The Manipuri Women Known More For Their Comradeship

S. Kunjabihari Singh *

The meira Paibis
The meira Paibis

The tiny state of Manipur on the easternmost corner of India is known for its freshening features of its mother nature and mesmerizing effects of its art and culture embedded in its rich traditional uniqueness. The late Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in his maiden visit to the state in early fifties was so awe-struck with its picturesque setting that he bestowed upon Manipur the prestigious title, 'A Jewel of India'. Today, the serene beauty of motherland is a thing of the past, only faint memory persists.

It has however, a name to reckon in the country, be it its unique dance format, one of the four in the country or its being the origin of 'Polo', or its women-power being the power-house of cultural, economic or social movement, the creator of the infamous, 'Nupi-Lal'. These days, however, the state is more known for its 'Bandh' culture and more recently as the 'power house of sports'.

These so-called fair-sexes in effect are a formidable component of the Manipuri society in that they over and above running the home, are a force to reckon. They have dominated the country in many sports events particularly football for several years in a stretch, beating football crazy states like West Bengal, Goa or Kerala. The national women football captain Bembem is a Manipuri. So also Mary Kom or Sarita don't need much of an introduction.

They too have a name more for capable of organizing kind of a social movement, 'Nisha Bandies' (Anti-drug, Anti-alcohol), or 'Meira Paibies', (holding of a bamboo- torch filled with kerosene), group exclusively of women to stop man-folk and the youngsters from taking to drug and drinks. They group themselves to save families from the torture by the husbands resulting to ultimate breakdown of the families.

The functioning itself is typical of the Manipuri ladies. After the day's chores, the dinner and completing other related household responsibilities, when they are in effect, are supposed to have respite for the day, take solace to rest, one more inescapable social responsibility normally lies in waiting.

One and all able- bodied women come out in groups on the roads, ring the electric posts around sounding a wakeup call to come out to be part of the Nisha (alcoholic) Bandh force. They in their fifties in each locality stayed awaked till around short of midnight, waiting for any men or boy returning intoxicated for confrontation and teach a lesson not to forget that easy. The effect to the society is definitely tremendous.

These so called weaker sections of the society are sole bread earner in many of the families. They run three market complexes, exclusively for women in the very heart of the city. Two are exclusively markets for clothing, the products of thousands of weavers in the valley and the hills, clothing for ceremonial purposes, religious functions like marriages, pujas, deity festival ( Lai Haraoba) and the like. Any item you mention you get in the two.

The other, third, again manned by women folk deals in vegetables, fish and sundry items roaring from the predawn hours to till late in the evening. Nowhere in the world, such women in their thousands, run markets except in Manipur. And these women are the sole economic hub of their families across the state.

The most memorable episode in the history of uprising of women as a force formidable enough to attract universal recognition can be traced in the 'Nupi-Lal', ('Lal' actually means War), a group of women volunteers organizing spontaneously a fighting force to confront the British soldiers, the Assam Rifles in 1939. For days and months Manipur's tasteful indigenous rice was exported outside the state by the mill owners all from outside the state under the patronage of the British Rulers.

The natives who were then self-sufficient in rice became apprehensive of shortage of the only staple food and heading towards a famine; organized smaller groups in localities finally to conglomerate as force formidable enough to come to the streets, block the transport of rice, engaged in hand to hand fight in a manner never seen before.

There were casualties for sure in their hundreds but this unique incident known the world over as 'Nupi Lal' succeeded in stopping further export of rice. A Memorial known as 'NupiLal Memorial Complex' to immortalize the memory, the valor and the cause of this uprising is erected at the site of the main confrontation adjacent to the Civil Secretariat, opposite the CM's Official Bungalow.

Deservingly, this day the complex has turned out to be not only a memorial of the women of Manipur's great uprising but also a great tourist attraction. What is remarkable is the spontaneity of the torch rallies or sit-in-protest by women to form a force not to be easily scraped. Recall, in the aftermath of the alleged rape and murder of Manorama a group of 10 or so women in their forties and fifties parading in front of the then Assam Rifles' main Gate, semi-naked and shouting at the sepoys to come and rape them.

This was one of the most vociferous protest in its obscenest format; the manner of demonstration conceptualized by themselves. The objective and effect was achieved spontaneously in that this episode could connect a chord with the authorities responsible for the killing of Manorama. The comradeship is uniquely phenomenal.

The women of Manipur are known for their deft fingers solely contributing to the weaving and embroidering of intrinsic designs in making clothing for all occasions. The loin loom and normal looms are the only facilities they adopt. Their products and designs are now clandestinely copied by the mill owners in other parts of India threatening the very existence of the products.

Yet they still occupy an important part in the traditional weaving and handicraft products. It remains unique, the weaving sector happens to be the exclusive preserve of the woman-folk unlike other states. Of course, they have not adopted semi-mechanized looms the 'Jalla' or 'Jacard' (sorry not sure about the spelling), which are strenuous and have necessarily to be handled by man-folk.

A full length 'sari' can be completed in a day with these machineries. According to state government estimates, around 2,00,000 weavers use over 1,80,000 looms all non-mechanized. The state occupies third position in the country in respect of production; women weavers contribute 65% to state's economy. This is indeed something great for the women of the state. The GOM is contemplating to encourage males to take to weaving sensing the productivity once men join the profession.

The 'Pashmina' of Kashmir has its own distinctive quality apart from the intricate designs and has its own name the world over. The women of Manipur are not far behind. The legendry princess of Moirang, a small town 40 km from Imphal, called 'Thoibi' had her own distinctive finery never equaled by any other product.

This day the name 'Moirang Fee' is a household name enviously copied by bigger industry houses. It's so fine that the saying goes, " Paira Khudap, Hulla Pheidom", meaning, you can hold the cloth under your palm and yet, if you throw- spread, well it would cover an entire plot of vegetable, depicting the finery of her product, the 'Chhadar'. It can well compete with the story of 'Pasmina' claimed to be possible to be pulled through a normal sized ring.

These days however, the women have under desperate circumstances have to come out in the area of construction by working as unskilled helpers, a tedious and utterly strenuous vocation formerly a domain of men only. This vocation is not exclusive of Manipur only. In other states too the practice is there. In Kerala, women mason groups function with the necessary training and expertise. The contribution of the construction sector to the state's GDP has increased largely from these workers.

So far so good, courageous and independent; a respectful salute to them.

* S. Kunjabihari Singh wrote this article for
The article was originally written on 01-03-16 and the writer can be reached at kunjabiharis(AT)rediffmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on March 09, 2016.

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