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Wave Theory

Kuki Perspective on Migration

Haoginlen Chongloi ( is at Manipur University, Imphal.

Studies on migration patterns amongst tribes in India have received less attention in the academic domain. As such colonial writings still remain the basis of explaining the migration of tribes in North East India, with the veracity of their arguments remaining unascertained. The Kukis’s unique pattern of migration is described and the formulation of a “wave model” to describe all migration taking place in a similar pattern is attempted.

Migration is the temporary or permanent movement of individuals or groups of people from one geographical location to another for various reasons. The basic factors that have influenced the mobility of people from one region to another have been the uneven distribution of population, unbalanced utilisation of resources, and variation in economic and cultural developments. Besides these, natural disasters, lack of employment opportunities, financial crises, influence of family members, availability of jobs, and easy access to the city’s informal economy are few specific factors that induce migration (Ishtiaque and Ullah 2013).

Academic works available on the subject, however, largely focus on the economic and security factors that are a product of industrial and commercial activities. Therefore, literature available on migration patterns of tribes in the ancient past is scant. Lee (1966) proposed a theory where migration takes place as a result of positive and negative factors. While positive factors are the circumstances that act to hold people within an area, or attract people from other areas, negative factors tend to repel them. Duncan (1940) and Standing (1981) also propounded theories on migration. While Duncan emphasised social, economic, personal, and natural factors, Standing has claimed that the size and level of migration are determined by the relation of production of society, nature of wealth, landownership system, and factors controlling the growth of forces of production in a society. However, the application of these generalised theories in the explanation of migration patterns of a community taking place in the ancient past is inadequate and subjective. Therefore, while the accounts of colonial authorities on the people inhabiting the north-eastern region of India still remain the basis of any study on migration in the region, there have been no investigations into the authenticity and validity of colonial writings on migration.

In the north-eastern region of India, the term “migration” often bears a negative connotation, as it has been widely used to refer to the illegal influx of people from its peripheral areas. However, the negativity attached to the term migration should not draw one to the conclusion of every movement as an illegal activity, as being migratory at a certain period is a way of life in the evolutionary process (Startup 1971; Chongloi 2018). Rather, it has been accepted that prior to civilised and settled life, every society exhibits a migratory character.

However, the absence of any systematic record of their own rendered the history of tribal societies to be understood in the colonial context. Thus, the history of migration of the Kukis as understood today is an “erroneous” manifestation of colonial writings. The present work is an attempt to set the record straight on the origin of the Kukis and thereafter draw out a possible theory of their migration. For better understanding of the subject matter, a brief history and identity of the Kukis will be discussed beforehand.

On ‘Kuki’ Identity

The Kukis constitute one of the indigenous communities in the North East, besides Myanmar and Bangladesh. Having features and speaking Tibeto–Burman language (Grierson 1904), they are found to have settled in all the states of North East India—namely Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Assam, Meghalaya, and Nagaland—with the exception of the two states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. In Myanmar, they are generally classified as Chin, whereas in Bangladesh they are identified as Kuki, Bawm, Lushai, etc. Shakespeare (1912) remarked that “there are no doubts that the Kukis, Chins and Lushais are the entire same race.” Though they are recognised differently, they exhibit a common history, origin and traditions with a slight variation in language and practices (Carey and Tuck 1895; Grierson 1904; Vumson 1986; Haokip 1988). Gangte (2012) has opined on the Kukis’ dialectal variations as a result of the “time-gap” in the migration that each group undertook. Besides the time factor, the geographical location and availability of resources and its interaction with other communities could be other factors contributing to the variation of lifestyles and practices of the people.

It is unknown as to who coined the term “Kuki” and when. According to some colonial writers, Kuki is a Bengali term (Reid 1942) referring to the hill people, and which was “never used by the tribe themselves” (Soppitt 1887). Moreover, colonial writers have claimed that the Kukis were “first heard in 1830s and 1840s” (Johnstone 1896) and were “migrants from the south” (Shakespeare 1912), who were introduced and settled in Manipur to serve as a buffer against enemy tribes of the British subjects (McCulloch 1980). In this regard, the claims of the colonial writers sound one-sided owing to the fact that the hill areas of the Kukis were little known till the close of the 19th century. Mackenzie (2014) describes of the Chahsad Kukis, of the north-eastern region in the state of Manipur, that they have been living there for a long time, but were brought to notice only in the 1870s. Colonial accounts of the arrival of a few migrant Kukis of the 18th and 19th century was generalised to describe all Kukis, which eventually undermined the independent existence of the Kukis in the adjoining areas of India, Myanmar and Bangladesh, dating back to many centuries.

If one is to refer to the traditional literature in the understanding of the Kukis, the description of colonial writings on the term Kuki as a Bengali word and the perceived notion that they were immigrants from the south in the latter half of the 19th century remains the “most erroneous view” (Haokip 2010) of a deeply subjective colonial historiography.

Phukan (1992: 10) pointed out:

If we were to accept Ptolemy’s “Tiladae” as the “Kuki” people, as identified by Gerini, the settlement of the Kukis in North-East India would go back to a very long time in the past. As Prof Gangumei Kabui thinks, “some Kuki tribes migrated to Manipur hills in the pre-historic times along with or after the Meitei advent in the Manipur Valley” (History of Manipur, p 24). This hypothesis will take us to the theory that the Kukis, for the matter, the Mizos, at least some of their tribes, had been living in North East India since the prehistoric times.

The claims of colonial writing on the terminology and origin of the Kukis also prove to be wholly inconsistent with the few available accounts of the region. According to Pooyas,1 the traditional records of Meitei Kings,

two Kuki chiefs named Kuki Ahongba and Kuki Achouba were allies to Nongba Lairen Pakhangba, the first historically recorded king of the Meithis [Meiteis], in the latter’s mobilization for the throne in 33 AD. (Haokip 2010)

The record herein dates to two millennia ago. The term Kuki in reference to the people was also used by Taranatha in 1608 in the “Account of the spread of the Doctrine in the Ko-Ki [Kuki] country in the East”:

From the time of Ashoka, samghas were established in these Ko-ki countries. Later on, these gradually grew large in number. Before the time of Vasubandhu, these were only of Sravakas … However, from the time of king Dharmapala on, there were in madhyadesa many students from these places. Their number went on increasing so that during the time of four Senas about half of the monks of Magadha were from Ko-ki. (Taranatha 1990)

The above accounts provide the rational argument that the term Kuki has been used to refer to the Kuki–Chin people since ancient times. Thus, the theory
of “Bengali origin” of Kukis as recent immigrants was nothing but an outcome of a superficial understanding of colonial writers on the matter. Moreover, the “Ko-ki country” as described by Taranatha (1990) found resemblance with the work of G A Grierson, Superintendent of the Linguistic Survey of India, who demarcated “Kuki Country” in 1904 (Grierson 1904).

Origin of the Kukis

According to oral accounts of the tribe as described by Shaw (1929), the Kukis believe they were first settled in subterranean dwelling under chief Chongja. Chongthu, the younger brother of Chongja, while on a hunting trip discovered the earth through a cavern called Khul or Sinlung. Upon his return to the village, he approached his brother-chief that he himself be allowed to annex the kingdom with some of his men. On receiving the approval from Chongja, Chongthu with some of his men proceeded to establish a new kingdom. When Chongthu and his team arrived at the earth’s surface they met Lunkim, Lenthang, Changsan and other teams who claimed themselves to be of celestial origin. Thus, the first village settlement came into existence on earth with Chongthu as the chief.

Till today there is no evidence to substantiate the location of the cavern called Khul. Several scholars claim the origin of the Kukis or the location of Khul to be somewhere in the Yunnan province of China (Carey and Tuck 1895). The proponents of the theory largely based their arguments on the migration that took place towards the south of Yunnan province to avoid the forced labour in the construction of the Great Wall of China. However, in the absence of any concrete evidence, the claim of Khul to be a place somewhere in China is “subjective and conjectural” (Gangte 2012).

Besides the Tibet–China origin theory, there are theories advanced that base the mythical Khul to be somewhere in the tri-junction of India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. Shaw (1929: 26), an official of the British government, describes Khul as the origin of “Gun” river in the present state of Manipur:

The hole in the earth called “Khul” is said to be at the source of the “Gun” river which I find to be definitely identified with the “Imphal” river in the Manipur State. In all the old stories and the legends of the Thadous [Kukis] the river “Gun” is frequently mentioned and is of great fame.

In concordance to Shaw’s writing, Phukan (1992: 10) contended:

The Kukis, for the matter, the Mizos, at least some of their tribes, had been living in North East India since the prehistoric time, and therefore, their early home must be sought in the hills of Manipur and the nearby areas rather than in Central China or the Yang-tze valley.

This particular theory was further substantiated by the report of Kuki Research Forum2 on the series of expeditions it carried out along the Indo–Myanmar Border areas in 2012, of which the Haosapi Cave3 of Chandel is one. The forum claims the possibility of the cave to be the mythological Khul in reference to the origin of the Kukis (TSE 2012). Though the argument requires further scientific evidence, there are possibilities of the claims being valid considering the population distribution of the Kukis around its geographical vicinity. From all of the above arguments, it is safe to conclude that the Kukis and the extent of their territory in the present form dates back to at least two millennia, as against the colonial understanding of their recent origin. In the wake of the claims made by Shaw (1929), Phukan (1992), and Kabui (1991), and further substantiated by the Pooyas and the report by the Kuki Research Forum on the possibility of the original “Khul” being located somewhere in the adjoining hills of India and Myanmar, the present article is partly an attempt to reconstruct the general understanding of the origin of the Kukis.

The contention of colonial writings of Kukis as “migrants” or “immigrants,” are not convincing as it does not take into consideration the varied accounts available in the region. Moreover, the accounts of Soppitt (1887), Johnstone (1896), Reid (1942), Shakespeare (1912) and McCulloch (1980) do agree that the Kukis “migrate.” However, none of them specifically mention any detailed accounts on the forms of migration. Furthermore, the majority of the reports on Kukis were taken from the officials under the Indian administration, posted in the Assam and Bengal frontier regions, making it appear that the Kukis migrated northward from the hypothesised Khul, located between the state of Manipur in India and the Chin state of Myanmar. On the other hand, the accounts of Kukis to the east and south of Manipur do not feature in any colonial writings. Generalising of the account of few individuals or groups as a case to explain the Kukis and their origin is, therefore, subjective and one-sided.

Further, the general argument of colonial writers that Kukis were “migrants from the south” (Shakespeare 1912) implies the migration to be strictly “unidirectional” in nature. The logic of the argument, however, is rather weak as the population of Kukis is equally strong to the east, south and west of Khul. From the assumed Khul, the Kuki settlement stretched approximately 300 kilometres to the east, west, north and south in the present day. This is an indication that Kukis migrated in a multidirectional pattern in the ancient past, as against the perception that they only migrated north in the 19th century.

In the following section, an attempt is made to explain the nature of the multidirectional pattern through the formulation of a “Wave Theory,” 4 and further correlate it with the Kukis’
migration history.

Patterns and History

Migration takes place differently under differing conditions and situations. As a result, there exists no commonly accepted model that explains the underlying issues of migration. The migration model being propounded here contends that the migration of human beings in the ancient past does not necessarily have a linear process influenced by push–pull factors, but also takes a multidirectional character. The term multidirectional character is meant to illustrate the migration taking place in a disperse manner from a particular area.

The wave model of migration was largely the character of a tribal society where basic needs of life and security were the main concerns of the people. The model basically contends that people do migrate in all directions from a single point, like a wave that is being experienced on a water body or that of any luminous object emitting light. Factors such as the availability of food, space, and other resources might be the reasons compelling people to migrate from a particular location to another, though there may exist no specific “pull” factors that drive people to move in a certain direction. Therefore, the wave model defines no definite reason for people to migrate in a certain way, as against modern theories that explain migration as being oriented towards achieving and enjoying the benefits of civilisation (Duncan 1940; Standing 1981).

Nevertheless it has to be understood that the present model does not guarantee absolute freedom as experienced in the vast sea. The wave model can always be affected by any obstructing factor during the movement. In ancient society, migration would take place as long as it overcame the onslaught of opposing or resisting forces. As such, it requires a strong organisational set-up to engage with it. Like the wave formation, human migration has experienced independent movement unless it has been resisted. Under certain circumstances, movement may stop or slow down owing to any resisting force on the ground. Thus, the migration of different groups in all directions does not necessarily maintain a rigid geographical distance from the point of origin.

The wave model is an excellent illustration to describe the migration patterns of the Kukis of North East India, Myanmar and Bangladesh. One remarkable feature of the wave theory in relation to the Kukis and their migration is the proximity it maintained to the Khul location. Assuming Khul to be located in the adjoining areas of India–Myanmar, the settlement of Kukis from all directions maintains equidistance to Khul. To the north, west and south of Khul, Kuki settlements stretched for approximately 300 kilometres, with a slight exception to the east where the more advanced Burmese presence is believed to have blocked the movement of the Kukis further eastward.

Still, migration comes with huge costs. Though it is not clearly known as to when migration does start among the Kukis, it can be assumed that it begins with the team of Songthu and his men moving out of Khul to annex this land thousands of years ago. Moving out from the mythical Khul, the extension and expansion of Kukis on land is believed to have been taken place in a gradual manner.

The gradual movement of Kukis in their respective convenience from the place of origin for centuries has left the people of the same ancestry widely disconnected from their commonness. The homogeneous character of people at “ground zero” wanes with time and migration. In the due course of migration, the attachment to certain norms and practices has to be sacrificed owing to the situation and the availability of resources. Therefore, people sharing a common ancestry do not always share common languages, customs and practices when such migration takes place. The Kukis, who once constituted a major power in the region, have now been divided into different groups, each trying to profess a distinct identity. The Chins of Myanmar, those identified as Mizo, Hrangkhawl, etc, in India, and Bawm, Pangkhua, Halam, and other cognate tribes of Bangladesh share a Kuki ancestry. In relation to the model, the intensity of the wave diminishes as it travels farther through time. At a certain point, there is a likelihood of the wave being lost if it undertakes a longer distance than it should. Resembling the wave movement entirely lost at sea after its maximum coverage, migration taking place without its limit will have negative consequences.

In Conclusion

Studies on migration have largely been inclined towards explaining the economic basis of the migrants in the contemporary settings. As such, studies on forms of migration in the ancient period have not received considerable attention in the past. This negligence could also be a result of the complexity involved in the study of societies that exhibit a wholly unique pattern. As the migration of every society in the ancient past has taken place under different settings, their intricacies can be lost in the generalisation of all migration with a particular theory. The unique nature of every society has considerably slowed the understanding of migration in the ancient world.

In studying the Kukis and their migration patterns, it has come into light that migration does take place in a multidimensional pattern from a particular geographical area. Owing to its peculiar form, employing economy-oriented, and push-and-pull migration models will serve little or no purpose in explaining the innate phenomenon of the migration of Kukis in the primordial past. Hence, it becomes more appropriate to study the pattern of the Kukis’ migration and build this wave theory thereon to explain it as well as other primal forms of migration taking place in the wave form.


1 This is the earliest known record that is believed to have been maintained by the Meiteis, another community that has settled alongside the Kukis.

2 Independent and not-for-profit, the Kuki Research Forum promotes and generates objective
research, discussions, and ideas on issues affecting the Kukis around the world. It was founded in 2009 and registered under the Government of Manipur.

3 The Haosapi Cave is one of the largest caves covered by the expedition, besides Songbuh cave and Senlung cave. Some people called it Haosabi cave, a corruption of the word.

4 Not to be confused with H O Beyer’s Wave Migration Theory of the Philippines. Beyer contented that the ancestors of the Filipinos came to the islands first via land bridges which would occur during times when the sea level was low, and differentiated these ancestors as arriving in different “waves of migration.” However, the validity of Beyer’s claim was questioned by scholars such as Fritjof Voss in 1976. Moreover, Bayer’s theory is specific to the Philippines and is inapplicable in the explanation of migration patterns of other groups.

Beyer (1883–1966) founded the Department ofAnthropology, University of Philippines and wasthe head of the department for 40 years (1925–54). He propounded the Wave Migration Theory.

Voss was a German scientist who studied the geology of the Philippines, and rejected the claim of Beyer’s Wave Migration Theory in 1976. His argument has been widely accepted in academic circles.


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Updated On : 12th Jul, 2019


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