Modern civilisation in Manipur revisited

Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh *

Like Captain Charles Ryder's revisit to 'Brideshead Revisited', a British drama film (2008) based on the famous novel by Evelyn Waugh (1945), the delicious thrill of revisiting Imphal down memory lane in 1945, mingles with poetic poignancy.

1945 has a feel of déjà vu for me. Without making nostalgia to obscure facts, and surveying Meitei and other tribal cultures in Manipur, it did happen that modern civilisation replaced anthropological civilisation in Manipur, especially in Imphal city and Lamka town in Churachandpur. Within living memory, they grew more pertinent with passing years.

Anthropological Meitei civilisation began since the time when Meiteis descended from the hills and settled in the valley. What I can see in my mind's eye, is not the poetic equivalent of counting sheep. I can see Manipur as clear as yesterday. I see Imphal as it morphed from a little rustic market town to a sprawling city, along with deepening social complexity but minimal rise in per capita income.

I don't expect Imphal to grow like the relentlessly mercantile Hongkong, but I anticipate the Union government to invest in Manipur, centered on industries and markets as a 'process of civilisation'. Manipuris are helpless with their basic subsistence agrarian economy. In a larger scale, it's like India that is trying to get more industrialised with foreign investment.

Modern civilisation did march roughshod into Manipur at the end of 1945. Though it's difficult to define what civilisation is, there are some criteria with which we know what civilisation is. The modern concept of civilisation was born in the 16th century in the late Roman republic when they developed a kind of culture, and established social mores ie proper behaviour and custom.

Since my days in the Bombay floodlights and now living in London, I have formed an idea of how 'modern' civilisation came to Manipur. With my heart never far away from my sleeve and drawing heavily on my favourite history philosopher Toynbee with his 12-volume "A Study of History", it's a kind of scrolling mental hypertext without trying to descend into scribbles.

Civilisation is an advanced development in human society, including intellectual/cultural and physical/material development in a certain region or an epoch, such as the Inca and Aztec civilisations (though they had no symbolic writing system). Civilisation seems to arise when people are faced with unavoidable challenges, such as the Egyptian civilisation that arose from their struggle with the great floods of the Nile and from their ability to adapt to the harsh environment of the Nile River Valley with controlled irrigation.

This is no flight of fancy. Standing myself shakily in muddy Manipur, feeling the mud between my toes, I watched Manipuris struggle when confronted with a challenge, brought about by the upheaval of the end of World War II in 1945. The first Japanese bombs fell upon Imphal town on May 10 1942.

Rebuilding Imphal town was a spontaneous challenge to the economically inactive Manipuris. But they successfully exploited the seams between war and peace, to build a foundation for civilisation. A creative minority in both the hills and valley, adopted new ideas that were acceptable to the majority in their societies.

The miniature Kangleipak Meitei civilisation was developed like those big ancient civilisations. The Neolithic evolution of Meiteis from hunter-gatherer to agriculture and sedentism provided them with surplus food. That gave them time to think for better life. Having settled near the great rivers for water, they designed shelter, clothing and other essential items of living. With an independent writing system with Meitei mayek they indulged in social stimulation, and created Meitei culture or social mores.

Agreeing with Toynbee, the adoption of Christianity by other tribals in the hills of Manipur helped to vitalise their march to modern civilisation. The educated minority began an attempt to escape the unfavourable present by looking to the past, to create a new prosperous society. In this challenge they are succeeding.

Religion plays a great role in shaping human thought and civilisation. It can make or break civilisation. Hinduism civilised the Meiteis. If I were to believe Edward Gibbons in his 'The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire', he attributed Christianity playing a role in the fall of Roman Empire.

Though Meiteis had a culture associated with the old Sanamahism, they would have remained at the bottom of the spiral staircase of the present Meitei civilisation, without adopting Hinduism. Hinduism is a way of life with a philosophy that tells Meiteis where they would go after death. With moral fitness being the dominant factor, Hinduism determines a person's suitability for eternal life in Heaven.

Civilisation includes culture and politeness, arts and crafts, and technology that measures the level of advancement. The founding of cities like Delhi with monuments of the Red Fort, and the Tajmahal in Agra, by the Mughal is a hallmark of human civilisation. Modern civilisation came to Manipur, mostly due to higher education and frequent travel to other developed parts of India after World War II. That effectively brought home to Manipuris the consciousness of how backward they were.

When the War ended in 1945, Meiteis who had fled Imphal to far-off villages, began to rush back. Many Tangkhuls and Kukis also came down to Imphal for education and business, such as opening of restaurants and lodgings at the south end of Maxwell bazaar, and at old Lambulane respectively.

The experience of the War and meeting people from all over the world, especially the British Tommies and American GIs, and of the returning peace, began to revive a shattered Manipuri nation. Intuitively they began to reconstruct the ruined Imphal town. The reassembly of Imphal town to turn it into a modern city is part of the revolution for Manipur's civilisation.

The political agent Christopher Gimson didn't renew the permit for Marwaris to return to Manipur except for a couple of families. In their absence, Manipuris, whose genealogy is not tweaked for trade and commerce, picked up the chance to establish themselves in business although their oriental looks alienated them like a cat on a hot tin roof, in mayang India.

With the bravura resuscitation of Imphal town, Manipuris began to confront the wretchedness of their life. Halfway in their effort, between a marketing exercise and a culture shock, they had a commitment to civilise themselves with a gusto, bordering on excitement.

Soon, the burden of life's ambiguities began to lift from their shoulders. A few educated people both in the valley and hills, who shared two essential qualities: the imagination to question the received wisdom of their time, and the moral courage to stand up for the truth, began to do away with the alchemy of living in a dream world of "we are total and universal".

Daily flights by Birla Airlines using war-surplus cargo Dakota planes from the disused war-time Koirengei airfield, in the early '50s came in handy. The flights from Calcutta to Imphal and back with a stop-over at Gauhati, took four hours for ¹ 50 one way. This brought the Manipuri youth, especially college students, into more contact with mayang Indians. While broadening their educational horizons, they also brought back new ideas to Manipur in civilisational terms.

A few literary avant-garde among them, felt a new start ought to be made in politics and society as much as in economics, science and art. They aspired to build a rudiment of modern civilsation without a more sceptical inner voice. That revolution in modern thinking panned out first as a miasma but later as the old meme.

Their vision appealed to those who were braced to meet the challenges of the modern world. The smart, flamboyant and easy-going character of American GIs during the War made an impression on the Manipuri youth, me included. We became enthused with the idea of "civilisation" that meant in material terms. We realised we couldn't have our cake and eat it. We had to get rid of our mendacious contentment.

The ancient Meitei civilisation remained bogged down after the British occupation. Most Meiteis were transformed into lazybones without productive thinking. However, the end of WWII brought sea change in Imphal and Manipur. With the awakening of social and political thinking among the educated, in both the valley and hills, there was liberalism among the youth. They narrowed down the existing gap in ethnic differences and widened their comportment and individuality.

These born-again youngsters were roaring to accept new beginnings and reject the past. They began to indulge in Western culture, not only in their dress style but in diet, attitude and behaviour. They began to yearn for affordable higher education for which their parents worked to their bones.

Meitei girls changed their old-fashioned "Moirang Thoibi" hair-do and adopted the conventional swept-back modern styles. They wore modern stylish blouses and wrapped their phaneks (open skirts) around their waists, letting them fall to their ankles instead of the old calf-length style, draped around and over their breasts and tucked under armpits, which answers both for the top and bottom. Parents sent not only sons, but their daughters for higher education. As educated mothers, they taught their infant children, giving them a head start on their way to modernising Manipuri civilisation.

The 1945-history of Manipur was completely rewritten when I revisited Imphal in 2017.

What a difference three decades make?

* Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is based in the UK and can be reached at
This article was posted on April 18 , 2018.

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