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Aspects of Manipuri language and its literary traditions

Ahanthem Homen Singh *



Manipur which lies at the North Eastern part of India and the home to several communities living together since time immemorial has nourished a distinct cultural sensibility of its own. Manipur as we call today literally means land of jewels. The naming of this land as Manipur has been mentioned in several manuscripts. It is given in the manuscript called Sanamahi Laikan that the name "Manipur" was first officially introduced during the reign of Maharaja Garibniwaz (1709- 1748 AD). (Ch.Manihar's A History of Manipuri Literature. 2003).

Manipur was also known to its surrounding kingdoms by different names in the past like Mekhlee by the Assamese; Moglai by the Bengalis and Cacharis; Kathes by the Burmese. Owing to its geographic location as a gateway of Indian sub-continent to the South East Asian countries and the presence of a fertile river-based valley, several tribes have migrated from various places and settled in Manipur among which the Meitei is the majority group.

This also led to the sprouting of a large number of theories about the race and origin of the Meiteis with other tribes along with bearings on religious and linguistics ground. The Mon-Khmer and Tai connection with favourable evidences from archeology and historical elements, Aryan origin based on the adoption of Hinduism in the eighteenth century and Tibeto-Burman ancestral connection like those with the Kachin group of Irrawaddy and Chindwin basin, based on the linguistic affinity (Hudson, T.C. The Meiteis, 1908)

The Manipuri language which we are speaking today is considered to be the dialect of Ningthouja clan whose capital was at Kangla in Imphal. As per historical records, the seven principalities under the seven clans of Manipur viz. Ningthouja, Luwang, Khuman, Angom, Moirang, Kha-Ngamba and Sarang- Leishangthem had amalgamated to form the erstwhile kingdom of Manipur. Historians like W. Ibohal and Gangmumei Kabui have postulated that these clans or salai were originally ethnic groups with their own dialects who occupy an autonomous territory under their respective political and social head or chieftain. (W.Ibohal Singh's The History of Manipur and Gangmumei Kabui's History of Manipur, Vol. 1).

According to linguists, mainly belonging to the western Indologists, Manipuri is the major language spoken in Manipur. It is the language of the Meitei community dwelling on the plains. Manipuri language is placed in the Kuki-Chin branch of Tibeto-Burman language group by scholars and linguists like T.C. Hodson, G.H. Damant and George Grierson based on its affinity with other Tibeto-Burman languages in terms of grammatical features.

George Grierson (1901), in his Linguistic Survey of India, stated that "Meithei, the chief language of Manipur, differs from other Kuki-Chin languages in so many points that it must be classed as a separate sub-group. It has been returned as the language of 240637 individuals. It has largely influenced the dialects of other tribes spoken in the Manipur state."

Some of the early accounts on the language and literature of Manipur were given by British officers like T.C Hudson, James Johnstone, E.W Dun, W. Mc Culloch, Damant, W. Pettigrew, R.B. Pemberton et al. though there main objective were on the social, political and economic behavior of the people and on the linguistic features of Manipuri.

Thus according to some British officials whose vested interest is on the anthropological and social bearings of the people of Manipur, the literary wealth of this community is meager and underestimated. The literature of this group finds little space in their discussion. This may be due to the fact that with their preponderance on empirical evidence based on written textual traditions, they failed to see the nature of literary transmission and consumption by the community through various modes of expressions and exchanges between written, oral and performance which forms part of the knowledge system of the community. It is worthwhile to turn our attention to the vast literary wealth of Manipur now.

It is observed that during 18th -19th century AD, with the rapid spreading of Vaishnavism under the patronage of great rulers like Charairongba (1698-1709), Garibniwaz (1709-1748), Bhagyachandra (1759-1798), Gambhir Singh (1821-1834) and Chandrakriti (1850-1886), there was a marked increase in the number of texts written in Manipuri as well as translation and adaptations from Sanskrit and Bengali.

The kings, who were great patrons of Vaishnavism, in their pursuit for proper and steady propagation of the new faith, began a process of assimilation and adaptation of the earlier existing forms of worship, rituals and other socio-religious rites. Translations and adaptations of Hindu epics and Puranas from Bengali and Sanskrit into Manipuri like the Ramayana of Krittibas, Gangadas Sen's Mahabharata, etc. were going on in full swing during this period.

Langoi Sagol Thaba (1802) by Longjam Prasuram is an interesting adaptation of Aswamedha Parva from Gangadas Sen's Mahabharata where he put in the locales of the Manipur valley with local idioms and imageries infused with Sanskrit and Bengali words. In 1780, prince Nabananda translated Virataparva from the epic in Bengali by Ramakrishna Das into Manipuri titled Virat Santhuplon.

In the area of fine and performing arts, this period is noted for its rapid growth and popularization of sankritans, recitation of the Hindu religious texts, ras lila dance etc. Not only the epics, puranas and religious stories were translated and adapted, they were propagated through the mediums of songs (Bangadesh Kirtan, Nat Sankritan), dance ( Rasa Lila, Nat Pala, Sansenba, Vasak, Khubak Isei), oral performance ( Wari Leeba, Lairik Theeba Haiba) and dance drama (Gauda Lila, Udukhala Lila). Most of these performing traditions were integration of the folk and regional style with the imported style that came along with Vaishnavism.

It can be said that the 18th and 19th century Manipuri literature as this period seems to be one of the most vibrant in terms of literary activities along with appearance of dynamic modes of cultural ethos of the people. On the literary front, the Manipuri scholars of 18th and 19th centuries, with ample support from the rulers had concentrated their talents and energy on translating and adapting the two epics namely, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata along with other religious texts associated with Vaishnavism.

Besides being in written form, these texts have travelled through other forms of representation or expression also. To the majority of the population who cannot read or write, recitation of these texts has led them to relish the contents and essence of the texts. Basically meant for transmission of Hindu religious tradition into the socio religious life of the Manipuris in the wake of mass conversion into the Vaishnavaite fold in the 18th century, the texts have been rendered to the masses through narration and performing traditions.

Thus, the texts have come out from the confinement of scripto-centric and ventured along with phono and body-centric forms of expressions. The written texts are available within a small circle of scholars under the patronage of the kings as writing, a costly affair, was beyond the means of common folk. The royal institution called Pundit Loishang, along with maintaining the royal chronicles, was in charge of looking after the scribes and their literary compositions.

But the common people also received their share of literary quota through orality and performances. Orality becomes an important mode of literary transmission and propagation side by side with performing traditions. Forms of narrative arts like Wari Leeba (story telling), Lairik Thiba Haiba (narration and recitation of epics); musical/sung traditions like Khongjom Parva, Pena Esei, Bangadesh (a form of Sankritana), Nat Sankritana; and performing traditions like Ras Leela, Gostha Leela et al have become a medium for transactions and transmitting of the literary traditions of Manipur.


* Ahanthem Homen Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is a Research Scholar at Dept of Modern Indian Languages and Literary Studies, University of Delhi. He can be reached at homenahanthem(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was reposted on February 10, 2017.


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