Travel in Chin State and you are most likely heading towards the major towns, Falam and Hakha in the north, Mindat in the south (and if you are fortunate, Matupi in the centre). But these are mostly imperial constructions, enlarged by Christian missions and colonial trade with the valleys in Burma Proper below. The original clusters of the first chin communities are often found beyond the road.
Villages like Thuklai.
Take the road to Teddim to the north and the Indian border with Chin State. The road will pass through an area known to the British colonials as ‘wuthering heights’, probably due to the cold and constant mists that descends onto the hills which obscure some of the most stunning views in the Chin Hills. Steep, pine-cladded hills eventually rise up to a thin plateau. On either side of the plateau the Chin Hills spread out, tumbling onto each other in deeper and fainter points. Fort White is around here somewhere. The principal military station for the British before the war, the fort actually moved several times around the area so there is no ‘one’ location for it. The road continues on to Teddim, but before it leaves the plateau you may notice a small fork dropping off the hillside. This is the road to Thuklai. It narrows to a one way, rutted track that weaves very slowly down a valley and ends at a wedge of hills that juts out of the valley floor like a raised finger of stone.
Thuklai has a convinced sense of destiny. The first British soldiers to die in the colonial annexation of the Chin Hills in the last decade of the 19th Century, died at Thuklai. As Christians, these soldiers were buried under the cross, and so the first Christian crosses to be erected in the Chin Hills, a state where 94% identify now as Christian.
As the closest village to Fort White, it was chosen as the site of the first high-school in the region. This school graduated some of the most influential Chin in the post war era.
What Thuklai is most remarkable for though is its collection of memorial stones.
If you do travel in Chin State, especially along the Kalaymyo – Hakha road, you may see what look like grave markers along the side of the road. Some people may tell you that this is exactly what they are, as there is so little flat ground in the Hills, people have to be buried next to the road. In reality, they are a modern continuation of a centuries old pre-literate custom.
The stones would have originally been wooden posts, and before the invention of a script, pictographs would have been carved onto the posts denoting the number of houses, cows, and slaves a man had in his life. The posts would have recorded the animals he hunted and how many men he had killed in the intra-clan wars. The posts were a record, an obituary and would have been sited on the paths that criss-cross the hillsides connecting villages, so that traveller would pass, read the posts and the man would be remembered.
After the introduction of the first scripts at the turn of the 20th Century, the pictograms were replaced with words, and the posts swapped with sturdier and longer-lasting stone, then finally slate slabs.
The most impressive of Thuklai’s memorial stones belong to the family of Vum Ko Hau. A native of the village, Vum Ko Hau is one of the most decorated Chin nationals, the first to receive an overseas PhD, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in the UK, a former Ambassador, a historian, a writer, among many other achievements. His family’s memorial plot originally lay on the small track to the high-school overlooking the next valley beyond, but with the introduction of motorbikes in the 90’s, the track was widened forcing the family to remove the standing stones further north.
As you climb the vertical path that leads to the top ridge of the village, take a right. The path ends at a large banyan tree looming over a wooden bench at the centre of a fork. Take the right fork and behind the banyan tree, on a small rise is series of standing stones.
This collection of standing stones has to be among the most remarkable in the Chin Hills. They are unique – as far as I know – for saving all evolutions of this pre-literature tradition in wood, slate and stone. The earliest of these memorials belong to Vum Ko Hau’s grandfather and grandmother. Made from an unknown hardwood, apparently so the ants wouldn’t eat through them, the posts would originally have had heads carved on the top though wind and rain have weathered the carvings down to indeterminate nubs. Next to these, are Vum Ko Hau’s parents, their lives are inscribed in stone.
The rest of the plot is dominated by seventeen sheer slate slabs, written in English, Burmese and Siyin. In the 1990’s, The slates were carried by hand from the village of Linkhaing five miles away, up the hillside and engraved by the only man in the village who still had the skill (the village has lost many literary skills over the years – the last bookbinder passed way also in the 1990’s)
The etchings are a biography of Vum Ko Hau; his life since a teenager and up to his death. The bio was written by Dr Maung Maung, one of the most prolific non-fiction writers in Burma in the 20th Century. The slates also include pictograms of Vum Ko Hau’s PhD certificate and poems written by his friends in his honour.
The plot does look a bit dilapidated. The barbed wire fence which rings the plot has collapsed in places; there was the remains of a fire, with shreds of tin foil scattered everywhere. There is only one relative now who still lives in the village. A second cousin. The direct descendants of Vum Ko Hau live mostly overseas (though a daughter still resides in Yangon) and rarely visit the family plot.
There are other memorial stones in the village, one such pair are collected in the front garden of a house, lower down the hillside. It belongs to Kip Kham, who died of dysentery on 25th June 1930.
On the right, in Burmese and in English on the reverse tells of how Kip Kham killed 7 enemies from a rival clan; how during the British invasion of the Chin Hills, a son, Kam Ngo killed 5 Sepoys and 3 Englishmen; how all his sons were called tigers for their brave deeds; how his death was celebrated according to Siyin (pre-Christian) culture with the sacrifice of animals and a feast.
On the right is the same story but in now faint pictograms. Minimalist human slaves, 7 naked and bound in a line by a thin rope with a hat-crested man leading them. Others show Kip Kham fighting warriors with a sword and shooting an unridden horse with a gun.
Both of these stones exist from a transitionary time, a time when older customs were merging with new techniques. Thuklai village itself seems to be coming to the end of its own transitionary period. The high-school, once the first in the Chin Hills is now mostly empty. There are few children in the village, at least at that age. Many from the village have left, a common occurrence in Chin State where more Chin live outside the state than in it. The internet came in 2018 with the erection of a new tel-coms tower (just below the Vum Ko Hau family plot). There is hope among some of the village elders that the transition and tourism will bring not just jobs and money, but also the youth back to the village.
The memorial stones are good place to start.
To find out more about life with writers and poets from the nation’s censored borderlands why not buy my award-shortlisted politico-literary travel book ‘The People Elsewhere: Unbound Journeys with the Storytellers of Myanmar‘ (Penguin/Viking, 2016)
Address: Teddim Township, Northern Chin Sate, Myanmar