By- Dr. Sougaijam Priyokumar Meitei
“In Manipuri culture, despite of Hinduism, Meitei ideals, art, knowledge, worship patterns, dresses, festivals, foods, etc. are sustained and still unique to totalitarian Hindu society.”
The Meitei ethnic group primarily has two forms of religious systems. One is Vaishnavite group, a sect of Hinduism and other is Sanamahi, a revivalist group of Meitei traditional religion. However, this difference in belief system cannot separate between these two groups because Meiteis are compactly bound together by social history, kinship system, marriage system, rites & rituals, totems & taboos, food habits and attires. Therefore, being a Manipuri, understanding the social history and cultural evolution of Meitei people by studying its various forms of social institutions is very much necessary.
From the very beginning, sense of oneness among the individuals and social groups is brought up by social organisation or civil society organisation, of which village organisation, local clubs, Meira Paibi (Women Association) may be mentioned. Whenever, there is any political or social crisis, these organisations play an important role in resolving the issues. Keeping in mind this common Meitei belongingness, sense of solidarity must be retained irrespective of the religious belief system, caste or creed. Reviving the cultural identity through revivalist movement such as giving due importance to Ebudhou Pakhangba (ancestral God), developing Meitei Script (Meitei Mayek) are handful contribution of revivalist movement to Manipuri society. The leaders and intellectuals who dedicated in such struggles should be paid high regards. Paying respect as well following to the pathways of such selfless leaders who restlessly work for their society is the duty of the present Meitei generation. Meanwhile, it is indeed required to enlighten the youths who are future pillars of society through proper education and enculturation in bringing inclusive development of the nation.
The Meiteis are considered invariably as early people of Manipur. It had its own kingdom covering the areas surrounded by Kabaw Valley on the east, Naga hills on the north, Chin and Lushai hills on the south as well as some areas of Barak Valley on the west. Apart from it, boundaries were extended further through invasion towards east as well as towards west. Meitei or Manipuri kings were never remained isolated from its neighbouring people. Meiteis reside not only in Manipur, but also scattered in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Barak Valleys, Tripura, Guwahati, etc. There are evidences that some kings of Manipur had brought other peoples from various other regions, new cultures from neighbouring lands to strengthen own society and own culture. For Example, King Churachand brought Teli people to Manipur in order to meet the demands of vegetable oil in the light of economic needs. Therefore, acculturation, assimilation and cultural integration were in practice knowingly or unknowingly.
Owing to the Meitei kings being very powerful, external influences could not engulf Manipuri culture, rather the king got other ethnic people assimilated to the host society. Even, Hindunisation, could not wipe away the cultural identity of the Meitei, rather adopted and modified the Hindu elements, synthesized a new one with traditional culture. It shows the excellent creativity of Meiteis. Hindunisation was like immunisation to Meitei culture and made it immune to afflictions caused by other culture. Meitei culture had undergone beautification by fabrics of Hindus and indigenous elements being dominated by the later. In Manipuri culture, despite of Hinduism, Meitei ideals, art, knowledge, worship patterns, dresses, festivals, foods, etc. are sustained and still unique to totalitarian Hindu society.
Manipuri kings had numerous noblemen and intellectuals (Maichous) who persistently facilitated the kingship. There were proper military system, record system, cultural and heritage preservation system. Meitei king fought Burmese, Chinese and could defeat them at different intervals. It means that there was capable kingdom having motive of kingdom expansion, neither marginalised nor separated from the essential features of a kingdom. One wise thing, even though people adopted Hinduism, the ill practice of caste system, child marriage, sati system etc were never in a position to victimise the Meitei king and his people. Some amicable concepts such as penalising for clan or sub clan endogamy which has scientifically cause and effect relationship from the genetical point of view as well were introduced. And, such practices are not similar with that of caste system and inter caste marital restrictions. The whole practice of the Manipuris was worth mentioning and done in a very calculative way for cultural growth.
After assimilating Meitei Brahmins (Bamons), the Meitei cultural identity became significant. Meitei style of dishes were enhanced and promoted to a larger extent by Meitei Brahmins. A total of 108 dish items coupled with aesthetic values, cooked in ceremonial feasts & festivals, rites and rituals is really a wonderful gift to the cultural resource of Manipur. The then kings at their different eras, made strategic planning for social, cultural and political growth. To strengthen religious system, Brahmins were made assimilated, Muslim were made assimilated to strengthen military and economic system to the Manipuri society. Also, by witnessing the art forms of Vaishnavism, Meitei people created several innovative and unique things. Manipuri classical dance, Manipuri food, architect of Govindajee temple is some of such creations. Manipuri rice hotel (mostly in other states of north east) is famous because of Meitei Brahmins or Bamons for the unique styles of cooking.
Nevertheless, worshipping of Tulsi plant (Holy Basil) in the centre of courtyard is acculturated, the uniqueness in Manipuri style is still observed and identifiable, in the forms of praying, design of Tulsibong, design of mounding lump of soil or concrete altar where Tulsi is planted and circular sacred space around the Tulsi plant. Making fermented fish, Ngari, even though the fish is imported from Assam or Bengal, it is Manipuri style and will remain as the unique elements of Manipuri culture. From this progressive cultural phenomenon, it is revealed that Meitei culture did not lose anything by Hindunisation. Rather, Meitei culture had undergone beautification by amalgamating Hindus and indigenous cultural elements where uniqueness is distinctly observed. In fact, Manipuri culture is occupying a significant position in the universe because of Meitei ideals, arts, skills, food habits, etc. which can invariably be enshrined up to top classical level.
Meitei ideals are still capable of culminating integrity, peace and multi-cultural development in the state.