July - September 2002

Contents | A Letter to Our Reader | Once upon a time in Bago | Nine-Gems Ring | Khaung Cawi, to honour wives | Sea Gypsies | It's Good to Know | Cheroots | Traditional Chin House | Bandoola Boat | Events Calendar

Traditional Chin Houses

By Hpone Thant
Photo: Sonny Nyein

The wooden walkway connecting the main house to the outside.

Out Chin cousins are famed as hunters. The Chin 'Hills were once covered with dense forests and abundant wildlife. consequently, the Chin people became experts hunters, first with the traditional bows and arroWS and later with local-made black powder guns. Go inside a Chin house in any Chin village and you will see a wall hung with skulls of animals that the owner had shot. There will be skulls of mithans, bears, wild boars, sambhurs, muntjacs, monkeys and hornbill beaks adoring the wall. They are silent witnesses to the prowess of the hunter, a trophy board to be proud of.

One of the most impressive of such houses is the one that belonged to an ancient tribal chief of Surkhua village near Haka in the Northern Chin State. We had heard about this house and also had seen pictures of it in the book by U Min Naing when it was translated into English. The English version of this award winning book was called "National Ethnic Groups of Myanmar" and featured many authentic and original photographs taken by the author himself. We had seen the entrance to this compound as well as the wall called "trophy board" hung with more than a hundred skulls of animals the old chief had hunted during his lifetime. This house had intrigued us and now we shall have the opportunity to see it for ourselves.

Entrance to a Chin house. Note the oval entrance cut into the planks.

"My father U Van Kio was one of the most powerful chiefs in the region," one of his daughters told us. II The previous house was destroyed by fire and I remember all his subjects taking part in the construction of this house, in 1918." The daughter continued, "During the old days the villages under my father had to contribute towards the repair and maintenance of this house. But now it is getting very difficult to maintain it by ourselves': The daughter told us that the old chief had died in 1972 and introduced us to his widow.

It could well be true that the upkeep is expensive. The fence is of broad planks, some 4 feet wide and 10 or more feet high. The tops are pointed. Crude fishbone patterns are incised in the wood, probably with primitive adzes. All the planks in the fence are weather-beaten and in some places the wood has rotted. It is evident that the planks had not been replaced for some time. The entrance is an oval opening cut in one of the planks and also decorated with the fishbone pattern.

The trophy wall

In front of the house is a large compound that might have been used as a parade ground On one side is a raised walkway constructed with the same huge planks connecting the house with the street outside. The planks on this walkway are also old and rotted in some places.

The house is in typical Chin style. The main floor is raised above the ground and accessible via the walkway. The ground floor is for storing firewood etc. The wide and spacious parlour is airy as the front part is open. There are no doors nor windows, only an entrance o to the walkway. On the other three walls are skulls of various animals that the old chief had hunted during his life time. "There are mithans, bears, wild boars, monkeys, deer and sambhurs here. Here you can see the beaks of the hornbills," the daughter pointed out.

Looking out towards the porch

Also displayed are the gongs that the villages had presented to the chief while he was alive. Crossbows and old black powder guns as well as powder horns made of buffalo horns are hung on the wall. There are more than a hundred skulls hanging on the three walls. This is indeed the trophy room worthy of a powerful hunter.

The living and sleeping quarters of the family are at the back. This is accessible via an oval entrance cut in the trophy wall. On the other side is the uncovered porch and the kitchen.

The immediate family of the late U Van Kio, the Chief

In olden days the roof would have been covered with thatch or wooden shingles but now corrugated iron sheets cover it.

A memorial stone for the departed chief, with a photo of him and his wife, is in front of his compound. These memorial stones are unique to the Northern Chin State. They are not burial grounds and there are no bodies buried under them. They are just memorials for the living to remember their ancestors. These memorial stones are common allover the Northern Chin State.

A typical Chin style house. The roof is of thatch

Currently, nobody lives in the old house. The widow of U Van Kio is still alive but the newer generations live in a more modern house constructed beside their old dwelling, complete with florescent lights and cassette players. This new building might be more comfortable but my impression is that it is incomparable to the old house in soul and character. And if the old house could speak it will surely be able to tell us many interesting anecdotes in its long history.

Contents | A Letter to Our Reader | Once upon a time in Bago | Nine-Gems Ring | Khaung Cawi, to honour wives | Sea Gypsies | It's Good to Know | Cheroots | Traditional Chin House | Bandoola Boat | Events Calendar



July - September 2002