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Historical Evaluation of Puya Meithaba: A Contemporary Re-interpretation

By- Dr. Lokendra Arambam

The indigenous civilization the Manipuris developed throughout its history had a cataclysmic rupture in the early eighteenth century when the emerging world religion of Hinduism was enforced unto the unwilling Meitei population through the use of state power and violence. The burning of the sacred scriptures of the Meitei religion known later as ‘Puya Meithaba’ became a symbolic site for ideological and national reconstruction from the supporters of the indigenous non-Hindu religion (later termed Sanamahee worship), with profound impact on the social, political and cultural history of Manipur. The event of state intervention to adopt Ramandi as the official religion of the state, the desecration of native temples of the Umanglais, the oppression of the people in the wake of the conversion of the Meitei people into Hinduism, and the symbolic destruction of indigenous knowledge and philosophy, and forcible assimilation into the new structures and mores of the world civilization of Hindudom had ramifications in the later history of the Manipuri people. The events of the early eighteenth century had such impact on the historical experience of the people of Manipur that later movements for cultural identity and liberation struggles of the future non-state actors were solidly based on the rejection of the hegemonic intrusion of this world civilization, the Indianizing manouvres of the Brahmin classes newly emerging in the social structure, and behavioural and intersticial changes in social norms, practices and ritual forms ushered in through state power, thereby marginalizing non-Hindu faith and belief. All these were targets of attack and historical revenge by emergent non-state actors, who would seek a profound transformation of Manipur’s culture based on the simple strength, ingenuity and energy of the indigenous faith itself.
To have an objective, detached assessment of the events of the eighteenth century, and to describe the historicity of the minute events, and read into the minds of the persona, individuals, groups, institutions interacting in the tumultous periods in the nation formation of the Manipur people would have been a proper exercise for any student of history and culture. Though the noted historian Fustel de Coulanges had remarked. ‘We must judge the ancients in the light of their ideas and not ours’, we cannot but empathize with the present users of historical imagination to retrieve and re-invent ‘the usable past’ (Van Wyck Brook 1986) thereby ‘obviating the possibility of innocent history, but not the possibility of authentic history when it is actively imagined by its users. What is deemed usable is valuable, what is valuable is constituted according to specific cultural and personal needs and desires’ (Lois Parkinson Zamora 1997). Therefore, the use of the past event as a metaphor of contemporary struggle for resurgence and nation-remaking exercise is validated by the nature of emotions, passions and struggle involved in the past encounter between two civilizations - Indian and Meitei, and its reinterpretation in the light of cultural struggle for self-presentation and self­location in an era of armed conflict in contemporary times between the Indian state and non-state Meitei fighting for independence. This dialectical struggle between two civilizations is of profound importance in cultural discourse of the day. Scholars are of different viewpoints however, standing in binary dimensions of the divide. Some are of the positive character of Manipur civilization in the light of the synthesis between Indian and Manipur cultures while others are of deep distrust for the hegemonizing, cultural imperialistic hegemony of the Indian civilization over the Manipur people thereby blaming Indian culture for the predicaments of Manipur today. The burning of the sacred Puyas therefore is not simply an erasement of people’s faith, but a restructuring of the ontological being of an independent people into servile producers of a hybrid personality, reduction of a martial race into creative artists and sycophants. The struggle for liberation of Manipur from ‘Indian occupation’ therefore is not only a political struggle, but also a struggle for cultural self-definition in the wake of profound changes ushered by global forces. Nativism and revivalism is also another label over the non-emancipatory stalwarts of the indigenous faith, while the other hidden, unread discourse is about radical transformation of Manipur’s cultural evolution which should resist, and subvert strong forces of Indianizing elements of the oppressive Indian state.
The words ‘Indian’ and ‘Indianization’ are often used freely in the proposed reinterpretation of the cultural process. Many scholars of the near-recent past however preferred the concept of ‘Sanskritization’ and ‘Conversion of the Manipur people into Hinduism’ (G. Kamei, 1991). They would rather not use the word ‘Indian’ since this terminology rather became popular after colonial rule, though the Indie civilization and its corruption from etymological origins of Persian knowledge of the Hindu civilization are well known precepts. The word Sanskritization is avoided by this author, since, according to the formulator of this concept M.N. Srinivas, it rather meant a process of transformation of an indigenous society through the adoption of Sanskritic culture, yet with an attempt at upward mobility of that society or class or caste through emulation of a culture of a higher caste as a reference point (M.N. Srinivas 1956). The author would rather explain the internal transformation of Meitei society rather as an indigenous dynamic without a reference point of the higher culture elsewhere, and there was no massive re-orientation of social and cultural forms as is seen in Hindu-Meitei society today. Nor would the author use the term Hinduization of Meitei, but rather Meeteization of Hinduism as a concept on the strength of the indigenous culture itself, which did not indicate a total surrender of the society to the higher religion, but used the higher culture for indigenous needs of the day.
Before entering into this contemporary cultural discourse, it is apt to go back to the event in the early eighteenth century and refresh ourselves with the unfolding of the events and ask questions which might inform the processes of the historical dialectic and its development. A glance at the royal chronicles Cheitharol Kumbaba informs us that the accession to the throne by Meidingu Mayamba (alias Pamheiba) succeeding his father was in 1709 as a twenty year old. He became king at a certain point in Asiatic history, when nation states in South and Southeast Asia were in a period of great upheaval. In Southeast Asia, the new age was universally one of growth and expansion. The concomitant expansion of territorial frontiers, administrative control and economic activity was unprecedented. During the process, the rough outlines and the cultural and ethnic structuring of the future nation-states were imperceptibly settled.

The pre-occupation of both indigenous and colonial authorities (European empire builders in Southeast Asia) was primarily with the procurement of security and the management of scarce material and manpower resources for increased productivity and profit. Fulfillment of these aims was through the diverse methods of armed control, ideology, administrative ordering and improved communication. In the process, the Southeast Asian community moved into a period of transition leading into the modern era (Cambridge History of South East Asia, ed Nicholas Terling 1992).
Pamheiba, alias Garibniwaz was however a pre-modern ruler who unleashed the forces of Manipur’s energy thereby leaving the imprint of a great nation-builder and mover of the history of the Meitei nation into an empire, though his cultural and religious pre­dilections led to a critical cleavage in society and polity after his death. The transformation effected by his grandson Chingthangkhomba in the organization of the ethno-state was to become unique in Southeast Asian history.
Pamheiba, under unobstrusive, matter of fact entries in the chronicle, organized rituals of his dead father under indigenous norms, took care of the sick and poor by distributing paddy, sitting at an obvious theatrical out house (Khunjaoba Shang) along with his chief queen, went out into the realms of monarchical pleasure trips in villages and settlements (public relation exercises), sent out regular internal expeditions to bring recalcitrant tribes into order through his loyal colleagues and military officials, and organized innovations in the palatial structures and constructions, and entered into the ear-piercing ceremony at the age of twenty two. Regular boat races were public display of monarchical power in the months of August, and the impact of movements of tribes and communities were often regulated through physical action and punitive punishments. Coronation rites were exemplified through waging of war against tribes too. Frontier posts were often inspected through regular trips, and the ethnic communities at the periphery were assimilated, pacified for retention of the plural order, and the threat from the eastern and western frontiers were kept under surveillance. For the next few months were to reveal hitherto unrevealed forces of great confrontations amongst the nations, of which the ceaseless confrontations with the Myanmarese and the Bodos of Tripura etc. were to engage the historical energy of the Manipur people. Pamheiba’s military planning, construction of dykes and walls for defensive purposes and relentless aggressive moves with the swift cavalries for raids into enemy territory were to leave powerful markers in the national imagination of the Manipuri. For the eighteenth century was indeed a period of martial confrontation, and war was an accepted value system. Mass cremations of the dead in the conflict with extra-territorial enemies were the norm. Women did not weep or cry over the loss of husbands, which lent dignity to their personality. Married women could sometimes be enlisted by force into the royal harem, for which later moral guardians cast aspersion to the king (Gomati episode). Death by wives through the practice of Sati (after the conversion) were even ritualized easily, which however was reverted through core civilizational objections. What was important at that age was that the social energy of the people was moving forward into a period of great vitality and conflictual dynamism, which were met with deep grandeur, grace and capability of sacrifice! The martial race reached its zenith of splendour, and new demands were met on the aspirations for greatness, power and exuberance by the collective labour of the people. Why did the monarch then ushered in a period of mutual antimony, rupture and cleavage in society, and what were its effects remain a feature of great concern to students of history and culture today.
Simple entries by Cheitharol Kumbaba reflects the nature of intellectual and cultural transactions that were taking place in the corridors of power in the medieval state. Arrivals of Brahmin priestly classes were regular features since the fifteenth century, and conversion of the kings in different sects in the interpretation of Hinduism were often achieved through labourious processes of court intrigue, and favourable kitchen influences from the harem. Open debates at the Pongbeipham (native Darbar) were regular features, and the native intellectual tradition led by the wisdom teacher Lourembam Khongnangthaba was at the height of its maturity and fulfillments through production of indigenous knowledge for more than a hundred years since the days of Khagemba (1606-1652 AD). The extent of production of religious scriptures, the philosophical tenets and ritual systems of the pre- Hindu Sanamahee religion were at its quantum best, and the grace, wisdom, mystic powers and visionaire presence of the wisdom teachers lend to the character of the native civilization a distinct generosity, strength and self-sufficiency of the indigenous culture.
Why then was Pamheiba becoming a sudden enemy of the people? What were the principle motive factors for his lending ears to the so-called ‘insinuations’ of the Tantric priest from Shyllet who reached Imphal in 1716 AD (arrival date is controversial) Santadas Goswami has now become the villain of the drama behind the personal transformation of the monarch, and people at the villages and nooks and corners of the state have become familiar with the intrigues of this priest, through popular dramas and touring theatres since the middle of the twentieth century. As scholars of culture and religion of Manipur had indicated, Pamheiba was a convert into the newly emerging cult of Shiva worship through one teacher called Gangadhar, probably in the Madhavcharya School of Vaishnavism (M. Kirti 1980), while in 1717 he was converted into the Bairagi Chaitanya School through Gopal Das (G. Kamei 1991). In 1720, Guru Gopal Das returned to his native place and Shanta Das Goswami became the main perceptor and advisor to the king, more forcefully since the twenties of the eighteenth century. Ramandi was introduced as the state cult in 1720 AD.

The entries at the Cheitharol Kumbaba recording the actions of the monarch mention a systematic exercise of state power to erase the cultural memory of the people, and establishment of the ritual forms and practices under the new tenets of the Indian religion. In he was still constructing the Krishna temples as well as the Kalika temples (1717?), and inaugurated the Krishna temple with pomp and splendour. The first forceful step towards the Ramandi religion was perhaps the prevention of meat-eating by the seven clans, and the prohibition of domestication of pig and poultry in the interior of village households, and in 1723, there was the official declaration of the rejection of the indigenous Umanglai deities and destruction of their abodes. In Nov 1723, Brahmin priests were allowed to serve the native deities namely Lainingthou Nongshaba, Yimthei Lai, Panthoibi and Taibang Khaiba (Lord Sanamahee). In 1724, there was the ritual cremation of ancestors according to new precepts at the banks of the Chindwin river, and the new cremation system introduced by Shanti Das became the mortuary rite norm. Also the start of addressing the king as Maharajah was made at this year. In 1725, Gomati (Wahengbam chanu Paikhu Lanthabi) became the chief queen. In 1726, the first incident of the priest Shanta Das participating physically in war preparations were seen in construction of the Prum Pan. The Ningthem Pukhri was also dug at this year through collective labour. Krishna and Kalika deities were transferred at this site since then. The nine Umanglais were buried at the Mongbahanba site (Mahabali) in June 1726. Destruction of the temples of the indigenous deities of Layingthou, Panthoibi, Laiwa thiba, two Lammapis, (Mayengbam and Leishangthem), Soraren, Hoidon Pokpi etc. were effected. In 1727, the Guru physically supervised construction of market sheds at Shallungthen. The Shingjamei bridge was constructed by him at this year. He also physically participated at the war against the Tripuris (Takhel) during the year. He again with the monarch went into the punitive expeditions against the Marring tribes, as well as against the Shairem tribes. In June 1728, the stone from the market was pulled towards the Mongbahanba site to erect the statue of Hanuman. During this period the crisis in the destruction of the iron statue of Lord Sanamahee had its ramifications and the king undertook the restoration of the statue of the Lord in 1729. Along with the restoration of the native deity however, there was the ritual ablution of both the priest and king at Lillong which was a collective acknowledgment of the official contract between king and people for acceptance of the new faith for seven generations (Nongkhrang Iruppa). Sacred thread wearing ceremony was undertaken by the king through the priest. And finally in Oct 1732, the burning of the sacred scriptures were effected with ritual precision and care. The use of the elephant procession to collect native literature was important since monarchical power, imperial authority and royal magnificence was theatricalized to project the farewell to the thousand years of indigenous knowledge and philosophy, and the floodgates to the western door was opened. Some one hundred twenty sacred books on religion, ritual and philosophy were burnt. Incidentally the burning of the Puyas were effected by the British colonial power in 1891, after the defeat of the Manipuris as well (B. Kulachandra, 1995).

What is the cultural and political significance of this momentous event is history? Is it similar to the near recent destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, which began another chapter in the cleavage in Indian society in the fag end of the twentieth century? Is the act of the monarch purely a result of sheer manipulation of wills by a crafty Brahmin priest, which is normally the assumptions of the gullible contemporary public, or was it a deeply concerned, radical action taken by a powerful personality at the height of his intellectual and mental powers? A careful consideration of the unreported inter-relation of forces beneath the seeming flow of events and meticulous rerecording of the social and political compulsions, along with the world view of the eighteenth century Manipur population would be necessary to unearth the reality behind the historic event.

From personal history of Pamheiba’s growth, maturity and pre-dilections as he ascended the throne, we are aware that the court in which he grew was an environment of liberal thought and behaviour, which enabled the representatives of Sanskritic culture to have access to patronage, the inner realms of decision making in the chamber of the queens, as well as the freedom to engage in rituals and ceremonies in the religious establishments patronized by the court. At the same time with tremendous agricultural expansion from domestic cultivation as well as rampages in outlying territories under a martial economy, the royal power had substantial surplus to spend on lavish ceremonies, constructions of buildings and temples and grants of land to the beneficiary Brahmins. The fluid movement of tribal and ethnic populations, the necessity to impress royal authority required extra-theatrical dimensions of power and exhibit the body of the monarch on occasions of public celebrations. Control over population, and not on possession of land was rather the principal focus of the ethno-state, and the relationship with people and populations could only be secured through control over the rituals and rites which ensured the link of the subordinate realms in cosmological relationship with the forces governing the polity. The ritual theatre state (Clifford Geertz 1966) which was an embodiment of power exercise in medieval Southeast Asia, which rationalized authority relations in a cosmic world view based on ancestral beliefs and practices were heightened with the novel system of rites and regulations which the Hindu world view could enhance. It was therefore not as much a story of personal devotion to the supreme authority or Godhood which impressed the ruler of the expanding realm, but rather the building of power and hierarchy and enhancing of personal authority of the king which attracted the religion of the other in the fast changing world of political fluctuations in the pre-modem Manipur which induced personal conversions into the same. The indigenous, communally oriented tribalistic religion alone was found wanting in the environment of war, political confrontation and clashes of world civilizations and cultures.

It is therefore the developing concept of God-king (Lainingthou) as an indigenous philosophy embellished by Hindu rituals and practices which propelled the Manipur kings since the seventeenth century to experiment conversion into various sects and practices of Hinduism to meet internal political and social needs. The Devaraja concept of Kampuchea, which was an indigenous Southeast Asian concept of kingship based on ancestral traditions led to enhancement of the powers of the king as well as later deification of the rulers that the king himself became equated with God. The king, with an installation of the shiva linga on his coronation, became equated with the great god of ancient Cambodia (Nidhi Auesrivongse 1976). The divine right of the kings of Southeast Asia to rule over the realms of people and populations were accentuated with rites and rituals emanating from the cultural sources of Sanskrit and Indie philosophy.

Pamheiba himself modelled his own actions and behaviour on the principles exuded from Rama, the prince of Ayodhya. It was here that we have to undertake the enquiry into the thought processes of medieval rulers and their psycho-biological associations with the Hindu divinities. In the words of Frank E. Reynolds ‘For the most part, these Hindu crystallizations set the story of Rama in a primordial time situated at or near the beginning of the present eon when the gods are very much involved in human affairs and the character of the world as we know it is just being established. At a certain moment, the proper order in the cosmos and society is challenged by a counter-availing force that threatens to disrupt the world with injustice and disharmony. In order to prevent this situation from getting out of hand, a prominent god (usually Vishnu) becomes incarnate in the person of Rama, a prince of a northern kingdom usually identified with the city of Ayodhya in northeastern India. In his incarnation as Rama, Vishnu in surrounded by a host of companions and helpers, many of whom are themselves embodiments or descendants of members of the Hindu pantheon - although the particular deities and the relationships involved vary significantly from one account to another. In some Hindu versions Rama and his companions are presented in a way that highlights Rama’s divinity and thus evokes devotion directed toward him. In other versions Rama and his companions are depicted as semidivine exemplars who embody the virtues that Hindus are expected to cultivate. In still other versions a greater degree of moral ambiguity is evident (Paula Richman Ed 1994).

Reading into the first attempt by Manipuri literati in the eighteenth century to translate the Rama story Pamheiba encouraged the version of the fall of Birbahu (Birbahu Tuba) to be rendered into semi-archaic Manipuri. Two scribes in the court Murari and Angom Gopi were commissioned to do the translation from Kirtibasa’s original version (M. Gourachandra 1984) probably in 1713 AD In the text however two authors are self-mentioned-a Langmaithem Baisnaki and Moirangthem Padmasing. Here in the narrative of the fall of Ravana’s son, Rama is depicted as the hero of righteous action, and a deliverer of justice, which perhaps impressed the monarch of Manipur. Rama is the one whose story if listened to properly propitiates sins and for those who are just the life and actions are further blessed. Even listening to the Rama storv. those barren women would be blessed with children. To hear a chapter from Ramayana is equivalent with the fruits secured from the ‘ Aswamedha Yajna itself, when, the horse, released for sacrifice, relieves the sacrificer of his burdens and sins. The Ramayana is therefore a sin-relieving, blessedness giving story (L. Arambam 1991).

Though Pamheiba is suspected to have self-glorified his achievements, his valour in war and conquest and his generosity towards the poor under Indianized concepts of polity governance, he was however conscious of the omnipotence of his household deity, the Lord Sanamahee, whom Shantadas Goswami was learnt to have accepted as his God Vishnu himself. The context of the conversion into Hinduism and structural transformation of Meitei society therefore was always accompanied with the anchorage provided by the native religion, and in the early eighteenth century, probably the structural assimilation between the two cultures were not theorized or systematized. It was probably in the later eighteenth century during the rule of his grandson Chingthangkhomba that a philosophical readjustment of the two religions took place, and the concept of the Godking which was a developing phenomenon undertook a radical transformation when Bhagyachandra accepted the Lord Govinda (equated with the ancestral Pakhangba) as king. The core principles of assimilation between the two cultures were systematically restructured by the spiritually oriented monarch who relieved himself of the task of governance and undertook the cultural theorizing of the Indianization process. Earlier he balanced the outside cultural influences in equal status with the collective self, and the indigenous elements was accepted at par with the incoming culture. Only the establishment however of a Brahmasabha at the social spectrum with increasing search for hierarchy and status under Hindu principles led to the gradual restructuration of Hindu society in Manipur, which became oppressive in colonial times. It must be understood also, that Bhagyachandra relegated the God Rama as senapati in the cosmic hierarchy while Govinda (and Pakhangba) was placed at the centre, whereas his grandfather had Rama in the centre of the Pantheon itself. Necessary wars of liberation had to be fought inspite of changes in world view and cosmological concept.

All these events and historic events had extensive fall outs which perhaps shaped the future history of the people and the state. Pamheiba’s tumultous events, his glorious confrontations with the rising Burmese empire, his interventions in the politics of the upper Shan principalities to fight against the Burmese power, his depredations over the Kabaw valley, his relations with Tripura and other extra-territorial powers were of the most exemplary character which led the imprint of the national formation of the Manipuri people. His wars were substantially helped in execution and implementation by the ethnic communities in the peripheral frontiers of the region. He left a territorial legacy extensively beyond the present boundaries of the state, which marked the substantial martial energy of these racial categories in a plural order.

The presence of the Indian elements in the social structure was however to change the character of Manipur society in the years to come. The eighteenth century Brahmin presence was of a phenomenal nature, for Shantadas Goswami was no ordinary preceptor who would content himself with traditional priestly role of presiding over rituals and thriving on royal munificence. He would rather be a social and developmental activist, as well as a pro-active participant in the military struggle of the Manipur people. He participated in the war himself, and many Brahmin warriors were enlisted in the military arm of the state, some rising in ranks. Shantadas Goswami was also responsible for the marginalization of the indigenous institution of the Maichou (wisdom teacher). Since the withdrawal of Lourembam Khongnangthaba from the public affairs of the state, there was no longer the tradition of the indigenous philosopher. All subsequent scholars the state produced were focussed on the studies of astrology and as advisors on the auspiciousness of time and events, and not on the vision of the people as a whole and as philosopher of conscience, which Khongnangthaba held. The death of the indigenous intellectual tradition could not be retrieved since then, which reflected a serious crisis in the ontological history of Manipur’s cultural strength.

Shantadas Goswami also helped in the development of the concept of the body of the king as the rationalized icon of power and glory, which was attested by Pamheiba’s acceptance of the title of Maharajah, and his being equated with God and territory as Manipureswar (God of Manipur), or Meckleyswar (Lord of Meckley). It was during his influence as close advisor to the king replacing Khongnagthaba that the theatrical magnificence of the body of the king as displayed over the public as symbol of divinity and power were accentuated to the extreme, to meet the rising needs of war and aggression, as well as authoritarian governance. The necessities of the martial culture to focus on individual persona of the leader as the deliverer of justice and dignity became a concern not only amongst the siblings from the multi-layered family system, but ideological conflict from religious affiliation and strong resistance from the Meetei believers in the dynastic system led to more than fifty years of internecine strife and violence. The state violence which was perpetrated in the wake of the forcible conversion led to intra-societal violence within the lineage and clan networks and the Post-Pamheiba episode was of tremendous crisis in the elite leadership in Manipur society. Pamheiba himself and his Guru encountered violent deaths, as wont the internal crisis built up on the foundations of Indianism perpetrated during the regime.

The Indianization process and its institutionalization was featured not only on the structural modification of the societal and kinship structures, re-invention of the history of the royal lineage in a mythical relationship with the heroes of the Indian epics, and with the cosmic world designed under Hinduized principles, but also a far more physicalized disciplining of the Manipuri body through a systematic control over the deitary habits of the peasant population. To have a regulatory exercise over the food habits of the Manipuri people, which began with Pamheiba’s prohibition of the eating of pork and chicken, but strict vegetarianism enforced by Bhagyachandra was not simply a regulatory conditioning exercise under sanct religious scruples, but as attempt to have a ‘transformation of emotion and affect, so that the individual was expected to control his or her bodily behaviour through norms that implied a new consciousness’ (Bryan S. Turner 1992). This process of Indianization therefore involved ‘a training of emotion and a reduction of collective excitement in the interests of the centralized court affiliated to the higher culture’, which meant operation of the Weberian and Foucoultian thesis of the disciplining of the body for ideological purposes (vide Weber & Foucoult). The Indianization process was therefore a multifaceted, multi­pronged appropriation and control over the native bodies, emotions, thoughts, cultures and possessions to transform the original people into an ‘other’ in history.

What was the most important character in the Indianization process was the claim of the higher culture over the geography of the authochthons. The claim over the land and geography of Manipur, the naming of the place itself as a place in the epic story of the Mahabharata was a cultural imperialist project of appropriation over land and geographical imagination of the native. The acceptance of their own land as being the part of other people’s history is the vital moment of colonialized servitude, ‘inaugurated by the loss of locality to the outsiders’ (Edward Said 1993). In the very words of Edward Said, the theorist of cultural anti-imperialism, ‘Imperialism after all is an act of geographical violence through which every space in the world is explored, charted, and finally brought under control. For the native, the history of colonial servitude is inaugurated by loss of locality to the outsider; its geographical identity must thereafter be searched for and somehow restored. Because of the presence of the colonizing outsider, the land is recoverable at first only through the imagination’ (E. Said 1993). Anti-imperialist resistance which evolved in the future therefore was the focus on the retrieving of the geography of the land, when an appropriate name for the place was fought for with intensity and passion by the natives of the soil (viz the struggle over the name of Kangleipak).

It is here that Hinduized populations in contemporary geography of the world react in varying proportions to the spread and practice of Hinduism. Whereas in Bali in Indonesia, the Hindu populations live with pride and dignity with proper cultural synthesis because of the non-possession of their land by the source-holder of Hindu civilization, i.e. India, but in Manipur the hold over the territory and population by the ‘Indian civilizing process’ is associated with violence and suppression thereby lending deep credence to the Saidian theory. The ownership over the land and territory by the proponents of the higher culture, the claim over the geographical imagination of the indigenous people, the incorporation of the geography, history and originary impulses and emotions of the people are therefore clear examples of the imperialistic project in South Asia, from which the historical necessity for reclaiming of land, territory and culture became a compulsive engagement for the decolonizers of the land which is part of a global phenomenon today. The culture discourse is therefore is much deeper than what is normally felt and perceived by the contemporary academia of the Universities.

General patterns of the Indianization of Manipur and Northeast India who had primordial Southeast Asian cultures were somewhat different from those of other Southeast Asian nations affected by the same cultural influences. The concept of Indianization was popularized by Indian and western cultural historians in the early twentieth centuries. There were however differing interpretations of the historic influences themselves, and on the nature of responses by the receiving cultures as well, according to particularities and specificities of the varied communities and nations. R.C. Mazumdar, in his thesis of a Greater or Further India in cultural terms perceived the advancement of trade, colonization or conquest theories, even though Indian sources did not provide evidence of a colonizing process in South East Asia…..C.C. Berg argued that Indianization was the result of conquest and settlement and inter-marriage and N.J. Krom, in his Hindu-Javanese History, saw it as a result of expansion of Indian trade and consequent settlement and inter-marriage. On the other hand, Paul Mus in 1933, theorized on the existence of a common, primordial substratum of belief and culture in both Indian and Southeast Asian societies. Thus, when Hinduism and Buddhism became, as it were, available, there was a local basis in Southeast Asia for the acceptance of the beliefs and for their absorption into the local totality of beliefs. J.C. Van Leur, however in 1934 insisted that Indian influence in Southeast Asian, and subsequently that of Islam, powerful though they may have been, were nevertheless comparatively superficial when seen in the context of the societies they were affecting - ‘a thin and flaking glaze’ under which the main form of an older indigenous culture continued to exist.

........................ Indian influence (according to Van Leur) was a court matter and the process, in consequence, could only have been one of deliberate borrowing by South East Asian rulers seeking ideas, rituals and organization, not an example of general cultural diffusion. The view that foreign influences did not transform indigenous culture but were a thin and flaking glaze imposed on it, followed from the idea of local initiative.

......................... Inspite of the growing conviction carried by these arguments (Leur’s & Bosch’s thesis etc.), the idea of Greater India had considerable staying power and was re-affirmed in the synthethizing work of Coedes in 1944 (L’Inde Exterieure). He saw Indian influence as manifested not through conquest or colonization, but initially through trade; thus laid the foundation for the subsequent transmission of the higher culture associated with the development of indigenous kingdoms able and ready to receive, or to take an initiative in acquiring Indian conceptions of royalty, the sacred language of Sanskrit and the prescriptions of Hinduism (Cambridge History of South East Asia V.I - ed Nicholas Terling 1992).


These theoretical formulations are cited just to throw some comparative light on the general patterns of Indian connections with Southeast Asia. All these studies however were extensively revised by later scholars of the western universities and local scholars in the post World War II periods, which emphasized shifts from earlier Indo-centric and Euro­centric studies to a far more original focus on the strength and originality of the local cultures themselves. In the early sixties Harry J Benda laid the foundation for addressing the ‘structure of Southeast Asian history as distinct from the mere charting of dynastic circles or the chronicling of wars, as ends in themselves’. ‘He sought to establish a periodization based not merely on political developments but on major structural changes in the social, economic and political relationships of the region. J.H. Romein urged historians of Southeast Asia to adopt a comparative approach as a means of developing a more systematically scientific method and of coming to grips with such processes as nationalism, revolution and social change in Asian societies’ (Cambridge History of South East Asia V.I - ed Nicholas Terling 1992). The focus on the autonomy of South East Asian History was thus a compelling intellectual move. O. W. Wolters ‘Confronted the Indianization question more directly in a consideration of the processes by which Hindu influences were received in Cambodia, ‘he introduced the idea of‘localization’ to characterize the way in which external influences might be absorbed into the local scene restated in a local idiom where a local-external antithesis becomes irrelevant’ (Smith & Watson 427). Mabbett also emphasized the lack of a single homogeneous ‘India’, and that, in India itself, ‘Sanskritization, was uneven and patchy (Cambridge History of South East Asia V.I - ed Nicholas Terling 1992).

The Indianization process in Manipur was a prolonged interaction between cultural carriers of the two entities with unique manifestations in the social and political milieu of the times. The similarities with the other Southeast Asian nations were in the nature of the reception by local centres of power who utilized the philosophies, texts and ritual systems as necessitated by the developing internal logic of polity expansion and theatricalization of authority. Internal needs for transformation of the indigenous ritual systems to incorporate other cultural forms to meet the cosmic and mundane requirements of the growing polities were earlier features of the invitation to the other culture and assimilation of the interacting influences. Local idioms of a strong aesthetic character developed in the performance forms, which acted as instruments of political co-hesion and ritual control. The earlier phase of Indianization in the eighteenth century was notable in the sense that the local polity was able to negotiate with the incoming culture in their own terms without a hegemonistic, authoritarian presence of the mainstream source in the receiving culture area. However, the surrender of the geographical imagination of the natives by ideological attachment to the pan-Indian mythologies, and the relentless drive by the priestly literati to hierarchy and power under royal patronage, the resulting divide in the social structure, and later political and social movements to destroy the source of local authority in politics and culture led to another shift in the Indianization process in the early twentieth century. The loss of the independence status through defeat in the Anglo-Manipur war of 1891, the destruction of the indigenous elite, the development of a servile social order, and the growth of an apologestic middle class and the ascent of political and business intrigue from the crafty colonial subjects, and physical and geographical integration into the Empire, along with submersion of the seemingly ‘subsistence economy’ in the colonial umbrella led to structural changes in the Indianization process. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the colonialized subjects of Manipur were substantially Indianized.

All these were strongly affirmed by acceptance of the Aryan thesis of the origin of the Meiteis, the consolidation of the Hindu orthodoxy in early twentieth century Manipur society, and proliferation of the ritual forms in the rites of passage of the converted, and complete restructuration of social and political movements under the direction of the nationalist movements in mainstream India pre-dominated the actions, behaviour and thought processes of the upper strata in Manipur society. The gradual unfoldment of the oppressive, exploitative and manipulative character of the bearers of Indian culture were discovered much later through the physical experiencing of geographical, political and economic integration into the mainstream, which was made sharper and more violent through the intrigues of political administrators and business classes from Indian society. The relegation of decision making authority to the ‘other’ in the far-distant powerful centre after post-integration hastened the movement for self-realization and retrieval of the lost identity of the Manipuris. The movement from 1930 onwards for re-assertion of cultural identity had to be re-oriented with a much more scientifically designed, and comprehensively structured movement for self-location and self-assertion and self-apprehension, commensurate with the demands of global developments. The present however is a milieu of crisis, confrontation and disarranged amalgam of emergent forces, without a clear perception of contemporary cultural and concomitant realities. The pain and suffering, the devastation of indigenous knowledge, the strong undercurrent of forcible re-assimilation into the complex features of pan-Indianism, and the powerful presence of the instruments of an oppressive Indian state provide the milieu of contemporary predicaments of Indianization. The formulation of a Manipur affirmation, the re-Manipurinization of Manipur and the restructuring of a counter-culture able to subvert these strong repressive forces accompanying cultural forms of dominance however need a much more deeper self-reflection and refined movement or renaissance. Simple reminiscence of a lost memory of the burning of indigenous knowledge is not enough. The recovery of that lost knowledge for a transformed reality of social and political emancipation is the need of the day.



Last modified onMonday, 16 July 2018 17:47

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