The early history of the Zomi is obscure, shrouded in myths and legends. In the absence of written documents, it is extremely difficult to trace their early history. However, through historical, linguistics, archaeological findings, and ethnic relationships, it is now accepted that they belong to the Tibeto-Burman. Thus their movements can only be studied and identified in terms of the general movements of the Tibeto-Burman tribes. Like the other tribes of the Indo-Burma frontier areas, the Zomi too could have originated from China.
The area which lies between the upper course of the Yangtze Kiang and the Hwang Ho Rivers are believed to be the original home of these people. S. K. Chatterji also makes an attempt to identify the area of the “North-West China, between the head waters of the Hwang Ho and the Yangtze Kiang Rivers” as the origin of the Sino-Tibetan migration into India and Burma. Dr. Grierson wrote “…tradition and comparative physiology agree in pointing to North-Western China between the upper course of the Yangtze Kiang and of the Hwang Ho as the original home of the Tibeto-China race, to which the Tibeto-Burman and the Siamese-Chinese groups belong”. Though acceptable because of lack of any other plausible explanation, the original home of the Zomi remain indeterminate. But still it is quite obscure to know when and how they were originated from this place.
It is claimed that the Zomi is one of the oldest groups of people who settled in Burma. Regarding the pattern of their historical movements, the theory advanced by F. K. Lehman quoted below is worthwhile to note –
“Ethnic and linguistic differentiation certainly existed at an early period. The ancestor of the Chin and of the Burmans must have been distinct from each other even before they first appeared in Burma. Undoubtedly, these various ancestral groups were descended in part from groups immigrating into Burma, starting about the Christian era. But it is also probable that some of these groups were in Burma in the remote past, long before the date indicated by any present historical evidence”.
There is, however, no doubt that the Zomi had entered into Burma in different waves along with other groups of people. This argument is supported by folklores, oral tradition and legends. They came into this region by different routes. Some groups had gone up into the Tibetan plateau to the north while other groups moved into Burma in three waves. The First people who migrated from China were the Mon-Khmer races, and the second wave was that of the Tibeto-Burman races which consist of the Zomi, the Burmese, Lolo, Kachin, etc. The third wave was that of the Tai-Chinese consisting of Shan, Siamese, Karen, etc. The Mon-Khmer group moved first from Central Asia and entered into the Indo-Chinese peninsula. They mainly moved southwards following the Mekong Valley as far south as into Kampuchea and Thailand, whence by a lateral westward movement they reached Burma.
The Tibeto-Burman wave, which includes the Zomi, moved south-westward, on the line of the Irrawaddy and Chindwin (Tuikang) and disbursed along the mountainous regions of the Indo-Burma areas and of Burma on its western side. Regarding the north southward migrations, Prof. F. K. Lehman wrote:
"Historical linguistics, archaeology, and racial relationships definitely indicate the ancestors of these various peoples did indeed come from the North… history shows, however, that both hills and plain peoples have moved about within the general region of South-West China and Southeast Asia over considerable distances for many centuries until recent past”.
With regard to the Zomi, it is mentioned that they had migrated from the north to the southern valley areas of the Chindwin River, and then stopped by the Bay of Bengal before turning to the north again. Carey and Tuck are also of the same opinion. And when they reached the plains of Burma they were divided into several groups. One group moved towards the areas lying between the Chindwin and Irrawaddy rivers. The other groups moved towards the south and the west of Chindwin via Hukawang valley, Zou country and Arakan before 1000 A.D. the last immigrants were perhaps the Lushei and Hmar ancestors who, according to Pu K. Zawla, came to the Chindwin belt around 996 A.D. According to their local tradition, the first known settlement of the Hmar tribes was the Shan Village (Shan Khua) where they came in contact with the Shans as borne out by folk songs like the one quoted below:
“Ka pa lam thak a tha’n dang,
Sinlung lam thak aw a tha’n dang;
Shan khua ah thapo in vang…..
(My father’s step were remarkably good,
Sinlung’s steps were remarkably good;
Tens are the good men in Shan village….)
According to legendary sources, right from the early historical period the Zomi made their settlement in the Irrawaddy and the Chindwin valleys. After their kingdom was destroyed by the Chinese, they crossed the Chindwin and settled in the area of Kale-Kabaw-Myitha-Yaw Valleys and Panduang Hills. They made a permanent settlement in the valley areas of the river which they called ‘Tuikang’ – white water. But later the Burmese called the river ‘Chindwin’ (Cin/Chin=Burmese name for Zomi; Dwin = valley or region) and the name stuck through British acceptance.
Another theory based on folktales and legends claim that the Zomi had founded a kingdom called “Pugam” and its capital was Pagan. According to Chinese writers, this kingdom was situated between two and three hundred li (1 li = ½ kilometer) to the south-west of Yung-Chiang, a border state of China, on the north and northeast Nanchao (Thai) states of Upper Burma and Northern Siam; on the north and north-east of the Cheula (Kamboja), and to the east the seas (Gulf of Marteban) to the south (Cambodia). The Burmese and Chinese called this place “Piao-khua”.
It is said that the Zomi ancestors had settled there since 484 B.C. Fan Ch’o, a historian-turned-diplomat of the Tang dynasty, who was the author of “Man-Shu” (Story of Nanchao), 863 A.D. had identified the Chindwin river as “Mi-no-Chiang” (Chiang means River). He also mentioned the existence of three kingdoms in the ninth century A. D. They were Mino, Min-Ch’en and P’iao. Prof. Luce tried to identify the “Mi-Ch’en” (Zomi) as the ‘Man Kingdom of Kyontu’, a Burmese area situated near Waw qt, the old mouth of Pegu river, about 20 miles northeast of Pegu and P’iao with the Pyu or Pu Kingdom at Halin town in Shwabo area in Burma. Regarding Mino, it was, with Zo kingdom, situated near the Chindwin River. As Sir J. C. Scott remarks,
“Probably they (the Zomi) may be taken to be a presentiment of the Pagan Burman before he acquired Buddhism. It is also undisputed that the Thet or Sak, of Thara Keltara, who moved from to found and start the Burmese race as we know, are a Chin clan”.
The Asho Zomi tradition says that the original name of Pagan was “Pugam” which literally means country or Kingdom of our ancestors. (Pu=ancestors/forefathers; gam= kingdom/country). But, unfortunately, it has come to be written as “Pugan” in Burmese. Yet “Pugam”, “Pugan” and “Pagan” are not Burmese words. They are Zomi words. Moreover, Mount Popa also is simply “Pupa Mual”, a word or term absent in the Burmese vocabulary. This undeniable fact has been approved as true by the Burmese Socialist Programme Party Research office, Rangoon. Apart from this tradition, the Zomi of Yaw country in the Pakokku District also claims that they had come from Pupa (Popa) hills.
The Zomi folksongs give the picture of their settlement, prosperity and the civilization that evolved in the plains of Burma until the hand of Tartars (Mongols) struck them in the last part of the 13th century A.D. Dr. Francis Mason also mentioned that the Zomi had established an independent state in the Upper Chindwin areas. The observation about the establishment of a kingdom is clearly evident by the terms “Kumpi”, “Mang”, and “Leng” which are equivalent to Kingship.
However, their prosperity did not last long. They were destroyed by the Mongols. Lt. Trant wrote:
“The interlopers disposed their king and put many of their chieftains to death; they obligated the others to seek for refuge in flight…with them went some members of the royal family, but in course of time, and from deaths and changes of residence, all traces of them were lost and they know not whether any of the royal blood exists or not”.