Chin mountain ranges and roaming gayals

  • By Maung Tha
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Gayals are easily tamed like Myanmar cows; they are lethargic and roam aimlessly in groups in the forests. Photo: Tin Win

In order to study the culture and traditions of ethnic Chin nationals, I went to Chin State; I saw a lot of gayals during my trip to Kanpetlet Township in Southern Chin State and Tedim Township in Northern Chin State. Indian pied hornbills and gayals are regarded as outstanding animals for Chin State, but the former are not found during my trip.

Chin State
After our country’s independence, the Chin State was composed of seven Districts; Southern District consisted of Haka, Paletwa and Matupi townships whereas Northern District included Tedim, Haka and Falam townships. After adoption of 1974 Constitution, the Chin Division became a State, designating 20 February as its National Day.
Nowadays, Chin State is composed of three Districts and nine townships. Haka district consists of Haka and Htantlang townships; Mindat District is composed of Mindat, Kanpetlet , Matupi and Paletwa townships. Falam district consists of Falam, Tedim and Tunzang townships.
The Chin State which lies in the west of Myanmar is situated on a mountain range far away from Myanmar proper. In the past, difficult transport made people go across the towns through mountain and spur ranges. Now it is easy to go from town to town through wide and smooth roads. Extensions of motor roads were seen during our trip; herds of gayals have moved en masse among nearby forests.

Gayals from Chin mountain ranges
Gayals belong to the same species( Gavarus) of bisons and bantengs. Among the species, gayals have no humps with dented foreheads and small snouts. They are not like cows but with hanging necks and hairs have grown long enough to reach their ankles. Most of them are found grey in color; black and white gayals are also found in bright colors. Gayals have generally four white legs below knees; gayals with hair on the belly are also found. If gayals are looked right in front, their triangular heads can be seen. The base of the horn is slightly flat with pump backbones in a strong tail at the base.
Gayals are termed as Sials by ethnic Chin nationals; they are usually bred for meat. They are naturally found between 3000 and 10,00 feet above sea level. They are found roaming in shady gorges in townships in Chin State, Khaunglanphu and Nagmon townships in Northern Kachin State and Leshi township in Sagaing Region.
In Chin State, the wealth of a family is measured by a number of gayals. Visitors are served with gayal meat in traditional festivals, social occasions of joy and grief. By assessing the value of gayals, wedding ceremonies and several kinds of compensations have been awarded up to this day. That might be the reason that the more gayals a man belongs, the wealthier he is regarded.

The breeding of gayals
Among the varieties of draught cattle, dairy and meat cows, the gayal falls into a meat category. The average weight of a gayal is between 800 and 1300 pounds, bigger than local cows nearing the size of Friesian horse. Cattle breeders marked on the horns of gayals of their own and sent them into the forests. In the past, the breeders did not put a fence for gayals which were marked and freed into the forests. When needed, they were called by their owners by feeding them salt. Sometime, there were disputes over the markings about ownership of gayals.
Nowadays, they are fenced in by the breeders for meat-producing business. But they are not bred in villages; but in a large compound at a designated place in the forest. The fences for gayals are made of pine branches of crossed posts upon which poles of mangrove trees are tied with thin bamboo strips by creating a compound surrounded by three or four rows. By breeding them inside the fences from June to December, they are sent into the forest for the rest of months. The gayal breeders have used the fences for six to seven years; a new place is sought for a new compound with a new fence.
Gayals do not eat grasses and straws like Myanmar cows; they eat green leaves, creepers and bamboo leaves by living in groups. They are very fond of eating salt; the breeders regularly feed them by salt. Gayals roaming in the forests are in the habit of coming to a place when the time of feeding salt comes.

Gayal owners herd them to their villages by feeding salt
Gayals are often found on mountain motor roads; when they see cars and motorcycles coming, they run down along the hillsides. Gayals are not hostile to men, but they attack wild dogs in groups. Wild dogs in turn attack young gayals and eat them ravenously. They like a steamy place, but they resist climate change. Very young gayals are often attacked and eaten by tigers and wild dogs; but loss is few and far between among the adult gayals, but only a few in young ones
The growth rate of gayals is faster than that of Myanmar cows and they could become pregnant at the age of one and half years. Male gayals have mated up to the age of eight but females could give birth to the young up to the age of 15, producing a young per year. Female gayals are 100% successfully pregnant with very few fatalities. Two young gayals at a birth are few and far between. Four-month-old young no longer suck its mother milk and start to eat food other than milk. At the time of giving birth to the young, their mother tends to produce a lot of milk, but Chin nationals do not drink the milk.

Entrusting one’s gayals to another
Ethnic Chin nationals breed gayals for the purpose of producing meat; they are not trained to be tame in order to do something. Gayals are easily tamed like Myanmar cows; they are lethargic and roam aimlessly in groups in the forests. They are mostly free from diseases and live full lifespan unless killed by men. But gayals bred in compounds are vaccinated against diseases during June with the help of employees from Animal Husbandry and Cure Department. The system of entrusting one’s gayals to another is widely practiced in Chin mountain ranges.
The owner of the male gayals has entrusted them to the receiver. If they are bred and give birth to a young, the first offspring belongs to the receiver, the second one goes to the male owner. Other offspring will be shared half-and-half by the owner and the receiver. Because of good entrusting system, the breeding of gayals has improved dramatically.
Seventy per cent of village households in townships in Chin State raise gayals; they are widely bred to show the wealth of a family. The current price of an adult gayal is over eleven lakhs, according to a breeder from Matupi town. At Chin wedding ceremonies, gayals are appraised for the properties brought by the bridegroom to the bride; this tradition is still practiced up to this day. Gayal meat is served as a main dish at social occasion of joy or grief and festivals; an increase in Chin population means more breeding of gayals.
According to a report released in March, 2017 there were 22491 gayals in Chin State with the most of gayals in Matupi Township. Visitors to Chin State savour gayal meat with obvious relish and dried gayal meat is widely used. Less striated gayal meat stinks and is boiled soft easily. A male gayal aged between three and four tends to produce 80 to 100 visses.
As gayals and cows have the same genera, they can be bred; but with buffaloes they cannot be because of different genera. A strange thing is that an ox and a female gayal are bred, the female gayal is fertile whereas the offspring male is sterile. But a male gayal and cow are bred, the male and female offspring are fertile. Frieshian ox and female gayal or male gayal or female Frieshian are bred, their male and female offspring are fertile.
As gayals are closely connected with Chin traditions, they have been raised in mountain ranges from generation to generation. As gayals are raised for foods, they can be found easily in mountain ranges, thus becoming an outstanding symbol for Chin State and its people. Many villages in Chin mountain ranges keep hanging the skulls of wild animals including those of gayals which can be seen as a sign of Chin culture.

(Translated by Arakan Sein)

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