Skipping as I've never known

Its summer and not at at its worst yet. The children are all out of their woollen clothes, looking leaner but happier and definitely looking more their age. They keep paying fleeting visits in the midst of their hectic school and tution schedules. This week they turned up in a large group, wanted to sing songs , dance and have an impromptu fashion show . We had a bit of a pinneapple squash and someone yanked out a long string of rubber bands tied to each other. Before I had time to wonder what that was all about , some frenzied discussion took place and soon two of them were holding it knee high and a third did some pretty impressive skips around it. A skipping rope!!

Well they'd say I was easily impressed as for the 15 minuted that they kept at it , i witnessed a variety of stages and steps in skipping which I as a kid had never imagined! The job of the ones holding the rope was just to keep raising it in height according to the stage the players were at. Complicated manouvers involving , leaping, stepping on the rope , entangling it with the ankle/knee , jumping backwards and releasing it, almost diving over it etc. Maybe I'll get to shoot a video of this someday and share, I'm hoping that the skipping rope and the game as we knew it  never makes its way this side, we'd be laughing stock!

Ngengpui and a storm

I was fortunate to be a part of a very educative experience, which got cut short midway but nonetheless proved to be more beautiful than any planned exercise.I’d been busy with some work of my own when planning for Ngengpui began and though I knew I would be travelling with the group I was not able to spend time in understanding what they were planning to do. Well turns out that the group would be part of a census excercise and would be making observations and recording signs related to some carnivores and animals they prey on along with documenting various details of vegetation.

Bungtlang village was the Beat within the sanctuary that we were headed for. Huge tall trees dotted the landscape way before the sanctuary began. Increasing in number with every bend in the road. Clusters of these loomed above us as we passed.Our first stop was the Ngengpui village and the Range Office of the sanctuary.  An open space with the standard sofa’s that we’ve found in most homes and offices- including our own (I love it). Unlike many a rest house or office spaces, this one seemed very at home with its surroundings. There were trees around the campus, which did not follow any human landscaping or design dictate. Children were running about freely and friendly smiles of the people working there added to the feeling of the overall un-starched comfort.

But we had to get going as Bungtlang was our destination. About a two hour drive from Ngengpui which was equally if not more beautiful.  We were in a soft top gypsy and open to the breeze and minty wisps in it. Just before we reached the sanctuary viewing point I saw a movement on a tall tree in front of our car, I thought I’d recognized it but couldn’t believe my luck so strained out of the window and over the top and watched it again as we rolled to a stop- yup sure enough it was a hornbill! Excited but embarrassed as I’m sure for our companions this was not a new sight or cause for such jubilation. We looked through the bird guide and figured out it was the Brown Hornbill.

From the sanctuary view point
Next stop was the sanctuary view point, it offered what its name seemed to promise a magnificent view of the sanctuary. A flight of stairs lead to the platform and the breeze coupled with the brilliant view ahead had us all quiet for a while. We reached Bungtlang in the evening, had a sumptuous dinner in the market and proceeded to the LADC guest house. I watched Nimesh run through with his colleague the census process made some notes on what I would find exciting and then crashed for the day.


By six the next morning we were ready and on our way to the site of the camp. We reached it in what ideally would have been a half an hour’s drive, had it not been for a tree fallen across the road. I hopped out and squatted around watching the clearing process. As there was no way that one could even nudge the tree for a millimeter , the driver of our companions dug up the path under it, repeated attempts later after increasing decreasing the depth under the fallen tree and scraping of a part of it bark we were able to move on and reach our destination. The pick up was to come back in about three days to take us all back.

Home for a night
A hut built last year was used by the department to camp at when they stayed in the forest and the same was where the six of us were housed. Beside a stream (the portion closest to the hut was now dry, awaiting the monsoons) it would be a perfect place to return to after a day of walking around. A flat piece of land with the hills slopes beginning very close at hand.

First things first- we got our meal ready and then post some discussions decided what was to be done. Walking the search line was on the agenda- which was along the stream, or rather in/on it in some cases. We walked through the stream bed looking for signs of carnivores. Squishing along the puddles and soon wading through a steadyish stream, climbing over some fallen trees we made our way.

A little ahead of us I saw jack wildly gesturing and not making a sound. He kept pointing to the ground and there by the stream was a swarm (do you use this to describe butterflies?) of butterflies, blue tones dominating. I understand it’s called mudpuddling. I could get relatively close to get some images , but yours truly was so nervous of the whole bunch taking off if alarmed much that I’m afraid nothing very impressive could be achieved.

Soon enough the sky became heavily overcast and we could hear the rumble above, we treaded on for a while but the Forester with us , considered it best that we return as it was definitely to be a storm. A tad reluctantly we made a retreat but not without the sighting of another Hornbill, which definitely helped in washing away a bit of the dismay.

It was it was one in the afternoon and in the cloud cover everything around looked like ash smeared. Getting back seemed to have been wise as the pretty soon rains and thunder lashed down.  Heaven drums one of us said and mimicked what must have been the percussionist god! A side of the hut had been wall-less, and as much as it seemed practical on dry day (you could throw out kitchen trash, brush wash and spit etc) it would definitely prove to our disadvantage considering the raging showers. Soon a half wall was constructed by weaving strips of bamboo through each other. Speaking of bamboo, we had ladles, a chutney mixer and glasses all made of the same.  

Dinner was done by 5 and we laid out our sleeping bags and soon the hut was transformed into a dormitory, six of us under three mosquito nets.  Post midnight I woke up to the sound of grunts of disturbed sleep and thunder claps. The storm it seems was not done with. Lightning made us all look like characters straight out of a Ramsay film. Soon the rain was lashing in and we all huddled away from the open edges and doors of the hut. There was nothing much to be done other than watching the glowing embers of cigarettes smoked, the fire in the hearth was lit again as one of us was terribly cold. He huddled close to it after putting 3-4 shirts on, while we talked and there was an occasional nervous half giggle. Strangely in a similar stormy night in Saiha, I remember being scared, this time I just felt curious and found myself thinking of all that must be happening inside the forest so close at hand. Trees were falling around and in the morning we realized that the stream was in full throttle. Where a day earlier we were walking the streams bed, today we had to be conscious of our balance while crossing the energetic flow. Gushing muddy waters and drongos were our companions the next morning and we couldn’t have asked for more.

Storm casualty 
Unfortunately for the actual purpose of the visit the storm was not showing signs of being over done with. No signs would be found in these rains so we decided to pack up and leave. We started off on the road by which we had arrived and realized that the trees had fallen all around the place. Such gigantic ones too at that. Infact just above our hut there was a victim and I was just glad it didn’t come crashing down on the unsuspecting half dozen of us below.

Soon the rains began and it coincided with the first  of the may short cuts(read torturously steep climb) we had to take and lasted all the way till we reached home. The comfort of the road was lost and I often found myself on fours trying to scramble up the descent, or sitting and semi sliding down a slope. An uncle accompanying us eventually took over the tri pod that I had dangling from my arm. I felt guilty but it was for the better as the tripod anyway seemed to disagree with all my strategies of maintaining a balance.

 Slippery -rock n mud paths and my constant focus on the ground I was stepping on didn’t let me take a good look around. But I enjoyed the rain as I always have -+- was a little perturbed by the thunder -+- thanked god for the cheerfulness I felt despite what would have been in a usual day pretty patience testing-+- and was ready to do a dramatic falling on my knees SRK style when we finally spotted the school ground and our companions under its shed.

Our companions on the trip will possibly never get around to reading this post, but the sensitivity extended by them to us has had us in awe. On the walk back to the village, heavier bags they selected for themselves, leaving the relatively lighter ones for us who were new to the terrain. I realized later, that the uncle who grabbed the tripod off me was actually carrying in his bag bed sheets and blankets, in the rains it must have become quite a heavy bundle. He insisted on being the last in the group, so that he could be of assistance if anyone of us met with some trouble. I felt embarrassed that he had to give a helping hand to me on top of all the adjustments he was already making on this walk and hope that someday I will able to possess at least a small measure of such ready generosity towards strangers.

Meeting Weavers- Chakhang

While loitering around in the streets and bazaars of Saiha and Aizwal and (of course on the many mini stops the Sumos took on the way ) we'd seen many a bag , skirts / wrap around, sling pouches on sale both on the street and in handicraft shops. My fascination with them has been seamless and after many trips and queries made by us , we were now also able to distinguish between the Mara and Mizo weaves. Well, at least some of it!
 We have been asking most of these shops, especially in the smaller towns and villages, questions about where all these goods were coming from.  We unfailingly met with the same response – Aizwal or in some cases, Burma. The girls selling their wares in Saiha, shops in Phura and Thenzawl, Handicraft shops in Aizwal all had either of these two as responses. So if what we know as Mara weaves are all being made by the Maras across the border is there no Mara weaving industry on this side? From folktales to short stories and other writings, all seem to speak of weaving being common place. So what has happened to mara weaving on this side of the border? Or if the weaves are supplied from Aizwal then what is happening to the various tribe specific weaving designs techniques etc? I had plenty of such queries, but didn’t consciously move around seeking answers. Each village that we visited I’d hoped that there would be someone we could talk to about this. Or better still if we could witness the weaving process itself.

The first interaction in that direction is what this post is about. Sharing the joy I felt in the interaction with an enthusiastic  group of women weavers in Chakhang.  
We were on our way back from Mawma Tlang after a steep and arduous (enjoyable nonetheless) trail uphill and having managed not to tumble down the steep descent I was finally walking through the village to get to a tea stall, along with youth from the local MTP.
Self Help Group- Handloom - a board jumped out at me and I stopped dead in my tracks only to recover and get to the window of the home bearing that tag – weaving finally! The woman at the loom was surprised by our curiosity and told us she’d be happy to meet us and talk the following day. So there I was the next morning, leaving our hosts home half an hour late from the scheduled time- and I met a neighbor telling me that the women of the SHG were ready and waiting! Guilt ridden I reached there to find six women busy at their looms. All around on clotheslines were spread different pieces made by them.

Pleasantries over, the chairperson pointedly told me (a tad disappointedly too) that the Mara sling pouch I was using was a duplicate (i think she meant machine woven). Dismissing it she took us around the workshop and showed us what the real goods were. A while later, Nimesh and his colleague left for their work with the schools and I was left without any translation help and sea of questions bottled up inside me. 
Over cups of tea, Kua and Cigarettes, in broken English, Hindi Mara and Mizo, dotted with ample laughter, we had animated exchanges on  what I’m doing in Saiha, who buys these fabrics, designs  etc. Gesturing wildly and playing a kind of charades we tried to get our questions and answers across.   

I inquired about a particular piece that had held my eye from the time I walked in. They not only told me what the design was called but sat me through the names and bits of history of each of the designs. On seeing me jot down some names, they peered at the sheet / scrap of paper and corrected spellings. Noticing that I only had a scrap to scribble on they offered a hymn sheet which I initially refused and subsequently accepted as the alternative seemed to be a young woman running off to the market to buy me a note pad.
While walking me through the available fabrics and their origins, one woman told me how a particular design was her original creation, she also I think was trying to explain how the weaving on these looms is different as all the designs exist in the weavers memory or imagination unlike the mechanized looms. Seeing my jaw drop at the cost of one wrap around (Rs 10,000) she laughed and explained that it was a traditional Mara design and it took her over a year to weave it. Looking at it closely I could well understand why. Patterns were woven into every inch of this colorful piece making it heavier too than most others.  
There were bags, pouches, neck ties and blouses slung on clothes lines all around the place , I was itching to know more yet strangely content as whatever was taking place was a good beginning.

For long while after the initial excitement had died down I planted myself at a window and watched the colorful patterns emerge from the loom, standing in stark contrast to the dry dusty and scorched land outside(monsoons would be such a respite). The tools used were made of wood , bamboo, deerskin, porcupine thorns etc.

The periodic thuds marking the end of one line, looping threads through each other to generate intricate motifs, , frequent combing through the yards of threads with grooved wooden sticks and bristles  ensuring a tangle free flow was all mesmerizing to watch but possibly back breaking to undertake. The loom on one end was pegged to the wall and on the other end a belt held it to the weavers waist. A couple of hours hunched over the details of the weave must take some effort. 
  Earlier in the day I had also seen a loom spread out in the sun, being prepared, it seemed for some action. It belonged to a woman of over 50 years of age. In this group too the majority seemed over 40 in the least and a discussion with a young woman in the MTP too had revealed that not many youngsters are keen on weaving. From what I have been seeing around its possibly because these skirts/wrap arounds are not as popular with the younger generation it seems to be  worn only on  special occasions, cultural events or to church etc. Also cheaper and trendy designs are easily available in the market. 

There however  were two young girls in the workshop though. They repeatedly came upto the older women when they got stuck with a patch on their loom.  The younger girl was adamant on learning a particular design and older one explained in a laughing and halting English that they were both still learning and were excited about learning more and faster. I could relate to their impatience, I was also overwhelmed by the urge to understand better, what everyone seemed to be telling, to ask all questions i've been holding in, to get answers there and then. 

Within a few days of our return from Chakhang, we were in Aizwal. We made the long pending trip to the state museum. The loin loom and the other implements displayed there were similar to the ones used in Chakhang. Nimesh and I went through each in detail and tried to understand what we could. 

Sometime soon I tell myself, I’ll get down to reading and understanding more. I realize now that as much as my queries are still largely unanswered I have found the first step in understanding more- what has been the best part of the deal is that- no book or research reading could have boosted my desire to learn and understand more about handlooms and the changes that have taken place with regard to weaving . A heartfelt thanks to the group I met in Chakhang.

In the meanwhile, if anyone reading any of this can point me to some person , organization , group etc. I’d be thrilled to explore.