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The Indo-Chinese frontiers, including both the mainland and insular parts of Southeast Asia, were once described by Heine-Geldern and Furer-Haimendorf as “megalithic culture.” This article explores, through an anthropological lens, the tradition of engraved steles in Burma’s Chin State. Given the stones’ relatively recent erection (ranging from the mid-19h century to the mid-20th century) and the interconnected role themes such as ancestrality, mobility, and territory played during their creation, the analysis will focus on the idea of those steles as belonging within the wider concept of a memorial space. The Chin standing stones highlight, due to the plurality of their appearances and their various roles, the exceptional diversity—linguistic, cultural, religious, and political—that characterizes the social landscape of Chin State. Whether or not the patterns of those engraved scenes are accompanied or not by written texts, they make for remarkable archives for historians as they are often the only tangible sources, or in situ archival documents, for society where an oral tradition still prevails. Art historians will try to assess the style and overall composition of the stones before attempting to decipher their artists. Moreover, anthropologists will more likely want to examine the relationship between the stones and the territory—in the context of clan segmentation and internationalizing migration dynamics.
The extreme social and linguistic diversity of Chin State, emphasized throughout the literature, has begun to overlap with an increasingly extended mobility. As seen within village and clan segmentations, urban migrations, Christian networks, economic expatriation, even where mobility becomes structural to chin subgroups, memorial art appears to be a major vector of social ties in ways that are both perennial and inconstant. Despite the colonial and dictatorial violence that plunged Burma into civil war, social—and, therefore, memorial—change is expressed less in terms of rupture than of metamorphosis. At the same time as new leaders emerge and clan membership disappears behind denominational affiliations, ancestry has tended to turn more and more into a memory exercise taken over by Christianity.