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Phases of Manipur Culture: A Historical Perspective

By Hareshwar Goshwami, MCS(Retd)
Writer & Politician
Who we are and how we live is in one way or the other the outcome of our geopolitical situation, but to point at particular individuals or events would not help us understand how “we” as a people, a community, or a society came to be. Rather, we must go back to the past, dissect it, and seek the answer within. Our history, just like any other, has undergone its own metamorphosis. At different phases, it has been composite or multicultural. For a more careful analysis, I have classified three phases of cultural sequences with regards to the state of Manipur before reaching the so-called post-modern : 1) Early Period of Exclusive Composite Culture, 2) Medieval Period of Inclusive Multi-culture (12thcenturyto 19thcentury), and 3) Modern Period of Inclusive Composite Culture (19th century to  2nd half of the 20th century).
Early Period: Exclusive Composite Culture
The beginning of the Early Period, i.e. the Period of Exclusive Composite Culture, may be located in 33 AD, when NongdaLairenPakhangba ascended the throne. It was the dawn of a new historical period: the seven Meitei yeks or clans were amalgamated or acknowledged the suzerainty of Lai-ningthouPakhangba, and peoples of different ethnic origins, like the Mon-Khmer speaking Austronesians, the Tibeto-Burman and the Siamese-Chinese speaking Mongoloids were assimilated into one cultural and political unit. The influences left by these new cultural groups are reflected today.
For example, the use of betel nuts and leaves, coconut and rice in worship, holding the wedding ceremony at the bride’s residence, cremation of the dead and burial of pieces of bones and ashes by fixing megaliths over the spot, offering of food to the spirit of dead, use of cowries and conches, the game of ‘Kang Saannaba’ which has similarities with the indoor game called ‘Saba’, the design of Meitei Yumjao houses that looks like an inverted boat, are said to have come from the Austronesians. The names of places like Jiri, Oinamlong, Kambilong, Dikhu, and Nongpo, are said to be of Austronesian origin. Even the name used by the Burmese for Meitei—Kase/Kate—is a derivation from the Mon Khmer language Khasi or Khasiya3.
As for extant Tibeto-Burman Cultural traits, examples that can be cited are the worship of Boroi (Lainingthou), BathouBuroi (LangiLairembi), and Mainao (Phou-oibi), the Goddess of Paddy of the Tibeto-Burman Cacharis. The use of clothing such as khudei, pheijomandphanek is also exhibited by Tibetan-BurmanBodos and Cacharis. The belief of considering it an omen if a cat or snake crosses the road in front of a personis still prevalent among Meiteis are believed to be of Tibeto-Burman origin.
The Chinese-Siamese linguistic group of people too left their mark. Even today, many of us do not cut our nails and hair on the day of our birth. We throw broken teeth over the rooftop, we do not take the seats and utensils meant for our elders, we avoid using loud colours and heavy ornaments at old age, we do not sleep with our heads pointing north, and we do not sweep after dark. The importance Meiteis give to clan/lineage (sagei-salai) bears similarity to how the Yi/Wu-man ethnic group of Yunan held theirs in high esteem. When meeting someone new, they would frequently ask about their clan name and family name. These similarities are believed to be of Chinese-Siamese orign.
This period of exclusive composite culture lasted till the period of MeidinguLoiyumba (1074-1112 AD), a period of about twelve hundred years. It cannot be said that cultural incursions did not occur during this long phase—Naothingkhong (663-763 AD) married Chingurembi, a Mayang princess and a number of her followers were absorbed in the Meitei fold; while MeidinguKhongtekcha (763-773 AD) worshipped Shiva and Devi, as per Phayeng copper plate. Nevertheless, they did not disturb the cultural traditions and religious practices of the society. Pakhangba and his descendants continued to identify Sanamahi as the State God and a household deity, propagating the principle religious philosophy that truth means knowledge, realization, and Sanamahi.
Medieval Period:  Inclusive Plural Culture
Beginning of Plural Culture: Once MeidinguLoiyumba (1074-1122 AD) ascended to the throne, a new era of administrative reforms began. Most important of all was the LoiyumbaSilyen, also known as YumnakMashil (Surname wise assignment of Duties), issued in 1110 AD. It gave invocation and assignment of duties for worship, economic activities, rules on royal decorum, costumes, rewards, administration of justice, etc. Thirty yumnaks were assigned to design and weave cloths, and forty-five families to look after the forty-five abodes of the gods.
Prof. Gangumei wrote that this Loiyuma’s royal decree “laid the foundation of the emerging feudal form which existed till the end of the nineteenth century.” It strengthened the socio-economic and political order in the kingdom, and encouraged subsequent kings to work on territorial expansion, particularly in the fertile plains of Trans-Irrawaddy basin of northern Burma. Mention may be made of MeidinguKhumomba’s (1263-1278) defeat of the Shans, MeidinguNingthouKhomba’s (1432-1467) conquest of Tamu, and MeidinguKiyamba’s joint venture with Pong king ChaophaKhekhomba for conquest of Kabaw valley followed by  distribution of boundary between Manipur and the kingdom Pong on the east, repulsion of the invading MayangThongnangs on the west. The expansion of the kingdom on the east was continued by MeidinguMungyamba (1562-1597) who invaded and conquered MungkhongMungyang in the year 1565. The trend of annexation lasted till the time of MeidinguKhagemba, whose military campaign in the Trans-Irawaddy basin extended up to the border of present Yunan in China.
Emergence of Plural Culture:  One may theorise that the military campaigns compelled the kingdom to increase its manpower for war and economic activities. It so happened that this era of annexation coincided with the Muslim conquest rule in the mainland India. As a result of the attack on non-Muslims, a number of Brahmins migrated to Manipur during the time of MeidinguKiyamba (1467-1508 AD). They were employed as astrologers and engaged in religious works. The Brahmin ancestors of Adhikarimayum, ShijaGurumayum, Leihaothabam, and Phurailatpam immigrated to Manipur and settled here during this period. Non-Brahman migrants such as Lairikyengbam were given the job of royal scribes. Their knowledge of foreign language and culture were useful while dealing with foreigners from the west. RK Jhaljit observes, “The arrival of Brahmins enriched the cultural life of the kingdom.”  Kiyamba also constructed a temple of Vishnu at present Bishnupur (Lammangdong) to place the statue of Vishnu (Pha) gifted to him by Pong king Khekhomba in 1474 AD. The Brahmans were allowed to worship the idol of Vishnu and to practice their own religion and belief.
MeidinguKhagemba (1597-1652 AD) permitted Muslim and Cachari invaders captured in 1606 and Shan captives of war to settle in Manipur. It is said that Muslims lived in Manipur as peaceful citizens with Meitei wives. They were provided land and allowed to practice their own religion. They couldgovern as per their own customs and conventions with Qazis who were well-versed in Islamic laws. In due course of time departments related to Panggals, such as PanggalShanglen, PanggalIngkhol, PanggalPhundrei were established. They were given new surnames, such as Aribam, Ayekpam, Khullakpam, Korimayum,andMakakmayum.
As mentioned earlier, a need for increase in manpower was felt for boosting the socio-economy and for military purposes. The ready assimilation of theIndiam migrants including Brahmins and the Panggals could be attributed to this necessity. During Khagemba’s reign, there was tremendous progress in the field of agriculture and the manufacturing industry. Rivers and streams were dredged; canals like Kyangkhong and Takhelkhong were dug. Ten new markets and numerous villages were established.
Though Khagemba was a staunch follower of the Meitei religion, he allowed religious syncretism or dual worship of traditional Meitei Gods and Hindu Gods (Gangmumei). The present form of the NataSankitrtan was developed from the VisnuArati, which was performed during the time of Khagemba.  In fact,he paved the way for the occurrence of the Golden Period in Manipur history in the first half of the eighteenth century, when MeidinguGaribniwaz took over as king.
Cultural Assimilation and Dissemination: Garibniwaz’s reign marked the beginning of a new synthesized culture: he fully adopted Hinduism and converted his subjects. This is where the big question arises: how did a wise and brave king, who had invaded Burma more than ten times successfully, subdued all his enemies and introduced a strong administrative system, get so easily brainwashed by a mere preacher into conversion? It has prompte scholars to revisit the geopolitical situation of the region at that point of time.
At that point of time, Manipur was a nation surrounded by three powerful kingdoms, namely Tripura, Ahom and Burma. Out of these three, the Tripuris’ hostility to Manipur consisted of occasional raids and skirmishes as their kingdom was vast and had its capital at Kholongma near present Dhaka. Furthermore, they were mostly preoccupied with checking the Muslim invaders from the west. The Ahoms and the Manipuris, on the other hand, maintained a close relationship most of the time. The Ahoms were friendly and cooperative, and the Manipuri ruling family was related to them. They concentrated their expansion on the fertile valley of Lower Assam, confronting the mighty Mughals. This was how Burma grew to be the sole adversary of Manipur and Garibniwaz became the Burmese’s most ferocious enemy with his domination of Upper Burma.
Thus the Burmese emerged as a power to be reckoned from the 15th century onwards with the rise of two powerful kingdoms—the Toungou (Tongoo) Dynasty (1510-1752 AD) andKonbuwang (1752-1885). Having restricted themselves to Lower and Middle Burma for a long time, their presence in Upper Burma was felt mostly after the thirteenth century. Their presence was strongly challenged by the Manipuris and the Shans. Though the Burmese could cope with the Shans and subdue them, they remained at constant warfare with the Manipuris, whose country was well fortified by nature.
Manipuris continued their fierce attacks against the Burmese from its stronghold at present day Imphal Valley. The Burmese too devastated the kingdom of Manipur more than once. The first KhuntakLanshiAhanba occurred during the reign of Jai Singh (1763-1798) and the Burmese king Shinbyushin (1763-1776), and the second onebetween 1819-1826 during the time of MeidinguMarjit (1813-1819), a descendant Garibniwaz.  Unlike the other two neighboring kingdoms of Ahom and Tripura, the Burmese kings were Buddhist.

At this pivotal moment, some 39 Brahmins from the court of Ahom king visited Manipur on a goodwill mission in 1715 AD, led by Gopal Das Beiragyaand SantidasMahanta (later on given the title Gosai). After Gopal Das Beiragya left Manipur in 1720, Garibniwaz was initiated into Ramandi Sect of Hinduism by Shantidas the Goshai.
A few theories on why Garibniwaz converted to Hinduism have been postulated. The first considers the possibility of his considering Buddhism as the religion of his traditional enemy, the Burmese kings, and the absence of alternative religions like Islam and Christianity.
The second theory claims Garibniwaz might have seen Hinduism as a good or friendly religion or as a necessity, as his friendly Mongoloid neighbors, the Ahoms and the Tripuris had already adopted it. Here, it is important to mention that most of the powerful kingdoms of the world at that time had chosen one of the four major religions: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism or its branches.
The third theory suggests that Garibniwaz might have assumed that foreign preachers like ShantidasGoshai, much like Christian missionaries from abroad, would do no harm politically to the land and his people as he knew little about them. His country was after all surrounded by Mongoloid nations.
The fourth theory focuses on religion as a political strategy. It was an age during which the most vital role of the king was to protect his kingdom and defend his people. Clashes of religions was frequently carried out in the guise of expansion and colonisation. As such he might have considered it safe from his two powerful western neighbours if he adopted Hinduism in the face of the Burmese challenge.
Lastly, Garibniwaz might have been impressed by one of the sermons of Hinduism that ‘those who killed in the battlefield depart direct to the Heaven’. It could have been a very useful discourse in an era of war and turmoil, especially against the (Buddhist) Burmese.
Cultural Dissemination: Whatever reasons Garibniwaz may have had, the impact of the conversion on the socio-cultural life of his people was tremendous. It polarized the Manipuri society. The introduction of ‘Varna’ system, as precursor of ‘Mangba’ and ‘Sengba’ added the sufferings of the common people. The cultural gap between the hill and valley inhabitants widened. New shift of allegiance from traditional beliefs like worship of hills and mountains, rivers and streams to alien topographical features like Ganga, Jamuna, Himalaya etc. occurred, endangering the native ecological and environmental systems and resulting in serious threat to the existence of the population. The burning of Puyas and destruction of the temples of Umang-Lais are condemned to this day, even if most of the Puyas listed to be burnt are still available. It created a psychological atmosphere of cultural humiliation and dependency.  Imposition of numerous taxes related to the new religion put a heavy burden on the common man and affected the economy of the kingdom. Prohibition of the rearing of pigs and poultry, eating of meat, also reshaped the socio-cultural visage of the Manipuris.

Religious Syncretism: It is little or no wonder that Garibniwaz is treated as religious fanatic by many of his critics. Still there are aspects that could be taken as considerate to some extent. Examples may be cited to the worship of royal deities like Nongshaba, Panthoibi, and TaibangKhaiba (Sanamahi) by Brahmins, indicating that there was still room left for religious syncretism and cultures. Though Hindu festivals replaced the traditional festivals, the hill people were allowed to practice their own culture and religion. The killing of animals for food during MeraHaochongba known as MeraSanduba was allowed in the capital, which shows cultural toleration and pluralism. HaomachaLoishang was reorganized and properly maintained. Muslims who had already settled in the kingdom were not forced into conversion.  It shows his tolerance and forbearance towards other beliefs and religion.
The accession of MeidinguChingthangkhomba popularly known as RajarishiBheigyachandra (1763-1798 AD), signaled the promotion of a cultural syncretism that is found even today. The Chaitanya school of Vaishnavism replaced the Ramandi cult propounded by Garibniwaz and his preceptor Shanti Das Mahanta. He was formally initiated to GoudiyaVaishnavism by Shri Rup ParmannandaThakur. He installed the idol of Govindajee in 1776 and introduced Ras Lila, a combination of traditional Meitei dance form and Vaishnavite theme. It is said that there are many similarities between traditional ‘MaibiJagoi’ and ‘BhangiJagoi’ of the Ras Lila. The pattern of ‘ChampraOkpi’, ‘ChampraKhaibi’ of the Bhangi dance is said to be adopted from ‘Lei-hekpa’ ‘Lei-khaiba’ of the ‘Lai Haraoba’ of the Meiteis. Meiteis being lover of dance and music found expression of their sentiment and emotion in devotional songs in ShriGovindajee and Natasankritan.
The Manipuri Vaisnavism as propounded by Bheigyachandra cannot be described as a purely transplanted brand of religion from Bengal. It was formed to suit the local taste and ideas. Thus a socio-religious syncretism occurred resulting to the emergence of present culture of the Meitei-Hindus.
Modern Period: Towards Inclusive Composite Culture (1826 – 1972)
This period witnessed the resurgence of a composite culture in the Manipuri society.  Random contact with the British had already begun since the time of Raja Jai Singh (Bheigyachandra). However, direct link commenced after the signing of Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826. The meddling of the British Raj in Manipur’s politics is clearly visible in the matter of cessation of Kabaw Valley to Burma in 1834. After the first Anglo-Burmese War, the British felt it necessary to establish a Political Agency in Manipur. Captain Gordon (1835-1844) was appointed as first Political Agent.
The constructive part of British contact with Manipur was the introduction of western education. Among the pioneers, mention may be made of Major General W.F. Nuthall, Dr. L. Brown (1867-1875), Sir James Johnstone, Rev. Pettigrew. Nuthal-Brown’s vernacular school was established in 1872. Though not successful it paved way for future western education in the State. As a result, in 1920 Manipuris went outside the state for obtaining western education with State Scholarship. The arrival of western education acted as an agent of social change, altering existing outlooks and beliefs, and leading to the emergence of an elite group that wanted progress and modernization.
The outcome was the birth of various movements like revivalist, social reformation, and revolutionary movements in Manipur in the first and second half of the twentieth century. The revivalist movement was spearheaded by an educated teacher called Naorem Phullo popularly known as NaoriaPhullo born in 1888 at LaishramKhullenJaribond, of the then Cachar District. The movement aims at reviving the traditional religion, custom, culture and usages of the Meiteis. But the leader who had awakened the Manipuris from its long slumber and defied colonialism and feudalism was Lamyanba Hijam Irawat Singh, born on 30th March 1896.  He was an educated leader of high social status who once became a Darbar Member.
After the defeat of Manipur in 1891, the British taught and trained the Maharaja to be rapacious and cruel against his subjects. They enabled him to collect taxes and revenues effectively so as to fulfill their colonial aspiration. As a result, various obnoxious taxes like Hajam-napet, Kang-thouri, Chabok-wangol, Chandal-senkhai, Jal-sambhandhi  and harsh and compulsory duties like Yarek-santri were imposed on the common people. Above all, there prevailed many evil social systems like, ‘Mangba-sengba’, ‘Inthokpa-loushinba’ etc. However, with the emergence of educated middle class, the authority of the king, his nobility and priestly class were questioned. Dead bodies that were buried earlier as ‘unholy’ were taken out, cremated and last rites performed. The payment of obnoxious taxes and the system of ‘sacred’ and ‘unsacred’ were defied.
As a result of the efforts made by LamyanbaIrabot and likeminded people, cultural disparity began to wane and the characteristics of a composite culture prevailed again. The King was no longer absolute. Establishment of Constitutional monarchy in 1949 is a vivid example in this regard. Religion was no longer the source of truth and reality. Reason and logic won over faith and belief. This change heralded the beginning of Modern Period in the Manipur History.
Conclusion:At a time when Manipur was yet to consume and fully embrace the age of science, the complex digital revolution in 1970s kick started the Information age.  The Information Age is a period in human history characterized by the shift from traditional industry to a society based on information technology.  As a result of sharing of knowledge through information technology, people’s socio-economic and political outlooks have changed tremendously. It even challenges science as source of truth and reality; truth stopped being absolute as it became subject to interpretations. Man had moved on from objectivity to subjectivity.  
The existence of other gods and cultures is acceptable in the mind of the post-modern people as there is no single defining source of truth beyond the individual.  For posts-modernists spiritual pluralism exists.  God is welcomed until he doesn’t play God. Neither religion nor science is the yardstick to measure truth, beauty and goodness. As such post-modern culture itself defies certainty and absoluteness.  They group and re-group with likeminded people beyond the traditional cultural and religious boundaries. Post-modernism makes assimilation and integration more fluid. But individual or group ideologies can be clashed in the absence of an unifier, that might spin towards social chaos and anarchy. To me this is the social order prevailing today in Manipur though the characteristics of both modern and pre-modern still persist.

Last modified onThursday, 22 February 2018 17:16
William Gurumayum

William Gurumayum, Sub-Editor of Imphal Times is a resident of Sagolband Salam Leikai. He has been with Imphal Times since beginning. He also looks after the website and application of Imphal Times. An avid adventure lover, writes mostly travelogue.

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