Home » Manipuri Diaspora in Myanmar: Past and Present1

Manipuri Diaspora in Myanmar: Past and Present1

by Rinku Khumukcham
0 comment 18 minutes read

By-  Mutua Bahadur
Cultural Activist,
 Freelance Archivist and Museologist

Early History
It was during the Bagan period in the Eleventh Century that the Manipuris started settling in Myanmar, the wife of king Kyan Sit Thar happened to be a Manipuri princess. The present-day polo or ‘goolie game’ which has its origin in Manipur was played during the time of king Bayiunaung (1551-81 ) who belonged to the Taungoo period (Manipuris called it as Tongdoy). Many Kate horsemen served under this king. In the year, 1558, the king of Manipur, Meidingngu Chalamba offered his daughter to king Bayiunaung to forge an alliance. Many members of the Manipuri royalty settled in Taungoo. Before and after 1648, war continued between the two neighbours – Manipur and Myanmar. In the year 1702, The Tongoo Dynasty of Awa (Present day Myanmar) sent emissaries asking for the hand of Meitei princess. King Charairongba of Manipur gave his daughter, Chakpa Makhaongambi, to the then Awa king. In the year 1732, the Manipuri king, Jayashree Garibaniwaj offered his daughter, Hmin Long Khang, to king Sa-ne in 1732. She had the privilege of enjoying taxes from Popa Town as a Popa Myoza. In the year 1738, Jaishree Garibaniwaj Maharaja marked the eastern door of the Kaungmadaw Pagoda, situated at Sagaing, with his sword. In 1735 Maharaja Garibaniwaj of Manipur collected cows and slaves from Myedu of Shwebo district after attacking it. He destroyed some villages and pagodas sending cavalry to the upper part of Myanmar. The Manipuri soldiers defeated Myanmarese soldiers. Again in 1738, he was camping near Sagaing. According to the order of Maharaja Garibaniwaj, Kaunghmudaw Pagoda built by king Thalun of Myanmar was taken care of. The Maharaja entered the pagoda and put a sword mark on the eastern door of the pagoda.
In the year 1749, during the reign of king Maha Dhammarajadipati, the Manipuri king [ Jayashree Jitashaha, or Chitsai] gave his daughter to him. There she was conferred the title of Maha Devi. She, along with Princess Popa and her husband, the deposed king, was exiled to Hanthawaddy (Bago) when the Mons occupied Innwa. Interestingly she was installed as a queen by the Mon king and the title, Thirizeya Mingala Devi, was given. In the year, 1757, King Alaungpaya took some Manipuris as captives and along with some others settled them at Sagaing and various parts of Amarapura dihstrict. He established a Kate cavalry with the number ranging around 2000. Siam (Thailand) was invaded by king Alaungpaya along with a Kate cavalry that had 500 horsemen.
Again in December 1764 Myedu (Hsinbyshim) of Myanmar invaded Manipur and took some Manipuris to Ava (it was the capital city between 1364-1555 and 1629-1752) as captives and settled them around the outskirts of the city. King Alungpaya developed a cavalry battalion out of Manipuri settlers. Then, king Alungpava invaded Siam (Thailand) with the help of 500 Manipuri cavalries. In 1780 king Bodawpaya brought some Manipuris from Manipur to Mogok for working in ruby mines. And again in 1812, this king brought more Manipuris and let them settle there. In the year 1769, a Sino- Myanmar War took place during the time of king Myeidumin. A combined force of Kate horsemen, numbering around 500 and Myanmarese army, launched an attack against the Chinese. In 1780 king Bodawpaya brought some Manipuris from Manipur to Mogok for working in ruby mines. And again in 1812, this king brought more Manipuris and let them settle there.
During the reign of Marjit Maharaja (1813-1819), king Bagyidaw of Myanmar invaded Manipur and the Seven Years Devastation took place in Manipur during 1819-1826. During the Seven Years Devastation, king Bagyidaw brought some Manipuris to Myanmar by promising job opportunities. Under two instances, each numbering 30,000 of Manipuris were taken to Myanmar in the year 1820 and 1821. Gambhir Singh Maharaja of Manipur built up Manipur Levy with the help of the British and expelled the invaders from Manipur.
Manipuris settled in Myanmar at different places according to the suitability of their vocation. Those settlers were – skilled weavers, carpenters, painters, goldsmiths, rowers, soldiers, cavalry, indigenous physicians, priests and astrologers etc. The existing Myanmar Manipuris who had settled there since early times participated in many happy and sorrow moments of Myanmar as Myanmar is their motherland in their hearts. Myanmarese Manipuri women brought fame to their adopted country and also helped it economically. Untouchability, caste system, social ostracism and assimilation to other communities have contributed to the slow extinction of the Manipuri community in Myanmar.
Ethnonyme used by the Myanmarese for refering to Manipuris
Manipuris are referred to by different names by the Myanmarese. Those Manipuri Brahmins are referred as ‘Paona’ while non-Brahmins are recognized as ‘Kate’. The reason behind Manipuri Brahmins being called Paona was that they served as ‘Purohit’ (Priest) under the king of Myanmar. The original word ‘Purohit’ came to be used as ‘purna’. Due to non-avaibility of the intonation ‘r’ in Myanmarese vocabulary since earliest times, ‘Ponna’ was used for ‘Purna’. But it is pronounced as ‘Paona’ instead of Ponna’. The Manipuri Brahmins served as the priests and counsellors at the royal court and also practised the art of astrology.
Places settled by Manipuris
Manipuris remain scattered in and around different parts of Myanmar, such as – Kachin state, Yangong division, Sagaing division, Shan state, Ayeyarwaddy division etc. Some of the old villages have vanished. Even the names of the settled areas remain forgotten by the new generations. Some of the existing Manipuri villages have been absorbed into Myanmarese society.
Manipuris have settled at Mytitkyina, Bhamo etc. of Kachin state. Different places of Mandalay division remain populated by Manipuris. Manipuris at present are settled around of Mandalay (Mandalay was the capital between 1857 – 1885). Just to the eastern side of the site is Nandawsae.
The word Nandawsae in Myanmarese does mean that it is on the eastern part of the original capital. Just to the western side of it is Minde-e-kin village. Those Manipuris settled at Myintut are the descendants of Manipuri cavalries that settled in this locality.
The word ‘Myin’ is for horse and Tut’ is for army in the Myanmarese language. Around 15 km from Myintut is the village of Aheneitaw. The word ‘Aheneitaw’ stands for a village inhabited by very skilled medical practitioners. Most of them are the descendants of those Manipuris who were forcibly taken to Myanmar to serve as medicine men. Just to the south-western side of the past capital arc villages – Kha-Kshetri, Awang Kshetri, Bamon Khunjao (Paonasu), Kshetri Khul, Ninglhem Purohit Khul (those inhabitants were serving Myanmarese kings as purohits), Lairikyengbam Leikai and Myint Mo Geve etc.
There is Dal Dale and Latthamar villages (the latter is known as Konjengbam Leikai) just near Amarapura (it was the capital of Myanmar from 1783 to 1823) of Mandalay division. A little distance away from Amarapura is Shrigram or Senga Manipuri village and also Gaave (Myanmarese know it as Yekyi pauk) village. Before reaching Sagaing, there is a Manipur village known as Shwekyet by the Mandalay road.
There is another Manipuri village called ‘Hypi-kathe’ (supplementary residents) in Mogok which is situated to the northern side of Mandalay. In 1780 king Bodawpaya settled Manipuris at Mogok to use them for ruby mining. And again in 1812 the king added another 45 families, and had to settle them there. There are more of Kate (Manipuri) villages near Kyatpayen due to an increase in their population.
In 1916, one written silver scroll was found near an old pagoda in Kathe (Manipuri town). In that scroll it was written that in 1785 the right of ruby mining was in the hands of so – Thungyi of Kathe, Mogok. The Kathe town is adjacent to Kyatpyen. In 1783, during Bodawpaya’s time, Manipuri captives were used in the ruby mine. The place was known as Myaukywar by villagers during those days. They have identified themselves and the villages as Kathe for a long historical period. Lots of beautiful folk tales and man-made stories for those Kathes and Kyatpyen, settled around Mogok, were written in the parabaiks of Myanmar from an early time.
Date Dale, a Manipuri village, was at Nan Sayet (next to the palace on the eastern side) and it shifted near Amarapura after the British conquered Myanmar. There were around eight villages at Amarapura and Zecho is one of them. The word ‘zecho’ means ‘cheap market’ in Myanmarese language. Lots of silk clothes woven by Manipuris were available at this market. But, now-a-days, no sign of this market is left.
Manipuris have settled at Yangon division also. The localities inside it arc – Ma-oo-Gone, Yae-myae, Kama Yut, Mandalay street Pannazo and Pogodong etc. There were not less than four villages in Sagaing division (it was the capital of Sagaing division during 1315-1364) and the remaining villages are Moza (Bamon Leikai) and Kate zu etc. Besides, Manipuris settled at Swebo and Katha villages of Sagaing division.
Manipuri settlements are also found along the Ningthi river, and the areas sandwiched between the river and the boundary of Manipur. The villages are – Homalin on the northern side, Kenta, Tekshikhong, Sayachan, Tanal, Miyudik, Maksha. Kondong, Kanjiwa (Tamu), Nanfalong, Nantanik. Samjok, Tayong, Molai, Aungchantha (inside Kaliwa) and Natchaung (inside Kalemyo) etc. The appearance of the Manipuris or Kates who have settled on along river bank of the Ningthi (Chindwin) river have changed a lot after the Second World War.
Some of them abandoned their original villages and settled around Moreh. Till 1968 there were around fifteen Manipuri households in Kanjiwa which is situated inside Tamu. But, now, no sign of the village is there. There is a Manipuri village named ‘Katejuwa’ near the Inle Lake of Shan state. The word Juwa means village or villages in Myanmarese language. There are Manipuri villages at Basin and Hinthada of Ayayarwaddy division.
There is a tradition of using two names among Myanmarese Manipuri-Kates and Kate-Paonas. The first name is given by the family themselves and the second name is of the Myanmarese language. The Manipuri name is used in the family and among Manipuri circles. In order to get opportunities in education and service, there is a compulsory tradition of adopting a name in the Myanmarese language.
There is no surname in a Myanmarese name. ‘U’ is prefixed before name of a male Manipuri elder while ‘Daw’ is prefixed before a middle-aged woman’s name. Myanmarese Manipuri girls prefix their names with ‘Ma’. Those Manipuri-Kates and Kate-Paonas settled around Mandalay, Amarapura and Sagaing know their surname and gotras. Some of the Manipuri-Kates settled along the river banks of the Ningthi (Chindwin) river know their surnames and yek-salai (clan).
The custom of division among Myanmarese Manipuris into Brahmins, Kshetris and Sudras was prevalent strongly among the Manipuri society. Untouchability and discrimination based on religion still exists. Since the formation of a Manipuri society about 250 years ago, untouchability and discrimination have become causes for shrinking the original population of the Manipuris.

             (Contd on page 3)

Around 1917, some Manipuris of Ahneiktaw socialized with the populace of some other communities and they were ostracized for visiting a temple of Ningthem Purohit. It means that they have become untouchables so they are not allowed to be a part of them. Even relatives became victims of this practice. Fear, shame and anguish forced them to embrace Buddhism. After that they started mixing with those who follow Buddhism. It became one of the causes of forgetting their mother tongue. In this way the Manipuris merged with Myanmarese social system. Today they have forgotten that they were the descendants of those Manipuris who practised medicine there.
Perhaps, bachelors and spinsters between the ages of 30 and 84 are present in every household. The reasons for remaining unmarried for boys / girls are the lack of suitable brides or grooms, discrimination and casteism. They can be married to the Myanmarese but they want to remain as Manipuri-Kates, and Kate-Paonas.
There are girls who remained unmarried because they were burdened with parental care. Ostracism is very much common if a person marries a Myanmarese girl because of the unavailability of a suitable Manipuri girl. Remaining unmarried is one of the causes of decreasing population.
Those Manipuri-Kates settled along the banks of the Ningthi River can accept other community’s brides after converting them to Hinduism since they couldn’t find suitable brides from their own community. The number of spinsters outnumbers Manipuri bachelors.
Those children born out of marriage with other community’s girls are not allowed to enter Hindu temples by the Manipuri-Kate Paonas, and those children are known as ‘Kabiya’ (Hybrid) in Myanmarese language. The people of Myanmar took notice of them because Manipuri-Kate cavalry and soldiers fought by the side of the people of their adopted land, Myanmar. However, the Myanmareses’ attitude of looking down Manipuri-Kates remained as they were brought there as captives.
On the other hand, Manipuri-Kate Paonas got respect because they served the Myanmarese king as consultants, purohits (king’s priests) and astrologers. For the above reason some Manipuri-Kates wanted to be converted into Manipuri-Kate Paonas. Thus Kates residing inside Mandalay became Manipuri-Kate Paonas. Meanwhile those Manipuri-Kates who failed to become Manipuri-Kate Paonas embraced Buddhism and joined the Myanmarese society.
In this way Manipuri Myanmars are in a process of vanishing their language and their original settlements. There is an attitude of treating Manipuri-Kates as lower castes by Manipuri-Kate Paonas.
Kate-Paonas of Mandalay division are doing their best to preserve Hindu traditions by constructing temples and offering services to Hindu deities, celebrating annual festivals, offerings weekly evening prayers, and using ‘Urik’ (sacred bead) and ‘Lugun’ (sacred thread).
Residential and Temple Architecture
Rich Manipuri-Kates and Paonas built their houses with bricks and some of them are double storied. Most of the houses are constructed with wood and they are covered with C.I. sheets. Besides the living house, kitchen and store houses are roofed with bamboo. And these houses are walled with bamboo mats.
Some of the houses of Manipuri-Kates by the river banks of the Ningthi (Chindwin) look like the traditional Meitei Yumjao (traditional Manipuri house). Some of them were seen before the 2nd World War. At Namfalong, some Manipuri houses have ‘kangthak(pile dwelling). The area under the kangthak is used as a work-shed. There is a gate for every bamboo, wooden and brick walls that encircle residential areas. A ‘Tulishipung’ (a sacred spot for ritual purposes) is there in front of every house.
An area called ‘phamel’ is reserved for elders on the right side of the verandah of a house. There is no tradition among Manipuri-Kates and Paonas of Mandalay of reserving an area in the south-eastern corner of the house for Lord Sanamahi. However, idols of Lakshmi (Hindu goddess of wealth) are worshipped in place of Sanamahi. Manipuri-Kates settled along the banks of the Ningthi river, have the tradition of reserving an area for Lord Sanamahi in their houses. They don’t have the tradition of rearing poultry. They believe that if a hen perches on the roof of a house, Lord Sanamahi will move away.
In the localities of Kate-Paonas there is a tradition of having temples and mandhavs. The main structures of the temples are of brick, and they are roofed with C.I. sheets.
The village of Dat Dale have Hindu temples, besides having brick temples of Lainingthou Pakhangba and Lairembi. At Gaave (Yekyi pauk) village, there are two wooden temples of Yumjao Lairembi (meroji) and Marjing and the roof is of C.I. sheets. The Hindu temples have pointed domes like those of the Pagoda. Bells are hung high supported by brick pillars.
Dress and Customs
Myanmarese Manipuris have two areas of dressing. When they come out of their houses they wear longyi. From an early period, some Manipuris will cover their head with a piece of cloth and a knot is left on the left side. Myanmarese Manipuri women wear stripped sarong. The sarong is joined at the borders lengthwise and it is worn by tucking in a part of it, along the line of the left leg.
Women wear long sleeved blouses Sometimes woman wear sarongs over them. Sometimes the blouse covers the sarong. There is not much difference on the matter of dresses between a girl and a married woman. Male folks wear white dhoti (pheijom) when they participate religious of ritualistic ceremonies. Boys wear white dhoti. Men use white armless vests as they participate in ceremonies, and cloth is hung around the neck.
During ceremonies, girls of Bamon Khunjao wear ‘Pumngou Phanek’ (pale pink sarong) and their forehead is adorned with ‘Chandan’ (sacred mark). The tradition of wearing pumngou phanek in Mandalay is a recent one. There’s no tradition of ‘Phidon Chingkhatpa’ (wearing sarong over the chest) among married women during prayer sessions. Most of the male Myanmarese Manipuris wear ‘Longyis’. If a male person, residing by the banks of the Ningthi river is seen with a Longyi, he is looked at with derision for he is seen as a woman wearing a sarong. Now – a- days, some men have started using Longyi.
There is a tradition for married women to keep a knot of hair on the backside of the head. This knot of hair is often adorned with white flowers. They use ear-ring and gold necklaces around necks. There’s no tradition of wearing extra golden bangles.
A groom puts on a ‘Pheijom’ (white dhoti) and Lugun (sacred thread). No shirt is worn. But, their upper body is covered with a white cloth. ‘Kokyet’, (white turban) is put on the head. However, it is different from the one used by the Manipuris in Manipur. This turban is specially created by the Myanmarese Manipuris. No difference is there between the turban worn by a groom and the turban used by a pungyeiba (drummer). The bride wears ‘Achiek’ or a costly sarong (phanek). A long-sleeved blouse is worn by her.
A thin white cloth will cover the bride, and jewellery is on the head. Scented white jasmine will be used along with the jewellery. Kate women settled by the banks of the Ningthi (Chindwin) river wear embroidered sarong (phanek) in marriage ceremonies. The bride and groom will be marked with chandan. There’s no difference in the use of costume and jewellery between girls ready for na-hutpa (piercing the earlobes) and a bride. But, there’s no tradition of using an inaphi (wrapper).
In recent years it has become common seeing girls and married women wearing needle worked sarongs (the designs are on both the borders) among the Manipuri-Kates and Paonas of Mandalay division. When girls offer dances at a Mandhav (an open construction used for religious or other functions). They will put on ‘Mayek Naiba’ sarong.
During the occasion of Lai Haraoba of ‘Yumjao Lairembi’ (Meroji in Myanmarese language) at Gaave (Yekyi pauk), village the girls of Manipuri-Kates and Paonas settled in Bamon Khunjao, Minde-e-kin, Dat Dale, Moza of Mandalay and Sagaing use mayek naiba sarong and extra-weft-designed wrapper.
About a centuries back, Manipuri women of Mandalay wore a sarong named ‘Pumthet Phanek’ other ones which had embroidered by needle on both borders. However, these sarongs are no longer in use. Manipuri-Kate ‘Maibi’ (priestess who does not speak Manipuri language) wear a horizontally-stripped sarong high on the chest; she is without any shirt.
She will cover herself with a thin cloth over the head. Girls who form a part of the festival of Lai-Haraoba (pleasing of deity) wear stripped sarong and a blouse. A garland prepared with white jasmine will decorate her head.
In the late 18th century, a Manipuri-Kate was found serving under the Myanmarese king as a general. Manipuri-Kates formed a part of the Myanmarese cavalry and foot soldiers. The general (Manipuri-Kate) of Myanmarese army donned a Pheijom and a turban on head and the shirt is Myanmarese. Manipuri cavalry wore ‘Koyet Kangdrum’ (turban used as safety gear) and it is tied down with a piece of cloth under the chin.
 Photo Illustrations:
Photo 1: Mutua Bahadur delivering the CMS Lecture moderated by Prof. S. Mangi Singh, Director, CMS, MU.
Photo 2:  Anglo Burmese War (1885) Plaque highlighting the participation of 262 Kathei (Mayanmarese Manipuri) Horse riders in the war campaign)
Photo 3: Myanmarese Manipuri bride in marriage costume
Photo 4: Pagoda Door with a stamped sword mark by Maharaja Garibniwaj.
1 Proceedings of the Centre for Manipur Studies (CMS) Interactive Lecture Series, dated 17 September 2018, orgd. by CMS, Manipur University. Rapporteur: Aheibam Koireng, Asst. Prof., CMS, MU.

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