THE PEOPLE OF THE BURMESE FRONTIER
SINGULAR TRIBAL CUSTOMS
[Extracted from The Pioneer, October 22nd, 1897.]
Of all the tribes on the Burmese frontier none have more singular characteristics than the Lais, who occupy the Chin Hills. Baungshe is a Burmese term, applied to the Chins in reference to the way their hair is done up in a knot on the front of their heads. They however, call themselves Lais (says the "St James's Gazette"). Some interesting information concerning these tribes has been furnished by Surgeon-Major A.G.E. Newland in his "Handbook of the Language of the Lais." The Chins, it appears, have no division of time corresponding to hours; morning, noon, evening, forenoon, and afternoon express time for them, and they have no equivalent for week; while the year is calculated from the harvesting of one crop to the next. There are no distinctive words to express love, gratitude, or thanks. The Chin's method of expressing pleasure or gratification is to stroke you down as you would a cat or dog—demonstrations of delight and friendship which are extremely unpleasant, as the Chin is very dirty and malodorous.
Zu is the national drink, brewed from rice, millet, cholum, and Indian corn, and can be made very intoxicating. The Chin loves to get intoxicated. It is his chief pleasure in life, and from one end of the hills to the other all the inhabitants are very hard drinkers. A Chin could not conceive of anything in the shape of feast without zu-drinking. These drinking bouts last from one to five days, or even longer. Women and even little children drink; mothers take a pride in getting their little children to drink freely. The more liquor a man can drink the higher he is esteemed by his fellows, and the fact that the drink is always free naturally encourages drunkenness. At a feast, in the case of the younger people among the guests, the drinking is always done in pairs The couple advance to the zu pot and stand arm in arm. They throw aside their large mantles and suck at the tube in the pot alternately. When they can drink no more they give place to another couple. The wits crack jokes, songs are sung, and the company are kept in high spirits. Altogether, with the foul odours and fumes saturating the smoking atmosphere, and the still fouler language flowing in torrents all round, and the loathsome habits indulged in, a Chin drink is a thing to be avoided.
After the evening meal the young bloods wrestle amid great excitement. Though a Chin looks a sorry creature after a drinking bout, he rarely suffers from a bad head, and delirium tremens is still rarer from which we may assume that it is a better drink than up-to-date Scotch whisky. According to Chin law a crime is no crime if committed under the influence of drink. Thus drink has blunted the whole moral nature of the Chins. Tobacco-juice stands next to zu in the affections of this people, and courtesy requires that, on meeting, Chins shall offer their flasks of juice to each other. As a matter of fact, it is not really drunk, but is rolled round in the mouth, thus taking the place of the American "quid." Young women always keep a supply of the liquid in readiness for their sweethearts.
Every Chin maiden has a group of lovers, and the more she has the greater her vanity wherein, perhaps, she does not greatly differ from her more civilised sisters. As a rule, it is rare for a girl to marry one of these sweethearts. Dr Newland gives an interesting account of a curious custom known as "I pum leng," literally "visiting and assembling for sleep." The girl's lovers are regarded as a kind of retinue and they accompany her everywhere. At a feast the most favoured one secures the girl for the dinner hour, and during the night's sing-song she sits on his lap—or, rather, the men sit on their hunkers with the women sitting just in front of them, and as they sit and sing the men embrace the women round the neck to return to the "I pum leng."
"At night all the young woman's lovers (says Dr Newland) assemble at her house, on the principle that there is safety in numbers After the evening meal is the hour for the assembly. No zu is drunk on these occasions. The young women, including the slave girls, sit about spinning silk or making pipe stems, and the young men help them in what ever they may be doing, or they carve hair pins or cut each other's toe nails, or comb each other's hair.
When tired of all this, a circle is formed round the blazing fire, drums are produced and song-singing occupies the rest of the time till they are inclined to sleep. During the singing they have a good deal of uproarious fun. When they are all tired out and sleepy, the drums are put away, and the women make the beds of the men, which consists in spreading out bamboo mats or dried skins. The men thon deposit themselves in their sleeping places, all huddled up side by side, and, using bits or blocks of wood as pillows, and wrapping themselves in their ample cotton mantles, they are soon fast asleep, and breaking the stillness by their snoring. The women sleep on the opposite side, the fireplace always forming the boundary between the two sexes."
Immorality is the exception; in fact, no young man would venture to misconduct himself. The Chin girl, as has been said, rarely marries one of her lovers; they merely amuse her until a husband is selected for her. In fact, she goes to the man who can afford to pay the highest price for her, though by courtesy it is called the marriage portion or dowry. Arrha is a curious ceremony performed after the betrothal of a couple is settled. In the presence of their relatives the betrothed sit together and hold a hen (which must be either wholly red or black), which is then killed by a slave by beating its head on the ground or on a stone. The bird's tongue is then drawn out and examined, and if found straight and without a flaw the signs are propitious, and their married life will be happy and fruitful. If any deformity is met with it is considered a bad omen, and the ceremony has to be repeated till a correct and proper tongue is secured—a convenient method of diverting fate.
Chins have traditions of a great flood or deluge which they say was coeval with the origin of their race. The Haka story says that after three months' continuous rain all the hills were submerged, and everyone was drowned except a man and a woman, who floated in a large earthen jar, and when the waters subsided settled on the Mun Ktlang mountain. The man shot a dove, which the Chins say was sent by the Great Spirit from the heavens, for its crop contained rice, millet, and other grain now found in the hills. The man took the woman to wife, and their descendants people the hills. Another legend says that after they married and had a son, the father was told by the spirit dwelling in the heavens that if he would sacrifice his son there would be a great increase in the inhabitants of the hills, and he would become the head of a great race. He accordingly took his son into the forest, cut him up into small pieces, and placed the pieces in the hollows of trees and cavities of rocks. From each of these spots sprang a tribe, and the different tribes got their characters from the part of the body from which they sprang.