India is often thought to be the destination of choice for intrepid travelers, but few venture away from the now well-trodden paths that lead to Goa, Varanasi, Agra, Jaipur, New Delhi, and Mumbai. Northeast India is well away from most travelers’ itineraries. Hidden from the world’s eye in between Bhutan, Bangladesh, China, and Myanmar, the region seems detached from the rest of the nation — even on the map. The forest-clad state of Mizoram that borders both Myanmar and Bangladesh, for example, is not well known, but it has a valuable lesson to offer those who take a chance and visit. Inside the deep jungles of Mizoram, just two to three hours from the state capital Aizawl, the local Mizo community practices a unique tradition: nghah lou dawr or shops without shopkeepers.
These unmanned shops are humble makeshift structures built from bamboo. They dot the hairpin roads guarded by sheer peaks in the interiors of Mizoram, and while plain and seemingly unremarkable, they are beautiful illustrations of the unique and rich culture of the Mizo people.
The Mizo community is a tight, close-knit one. Social biases and discrimination make little or no appearance in the day-to-day life in this society, unlike in the rest of India where wealth, class, caste, or gender decide a person’s worth or their status.
Lalbiakzuali Colney is an assistant professor at Pachhunga University College in Aizawl. Professor Colney says that Mizos are known for their honest, sincere, and humble behavior. “In our society, we are taught moral values right from our childhood. At a young age, we start to learn the religious values and social values our forefathers cherished,” says Colney, who was born in Sialsuk, 40 miles from Aizawl.
While everywhere in the world children are taught moral values of some sort, Colney believes that the Mizo system is unique. The Mizo community names it tlawmngaihna. This cherished virtue refers to the spirit of altruism. “When I was young, my parents taught me to be honest, help others even at my expense, be supportive and humble,” says Colney. “Every child grows up with these values,” she says. The spirit of tlawmngaihna functions as the base of the Mizo society in all aspects. Trust and honesty are further backed by Christian values. In Mizoram, 87 percent of the population is Christian.
A grassroots model of commerce
The practice of tlawmngaihna is apparent in Mizoram’s shops without shopkeepers.
Every morning, shop owners who are also farmers bring their harvest including leafy greens, carrots, cabbage, onions, and freshly picked fruits such as watermelons, pineapples, lime, lemons, and papayas to display them on rickety wooden racks and makeshift bamboo counters.
Some stalls have packets of chips for passing travelers who need something to munch on. Other items include pickles in glass jars and bottled fruit juice. Occasionally, when farmers have had the time to head to the nearby rivers, there is dried fish.
Farmers use small name boards to display the price of each time. Sometimes they write the price in charcoal on each item. A wooden box or a plastic jar is placed on the table before they head to their farmlands for the daily cultivation work.
Farmers have to work in their fields and cannot afford to sit inside the shops during the day. But that’s never an issue in Mizoram. “They do not need to attend their shops because of the trust and integrity in the Mizo community,” says Rema Varte, who serves at the Fire Department in Aizawl.
Customers buy what they need and leave money in the pay box. When they need change, they help themselves from the same container. At the end of the day, owners come back and collect their earnings and the remaining items. “I have seen the practice for years, and we’ve never heard of any complaints of goods or money being stolen,” says Varte, who was born in the village of Chhiahtlang 50 miles from Aizawl. Shops run by themselves as trust is reciprocated.
While this tradition shares some similarities with the honor system practiced in the Western world, sincerity and integrity are much more internalized in the Mizo way of life. It also gives farmers the chance to sell their goods directly without having to go through intermediaries and lose money in the process.
Traveling to Mizoram
For those who plan to travel to India, the Northeast region will provide a memorable adventure. The airport near Aizawl in Mizoram has flights from Indian cities such as Kolkata and Guwahati. Alternatively, taxis and buses are available from Guwahati to Aizawl.
Aizawl is a hilly capital with charming streets, law-abiding traffic, and pedestrian-friendly bylanes. There aren’t many places to stay in Mizoram, but Zobawm Homestay is run by a lovely Mizo family where you can also try your hand at Mizo cuisine.
Local hikers frequent Reiek, a mountain peak located close to Aizawl. For a glimpse of the slow village life in the interiors, expanding views of carpeted hills covered in mist, and rain-fed cascades, visit Sialsuk, Hmuifang, and Thenzawl.