For a decade, a polygamous man brought fame and tourism to the lush and hilly state of Mizoram in northeast India as the patriarch of one of the world’s biggest families, fathering 94 children with 39 women.
And the man, Ziona, made headlines even in death. After he died on Sunday at 76, his grieving family – including 33 grandchildren – could not bring themselves to bury him.
“His wives couldn’t accept his death,” HC Vanlalruata, a freelance journalist who reported on the family in 2011 and made them famous, told VICE World News. “There was perhaps a belief that he might be resurrected.”
C Lalringthanga, the spokesperson of Ziona’s Christian sect, said Ziona’s body was still “warm” on Monday and the family didn’t feel ready to send him off.
But funeral preparations went ahead on Tuesday morning, amid what Vanlalruata described as a wave of grief and loud cries that could be heard from neighboring villages.
The death of Ziona, also known as Zionghaka and Pu Ziona, marked the end of an era for his home town.
Ziona was the head of a 2,500-member Christian sect and his family was often said to be the world’s largest, although the claim has been disputed and could not be verified by VICE World News.
The village, Baktawng, and the state relied on the tourism attracted by the Ziona family and their lilac-coloured house, which also served as a museum.
Ziona's lilac-coloured four-storey house called "Chhuan Thar Run" is a major tourist attraction in Mizoram. Photo: Richard Grange/ Getty Images
His death was announced by the state’s chief minister.
Lalringthanga, a member of Ziona’s sect since 2007, said Ziona’s health started deteriorating about a week before his death.
“He didn’t have COVID,” he said, “but he started vomiting and had severe diarrhoea. By the time we took him to the hospital he had passed.”
Vanlalruata, the journalist, added that Ziona was a “God-like” figure who made all the rules for his big family and polygamous sect called Pu Chana Pawl. The Mizoram state website says the sect is a breakaway group of the Presbyterian Church. Most of the state’s 1.3 million population is Presbyterian.
The sect was founded by Ziona’s grandfather in 1942. As the eldest grandson, Ziona took over the sect in 1997.
While no formal announcements have been made, Vanlalruata said two of Ziona’s sons are being considered as his successor.
Some of Ziona’s wives, with ingredients for an afternoon meal in 2011. Photo: Richard Grange/ Getty Images
Very little is known about Ziona, except that within his sect he encouraged education, cleanliness and volunteer work, and that he was allowed to have many wives.
Even though polygamy was outlawed in India for all religions except Islam in 1956, the family did not run into any legal troubles. In fact, local politicians often visited Ziona to court the 200 votes controlled by the family. A Washington Post report called Ziona a “kingmaker” in the region.
Ziona photographed in his bedroom with some of his wives in 2011. Photo: Richard Grange/Getty Images
For years, what went on inside the rooms of Ziona’s multi-storey home was the subject of lurid speculation.
“Rumours such as wives taking turns to sleep with Ziona made their way to the media,” Vanlalruata said.
But the journalist said that the family was extremely media-shy, “especially Ziona.”
“I never managed to interview him because he wasn’t talkative. Even his birthday speeches, which were lavish affairs with parades and celebrations, would have someone else address the crowd.”
“The truth is, we will never know what happens in that house.”
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