Four Archives in Mizoram, India


A review of Four Archives in Mizoram, India.

I spent the first half of 2014 researching the history of healing in Mizoram, the state at the southernmost tip of India’s easternmost frontier. The Mizos are unique among India’s peoples for the speed and extent of their Christianization. In 1901, almost no one in the Mizo tribe was literate or Christian; in 1961, almost everyone in the Mizo tribe was both; and today, Mizos command India’s second most literate and second most Christian state. Until three years ago the state was a Restricted Region of India, barred to foreign researchers. Its relatively unexplored archival sources document the rapid transition of a borderland people, uniquely and fundamentally transformed. Here, I introduce the state’s top four archival repositories.

Presbyterian Synod Archive, Mission Veng, Aizawl

Most visitors to the Presbyterian Synod Archive in Aizawl do not know their own age, and this is precisely why they visit. Scrupulously kept historical Baptism records, dating to the early twentieth century, are the Archive’s primary attraction. Today, they allow a steady stream of patrons to leave with freshly discovered birth dates. Amidst the hubbub, researchers will often be granted access to the stacks themselves, an eclectic, if small, collection centered on church history, particularly on the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Foreign Mission which operated in then North Lushai Hills. English-language holdings include missionary autobiographies, early church member lists, and bound files photocopied from Assam State Archives, and Guwahati and Mizoram State Archives (to which we will return later). At the heart of the Mizo-language holdings are a rare and complete set of the monthly newsletters Mizo leh Vai Chanchin Bu (a government publication launched in 1903) and Kristian Tlangau (a mission publication launched in 1911). Baptismal records, the minutes of church Presbyteries, and several early histories round out the Mizo-language holdings. A hidden jewel is the Archive’s fabulous—though neglected—collection of historical photographs, which date primarily from the early twentieth century.

The Archive is located in the heart of Mission Veng, Aizawl: taxis will know the building as “Synod Office,” and researchers will find the Archive on the fourth floor. From Hotel Regency, Zarkawt, a taxi will cost about 100 rupees, as of July 2014. Alternatively, buses will drop you at Sikulpuikawn―walking distance of the Archive―for a tenth of that cost, though in half of the comfort and twice the time. A photocopy facility is available, but with permission digital photography is easier on the researcher and the documents.

There are no registration requirements beyond greeting head archivist Pi Vanlalsawmi, who is always happy to be of assistance. The office opens at 10:00 a.m.; researchers will be cordially invited to, though not sorely missed at, staff prayer meetings at 9:30 a.m. In the lead up to Christmas, staff may be antsy to leave by 3:30 p.m. By March, hours extend to 4:30 p.m. Wi-fi is not available (though researchers with 3G mobile dongles will find the best speeds in Aizawl), seating at the single, miniature table is limited though rarely full, and the mood is upbeat and pleasant, with archivists often bursting into the latest contemporary Mizo hit song amidst games of Candy Crush.

Food options are few. Up the hill, Zote Bakery serves tea and oily nibbles. Down the hill, D’Jer serves better tea and small meals of typical Aizawl restaurant fare. If you stay put, the archivists will likely include you in their own lunch break of tea and Mizo chhang ban, a sticky rice snack.

J. M. Lloyd Archive, Aizawl Theological College, Durtlang

The front parking lot of the Presbyterian Synod Archive is where you can catch the bus to the next archive, the J. M. Lloyd Archive at Aizawl Theological College (ATC), Durtlang. The ATC Staff Bus, intended for staff but pleased to welcome aboard hitchhiking researchers, departs from the Revival Centenary Monument at 8:45 AM every working weekday. Return bus fare for the one hour journey is twenty rupees; one way taxi fare is over 500 rupees. The winding road up to Durtlang is an experience in itself, and the final cliff-side climb is rumored to be haunted. Researchers should disembark with Library staff at the second stop on campus.

The J. M. Lloyd Archive is largely ecclesiastical in focus. Its holdings center around an excellent and expansive collection of postgraduate theses, many produced in-house at the ATC, many produced at Serampore, but all a goldmine of references themselves, often useful to the researcher less for their respective interpretations than for their collection of raw facts. A nearby wall of files provides open access to hundreds of boxes of Church assembly minutes and academic conference papers, covering the history of Christianity in the region. Several boxes of handwritten letters from missionaries Kitty Lewis and J. M. Lloyd have escaped repatriation to the National Archive of Wales, Aberystwyth. The Archive’s open-plan stacks include originals and photocopies of missionary writings, vernacular periodicals and histories, diaries of early Mizo pastors, and a unique collection of bound documents from the Mizo National Front insurgency of the 1960s. A limited collection of historical photographs dating to the early- and mid-nineteenth century is held in the office of the head archivist, the helpful Pu Lalnuntluanga Kawlni.

A photocopier (one rupee per page) is available at the main library entrance, adjacent to a shelf in which visitors must deposit their bags. Photography is often permitted to researchers if one asks. Wi-fi is available in the library with a password from the IT manager, though not in the archive where even cell phone reception is limited.

The only lunch option is on campus, and can be reached by taking the two flights of steps up from the archive, the first to the main road, the second to the college canteen. Lunch is tea and chow (dry, fried noodles) or tea and fried rice, and it costs fifty rupees.

The Archive closes at 3:55 PM sharp. The staff bus picks up staff and researchers at the main gate at 4:10 PM for the ride back to Aizawl. Stops on the return journey are by both routine and request, the route terminating back at the Synod Office in Mission Veng. Longer-term researchers might wish to skirt the commute by contacting ATC Principal, Dr. Vanlalchhuanawma, about on-campus, dormitory accommodation.

Mizoram State Archive, Aizawl

The Mizoram State Archive is home to a major collection of government material primarily dating to the Raj, but also to independent India. There is currently no electronic catalogue, but staff will point out several useful indices strewn about the dusty Reading Room, directly below the main office. In rank order of heft, these indices include General, Political, Revenue, Education, Home, Agricultural, Military, Public Works, Treasury, Municipal, Health, Census, Comptroller, Excise, Election, and Supply Departments. Despite some cryptic gaps (for instance, darkness eclipses the General Index from 1935 to 1939, and archivists are unable to explain the phenomenon), the collection is a strong one. The General Department alone spans some 70 boxes from the 1870s to 1950s, though the decades are treated with increasing shallowness. Researchers examining earlier topics are able to wade into deeper material.

Unfortunately, certain key documents have been plucked out over the years and thematically grouped into bound volumes stored off-catalogue in the main office. A collection of Superintendent John Shakespear’s tour diaries and a volume of documents on the suppression of the 1937 Kelkang revival are two volumes I sussed out from this ether. Researchers should also be aware of the often erratic nature of the various indices. For instance, the General Department’s box 48 includes anomalous material from 1897, 1928, and 1956 when, taken in series, it should concern the mid-1940s alone.

The archive is centrally located a stone’s throw from the Millennium Centre (MC) shopping mall in Aizawl’s Babutlang locality, but can be tricky to find. Just before reaching MC from the south, take and follow the final road branching left from the main. This road terminates shortly at the entrance to the Aizawl mandir―quietly celebrating Durga Puja since 1904. A path adjacent to the mandir is topped with the blue-and-white Archives badge; the entrance is up a small flight of stairs immediately to your right.

The friendly directors Pu F. Lalthanmawia and Pu Hma may interview you as to your intentions. A letter of introduction is appreciated, though not required. A signature in the attendance book will earn you the keys to the downstairs reading room and the indices therein.

Photography is not permitted in this archive, but an efficient photocopy (or “xerox”) service with a one-day turnaround is available at a reasonable two rupees per page. (Researchers keen on travelling light can of course make weightless .jpegs of these often decent reproductions). Local researchers complain that a fifteen page per diem xerox limit is often waived for foreign researchers.

The archive opens at 10:00 a.m. daily, and closes at 4:30 p.m., though you may be shuffled out earlier. Working days can be unpredictable, owing to a supremely ecumenical government holiday calendar. It is thus best to check during one visit about the timing of the next.

The Archive seems to run on a shoe-string budget. Though archivists do their best, their documents deteriorate without proper fumigation or dehumidification systems, and a camera-less digitization rig sits idly in cobwebs. With no in-house power generator, electricity can be both spiky and fickle, particularly by May, when pre-monsoon storms compound outages.

Lunch options can be found at the nearby Millennium Centre (Pemarin Corner is amongst the better options, all of which are local takes on “fast food”). A tailoring shop across the street from the archive serves tea and treats, the ramshackle Public Works Department Canteen (marked with a yellow sign) has noodles and boiled eggs, and nearby stands stock snacks, cold drinks, and bottled water. Archive staff generally break for an hour lunch at noon. The reading room remains open until researchers leave and lock it.

The Baptist Centenary Archives, Lunglei

The front parking lot of the Mizoram State Archives is also a starting point for the intercity journey to the final archive, the Baptist Church of Mizoram Centenary Archive, Serkawn, Lunglei. “Sumos,” or twelve-seater SUVs, provide cheap (~350 rupees per seat) if cramped (~1.5 persons per seat) intercity transport along Mizoram’s windy roads. Sumo tickets must be purchased in advance at counters along Aizawl’s main road, including in front of Millennium Centre, which is also an early morning Sumo departure point. Luggage is stored rooftop, but pack a small carry-bag too for the long, six hour journey: an mp3 player, medicine for nausea, snacks, and water are crucial.

The Baptist Archive is the smallest of the four Mizoram archives, though working conditions are the best. The bright and recently renovated room holds a collection of ecclesiastical material organized around stacks of secondary sources and theses in English and Mizo. Original materials include early Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) church member lists, Presbytery minutes, missionary correspondences, and notes of church elders (upa). A small collection of photographs is kept with the Archivist, the delightful Pu V. Remkunga. Most striking is a stockpile of missionaries’ belongings that borders on the devotional. Missionaries’ cameras, clocks, clothes, collars, lanterns, and spectacles (tarmit, literally “old eyes” in Mizo) are kept behind glass reverently, along with a few traditional Mizo implements and tools. The show stoppers are the original mission stereoscope (complete with a wealth of stereoscopic images produced locally in the early twentieth century) and a box of glass lantern slides (featuring a mix of local and foreign photography). Researchers may handle each with Pu Remkunga’s permission and guidance.

Auto-rickshaws, the ubiquitous three-wheeled, roofed scooters that ply Lunglei’s streets, should be directed to “BCM Headquarters, Serkawn.”  Alternatively, Tourist Lodge, Zotlang―the best option for accommodations―is within walking distance and costs a very reasonable 400 rupees per night.

The Archive is open by 10:00 a.m. and closed by 4:30 p.m. most weekdays. Holidays are unpredictable, beyond their profusion around Christmas and Easter seasons. Digital photography is permitted, and researchers should feel free to approach Pu Remkunga with queries on the Archive’s holdings or on the region’s history more generally.

Lunch options are again few. A small set of shops at the base of the BCM Headquarters driveway serve good tea and the usual chow and fried rice. The friendly archive staff may well include you in their own lunches and tea breaks, the latter with kurtai, an ox-churned jaggery.

On the whole, researchers traveling to Mizoram should keep in mind that all “foreigners”―whether from foreign countries or simply other Indian states―are required to register within twenty-four hours of their arrival with the local Central Intelligence Department (CID), the simple details of which are provided on touchdown at Lengpui airport. This and prerequisite Research Visa procedures must be followed. Thereafter, the best hotels in Aizawl include the new and dapper Hotel Regency (single, 1900 rupees per night; double, 2300 rupees per night) and the boutique, Mizo-themed Hotel Arini (single, 900 rupees per night; double, 1800 rupees per night). Though foreigners arriving with Lonely Planets in hand continue to patronize the distant and crumbling Chaltlang Tourist Lodge and the buggy Hotel Ritz, the new Regency and Arini hotels provide for a softer landing. Longer-term visitors unlucky in Aizawl’s barren rental market might instead fruitfully inquire with local friends about rewarding home-stay options with local families.

Kyle Jackson
Department of History
University of Warwick

Image: Photograph of Aizawl by author (2014).

The views, perspectives, and opinions expressed here and by those providing comments are those of the author(s) and commentator(s) alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Dissertation Reviews, its members, editors, or advisory board members.

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