One of the traditional attires worn by women in Mizoram state of northeast India is the dress called “puan”. Puans have always been an intrinsic part of the Mizo wardrobe. After Mizo people progressed from the “siapsuap” (a grass skirt) to fabric clothing, puan became a garment worn by both genders.
It was simply worn wrapped around the body under the arms. Other types of puans were also woven and used as bedding and shawls. By the 20th century, men wore puans very rarely, since trousers had become fashionable and popular. However, women kept the use of puan though it now was worn sarong-style, wrapped around the waist with a blouse on top, a practice which is retained till today.
Until the last decade of the 19th century, cotton, grown among the other crops, was collected carefully, ginned and spun out with the help of indigenously made tools to produce yarn for weaving puans. This was done on simple loin looms (puanbu) which enabled them to weave cloth usually not broader than thirty inches. For one puan two such pieces had to be sewn together. A puan is normally about fifty five to sixty inches in length and forty eight inches in breadth.
Since the traditional way of weaving is time-consuming and strenuous, it is natural that handwoven puans are much more expensive than the machine-made ones, which has further contributed to the decline in their popularity despite their higher quality.
The most well-known and intricate of the Mizo puans is the “puanchei”. Used in festive dances and other special occasions, it is the most prized possession of a Mizo woman. Interestingly, even in present times, a woman does not get married without a puanchei.
More than 30 varieties of puans exist today, with different tribes having their own versions, each differentiated by their motifs and stripes to mark cultural significances. Patterns like ginger flower, stars, roses, tiger’s skin etc. are traditionally woven.
Within Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, laudable efforts have been made to teach youngsters this art, by making weaving a compulsory part of the school curriculum. However, it is strongly felt that efforts must be made on a larger scale to promote and preserve the art of weaving. Puans, after all, serve as a repository of the history and culture, the lores and the folkways of the Mizo people in ways that are aesthetically pleasing and practically useful.