A polygamous man from northeast India whose dozens of wives and scores of children turned his family into a tourist attraction has died at the age of 76, the government has said.
Pu Zionnghaka, also known as Ziona Chana, was the patriarch of a religious sect dubbed the “Mizoram Mormons” after the name of their small state in India’s northeast.
Mizoram’s chief minister said the resident of Baktawng Tlangnuam village died due to health complications relating to diabetes and high blood pressure.
Chana was the leader of minor Christian sect that is known across the state for its tradition of polygamy. The sect, named the Chana Pawl, was founded by his grandfather Khuangtuaha in 1942.
The chief minister of Mizoram, Zoramthanga, tweeted: “With heavy heart, #Mizoram bid farewell to Mr Zion-a (76), believed to head the world’s largest family, with 38 wives and 89 children.”
He added: “Mizoram and his village at Baktawng Tlangnuam have become a major tourist attraction in the state because of the family. Rest in Peace Sir!”
Chana passed away around 3pm on Monday at a private hospital in the state capital Aizawl, the family told the media.
Dr Lalrintluanga Zahau, director of the Trinity Hospital in Aizawl, told the Press Trust of India: “Zion-a was suffering from diabetes and hypertension. He was undergoing treatment at his residence in Baktawng village for three days. But his condition deteriorated and he was rushed to the hospital, where doctors declared him brought dead.”
The sect leader, who also had 36 grandchildren according to some reports, was born in 1945 and married his first wife, Zathiangi, at the age of 17. He married his last wife – number 38 – in 2004.
Chana’s entire family lives in a four-storey building called “Chhuan Thar Run” or “New Generation Home” in Baktawng Tlangnuam, about 70km from Aizawl, the local Ukhrol Times newspaper reported.
Over the years, Chhuan Thar Run drew visitors because of both the family’s non-traditional structure and their remarkable living arrangements.
While all Chana’s husbands and daughter-in-laws lived at Chhuan Thar Run, in keeping with traditions across the rest of India, his daughters would move away after marriage to live with their husbands’ families.
In 2014, local media reported that the family was featured in an advertisement for a leading dishwashing brand. The actress Sakshi Tanwar, brand ambassador for the dishwashing soap at the time, described the experience of shooting with the family in Mizoram as “special”.
“I couldn’t believe that a family can have 160 members [the family has more than 180 members now] until I met the lovely people from Ziona Chana’s household,” she was quoted as saying. “I was so surprised to see the quantity of food they need to cook on a daily basis and the sheer number and size of vessels that the women must wash every day.”
The Chana Pawl sect extends beyond the Chana family, and is estimated to have about 2,000 members across Mizoram. They celebrate their founding day, also known as the “Bawkte Kut” or “the festival of the hut” on 12 June every year.
Chana had a bedroom on the ground floor of Chhuan Thar Run where he took turns sleeping with his many wives. The wives reportedly followed a rota to decide whose job it was to attend to him on any given day.
The Times of India, in 2013, reported that Ziona Chana celebrated his 68th birthday by staging an elaborate series of community feasts, with religious songs and dances and military-like parades.
In 2012, Chana told the Mirror that “I consider myself a lucky man to be the husband of 39 women and head of the world’s largest family.” There were conflicting reports about the exact number of his wives. The BBC and chief minister Zoramthanga said he had 38, while others reported 39.
Chana was aware of the attraction his family had become and built a “khualbuk” or guesthouse for visitors who travelled to his village to meet them – though he is said to have never greeted any tourists himself.
Local reports said that the family had also been featured twice in “Ripley’s Believe it or Not”.
A 2019 anthropological study titled “Escaping Prophets in Zomia: The Sect of Ziona” by Vanlalpeka of the Department of History, Academy of Integrated Christian Studies, Senate of Serampore College in Mizoram, mentions that the Ziona Chana’s family is “ranked by the Guinness Book of World Records as the biggest family in the world”.
The study says the family is also referred to as the “Mormons of Mizoram” due to the “close resemblance of the community with that of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints,” according to the study.
The author states that “eligible brides actually pleaded to marry him and sometimes the parents of the bride encouraged the matrimonial tie. There were instances in which he tied the knot with a number of brides together at a time. The brides of such cases are exclusively from their own community, known as Chhuanthar Church (Church of New Generation)”. It mentioned that “Ziona is ever ready and open for more matrimonial alliances”.
A December 2020 Pew Research Centre study says that “only about 2 per cent of the global population lives in polygamous households, and in the vast majority of countries, that share is under 0.5 per cent per cent”.
The study goes on to say that: “Polygamy is banned throughout much of the world, and the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which has said that ‘polygamy violates the dignity of women,’ called for it to be definitely abolished wherever it continues to exist.”
Many of the countries that permit polygamy have Muslim majorities, though the practice remains rare in many of them, the Pew study found. “Fewer than 1 per cent of Muslim men live with more than one spouse in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran and Egypt – all countries where the practice is legal at least for Muslims.”
The study adds that “polygamy is most common in places where people, and particularly men, tend to die young”.
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