Socio-Cultural Study of the Zou

Article by Sweety Bayan

Historical records show that the Zo or the Zou tribe has been referred to as Yo, Yoe, Yaw, Zo, Zou in the past. The Zo or Zou tribe is a group of Tibeto- Mongoloid people inhabited mainly in the Chin state and the Sagiang division of Myanmar and also in the Churachandpur and Chandel districts of Manipur, a North-Eastern state of India. Zou with a population of 26,545 falls under the category of non-scheduled languages. The 2011 language data shows there is a decadal percentage increase of 27.27% in the growth of the Zou speakers between 2001 and 2011.

There is no written record of the origin of the Zou or Zo tribes. The Zos believe to have originated from an ancient progenitor- Pu Zo or Pu Zou meaning “grandfather Zo” or Progenitor Zo or Ancestor Zo. According to genealogical records of the various Zous clans, they are the descendants of an ancient, historic, eponymous person known as Pu Zo or Zou.

Zou kinship system revolves around the social, political and economic organisations. Their kinship system is well developed and elaborate in style. Land distribution depends on the political power amongst them. Zou kinship system has a resemblance with that of the Thadou Kuki’s kinship system; however, certain unique features keep them apart. The political and social powers develop based on kinship alliances made by marriage with other clan groups. Although, the Zo society is predominantly patriarchal with a clan-based socio-political system set-up when it comes to dealing with the Beckoning or Calling out terms for one’s mother’s siblings or cousin sisters preference is always given to matriarchal/matrilineal lines. Two-person belonging to two different clans may be called unau: tà:/pì: ‘cousins’ because of their sibling mothers or mother cousins with the same patrilineal descent. Therefore, in Zo kinship term though each of them despite their fathers are of two different clans, each shall call them pá: “father” to each one of them, because of their mothers kinship relation. Similarly, if two persons each have mother from two different clans, but their fathers come from the same patrilineal descent, then each one can call their mother nú: “mother” term. 

A typical Zou village, though small, is an independent unit. The whole village is secured with palisades. Each household is fortified by its palisades for safety purposes. The entrance of the main gate is provided with a small gate, built on a high level, which can be traversed using a ladder one at a time; usually guarded by the village youth. Every village has its own headman, who has the authority to distribute land for jhum cultivations and to allocate the hill lands to his relatives and other kinship. In common with other Naga tribes, the Zous too also have the concept of “youth dormitory”. All Zou young men are warriors; they are trained in Sáwm or Hâm “youth dormitory‟. Women usually do household chores and brew rice liquor and rice beer. The functional relationship of one village with that of another village or other villages is based on the clan system and kinship system which impact the Zou settlement patterns and land ownership, i.e. chieftainship. 

Based on the number of houses and populations, i.e the size, two types of settlement patterns can be found in Zou villages viz; 

  1. khuo “village” 
  2. khotá “hamlet” 

The Zo settlement patterns are influenced by several factors viz; the geographical features, security reason, and economic exploitation of the forests, religious and age-old traditions have much influence on the Zou settlement. 

The size of a Zou settlement or village is not very large, it may consist of 20-30 houses, at the most it may consist of 50-60 houses as compared to the other Kuki-Chin tribes. However, the modern villages consist of more than 150-200 houses, which does not bear any similarity with the old settlement pattern.

A Zo family is a Patrilocal and Neolocal family in terms of residence norms, wherein, after marriage, the girl resides in her husband’s village. A Zo family is Patriarchal in nature; they follow a patrilineal system along with a Patronymic line of descent. In Zou society, the eldest or the first-born son has the privilege of the rule of inheritance. The properties, wealth, house, fields, and the chief-ship of his father, if he was the chief of the village, go directly to the eldest son. The other male siblings inherit cattle and other moveable properties. As the eldest son has to take care of all the female siblings and old parents, he gets the largest share of the properties. Women are deprived of everything, because they have no rights in land and animals. Women get some negligible portion of wealth in the form of necklaces, garlands of beads, looms, baskets, implements etc.

In every Zo, clan there is a patronymic system, where, each Zou male adopts his ancestor’s clan name which is assigned to every male of that particular clan. Every Zou clan is believed to be a descendent of an ancient eponymous progenitor known as Pu Zo. The name of the eldest male or the first-born male of a clan is used as a descent system among the Zous. The Zou tribal community consists of more than 100 clans. Thus, the clan name exhibits a super-ordinate entity in the naming system of Zou society. Every Clan has its distinct clan-song called Lapí, clan-song is allowed to sing only at the time of the funeral. 

When a child is born to a parent, the girl’s parents present an animal as a gift for good fortune and blessings to the newborn baby, who is known as Nâu âisá or Nâu âitahsá. In return, the family of his daughter reciprocates by giving a sum of money. This reciprocity is a sign of respect, love and gratitude known as “kinóupuohna”. The old ties of kinship are renewed in this occasion.

The Zou society practices monogamy, although, polygamy was allowed in the pre-Christian era. Polyandrous family is not common among the Zous. Zous have rich traditions and customs. Each family is held together within a clan organization. The head of the clan is the sole authority of all the families. Intra-clan marriage is not followed among them. It is abominable for a man to get married to the daughter of his father’s sister’s daughter. The term for this type of marriage is “kisenglè”. Since clan exogamy is followed within the society, inter-clan marriages are allowed among the zous, although, there are some restrictions. The consanguineous cross-cousin marriage known as Neita zonna is a popular form of marriage among the Zous, where the kinship system plays a major role in deciding the marriage alliance with other clans of the same tribe.

Rich cultural values of the Zous are perhaps not so widely known as some other Kuki tribes and Naga tribes. Zou needs focus and protection. It is in a vulnerable state, if we go by UNESCO’s levels of endangerment in languages, as the language is restricted to a few native speakers’ home vicinity.

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