Transnational Tribe of North East India: The Maras and their Quest for Identity


Dr. K. Robin

Associate Professor Department of History and Ethnography, Mizoram University, Aizawl

*Corresponding Author Email:



This paper tries to situate the Maras as a transnational tribe who lived in the Chin State of Myanmar and in the Mara Autonomous District Council area of Mizoram, India. An attempt is made to reveal their affiliations with the larger Chin groups of Myanmar not with standing the intricacies involved in the construction and reconciliation of the nomenclature ‘Chin’. It also explored the genesis of how the Maras broke off from the larger Chin groups of Myanmar and how they formed their own identity. The paper also tries to bring out the process of migration and at the same time, it tries to argue and refute the existing theories and narratives on migration of the Chins and draws a connection to the Chinwind Valleys rather than China. Moreover, detailed accounts of their post-migration habitations and settlements have been explored and also highlighted how colonial and post-colonial geographical divisions and boundary demarcations, which they considered as only artificial, could not really disconnect their historical and cultural attachments. It would seem that today’s international boundaries could not really detach their cultural, traditional and emotional bond, though having been scattered in nation states like India and Myanmar. In the face of these intricacies, the paper finally discusses the process of identity formation by invoking existing theories on Identity and highlighted the challenges confronting the Maras.


KEYWORDS: Chin, Mara, Lakher, Haka, Chinwind.Chieftainship.




The people who inhabited the vast geographical area stretching from the Eastern Himalayas to the Western confluence of the Chinwind River of present day Myanmar have the same historical, cultural and linguistic affiliations and belonged to the same ethnic stock. These people were known by different names by different people in history, for instance they were known as Chou, Chien, Jien, Sho, Zo, Jo, Yo, Zomi, Mizo, K’Cho, K’Chang, Kxang, etc.1 In the Colonial literatures, and more particularly the Colonial ethnographies they are referred to as the Kuki-Chin groups.


The word Chin is said to be a Burmese corruption of the Chinese word Jin or Yen meaning ‘Man’2. It is also believed that Chin is derived from the Burmese word Khyan, meaning Basket, perhaps because the people carried bamboo basket on their back for household and economic needs3. The Rev. Father Vincentious Sangerno mentioned the Kuki-Chin groups as the Zou/Zo/Jo people. G. H. Pryer, a Colonial Administrator stationed at Arakan also mentioned Khyanga who called themselves Jion of Shou. Khyang was a Burmese word for Chin which was given to the hill people in Burma. It is evident that the northern Chins called themselves Yo; the Tahsons called them selves Haka, and more southern tribes Lai, while the Chins of Lower Burma give their name as Shu or Sho4.


There is yet another version which suggests that the Jo/Zou/Chou dynasty which ruled China somewhere between 1027 and 256 B. C. may be the progenitor of the people who now occupied much of the territories stretching from the Eastern Himalayas to the Western confluence of the Chindwin River. Many scholars believed that in due course, these people who lived under the Jo/Chou dynasty migrated from China to eastern Tibet and initially settled in the Shan States and eventually moved towards the west and ultimately scaled and ascended the hilly regions of the present Chin State of Burma. The Chinese connection is rather doubtful and yet to be proven given the fact that the people who are supposed to have migrated from China lived in a condition of nascent social existence. Here, the choice of civilization or culture is clearly involved. The people in question appear to be more comfortable in being identified with China rather than Burma. Today much of them are located in the Chin State and Arakan in Myanmar, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Manipur in India, Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh. Given the fact that the people shared common beliefs of originality, a manifestation whereby their culture and languages exhibit a common source, attested their similarities of being one and the same race. Yet, it is very unfortunate that they have been separated by arbitrary geographical divisions among nation states like India, Bangladesh and Myanmar.


What is intriguing is that during the Colonial period, perhaps out of political compulsion, people identified themselves, either as Chin, Kuki or Lushai in order to be accepted in military services, particularly before India and Burma got independence. For instance in India, even in the Post-Colonial period there was Lushai Clerk and Lakher Clerk by which the respective communities got enlisted in Government Services. What is ironical is the fact that the people who embraced the same progeny are known today by different names like Chin in Burma, Mizo, Kuki etc. in India. In fact, there has been a continuous campaign from various quarters for a common generic term acceptable to all the people inhabiting Arakan in Myanmar, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Manipur in India, Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh. Moreover, there are yet local variants of nomenclatures by which one felt attached and identified with the larger groups within his or her immediate situation.


It is important to note that these people for so many years have maintained traditional system of administration under the aegis of the local chiefs. In other words, chieftainship amongst these communities was best set of governance until the arrival of ‘alien outsiders’ (the British). They have never been subjugated by the Burman emperors and had always remained independent entities until the arrival of the British. Thus the advent of the Europeans and the onset of British colonialism, therefore, marked a watershed in the larger history of the people who, hitherto, were living in unified, free and dignified political entities. Towards the close of the nineteenth century, the British made inroads into their territories through three columns starting from Bengal in the west, Assam in the north and Burma in the east. In this way, the political isolation of the region was over and for the first time in history, they were no longer in absolute command of their age old political structures and geographical realms. They came within the sphere of new and alien administrative structures under the auspices of British Imperialism. Thus, the territorial domains were trifurcated and placed under the control of the Governor of Bengal and Assam in British India and under the British Burma.


The British were quick in sensing the unique social and cultural differences of these people in comparison with the people of Burma proper and therefore concluded that bringing the people in question under the same administrative control with Burma proper might not be in the best colonial interest. Therefore, a provision was made and the British government immediately thought out a plan for administration and control of their land. It was in this background that the Chin Hills Regulations of 1896 was promulgated and very soon an attempt was made by the British government to systematically separate these people considering their unique social and cultural differences with the rest of the Burmans. While Burma proper was directly administered by the British Crown, on the other hand, the hill tribes were placed under the mandate of the Chin Hills Regulations 1896 for their administration and governance with nominal authority retained by their chiefs. What remained significant was the fact that these communities were rather more of linguistic groups who never really reconciled with superimposed nomenclatures like Kuki-Chin, Lushai, Zoumi or Zo and much of them preferred to identify themselves with the local variant of their professed names.  In Burma, with the onset of British colonialism and the consequent promulgation of the Chin Hills Regulation of 1896, the people in question came to be identified largely as the Chins. Under British India, they were known by different names such as Tsendus, Shendoos, Kuki, Lushai, Pawi, Lakher, Zoumi etc., and in the post-colonial period, Independent India officially recognized these linguistic groups under different names.


Debate on existing theory of origin:

A number of theories have been postulated that the people who inhabited the present Chin State and the adjoining hills originated from the cave called ‘Chinlung’, a myth, which brings their ancestors out from the hole or the bowels of the earth. However, in absence of authentic written sources, it becomes extremely difficult to ascertain the exact location of ‘Chinlung’. Many historians have associated ‘Chinlung’ with China. For example, local historians have suggested that Chinlung might be somewhere in China and thus accepted the legend as an unalloyed historical fact.5 Historians like Chawn Kio and Sing Kho Khai also believed that the Chin ancestors are either the Ch’iang or Ch’ing in Chinese history6. Scholars like Than Tun and Gordon Luce went further by arguing that the Ch’iang was not just the ancestors of the Chins but of the entire Tibeto-Burman groups7.



Information on this issue was also gathered from an interview with Chawn Kio in 2008.


In contrast to existing theories, Edmund Leach, a social anthropologist, asserted that “the hypothesis that the Southeast Asian peoples as known to have immigrated from the region of China is a pure myth”.8 Prof Lehman articulated that many of the Tibeto-Burman groups might have probably lived in Burma even in the remote past. In this regard, anthropologists, T.S. Gangte also dismissed the theory that ‘Chinlung’ is located in China and consider it as purely myth.  To re-quote Lian H. Sakhong “such hypothetical theories are considered highly subjective and conjectural. They are, therefore, taken with a pinch of salt. They remain only as legends”.9


What now appear to be more probable as evident from historical facts is that the Chin and their sub-groups first settled in the Chindwin Valley. This is attested by many of the inscriptions, dating to the time of the Pagan Dynasty of Burma in the 11th Century, which had referred to the Chins of the Chindwin Valley. Sing Kho Khai concluded that considering the literal meaning of Chindwin, it becomes imperative that the valley was definitely populated by the Chins10. Vumson in his work, Zo History, also stated the fact that many remains of Chin settlements are still found today in the Chindwin valley.11 Notwithstanding the above views, it may be pointed out that the word Chin had been in vogue by the Burman, Kachin and Shan even prior to their settlement in the Chindwin Valley. Thus, Lian H. Sakhong argued “the term “Chin” had been used to denote the Chin people long before the Chindwin Valley became the homeland of the Chin. He further stated that the term Chindwin comes from the word ‘Chin’12. Thus, from all evidence, it is highly plausible that from around the close of the 13th century, the Chins settled in Upper Chindwin of Kale-Kabaw valley where they are thought to have led an uninterrupted life for over hundred years13.


There are two assumptions as to how the Chins moved to the present Chin state of Myanmar. Oral traditions accounted that the Chins were compelled to scale up the mountains in search of new settlements, thus, abandoning their earlier settlements as a result of the swelling and flooding of Chindwin River that soon engulfed the entire Chindwin Valley. Another argument is associated with the rise of the Shans and the conquest of the most powerful Pagan Dynasty in 1295. The Shans continued to exercise their hegemony for many centuries over the regions and Kale valley remained under their control until the advent of the British in the 19th century. The Shans were said to have even annexed Assam and established the Ahom dynasty14.


Many scholars including Sing Kho Khai believed that the Chins were over-worked by the perilous and forced labour imposed by the Shans in their newly established town Kale-Myo for construction of fortress and walls, so much so that, they were compelled to move towards the hills and established their a new settlement as “Chin Nwe”, now located at the Tidim township in the Chin state of Myanmar15. It was from their new settlement at ‘Chin Nwe’ that much of the people split into different tribal groups speaking different dialects, with different tribal names16. This may be corroborated by the fact that even among the Maras, there are many groups who speak different dialects yet perceptible to all the tribes. Thus, many of these groups moved to different hill areas of the Chin state in Burma, Lushai Hills (Mizoram) and Manipur in India and the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh17.



Towards Identity Formation:

In absence of standard historical documentation and lack of archaeological sources, there is no definite idea about the origin and history of the Maras prior to their arrival in their present geographical settings. It is for this reason that the early history of the Maras is shrouded in mystery. However, by closely following and studying the existing schools of thought on the discourse on ethnic identity such as “primordialism” and “circumstantialism” or “instrumentalism”, it becomes rather possible to re-think and reconstruct the whole idea of the origin, history and identity of the Maras.


Whatever may be the case, the origin of the Maras may be traced by their physical resemblance to other tribes who are believed to have descended from the mongoloid stock. This may be corroborated by many of the cultural similarities which they shared with much of the inhabitants or groups of the Chin State of Myanmar. In fact, Lian H. Sakhong, referring to the Linguistic Survey of India, concluded that the dialects spoken by these groups may be divided into four major groups;


1.      The Northern Group: Thado, Kamhau, Sokte/Sukte, Siyin/Sizang, Ralte, Paite.

2.      The Central Group: Tashon/Tlaisum, Lai, Lakher/Mara, Lushai/Mizo, Bangjogi/Bawmzo, and Pankhu.

3.      The Old-Kuki Group: Rangkhol, Kolren, Kom, Purum, Hmar, Cha.

4.      The Southern Group: Chin-me, Chin-bok, Chin-pun, Khyang/Asho, M’ro/Khuami, shendus/Yindu, and Welaung18.


From their settlement at ‘Chin Nwe’, it appears that the Mara groups, whom Lian H. Sakhong identified as the Laimi tribe, moved to different areas such as Thlatlâ/ Thlantlang/Klangklang, Hiakha/Haka who at this time had followed customs partly Poi/Lai and partly Mara/Lakher. In fact, Colonial ethnographers have stated that the Maras are a branch of the Lai tribe of the Chin whose language is closely akin to Lai19. In due course, the Maras gradually formed themselves into a separate tribe after they broke off from Thlatlâ/Thlantlang areas in the Chin Hills20. From there, some of the Maras moved towards the South west and inhabited the southeast corner of the Lushai hills district, south of the Haka sub-division of the Chin Hills, and the extreme north of the Arakan Hill Tracts21. On the west, the Maras are bordered by Fanais and Lusheis, on the east and north by Chins, and on the south by Khumis, Matus and Khyengs22.


The Maras also believed in a myth that their ancestors came out of a hole or the bowels of the earth,23 which is a legend quite similar to the legends and myths of originality among other ‘Kuki-Chin’ groups. Mention may be made that almost all these linguistic groups have promulgated similar but slightly different versions of the myth, which brings their ancestors out from the hole or the bowels of the earth24. It is argued that the first home of the Maras was at Leisaih which was identified as a place located between Leitak (Leita) and Zaphai (Zophei) in northern Myanmar. Ethnographers have argued that it was from here that the Maras started their migrations and arrived at their present settlements. “The Saikao or the Tlosai group, originated from a place called Leisaih between Leita and Zophei. Hawthai group, from Chira in Hiakha/Haka. The Zyhno group, originated at Hnaro from the same place at


G.A. Grierson, Linguistic Survey of India, Vol-III Part III, Reprint, Delhi, Motilal banasidas, 1967, p. 67.


Hiakha/Haka. The Sabyh, Heima and Lialai groups originated at Thlatlâh village in Hakha district of the Chin Hills. Moreover, there are certain villages in Haka which may be classed as half-way between Lais and Maras and they are found in villages like Hnaro in Haka and Iana and Siata in the Lushai Hills25.


From the above argument, it is beyond doubt that the Maras made a historical migration from the Haka sub-division of the Chin Hills of Myanmar and arrived at their present settlements in the areas of Mara Autonomous District Council in the State of Mizoram, India. It appears that the nomenclature “Mara” as an identity marker for these language speaking groups which came to be invoked only after their departure from the Chin Hills. The Maras have indeed come a long way in their quest for identity and in this context, Clifford Geertz’s ‘Primordial’26 elements of blood ties, race, language, region, religion and custom may be considered highly relevant in providing clues to answer the intricate questions on Mara Identity following a study on closely related linguistic groups of Chin Hills. In other words and in this context, Mara ethnic identity appears to be more of a ‘given’ or ascribed, i.e., a sacred tie between members of the group, rather than ‘instrumentalist’ or ‘circumstantial’. The ‘instrumentalists’ school of thought on the study on ethnic identity, though, argued that primordial attachments like language, religion, kinship, and region may be viewed quite differently by others, especially in a highly complex modern societies, and that ethnic groups are determined more by specific social and other considerations27. These considerations may comprise alternative status, inclusion, economic and political opportunities, cultural perpetuation etc.


Language speaking groups such as Zyhno, Tlosai, Hawthai, Lautu, Sabyh, Heima, Lialai etc., though speaking slightly differing dialects are yet perceptible by all. Geertz’s primordial elements of blood ties, race, language, region, religion and custom may be invoked to understand and answer the larger question of Mara identity. These attachments are embedded and ingrained in biological make-up of a person and therefore has much to do with genetic descent. The notion and of possession of similar traits and characteristics such as common ancestry, common homeland, common historical memory, traditional religion and culture and linguistic affinities runs very deep and strong among the Maras. In this regard, Mara identity appears to be largely ‘given’ and constant.


Taking advantage of the arguments provided by the ‘instrumentalist school of thought’, there are fringe elements making headway and in trying to locate areas of difference and to dilute the emerging identity construction among the various linguistic groups. It may be noted that the believe in common descent, though powerful and widespread, may not include all groups especially with assertion on one’s specific affinities and difference for the purpose of looking and identifying in relation with other groups especially the dominant one.



Having considered the prevailing narratives, it may, however, be possible to patch up both the views by articulating the cultural influence and affluence of these groups which served as a complimentary means of inspiring the larger perspectives on identity construction amongst the Maras.



1.       Based on an interview with F.K. Lehman in 2008. See also K. Robin (ed.,), Chin: History Culture and Identity, pp 1-5., New Delhi, Dominant Publishers, 2009.

2.       Sakhong, In search of Chin Identity: A study in religion, politics and ethnic identity in Burma, NIAS Press, Thailand, 2003, p. 3.

3.       on an interview with Lian Uk in 2008.

4.       Ibid.

5.       Lian H. Sakhong, In defence of Identity, Bangkok, Thailand, Orchid Press, p.227.

6.       Chawn Kio. History of the Chins, in Chin: History Culture and Identity, (ed.,) K. Robin, p.37, New Delhi, Dominant Publishers, 2009.

7.       Than Tun, Essays on the History and Buddhism of Burma, Scotland, p.3. 1988.

8.       Lian H. Sakhong, Op.cit, p.228.

9.       Ibid, p.230.

10.     Sing Kho Khai, The theological concept of Zo in the Chin tradition and culture, BRE thesis, Burma institute of theology, 1984.

11.     Vumson, Zo history, 1986.

This information was alo provided by Lian Uk and Siangchhin Chinzah in 2014.

12.     Lian H Sakhong, In defence of Identity, Bangkok, Thailand, Orchid Press, p.233.

13.     Lian H. Sakhong, The Origin of the Chin, in Chin: History Culture and Identity, (ed.,) K. Robin, p.23, New Delhi, Dominant Publishers, 2009.

14.     Ibid, p. 24.

15.     Ibid. See also Carey and Tuck, The Chin Hills, 1896.

16.     Ibid, 25.

17.     Ibid.

18.     Lian H. Sakhong, The Origin of the Chin, in Chin: History Culture and Identity, (ed.,) K. Robin, p.26, New Delhi, Dominant Publishers, 2009.

19.     N.E. Parry, The Lakhers, Calcutta, Firma KLM (Pvt) Ltd. 1976. p. 3.

20.     Ibid, p.4.

21.     Ibid, p.1.

22.     Ibid.

23.     Ibid. p.4.

24.     Lian H. Sakhong, In defence of Identity, Bangkok, Thailand, Orchid Press, p.222.

25.     N.E. Parry, Op.cit, p.3.

26.     Clifford Geertz, (ed.), Old Societies and New States, The Quest for Modernity in Asia and Africa, The Free Press of Glencoe, London, 1963.

27.     Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan (eds.), Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians and Irish of New York City, Cambridge: MIT Press and Harvard University press, 1963.





Received on 28.06.2018        Modified on 11.07.2018

Accepted on 28.08.2018      ©A&V Publications All right reserved

Res.  J. Humanities and Social Sciences. 2018; 9(3): 524-528.

DOI: 10.5958/2321-5828.2018.00088.8