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Symbolism in the Tribal Art of Manipur

By- Mutua Bahadur
Cultural Activist & Member, Kangla Fort Board

(This write up was presented as the key speaker in the Interactive Lecture series organised by Centre for Manipur Studies, Manipur University, 15 January 2019, at CMS, Library Hall)

Various tribes inhabiting in the hills of Manipur since the earliest times had their respective separate art forms. In all material objects used for their existential day-to-day need, and in various activities in their lives, carving and painting had been compulsorily associated since times immemorial. On walls of houses and on objects and artefacts related to mortuary rites, the tribes used to carve and paint. Easy motifs likebirds and insects were used to be carved on wood and attached to tips of house-roofs, with a sign of V. The origin of these arts was traced to the practice of representation of real life events, imitations of happenings and experiences of individuals in day to day life. These carvings and paintings were reminders to those incidents or achievements of individuals etc.  Certain villages today reflect genuine concern for the continuity of these art works and cultural expressions and with it a desire to preserve these art forms had also arisen’ Influences from modern times were sometimes assimilated in the continuity of these forms’ and at the same time there were strong indicators to preservation and continuity without substantial departures from original models. Many villagers however are still following traditional practice’ A few areas where modern education had penetrated show awareness of the necessity of preserving these arts. All these art forms were built up on the intrinsic relationship with the culture, customs and traditions of tribal life’. With the passage of time, no doubt new forms and  concepts were however added to the carvings and Paintings.
These tribes did not know the use of the saw for piecemeal use of planks. To hack a piece of wood took quite a long time amongst these tribes. In order to hack a solid timber, the Maos used a tool called ‘Mari’ (axe’), with an elongated chopping system on the whole length of the wood and then using the same process on the reverse side ofthe plank, and thus finally getting two planks from one after a repetition of these chopping processes. In order to piece out from one, the wedge system was utilized. After that the axe work continued. This system was similar amongst various tribes. To carve the figures on the planks, the tool called ‘Chiro’, which had a curved face, with flat tooth. 30cm. in length, and 5cm. broad, and the angular fixing of the handle at 45 degree, was utilized. For the Tangkhul, the tool was called ‘Thingsokngaho’, which was similar to the chiro, but slightly larger in size with 50cm. in length, 13cm. in breadth and weighing about 2 kilograms. These tools were never sold in the markets. Local blacksmiths used to prepare these tools, and were also self-made by the owner.
At each carved houses of tribes, it was customary to have animal heads, especially buffalo heads and mithun (bofrontalis) heads. These animal heads have their distinctive differences from one village to another. Most of the Mao tribal houses have animal heads carved in high relief, and with dimensional thrusts.
Choosing certain suitable spaces at the walls, the tribes used to carve or paint the images of the sun, moon, stars etc. At Mao, taking the cue from the brightness of the sun, they used red and white colours to paint circular symbols. For the moon, it was usual to draw two circles one inside the other, the thickness of the lines in the circles somewhat similar to one another and these lines were painted by  the same colours’ At sight,  these figures reflect the gentleness of the moon. The Tangkhul houses however have carvings of many other suns, moons and stars’ but the carvings are sharply on linear forms’ The representation of the sun is basically designed with delineation of inner and outer circles’ with division into smaller and bigger ones’, with the lines wavy, elliptical, joining in the circles with an intense relief. At first sight, they give an impression of a circling ball of fire. At some Mao tribal houses, the moon is represented by a circle on high relief. There are also bending and curving lines on the faces of the circle, in order to represent the blurs on the face of the moon. The stars are represented on the upper beams and cross shaped X on the tip of the roofs. At some front friezes of Meetei nobilities’ houses, they have paintings of a circular base in which were projected representations of the sun and the moon. At the ‘ahongyum’ of the Kabuis, paintings of the sun, moon and stars were traditionally done. There were similarities between the Kabui and Tangkhul tribes on the practice of representation of the sun and moon. They however have the practice of carving the half moon representing the moon. In most of the tribal houses, the practice of carving and painting the sun, moon and stars are done on the upper corners of the front walls. At Mao areas, the moon is represented in between the two horns of animals.
Other Aspects
Some of the things represented on the wall of tribal houses are scabbards, spear, spear handle, wooden seats etc. Some of the wooden seats are represented without any differences, the carvings done with a broadened upper frame and the waists narrowed down. The Tangkhul carved the scabbards in lines.
At Mao, Purul, Oinam, Tungam etc., there are carvings of discs, with a thickness of approximately 2.5 centimeters from the surface, with a hollowed out depression 5 centimeters diameter. At Tusem khunjao, there is a carving of a mortuary symbol called ‘hakoi’ , a sort of conical headgear, with inner and outer lines. There is also a pyramidal, gothic type symbol called ‘kongra’, which is representation of the presiding deity of the ravines below the hills. At the Tangkhul houses, some very prominent lines and designs are carved in the geometrical pattern, which are intrinsically one with the designs embroidered in the traditional costumes of these tribes. The Kabuis also paint the traditional cloth designs on the walls of the ahongyums. The Kabuis reflect articles of day-to-day use in families in geornetrical forms on the walls, but at the same time add other experiences provided by changed outlooks and new visual aids.
Use of Colour
Most of the tribes in Manipur used colours provided from natural sources, by herbal and mineral materials. Most of the colours used were white, black, red and green. Paintings on the walls of the houses seem to be the natural propensity of the Kabui tribe alone. The Mao and Tangkhul tribes however use colours on the friezes and crossed X with decorative flower patterns. In some of the carved portraitures, there are some coloured designs too. In some areas, the carved buffalo and tiger heads do have paintings on them, though most of them were in patches, without a full colouring process.
In order to build a house with carving, the tribals needed a lot of men and materials and incurred heavy expenditure. If a person in the village had accumulated a lot of stock in paddy, the community would have force him to build a house. After constructing a carved house, he would be reduced to a miserable condition afler the exhaustion of his wealth. Mention may be made here of an ancient settlement at the top of Koubru Hill by the Longdamei at an area called ‘Kokloungou’ (um). At one season, these people built as many as thirty ‘talangkai’ (painted and carved houses). There was also the custom of building as rnany as nine different houses if one wish to build the ‘talangkai’ (ahongyum). The community danced and spent in merriment the entire wealth of the village in the construction of these houses, and they were rerduced to poverty which led to the desertion of the settlement Iater on. They moved eastwards leaving the houses behind.
Before carving of the houses, the tribals performed a lot of rituals as feasts of merit. At Mao, they are (i) Novii Kovii, (ii) Omo Koz.ii, (iii) Oz.ho Koso, and (iv) Ochizho Koso. If these four actions were not performed, the tribe would not build the houses.The auspicious time of the rituals are in between ‘chothone.khro’ (January), and ‘Chosolopra’ (February). Some of the other tribes in the Mao however perform the ‘Omozii’, ‘Otokosii  zoso’, ‘Ochizo koso’ in the respective months of ‘Okrokhol’ (December). chosolopra, chothonekhro. After the performance of’ these rituals & feast of merit the, Mao construct three types of houses namely, ‘Onymosochi’, ‘Ochiyo  kosomychi’, and ‘Uripi Koyhiinmchi. When the house owner had to construct the Onymosochi, he would spend five days without consuming rice, but having only drinks and meat. When the ochiyo kosomychi, had to be built, the owner would have to spend one solid month on only wine and meat.
At Tungam village, two types of houses namely (l) Keeche and (ii) Kolamthrok are built during the month of ‘asiilompra’ (January). At Purul two types of houses (1) Puki and (ii) Ngaiki are customary. At Oinam village, three types of houses (i) Posingka (ii) Reeka (iii) Pongka are customary. At the construction of the above houses, it was customary for the owner to spend the duration of the period of construction only on wine and meat. The Tangkhuls like the Oinam, build three types (i) Khurtchon, (ii) Kharuk, and (iii) Sheikhui. The denomination of the houses are however different. They are given as (i) Lengcheng shim (ii) Ngaishim shim or  ohongnao shim and (iii) Rameishim.  The elders of Nungbi build three types of houses namely (i) Phen saam, (ii) Phen salaka asari maksa and (iii) Sambat takakasa. Among the Tangkhuls adjacent to the Mao tribes’ first after the day of the decision to construct the houses, the owner would not cut his hair’ wash his clothes or sleep with his wife. Many elders also confirm that during the house construction season the owner would not have sex with his wife, change his clothes or even wash the same.
At Oinam Purul and Paomata, if the headman had to construct a house it was essential to search for a tiger for sacrifice. After the killing of the tiger a representation of it would have to be carved on the front-wall of the house, carved with its head upside down. At the house of the headman of Oinam, it was also customary to carve not less than .three tigers. At Purul, not only at the headman’s house, but also almost all houses had one tiger carved on the walls, that too in life size. The headman would spend five days during the construction without speaking a word, without taking food or wine. After this he would spend another five days only on wine, keeping respect for customary taboos. If by chance, there is a breakdown of construction materials or the house’ they would stop work for three clays, observe the taboo.

Like other tribes, the Kabuis also distinguish many types of houses. They would construct not less than seven types of houses. They are (i) Pumchan Kai or Pumtan Kai, (ii) Lakpui Kai, (iii) Sianlonpui Kai or Senloi Kai,(i) Hoi Kai, (v) Thingpu Kai, (vi) Uche Kai and (vii) Khong Kai. The Kabuis at Khoupum understand the Pumchan kai as one which consumed a lot of energy and dedication in work. Lakpui Kai is the house of the married woman. At the house-warming ceremony of this house, all the married women of the tribe would dance before it.  Sianlonpui Kai is the type of house built with women going around and dancing, with eating discs in their hands. At the house-warming ceremony of this house, water is poured on the discs, and the women carry it around and dance. Hoi Kai is the house with the hoi shouts. There is the hoi chant wherever a work is started or finished. Thingpu Kai is the house constructed with planks of wood- The whole construction is of wood. Roofing is also done with wood. On the house-warming day the youths and girls gather inside the first room of the house and they sing and dance.
The Kabuis who settle at Tharon and are known as Liangmei Kabuis build three types of houses. They are (1) Chapiyuki, (ii) Bankiyuki and (iii) Chungkiyuki. Chapiuki is a rare type of house, which is difficult to build. Like other tribes, the Liangmei Kabuis also observe certain taboos for house construction. The owner would have to spend with only meat and drink during the construction time of the house. If he does not observe this taboo, and if he eats even vegetables, he is taken to be of inferior status. At Lukhambi, if a Kabui is able to kill tigers or men, he is entitled to build the talangkai house. At some other places, before the talangkai is built’ the owner should kill a tiger, ten mithuns and a hornbill. If the sods command him during his dreams to build a talangkai then he could forego the aforesaid customs. If any of the above conditions are not fulfilled, even a moneyed Kabui cannot build a talangkai. There is a belief that if anybody could live in a talangkai,his soul would go to heaven after death. All youths and girls in the village come to see the building of the talangkai’ and encourage and respect the owner. Especially, the women are the preservers of this custom.
The owner feeds the youths and girls with food and wine and they help in erecting the pillars all around the site. The pillars should not be less than thirty-five in number. Sometimes skulls of animals are hung on top of these pillars. During the construction of the talangkai, the eldest male member of the clan, the mailupao stays in the front room of the house. Before the end of feasting of all the participants of the house construction, he should not move away. If there was no mailupao in the village, it was customary to hire the services of the mailupao of the next village. Younger mailupaos however do not perform such functions. If he had to perform such functions, it was believed he would not have long life. If a mailupao was hired from another village, he would be taken to his village with full escort of the youths and girls after the construction. The Kabuis take the Talangkai (ohong r-une) as .the house of women.
Cross Shaped Sign or Chirong
After the construction of the house, in order to add beauty and grace to the house’ and to self-identify the tribe’ ihis chirong or crossshaped piece is erected on top of tribal houses. After the addition of friezes of jhalur and the chirong on the roof of the houses, the completion of the house construction is formally recognized. For the Koide’ Purul and Oinam villages, either bamboo or wood replicas are made, with sharp pointed ends, projecting in front of the Jhalur. They call these points Shou. UnIess this shou is added on top of the roofs, the house construction is not complete. After the preparation of the shou, later erection of the chirrrong and fixing of jhulur is done. Then and then, only the house is regarded as complete. The chirrong on the tribal houses are of two kinds. One is the type made from the extension of jhalur and the other one is which is fixed separately, at a place slightly lower than the front end of the roof. These chirrongs on the top of tribal roofs are easily designed from traditional motifs like insects and flowers. On the top of them, cock and bird representations are carved. The plainer models of insects and flowers have holes like eyes. Because of the larger size of these eyes, the Chirongs are not disturbed by winds or gale. Larger size Chirongs have supports at the rear portion of the same. At Thangal (Koirao) houses also, these chirong, are customary, At the umanglai temple of the Meeteis, and also the rath structure of Jaganath (kang) have chirong on top. At Andro, the panam Ningthou Snong, tf,. Ahallup pana Shang, and the Kosos,(dormitory of boys and girls with raised platforms,for the Panam Ningthou haraoba festival) have all Chirongs fixed on the roofs. Most of these Andro shangs (houses) have customary practice of fixing Chirongs in front as well as the rear of the roofsThe tribals of Manipur could have had an earlier practice of this kind, but nowadays it is not visible. The Chirus also had a peculiar practice of using coiled thatch leaves as the Chirongs. At traditional Meetei houses, thatch roofs have extended coils which are kept hidden below the front portion of the roofs. The tribals of Manipur often give sacred names to the Chirongs. The Mao term it Ki kai, the northern Mao call it Ki chai. The Tangkhul Lengcheng and Phen; the Marings Indrika, the Kabuis Kai chai, the Andro Laichi, the Meetei Chirrong or Kai, the Chiru Koungnap Riki and the Purul Chiki.
After painting or carving beautiful figures of the flowers on the jhalur.It was customary to follow the traditional practice and continue the motifs. At some areas it was also customary to paint spears on these jhalur. Some of the colours used of these jhalur are red, white and green. Instead of painting the jhalur there was also another practice of carving different human fbrms as relief on the same. There was however no carving practice on these Chirongs except at Purul (puki -chief ‘s house). The Tangkhuls used the practice of having different geometrical designs and star symbols on the Chirongs. Most of the colours used are white. At some Tangkhul villages, only the Chirongs, on the roofs of tribal chiefs were painted green, and others don’t have the colours. For the Kabuis there were geometrical designs on the Chirongs, in the same manner as the designs on the houses. The Kabuis used the colour white and black. The Kabuis used to fix these Chirongs only during the marriage or ceremonial seasons. At other times, the Chirongs were removed and kept fixed on the main roof support of the house. The Kabuis of Nungadang do not refix the Chirongs, once their elders died.
Soul Figures and Effigy
The tribal of Manipur associated carving and painting traditionally with mortuary rites too. In order to represent the soul of the dead ancestors and to reflect on their achievements and qualities, the tribals used to carve on wood and these were erected with due ceremony and pomp. The Kabuis remembered their dead ancestors with the erection of large stone slabs with engravings of various kinds of pictures on them. The experiences of tribal heroes during their lifetime were consecrated by their families after the death of their fathers, with the carvings of these experiences on wood, along with the soul figures being placed beyond the village gate, in the middle of the village, and also at the burial site of these dead heroes.
The Tangkhuls-near the Manipur Myanmar border used to perform a ceremony called Kisida before the end of the yearly cycle. They place the carvings or paintings of the experiences of the dead hero in middle of the village in order to communicate the achievements of the hero. If the dead man had been able to take the heads of enemies, they search for a type of wood in the jungle which has forked branches, cut it and bring it to the village.
They carve the soul of the dead hero, just below the fork and erect the wood in the middle of the village. If the hero had also killed animals or tigers over and above head hunting, the animals were drawn on the banana pulp with charcoal and kept aside the erected wood. The tribals inhabiting the Choro village near the Myanmar Border celebrate thadamtha ceremony a week after the death of the man when the achievements of the same are carved and consecrated. If the man had killed a tiger, the head of the tiger was carved on wood and tied to the post erected on the grave of the man. If other animals had been killed, certain bamboo strips were planted on the grave, and the number of animals killed are represented by pieces of wood fixed on to the bamboo. Over and above this, his family kill a lot of animals, and these heads of animals are hung on the forks of wood, the flesh having been fed to the community.
In the Senapati District of Manipur at the Oinam village inhabited by the Paomai tribe, there is celebration of the thidui, which is performed beyond the tallao area - a place of live megalithic culture. This thidui is the consecration of the soul figure of the dead hero and feasting of the community in the month of kaho (October). If the man dies in September, thethidui is performed in the next month. If the family is not in a position to perform the ceremony, it could be postponed for a future celebration as well. The members of the community go into the jungle for carving the soul figure and effigies for the thidui and finish the same within two days, and they would bring the figure and place it near the site of the tollao. There are also versions that the same would have to be completed within one day have to be completed within one day itself. The family members feed the persons involved in the ceremony, and the left overs of the food should not be brought into the village.
The entire figures carved for the purpose of the thidui are made from the zn(uningthou) tree. In order to fix these figures on the ground, a 2.80 m. full krathii (Manipuri Name: sayi, Scientific name: Castanopsis hyxtris) tree pole for its base trunk’ On this krathii pole, three bamboo are fixed horizontally in three levels, tied by bamboo strips. Before affixing the soul figure on these, an oval shaped split bamboo frame is fixed on to the pole, where the two horizontal bars are tied.
There sword like protrusions made from zn (uningthou) wood are affixed on to the frame, and pointing out to all directions and these are no less than eleven in number. Another semicircular piece is added on to the head of the soul figure headgear, and of all the decorative un piece. The headgear is most prominent. Just in the middle of the headgear, a small spear point is affixed on to the pole with its point up. Of all the figures affixed on to the contraption, the headgear is most prominent. Right in the middle of these contraptings, the soul figure is affixed. A headgear is fixed on to the soul figure itself. On the tips of both sides of headgear a small bunch of paper decoratives are affixed. The soul figure is carved in such a way that the body is prominent and the legs are shortened and made smaller. There are no two hands. Black thread is used in a coiled manner to simulate the hair. White and black mixtures of thread are used as necklace, and that too in three rounds. The figure is clad in black, and waistband which protrudes down to the legs below is used as decoration of the middle portions of the body. This decorative piece is made like the necklace with the intermixture of black, white, red, and green likes of thread coiled against the other in short patches. On his right side of the soul figure is an incomplete, easily carved nude figure without the head and legs, but represented only with the breast and enlarged hips and two of such effigies are hung, on the left side, a full figure of a man with his head upside down, but basically carved with an avowen intention to highlight the hands is hung. On the lower portion of the contraption two easily made tiger with their heads upside down are affixed on to the right and left sides of the figure, tied with bamboo strips. These figures are round shaped in their bodies, and strips are made by painting black colours in a slightly bent manner. These figures are made with the bodies and tails being given prominent form, and the area between the tail and body is smeared with perpendicular black lines. These black lines are adjusted with beautifully spread polka dotes in a balanced eye - absorbing design, and the lines are not strayed. On the head of the tiger, wavy carved lines are drawn, along with the smearing of polka dotes. Two short spears made of zn wood are affixed on to the respective tigers. On the lower horizontal bar near to the heads of tigers, are affixed two bamboo strip baskets, on both sides, The celebrants of the thidui ceremony, in order to communicate to the dead that they had accomplished their task hung thinly prepared pieces of an wood on an extended line. These pieces are 30 cm. long, and 5 cm. board, with their heads thinned and are hung with differences in length, with variations of thread connections, affixed on the long horizontal thread line spread for quite a distance. When the wind blows these pieces of wood produce a croaking sound as they hit one another, these sounds are believed to have been the means of communication to the dead. When the thiduitti ceremony is performed for the dead, these figures which are carved on wood represent the accomplishments during his life time, and the brave deeds are being heralded to those who did not hear of or see any of this brave man’s activities.
What has been carved of his soul figure of the thidui, the representation at the shortlegs and non representation of the hands are symbolic manifestation of the passage of the man to the ripe old age, that he died a normal death, after having accomplished his bodily tasks, and had proper incapacitation of his limbs due to old age. The display of prominent headgear is symbolic of the valour, richness and possession of wealth of the hero and vital energies radiating from the personality, of his dead hero. The figures who are hung upside down are representing effigies of his sons who died an unnatural death, who had been killed by enemies, or who had been lost without trace, The female nude figures are representations of the activity of the hero to molest these women, of his having captured his wife without her consent. The sexy nature of his victim is prominently signified by these emphasises on the sexy carving itself.
These two tigers in whose bodies spears are pierced are representative of them having been killed with spears by the hero or having been captured alive by him. The two baskets are for food and edibles for the dead soul. In some areas, the baskets are representative of the skulls on the enemy, resulted from headhunting. At some graveyards the celebration of the dead man’s ritual ceremonies are also related to the carving from a big plank of the head of a buffalo or mithun and soul figures of the dead and erection of the same.  These carvings of the thidui ceremonies are left on the other side of the village panthong without area disturbance, untouched, and without deliberate attempts on destruction. They are left to the elements of nature for them to take the natural course for withering away. This itself is a pointer to the intrinsic relation between nature and man’s creation.(Concluded)

Last modified onFriday, 18 January 2019 17:02
Rinku Khumukcham

Rinku Khumukcham, Editor of Imphal Times has more than 15+ years in the field of Journalism. A seasoned editor, was a former editor of ISTV News. He resides in Keishamthong Elangbam Leikai, with his wife and parents.

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