Bawms: one of the early inhabitants of Chittagong Hills

The Bawm people were animists until about a century ago. But in 1918 the British government started funding and supporting spread of Chistianity amongst them and other inhabitants of CHT and different other parts of North East India.

by Pradip Kumar Dutta

   I was excited when I had an invitation to attend a wedding deep inside the Chittagong Hill Tracts. We have a very special bondage with quite a few officials of Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Board. They include Bangalees and hill people belonging to different tribes,who are the ancient inhabitants of our hills. They include Chakmas,Marmas,Tripuri,Mro,Tanchangya,Khiyang,Lushai,Bawm and others. These fine young men and girls have graduated(some have become even Masters)from different educational institutions of the country and have found an employment in CHTDB that specializes in the developmental work in our hills. 

We have been coming to the remote regions of our CHT for more than 20 years now on several occassions a year for execution of different community development projects like medical camps,distribution of warm clothings and blankets,arranging potable water, distribution of educational materials,etc. We come under banners of Rotary and other charitable organizations like Pay it Forward and Honest. To reach and get the envisaged project done flawlessly in very remote areas we get help from these young people every time. They are our partners in service ensuring our safe passage and local support. They have by now become very close family friends. They are of different age groups,some being very young. One such young man is our beloved hard-working Lalrinhsang Bawm. We have known him since last three years as an enthusiastic member of our Community Development projects. With a smiling face he always would appear before you with extended hands of support. He has been in an affair with his fiance for several years and has reminded me every time we talked that I have promised to attend his wedding. Out of affection to this loving young man I always nodded an approval. Finally the day had come. Two months ago,one fine morning Mr Thuisa Ching Marma,one of the CHTDB officers who coordin

ates our activities in the hills informed us that Lalrinhsang’s wedding date was fixed and as promised earlier,I have to attend. Lal was expecting me there very much. Thuisa said that he was chalking out a pleasure trip coupled with the wedding for those of us and our associates who wished to join. Lalrinhsang was not in any delay and sent me the invitation card. He also called me and would not hang the receiver until I confirmed my attendance. I had to agree any way but when I heard about the venue I was doubly interested. The wedding ceremony would be in a church at Moonlai Para,a dream destination for all young travellers who frequent CHT nowadays. It is a little short of the legendary Boga Lake and is known as the cleanest village in Bangladesh. As usual,Anjana,my wife and Dr Panna,my friend jumped into the wagon. After all they(of course there are few others) are the ones who render the medical support during our Community Development projects.

   Before we come to the celebrations,let us study some history,so that we can know and understand our country better. We will discuss the history of Bawm people of our land now. Bawms live in Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh,Mizoram of India and Chin hills of Myanmar. In total they are estimated to be about 50000 in number,the largest portion of the population being in about 70 villages of Bangladesh. They are akin to Lushai,Mizo,Kuki and Chin people and speak a Sino Tibetan language,the script being Latin,that has been adopted less than a century ago. The Bawms are believed to be one of the early settlers of this region which was uninhabited till then. They are thought to have originated somewhere in Yunnan of China and have come to this area by migrating through Chin hills of Burma around 500 years ago. In Bangladesh we find Bawm people in Ruma,Thanchi,Bandarban sadar and Rowangchhari areas. Bawms call their inhabited area as Bawmram(Land of the Bawms) and the very word Bawm means Ties. The whole community is tied together and they love collectivism in all activities.

The Bawm people were animists until about a century ago. But in 1918 the British government started funding and supporting spread of Chistianity amongst them and other inhabitants of CHT and different other parts of North East India. Protestant Christianity in different denomination started spreading it’s wings under which many indigenous people including the Bawm found shelter.Presbytarian Church, Evangelical church and Baptist church were the main to flourish. Welsh Missionary Welkins Roberts formed the Thado -Kuki Pioneer Mission in 1913 for preaching Christianity in Mizoram,Manipur and Nagaland. From this mission a new whiteman(Zo sapthar in Bawm language) was sent for a vast area of Tripura,Mizoram and Chittagong Hill Tracts in 1918/9. Rev Rowlands was this new whiteman,their saviour. He was on his way on foot with a friend from their HQ in Manipur and reached a CHT village Vairelh on 12 December,1918. He sprung into action immediately.His first area of operations being three close villages Tlangpi,Fiangpidung and Pankhiang.First three years went in foundation laying and they have termed same as preparatory years. In 1921 3 native preaches alias Patlaia,Lianthawnga and Sonkunga were despatched from Mizoram to assist Rowlands.Soon the first three converts to Christianity from Bawm animism came up from the village Tlangpi. The process continued slow and steady. In 1928 the first meeting was organised in the area for fellowship and worship on 24December and the next day first ever Christmas was celebrated in the hills of Chittagong. On this day 12 converts were baptized.

   Encouraged by this success,the Mizoram Church bosses sent two more pastors Ruala and Dala for working in Mru and Bawm areas. They remained Superintendents of their respective areas till 1956 when they were replaced by another white man again. He was Dr P D Samuels,who came with his wife. The couple helped the hilly people with treatment,education and day to day life. Preaching Christianity was of course high on their agenda. They were in those remote places till 1965 when Pakistan government restricted foreigner’s movement in the hills.Before then the first churches were already in operation and most of the Bawms and some others from different other tribes embraced Christianity. Now,every Bawm village has at least one church(Presbytarian or Evangelist). Thier hierarchy lies with superior churches in Mizoram and they get theological training and instructions from Aizwal.

  Now that we have learnt about the history of the Bawm people,lets concentrate on the trip that we arduously undertook to participate in the wedding being special invitees of the groom himself.

On the due date Dr Anjana and Dr Panna got ready in time and three of us were on the wheels from Chittagong after morning coffee and breakfast. According to plan we had lunch on the way courtesy Dr Panna and crossed Bandarban city in the early afternoon towards Ruma. Meantime, Thuisa and his comrades started on their mo-bikes from different places of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (Bandarban,Khagrachhari,Rowangchhari,Alikadam,Rangamati,etc.). The aim was to reach Ruma before dark. We did reach in time and got settled in a neat guest house run by a Bawm family,situated near Ruma bazar. The caretaker cum owner knew about our arrival and kept it ready for immediate use. It was okay. In such a place you don’t expect star facilities.We had a quick freshen up and tea after which we proceeded to the venue of the wedding which was supposed to commence there at 8AM sharp the next day. It was in our dream Moonlai para, the cleanest and most organised village of Bangladesh. The village was being decorated and prepared for the upcoming grand event. There was festive look all around. The wedding itself would be solemnised in the Presbyterian church but the social part of merry making was to be held in a wide field in front of the bride’s house. Her father was the immediate past Chairman of the Union Parishad of the area. It is the base of the local government and as such he was well respected and revered gentleman in the area. To do justice to his name and fame he had chalked out elaborate programme of feast and socio- cultural activities for his invitees from far and near. Many relatives came from remote villages on foot involving long walks and treks. Accomodation was arranged for them. Meantime our associates of CHTDB Mr Thuisa and company also assembled from different directions. We spent some time with Lalrinhsang and his would be in laws supervising the grand gala preparations and decided to spend some quality time in a remote restaurant in the hills not far from Boga Lake. By the way,few have sprung up but they remain open to tourists during the daytime. But ours was a different case. The restaurant served us till about 10pm. We had a relaxing evening adda with the CHTDB boys and girls discussing mostly difficulties of life in the hills and methods of development. It was a mesmerising evening. No body around. Serene nature. Sound of nocturnal birds and insects. Our discussions and occasional laughters. In due time we retired for the night to be ready to get up early in the morning.

Next morning we were in the village again by 8am. The whole village seemed getting ready for the ceremony. All girls and ladies wore their traditional dress of very colourful hand woven Thami/Phanek/Paachhra and corresponding blouse. Men wore mostly suits. Some were in traditionals. The wedding Choir ladies were standing in line in front of the church and were busy in the last minute practice. Finally the zero hour came. We were ushered into the Church by the pastor. The President of the Bawm society gave the welcome address and handed over the proceedings to the Pastors.All the procedure including the Choir music went in their native Bawm language. But we apparently understood everything. Finally the couple was declared Man and Wife unto death. The 150 some audience including ourselves burst into a huge applaud of happiness. Music went on. Baloons were bursted. Everyone took his/her turn in greeting the newlyweds . The joyous atmosphere persisted in the church till about 10am. Then came the real mass celebration for may be two days. Everyone proceeded to the well decorated venue. It was,I suppose made ready for about a thousand guests. The couple took the centerstage and more greetings followed. Simultaneously music both traditional and modern started. Some were singing,some others dancing. By 11am the wedding feast started. The menu included Mutton,Pork,Beef,Chicken,Fish,Vegetables,fried rice and also sticky jhum rice. I have a nuance that in one of the corners there was elaborate arrangement of local liuor called do chuani. Without this alcoholic drink no celebratory feast in the hills is complete. We greeted and blessed the couple,stayed with the maddening celebratory crowd for some time and were whisked off to a neat residence of one of the villagers. Since we would not have felt comfortable with many of the items,it was thoughtful of them to have arranged accordingly. A group of the villagers of both the genders were in attendance while we had our lunch. We discussed their lifestyle,customs, difficulties in life abd developments currently taking place in the hills. They showed us some of their handlooms and Anjana could not resist her temptation to order some. We had to pack up since we had a five/six hours journey back to Chittagong ahead of us.

We went to the merry making venue,greeted and blessed the couple one last time,bade adieu to the relatives and crowd of attendees and set forth towards Chattogram. On our way back we had a few short stops to enjoy the beauty of Nature in the hills including sunset.

This unforgettable experience of an exquisitely arranged wedding ceremony of an ethnic tribe of our country,at such a remote place will remain in my memory for a long time to come. 

Let all newlyweds be happy like Lalrinhsang and his spouse. Let the Bawms and all other ethnic minorities of our country be able to practice their culture,language,customs,religion and ethnicity without any hindrance or coercion. This country belongs to all of us. Joy Bangla.

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