"There is no tribe if there is no tradition," according to Zo Vaphual, an elder of the Zomi Chin tribe, who spoke about preserving Zomi culture through the celebration of the annual Khua Do Festival.
He told Khonumthung News the two day harvest festival, observed from October 10th to 12th, is the most important festival for the Zomi Chin tribe as it is considered their New Year.
The Zomi Chin are one of the five major tribes in Chin State, northwestern Burma, bordering on India’s Mizoram region.
They live mostly in Tiddim Township, western Chin state, although thousands have migrated or moved to Mizoram as refugees and some have been resettled abroad.
Zo Vaphual, a member of Chin Cultural Organization, estimates the Zomi people began to observe Khua Do about 600 years ago.
Since then, they celebrated the bounty of the maze corn and rice crops at the beginning of winter by both giving thanks and praying for a successful harvest next year. The festival has also served as an important means to bring the Zomi people together in unity.
Zo Vaphual said many Zomi Chin who resettled abroad remember their homeland at the time of the Khua Do Festival by reading the well-known poem named "Zo Gam", because they miss their homeland.
The poem reads:
Remembrance of Blue Mountain and Zo Gam
Mountain of beauty, covered with fog, I have not been there for so long. We are far away from our homeland- celebrated by light rain, the knife dance and rice-wine in the festival. At this time, farmers are burning dry grass and tree trunks on the slash and burn paddy farms. It's a taste of early winter with Hlaing Mee alcohol. The beauty of cherry and pine tree and the apple orchard prove the simple beauty of Zomi Land with its Taung Zalap flower. It's the place of Zomi; it's the place of Zo Gan.
In Chin State and nearby Mizoram, in northeastern India, Khua Do is a vibrant celebration with food, wine, dancing and laughter.
The first day of the festival, experienced men prepare to kill pigs in the morning. The pig is divided into two pieces in two big pots. One is for the person who owns the pig. The cooks also take a share of the meat for themselves, to be enjoyed with rice wine.
Pig and wild oxen meat, along with maze and rice, are the main dishes for the festival.
At the same time, women are cooking Sapni Poung rice, while young people clean gravestones and others play drums, gongs and the buffalo horn.
After curry is cooked, they take cooked meat and save it. At mid-day, on the first day of the festival, married women from the community bring the cooked meat, rice-wine, and rice to the local graveyard to honor those who died in the last year, so the dead can join in the celebration.
The evening meal cannot start until the women return from the graveyard.
After the women arrive, the oldest male takes a few sips of wine and prays for the prosperity of the community in the year ahead.
After that, people can start dinner and drink wine. They offer wine and feed a piece of meat to each other as they celebrate heartily.
Early on the morning of the second day, a team of young and older males go outside the village and bring back a beehive to put on a tree at the entrance of village for all to see.
They stay outside the village, singing traditional songs and dancing, until some ladies bring rice packed in banana leaves and rice wine for them.
Eventually, many people join them and they start to feed rice and wine each other.
Then, they reenter into the village, carrying the beehive to a home specifically chosen to host the community.
The men put the beehive on a tree in the garden after they offer food and wine at the family’s spirit house first, according to animist tradition.
After that, the people enter into the house.
Soon, the men go to examine the beehive.
"If they see a young bee die in the beehive, they believe somebody will die in the village next year. As well, rice crop won't be good next year. If they see no bee is dead, they believe weather will be good next year and the rice harvest will be good," Zo Vaphual said.
After the prediction for the future is done, they prepare for a special dinner to conclude the Khua Do festival.
After the festival, Zomi Chin people work hard in the coming year and wait for the next festival.
"Khua Do is important for our Zomi Chin. It is an important way in which Zomi Chin people are recognized by other tribes as being distinctly Zomi. That's important for us," Zogam Innteek Pa said.
He said, “If a certain tribe cannot maintain their culture and tradition, that tribe will disappear. If we belong to a tribe, we must uphold and practice its culture and tribal practices.
“If a person doesn't know his or her own culture and tradition, it means the person doesn't know the path where he came from. So the person has to adopt the culture and tradition from another tribe. Therefore, it is important that every tribe must have its own culture, tradition, custom, literature and symbols.
“It is the same for the Zomi Chin. Holding the Khua Do festival is a way to uphold their culture and traditions and to bring families and the community together. During the festival, family members are very happy eating and dancing together," Zogam Innteek Pa explained.
However, he noted that recent times have brought challenges for community leaders who organize the festival.
In the past, he said, attendance and participation was high because all villagers enjoyed successful business opportunities and a vibrant local economy, which left time and energy to focus on the Zomi traditions. And, they had enough food and livestock from their farms to support the festival.
As well, the government also allowed the Zomi to hold the festival without seeking permission.
However, an economic downturn has left villagers more concerned about making a living than focusing on the festival and their cultural heritage.
Some farmers do not want to work in their paddy fields and produce fields because of low yields of rice production, mainly due to changes in the weather. They have to seek other work to support their families.
Many have had to leave the traditional Zomi Land and resettle abroad.
That has led community elders to worry about the preservation of Zomi traditional culture for the coming generations.
As well, some conservative Christian Chin people have criticized the animist influence in the festival rituals as being evil.
According to Zogam Innteek Pa, as community participation decreases, most Zomi young people are not learning as much about the Khua Do festival.
“We are all have a responsibility to educate our young about our traditional festival and encourage them to respect and continue practicing the customs,” he said.
He suggests using media to educate the Zomi people.
"To educate young generation, we have to publish magazines, newsletters, and music, which are related to our culture. I think publishing photos, pictures and visual aids are the best way to educate because it's easy to see and understand," he said.
“If there are no customs and traditions, there will be no tribe. If we cannot maintain our culture, it will disappear. So, Zomi Chin young people have to learn the Zomi language, culture, customs, and traditions- wherever they are.”