Imli and yours truly helped the driver get down some of the cargo he was carrying, betel nuts in huge gunny bags. I noted with alarm that our backpacks, piled on top of the betel nut sacks, were soaking wet.
We stopped for tea by a river at the village of Keitum. There were restaurants in the village with wooden balconies overlooking the river. The location was quite idyllic, with flowering trees blooming on the other side of the river across a wooden bridge. When we moved on, yours truly rued the missed opportunity for a potentially remarkable photo of the trees in bloom framed against the wooden bridge. Wife dear, ever the realist, pointed to gaps in the bridge’s planks and reminded yours truly that with my acrophobia, I was unlikely to ever set foot on the bridge, let alone stop the trembling of my hands long enough to click a photograph.
It was 4 PM by the time we reached Serchhip. However, the last Sumo to Thenzawl had left by 3 PM. The next day was a Sunday, when nothing stirred in Mizoram. We knew that it was highly unlikely that we would succeed in obtaining transport to Thenzawl on a Sunday. We tried to cajole a friendly Sumo driver to make an extra trip, but with no luck. So, we were left with the option of being stuck in Serchhip over the weekend or getting a full-fare taxi to Thenzawl. We approached a taxi driver with trepidation, given the fares we had been quoted to so far in Mizoram, almost resigned to a weekend doing nothing in Serchhip. To our surprise, the driver agreed to get us there for a rate of Rs.1000 for the 30 KM ride, while double the normal rate anywhere else in India, a bargain in Mizoram. Wife dear tried to bargain him down to Rs.800, but her heart was not in it, given our desperation to get to Thenzawl. The driver was also not willing to negotiate any further. We quickly agreed and started on our way.
The view was amazing just out of Serchhip. A sea of mist engulfed the deep valleys through which the high peaks stood out as if surveying their realm. Fog covered the rice fields down in the valley floor in a thick blanket like cover, impermeable to the fading light of the evening.
The road turned progressively bad as we moved further away from Serchhip. A recent landslide had obliterated part of the road. The tiny Hyundai Eon, a car we owned back in Hyderabad, showed its true capabilities as it skidded across the slushy roads and we held on for dear life.
After ninety minutes of the backbreaking journey, we reached our destination, the tourist lodge at Thenzawl.
The next day was a Sunday, and in spite of our travel weary bones, on wife dear’s insistence we had decided to attend the Mass. Fr. Thomas, who we had met in Aizawl directed us to Fr. Anthony, another Malayali priest who ran the local Don Bosco School in Thenzawl. He had provided us with directions to reach the school, which we reached after flagging down a passing Sumo.
The school, run by the Salesian Order of Catholic priests, was still under construction. More floors were being added to the building and the paint job was only partially complete. The school had however, been already operational for two years. When we visited, it offered classes from kindergarten to class 8 and had 330 students. They were planning to offer classes for ninth standard students in the following academic year.
Fr. Anthony, who hailed from Kalady, was the manager of the school. He had been in Mizoram for over fifteen years.
Fr. Anthony indicated that we needed to make a move to get to the church where the Mass was scheduled to be conducted. We were joined by Fr. Anugrah, the principal of the school; Finbar, a big, jovial Irishman; and Linus, a teacher who hailed from Shillong. We left on a pickup truck with Finbar and Linus while the priests got on Fr. Anthony’s car.
Finbar had met Fr. Anthony while the latter was posted in Ireland a few years back. The duo had developed an intimate friendship over time, and Finbar had joined Fr. Anthony to help around the school when the latter moved to Thenzawl. He had been in Thenzawl for over two years, and managed a variety of tasks, including part time teaching.
We picked up a couple of nuns from their convent and other assorted believers on the way to the church. The ‘church’ turned out to be a tiny building which used to be a primary school in an earlier avatar. We parked the vehicles at the foot of a small incline and climbed up through a muddy path to reach the church.
We talked to the people assembled there. Three nuns from the convent had joined us, along with Sr. Florence, their Mother Superior, who was from Thenzawl, but was now based in the Assamese town of Silchar. She had come to town to visit her aging father, who was also present at the church. One of the nuns, Sr. Maria, thought that yours truly and wife dear were siblings. We thought that was hilarious.
The Catholic congregation in predominantly Protestant Thenzawl was tiny, with only five families in addition to the priests, teachers, and nuns. Sr. Florence told us that initially there were only two families who had been in Thenzawl from the early 80s. They used to conduct prayers at each other’s homes since the priests arrived in Thenzawl only a couple of years back.
We attended the mass in Mizo Twang, preceded by the way of the cross. We did not understand the prayers except for the incantations to Lalpa, which presumably meant Lord in Mizo Twang, but the routine was familiar enough.
Fr. Anthony insisted that we join him for lunch since we were unlikely to find an open restaurant on a Sunday in devout Thenzawl. The lunch incorporated a variety of influences. We gorged on rice, chicken curry, carrots and peas, cauliflower and potatoes – possibly a nod to Finbar’s Irish heritage, and a few fried Kerala Friums which Fr. Anthony had brought from home. Fr. Anthony and Finbar were going to Silchar on official business and left early so as to avoid the traffic in Aizawl.
We stayed back for a while with Fr. Anugrah who showed us around the campus. The school was located in the middle of a twenty-acre parcel of land, surrounded by low lying hills and swamps typical of Thenzawl. Fr. Anugrah indicated that they had plans to develop the area as an educational hub, with a college being planned in the future. He dropped us back at the tourist lodge and on the way, pointed out the landmarks in town, which were admittedly few.
The day being a Sunday, there was not much we were able to do. So, we decided to take a walk. We were told that Thenzawl was located on a plain, a rarity in hilly Mizoram. However, walking through to the center of the town and beyond, yours truly thought that it was more accurate to describe it as a land of rolling meadows interspersed with swamps and scruffy jungle. The landscape looked gorgeous in a vibrant shade of green after a short spell of rain in the afternoon.
There were many fishponds scattered across the town, near which children were frolicking. Locals’ homes and other buildings lined the road. Every home seemed to have a pig sty attached to it, with the pigs snorting their collective derision at the rest of the world.
Locals lounged about their homes doing nothing. Children played on the vehicle-less roads. The more ardently religious were just returning from the church. We spied a few women members of the Salvation army dressed in their uniforms customised for Mizoram – military like white blouses and white puans (long, skirt like wraparounds worn by Mizo women) with red, yellow and blue embroidery along the edges of the cloth.
As I mentioned earlier, Thenzawl is a center for hand-loom weaving, and every second home seemed to have a loom out front. Some also had spinning wheels used for making thread. At one of the homes, we stopped to take a photo of the loom. A lady came out and smiled at us. We smiled, waved, and moved on, given that any further communication was impossible due to language related challenges.
Since our physical appearance marked us out as outsiders, we were stared at constantly for the duration of our walk to town and back. Nearly everyone we encountered on the road, except very small children who were extremely friendly, had a quizzical expression on their faces while staring, lack of comprehension writ large on their faces. At one point, we encountered a group of young men who were drinking on the road and passed comments at us in broken Hindi.
As we walked back, the sun was already setting. After a quick dinner, we retired to our room. It started to rain, and since we did not have room heaters or adequate blankets, we went to sleep cold and shivering.
While researching about Thenzawl, we had discovered that there were a couple of picturesque waterfalls not too far from town. So, on our last day in Thenzawl, we set about discovering them. The staff at the tourist lodge helped us find a taxi which would take us to the falls and then drop us off at the Sumo counter for our onward journey.
First, we decided to visit Vantawang waterfalls, the highest in the state of Mizoram. The road was quite pretty. Grassy rolling meadows typical of Thenzawl alternated with the swamps on the way to the falls. We took a deviation off the main road to get to Vantawang. The road ahead was broken down and the surrounding jungle was beginning to reclaim its own. Overgrown bamboo struck against the windshield of the taxi repeatedly.
When we reached the place, it was only a viewpoint, located on a hill overlooking the falls. According to Chonga, our driver, there was no path for us to reach near the falls themselves. I had read that there was a path we could use to hike to the base of the falls, but Chonga seemed confident that this was the only spot which would provide us a view of the falls. So, we deferred to his judgment and decided to enjoy the beauty of the falls from the viewpoint. Moreover, wife dear had a stiff back from our uncomfortable sleeping arrangements and expressed her inability to walk long distances.
The viewpoint had a lookout tower and a small building nearby, both of which were decidedly abandoned. Graffiti and many declarations of love from potential Casanovas whose attentions were most likely unreciprocated, graced the walls of the buildings. Your truly spotted a couple of syringes down in the dirt. The placed looked and felt like an addicts’ den, though there was no one around when we visited.
The falls themselves were quite stunning. The water volume was lower than usual since we visited in the winter. However, owing to recent rains over the past couple of days, it was still flowing. The basin at the bottom of the falls was carved into a bowl like shape into which the water fell in gushing cascades, almost resembling a carefully sculpted Roman fountain. The falls tumbled over a cliff-side onto its bowl-shaped basin in two tiers, frothing over the rocks as it descended.
We took a few photographs of Vantawang falls and moved on to the next, Tuirihiau falls. Tuirihiau falls are located another couple of kilometers away from Thenzawl, on the road to Lunglei. The place was better kept when compared to Vantawang falls. There was a parking lot which was maintained well, with a ticket counter nearby. However, there was no one around to issue tickets when we went in, at around 9:30 AM. We parked and walked up a steep-ish set of steps to get to the falls. On the concrete laden, well maintained footpath to the falls, we saw that a number of trees, rocks, and steps were painted with the red, white and black flag of the Young Mizo Association (YMA).
The falls were stunning, but not in the grand, majestic sense which could be used to describe Vantawang falls. Tuirihiau falls were gentler, and perhaps could be described as more romantic. Water flowed from the top of a small overhang onto a rocky platform below. There was a cave like opening behind the falls which we entered and from there we watched the magic of the water droplets silhouetted against the sunshine outside.
Giant webbed roots of a Ficus tree covered part of the cave at one corner, making us feel like Lara Croft at the Angkor like locales depicted in those games. There was a plunge pool below the rocky platform. Owing to recent rains, the water was murky. Moreover, we needed to get to Hmuifang, the next location on our itinerary, and could not afford to spend too much time at the falls. So, we resisted the temptation to shower under the falls and returned to our taxi.
On our way back, we encountered a few locals who collected parking and entry fees from us. On the road back, we noticed a large group of people carrying machetes, axes etc. YMA was organizing a cleanliness drive to maintain the road and the surroundings, an activity which they conduct periodically. I was impressed by the sheer number of volunteers they were able to gather for this purpose. Chonga stopped on the road and exchanged greetings and laughter with a few acquaintances who were participating in the cleanliness drive.
Chonga dropped us back at the Sumo counter. There was apparently a Sumo to Aizawl, which we could take to get down en-route at Hmuifang, our destination. However, Thenzawl, as I mentioned earlier, is known for its hand-loom produced puans, and we intended to get our hands on a couple. We left our backpacks at the Sumo counter and proceeded to invade the shops nearby.
The puans we saw were lovely, interwoven with geometric designs which contrasted against the colorful cloth. However, wife dear found them a bit too expensive, and we moved on to another shop, with the same result.
As we moved further up the road, we spied two women weaving a puan inside their house through the open front door. Another woman hung around the weavers, chatting with them, a baby slung over her back in a cotton wrap of sorts. After obtaining their permission, we watched and took photographs of them weaving intricate designs on the loom to create puans with exquisite patterns.
Wife dear shot a barrage of questions at them much like immigration officials interviewing hapless travelers these days. It apparently takes three days for them to weave a puan with patterns all over the cloth. While the earnings varied, primarily based on the intricacy of the pattern, in general the ladies earned Rs.1000 for puans with patterns all across the cloth and Rs.800 for those with patterns only along the edges of the cloth. However, the ladies were their own bosses and not contract workers, unlike most weavers in Thenzawl, who most likely earned much lower amounts for their efforts. The shops, even those in Thenzawl right next to the weavers’ houses, sold these puans for a significant margin. We wanted to buy puans from the ladies directly but were not in luck since they had run out of stock. They directed us to a nearby shop which apparently sold wholesale and hence offered puans at lower prices.
Saying our goodbyes to the weavers, we proceeded towards the wholesale shop. Walking towards the shop, yours truly noticed people snacking on something pink out of plastic packets. Curious, I spotted those packets for sale in one of the roadside shops and bought one. It was some kind of fruit, which looked a little bit like a cross between a Grapefruit and a Mangosteen. The texture reminded me of Mangosteen, while the intensely tart taste was similar to the Sohshang we had in Shillong. The sourness made my mouth pucker and my gums shrivel, but gradually, as I continued to eat it I began enjoying the taste and ended up finishing the packet. I never found out what the fruit was called.
At the wholesale shop, we ran into a local man who ran a retail clothes shop. He shall henceforth be referred to as mysterious admirer for reasons which will become clear soon. Mysterious admirer was there with his wife and son to pick up some puans for his shop. As yours truly turned to talk to him, strong odor of undiluted alcohol wafted towards me, almost gagging me with its intensity. He was fluent in English and Hindi, a rarity in Mizoram, and proceeded to introduce me to his son in both of those languages. We shook hands, but the son was completely disinterested in making friends with middle-aged strangers and seemed utterly bored with the proceedings. Mysterious admirer seemed completely enamored of wife dear and came up with exclamations like beautiful, marvelous, smashing, and so on, whenever she tried on a puan, much to the chagrin of his own better half who had already tried on 8-10 puans with not a squeak from her husband. She glared at him as if daring him to direct another complement towards this new and unexpected potential threat to her marital bliss. He almost certainly slept on the couch that night!
After roughly ninety minutes looking around, deciding and re-deciding, wife dear finally concluded that she liked two puans more than the rest, one an intricately woven brown with geometric patterns all over the cloth, and the other a beautiful purple with a woven pattern along the edges. We finally purchased the puans at a marginal discount of Rs.100. The understanding of how much effort went into weaving each puan did take the sting out of the price, even if only by a little bit.
We walked back towards the Sumo counter and had some lunch for while waiting for the Sumo which would take us towards our next destination.