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Role of oral history in building communal harmony in Manipur

Oral history helps in building the history of a community or group of people. Oral history may comprise myths, legends and actual historical events. James H. Morrison, in the essay called ‘Global Perspective of Oral History in Southeast Asia’, wrote “all societies have a history and all history begins as oral.”
There are still today many groups of people who do not yet have a written history. However, these societies have their own oral histories. Oral history encompasses the accounts of the origin and historical materials related to their culture, community, lifestyle, etc., although it is difficult to ascertain the dates of the events. Even when there are written histories or chronicles, many accounts of history are found in the oral histories even though they are not mentioned in the chronicles. In many of the royal chronicles, like the ones in Manipur, only those of events are written down which have the assents of the kings and rulers, and thus lots of events are omitted. The wishes, sufferings, aspirations of the general population and other events that take place at the social levels are mostly not included. Thus, some folklorists have coined the term “Palace Paradigm” for those kinds of histories that are written with the sanction of the rulers which are ‘palace-centric.’ Therefore, in order to get a fuller picture of the history of a land, one should study both the written chronicles along with the oral history available.
Sometimes similarities are found between oral history and written history of a society; however, there could be conflict between the two also. The written history in the form of chronicles written with state sanction, tend to exclude or modify those accounts that could be damaging to the prestige of the king or the ruler. On the other hand, oral history is the first hand account of the events as they take place and they survive through the generations by word of mouth. Accounts of such events persist in the oral form in secret or in the open and later there could be conflict between the two versions of history. For example, there is one event connected to King Pamheiba which we know from oral history, but is not mentioned in the Cheitharol Kumbaba or Ningthourol Lambuba. These two chronicles are written by sanction of the palace. It is said that King Pamheiba forcefully took a woman as his wife by killing her husband. This account represents Pamheiba as a dictatorial king who would do anything to get what he wants. However, Cheitharol Kumbaba and Ningthourol Lambuba do not make any mention of this event anywhere. This does not necessarily mean that oral accounts are not true. In fact there are lots of instances of the presence of accepted evidence and events that goes along with oral history that certainly makes it profoundly important to study it in order to get a bigger picture of the history of a society. With this fact in mind, the oral history of the different communities of Manipur is being studied to find out the similarities and trace commonness in the origin of these communities.
If the population of Manipur is divided on the basis of the topography of the land, we can see that there are two types of populations – those living in the hills (Chingmee) and those living in the plain (Tammee) in the middle of the state, also called the Imphal valley. There are evidences that the plain area was filled with water in the ancient times and the people lived only in the hills surrounding the valley as they were higher and dry. As the central area filled with water began to dry, some people from the surrounding hill region came down to stay in the dry valley. Although it is not known which group of people settled first in the valley, it is evident from the oral literature and the written chronicles and manuscripts that the general Meetei community, which is an amalgamation of seven clans, has stayed the longest in the valley. That the present Meetei community once lived in the hills around the Imphal valley can be known from the fact that many of the important places of sacred worships are located in the hills surrounding the valley and the story of legends related to these places of worship.
The written history of Manipur starts with accounts from 33 AD when Pakhangba became the king of the Ningthouja clan and started his reign from Kangla. The unification of the clans started during his time. During the reign of King Pamheiba (1709-1748 AD) the name ‘Manipur’ was given to this land. Cultural and religious differences between the chingmees and the tammees, and also among the tammees began to take root when King Pamheiba introduced Hinduism as the state religion. These differences were quite pronounced when Manipur was captured by the British in 1891. More divisions were made due to the constitution as Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes and General, etc. within the population of Manipur after Manipur was formally merged with the Indian union in 1949. In the present situation of Manipur, we can see noticeable differences, distrust and disunity among the various communities in Manipur.
In order to bring out the unity and the similarity in origin of the communities of Manipur from the oral histories of the different communities, an attempt is made here to study the oral history of Tangkhul, Mao, Maram, Thangal, Paomai and Kabui communities that are mostly settled in Ukhrul, Senapati and Tamenglong districts.
All the above mentioned communities of Manipur are said to have originated from a place called Makhen in the Senapati district. The people from this place were said to have moved out and settled in the South-eastern regions of the state.
The Kabui people inhabit many parts of the valley and most parts of Tamenglong district. The Kabuis, also known as the Rongmeis, have a very close relationship with the Meeteis. They form a part of the bigger group called the Zelianrong which is made up of Rongmei, Zeme, Liangmei and Puimei. According to oral history these four groups lived together at Makhen, after which they migrated to different places and based on the direction of their migration, they were named into their respective names. Those who went south came to be known as Rongmei; those who went west were called Zeme; and those who migrated to the north were called Liangmei. The Kabuis call their supreme god as Haipou Ragong (also Tingkao Rangong or Tingkao Ragwang). He created Dampa Pui and gave him the task to create the world. Dampa Pui created the world and all the creatures that will live in it, but he was not able to create the human beings. At last he created human beings after seeing the image of Haipou. In the beginning human beings lived together with the gods. When the time came for the gods to leave, they kept them in a cave and closed it with a big stone because they thought that the humans were weak and had inferior intelligence. When the humans became more intelligent, they wanted to come out of the cave. They could open the entrance of the cave only with the help of a bull. The cave was called ‘Ramting Kabin’ or ‘Mahou Taobei’. The cave is still present near Salong in Senapati district. After coming out of the cave they lived in a place called Makuilongdi. There were supposed to be 7,777 families living in this place. From here they migrated to different directions.
The beginning phase of the history of origin of the Kabuis bears lots of resemblance with the story of the exodus of Poireiton of the Meeteis; the difference being that Poireiton’s exodus is available as written history in the form of manuscript and is called “Poireiton Khunthokpa”. The Kabuis, like the Meeteis, worship Lainingthou and Lairembi. Both the communities have accounts of their stay at the Koubru hill a long time back. Another oral history of the Kabuis say that in the ancient times there was a man named Iboudhou Khunthoulemba who had two sons. The elder brother stayed back in the hills and remained as the Kabuis, while the younger brother moved down to the valley and became Meetei.
According to the oral history of the Tangkhuls Meetei, Thangal and Tangkhuls had the same origin. In the old language, Tangkhul was called Hungoumwo, a name which is no longer used. One group stayed back at Makhen and they became the Thangals. Another group migrated and passed through Khongte, Kachai, Phungtham and settled at Hundung. There were two brothers in this group. One day the younger brother went searching for a pig and found that it had given birth to its young ones at a place bordering the hills and the valley. The place where the pig gave birth came to be known as ‘Oknao-pokpi’. This place is now called ‘Yaingangpokpi.’ The younger brother asked his elder brother to let him live in the valley as it was fertile and had plenty of water. Thus he came to the valley and became Meetei. The three brothers met every year and presented gifts to each other so that they remain close to each other. This event has continued till date and it is now known as ‘Mera Hou Chongba’.
The oral history of the Thangals is more or less similar to that of the Tangkhuls. The old name of Thangal is Koirao. In the beginning after they came out of the cave, they stayed at Makhen. Then they changed places to Angkaipang and then to Angkailongdi. It is said that while staying at Angkailongdi, they could never reach 1000 families and the maximum number of families would always stop at 999. There are close historical relations between the Thangals and the Meeteis. The sacred place in the Thangal cave forms a part of the culture of the two. Legend has it that the Thangal cave is connected to Kangla through an underground tunnel.
The Mao people believe that Makhen is the first place to be settled by human beings. In their language, Makhen is called ‘Makhriphi’ the last place on earth where the gods talked with humans. Mao oral history says that god created woman who gave birth to three sons of god. The youngest son married a goddess and gave birth to three sons by the names of Khephio, Choro and Shipfo. Shipfo also gave birth to three sons named Emepfope, Kolapfope and Mikriipfope. Emepfope remained back at Makhriifii (Makhen) and the others moved away. Mikriipfope went south taking with him a food packet, eggs and yam because it was believed that the place where the yam germinated and the eggs hatched was a good place to settle. The place where the food packet was eaten was clled Mikrii Todu. ‘Mikrii’ is the Mao word for Meetei and ‘Todu’ means the place where food was eaten. This group followed the Barak river and stayed at settled at Karong (also called ‘Krafii’ which means the place where Meetei got lost) for some time. When the group reached Karong, the Senapati river which flows from the north to south, meets the Barak river and then takes a sharp turn to the west. Because of this they got lost and didn’t know where to go anymore. So they settled at Karong. From there they climbed a tall peak and saw the Imphal river flowing. They tried to find the Imphal river and on their way reached Senapati from where they were led by a big snake to the Imphal river. They followed the flow of the river and reached the Imphal valley. When they reached the valley, the eggs hatched and the yam germinated. Thus they settled at the valley. The oral history of the Mao community invariably proves that the Maos and the Meeteis are related through origin.
The Paomai community is also another group that has its origin at Makhen. They believe that many other groups of people living in Manipur and Nagaland also had their origin and Makhen. There is a pear tree at Makhen which the Paomais legend says was planted by the first ancestor named Pou after he planted his walking stick to the ground. Pou is also called Shipgo by the Maos and the Angamis call him as Shapvo. The name ‘Paomai’ is also derived from the word ‘Poumai’ (pou = old, mai = people). Therefore, the Paomais are also called Shipfo by the Mao people. In the oral history of the Maos, Shipfo is the person who gave to the ancestor of the Meeteis.
In the oral history of the Marams, god created the world and the first people were placed at Makhen. When the population of Makhen increased, they formed groups and migrated to different directions. Two brothers by the names of Tingsimaraba and Makikhangba also went out in search of new places to settle along with their families. The planted sticks of the heimang (Chinese sumac tree, Rhus chinensis) along their way as they went on their journey. They came to Maram and settled there for a long time. Later Makikhangba, the younger brother, went to live in the valley while the elder brother stayed at Maram. Those who went to the valley became the Meeteis while those who stayed became the Marams.

One thing we can know from the oral histories of these communities is that all these communities along with the Meeteis are in fact very close to one another and have the same origin. Studying the culture, music, dance and religion could also give more evidence in this advocacy.
There are also other communities in Manipur whose oral histories say that they also originated from a cave. The Aimols call cave as ‘chinlung’. The story of the time when they lived in a cave is still sung in songs. It is said that they tried to come out of the cave by moving the stone at the entrance, but they couldn’t. Then they used a pangolin and a cow to dig out a tunnel underneath the stone and thus they came out. After coming out of the cave, they lived in many places like Mongmangjol, Rangrengbung, Runglewaisu and then they came to Manipur. They worship pythons as a god. The Kharam community also has a similar history. It is said that they also once lived in a cave which they call ‘Khurpui’. A big python ate whoever came out of the cave. So they made clothes with designs of a python and then they could come out of the cave by deceiving the python. The place of Runglewaisu is also found in the migration route of the Kharams. They are also fire worshippers like Andro. Lai Haraoba is performed. Their god is in the form of a dragon, very similar to god Pakhangba of the Meeteis. In fact, their oral history has stories of god Pakhangba marrying a Kharam girl. They also worship the god Sanamahi by building shrines inside their houses, a tradition followed by the Meeties also.
The oral history of the Chiru community is also similar to the Aimols. They entered Manipur through Aaikhapui and Runglewaisu. Before the advent of Christianity, they had a form of religion which is similar to those of the other close communities. The Chothes are a group of people who also has a similar history saying they once lived in a cave. Their traditional attire, religion and culture bear lot of similarities of those of the Meeteis. The Chothes were once called as the Purums and they inhabit many parts of Chandel district.
Aimol, Anal, Chiru, Chongloi, Hangsing, Chothe, Doungel, Guite, Gangte, Haokip, Hmar, Kom, Kipjen, Lungdim, Lamkang, Lunkim, Changsen, Lenthang (Teleyn), Mang-eo, Kolen, Langum-Lang-el, Minem, Maring, Mate, Moyon, Monsang, Paite, Shitlou, Louvom, Singsit, Shimte, Tarao, Touthang, Vaiphei and Zou communities are together called the Zale’n-gam group as they have similar histories of origin and are also closely related in terms of language, dress, and culture.
In the study of the oral histories of all the communities in Manipur, it is found that they all have some similarities in the origin. An overall perspective shows that they could be of the same origin.

Courtesy: Centre for Manipur Studies, Manipur University
Dr  Chirom Rajketan Singh
Asst. Prof., Manipuri Dept.,
Kha-Manipur College, Kakching

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