My memories of Imphal from 1941
- Part 10 -

Dr Mohendra Irengbam *

 Lodhi Gardens, Delhi 2016
Lodhi Gardens, Delhi 2016

This is the end month of the year 2020 when the earth stopped moving. Italy was the first country in Europe to go into full lockdown on March 10, followed by Spain and France, and then Britain on March 26. By the end of March, half the world's population was locked down with Covid-19 virus. Sharing the gloom with so many, my mind drifted back to 1947 in Imphal

A youth in Imphal in 2020, would find it hard to imagine a midsummer's night in Imphal in 1947, would gather with thick darkness outside of the British Reserve, filling with deafening silence and a distressing void. The tiny world of Manipur stood still.

Imphal was not alone. It also beggars belief that all the grandeur you could see now in New Delhi was non-existent in 1947. New Delhi in the early 1950s, was an enormous terrain, filled with an abundance of thorny kikar (acacia) trees (chigongleie pambi in Manipuri) – branches of which were used as Indian national toothbrush (Daton) except for the Viceroy's House (now Rashtrapati Bhavan), the Secretariat (now Houses of Parliament), the India Gate, Kingsway (now Rajpath).

The upmarket circular Connaught Place was later added for shopping and promenading with posh air-conditioned restaurants, some with bars where you could sip ice-cold beer and eat canapés. New Delhi Railway Station, 1 km from Connaught Place between Ajmeri Gate and Paharganj, was established in 1926 with only one line and one platform

History goes its own ways and it always has the last word. So the history of Delhi over time, is the history of Old Delhi with a rich tapestry from the bygone era of the Moghuls and beyond, beginning with the Red Fort, Chandni Chowk, Jama Masjid, Humayun's Tomb, Lodhi Gardens and others. There were no high rise buildings in Delhi.

Karol Bagh that was established by the Punjabi refugees after the 1947 partition of India, was like Khwairamband Bazaar in Imphal. New Delhi had only a few densely packed, substandard and dilapidated houses around the Gold Market area, to accommodate thousands of employees, who were brought from different parts of India, for various services at the Civil Lines and the Old secretariat (Now Delhi Legislative Assembly).

Knowing how Delhi was like in the 1950s where it was rare to see a car except from the Diplomatic Enclaves, bearing number plates in blue with initials CD (Diplomatic Corps) it is not surprising in comparison, what people in Imphal used light for their homes in early 1940s. I have written in an earlier chapter that women vendors at Ima Keithel used to burn pine sticks that produced a fragrant aroma, for light when darkness closed in and daylight eked out.

Not since my childhood experience of night life in 1941 in the next door house with a podon, have I stopped to think what a wonderful world it is to see everything bathed in the brilliance of electric lamps. It is quite pixey to relive those days in Imphal before oil-fuelled lanterns were available in many homes. Metal lamps known as podon was the main source of lighting our homes. It was luxury lighting for some.

The exact timing of the use of fire for warmth and lighting by cave men has been a subject of debate. Some scientists claim that they have found evidence in the 'microscopic traces of wood ash' from controlled fire by Homo erected (Standing man) in Africa, dating back a million or so years back. The pre-historic or the cave men are believed to have used fire for warmth and light inside their caves.

Before the 18th century, night time activities were rare. In such an event, they used torches using vegetable and animal fats. It was followed in 18th century, by candles made of beeswax or animal fat. Then, they progressed to using oil from animals like whales or fish. Kerosene lamps appeared in Europe in mid-19th century.

In Imphal in early 20th century, kerosene lamps became available when some Marwari traders from Assam, came to settle in Imphal for small business enterprises. One of them, the Bakliwal family became an agent for the supply of red kerosene and petrol from the Burma Oil Company (B O C). A petrol filling station was established at a place opposite the North Gate of Kangla by the Indo-Burma Road.

Most households in Imphal, began to use small circular kerosene lamps known as 'Podon'. It has kerosene in tightly enclosed round shaped metal container, about 7-8 cm in diameter and about 5 cm tall. They were made of tin with a central upright hollow circular and tapering snout of about 4x1cm, which was removable. Through it a rounded cotton wick came out, which burnt the kerosene inside.

The wick could be pulled up or down above the snout, to control the intensity of the light. The longer the more light, the shorter the less light. There were many households that could not afford these 'sophisticated lamps' at that time. They used little pine sticks, which they bought from the market.

A few years later, tall free-standing kerosene fuelled lanterns known as laltel in Meiteilon, were introduced in Imphal. They were Hurricane lanterns with kerosene oil-lit flat wicks, surrounded by chimney glasses that sat on rounded oil container bases. The top and bottom parts of the lamp had perforated metal surrounds for air circulation and to control the flame.

The wick could be adjusted using a metal ring at the base. Each lamp had a metal wire handle on top, with which it could be hung up or carried around. Much later, medium sized freestanding pressure-generated kerosene lamps called half-lamps, and hanging ones, known as Petromax (named after the nick name of the inventor) with glass globes facing downwards, became available.

These lamps had mantle instead of wick. Mantle is fabric impregnated with chemicals to give white bright light when heated with a flame. It was fitted like a string purse and it had a lifespan. A hand pump pressurised the air, which forces liquid kerosene from a tank at the bottom to a carburettor that vaporised the liquid and mixed it with air.

The mixed air and gas from a tube burned and heated the mantle to glow and also produces heat. They were very expensive, and only a few people owned them. They were used mostly for public functions like weddings, and Durga Puja. They were lent out free of cost by the owner to the neighbourhood, even after electricity came to Imphal in the late 1930s.

When electric lighting became available in Imphal in the late 1930s, many households could not afford it. But when used for public functions such as weddings and Hindu festivals it gave immense pleasure to one and all. It was like the feeling of Buddha as he achieved nirvana. One such festival is still etched on the back of my mind. This was Hindu celebration of Durga Puja. On the indigenous side, Lai Harouba parallels the sentimentality of Meiteis as the redeemer. They have confidence, they have protection.

Lai Harouba was revelled with an infusion of Meitei culture – an assertion of creative confidence and a demonstration of our diversity among the seven clans. It joyously reflected a vintage appeal of the primal Meitei belief system with its own symbolism and cosmology (cf. Part 14).

Durga puja is a Hindu festival that has been celebrated all over India, dating back its origin in Bengal in 1583. It is the biggest Hindu festival in Bengal and more so in Calcutta, where it is the Meitei equivalent of Ningol Chakouba or the North Indian Diwali. In a way, it is also like Lai Harouba, as much a social event as a religious one. This involves the worship of goddess Durga. She symbolises power and triumph of good over evil. It is a ten day event in the Hindu month of Ashwin (September-October). It is an autumn ritual.

In Manipur, the Meiteis having been initiated into Hinduism in 1717, they grasped the veneer of Hindu philosophy and mythology quite in amazing rapidity from Meitei story tellers and Puja performing Brahmins. Then, they forged their new rituals to accommodate the old cultural rite of Lai Harouba, without any scruple, in a way that, their living past would give meaning not only to the present but also to the future.

In Imphal, in the late 1940s, Durga Puja was celebrated with fanfare and solemnity in the glare of electrical lights for five days of festive bonhomie. It was in the Manipuri month of Mera (September-October) at various garishly coloured Mandaps and by the roadsides. The most colourful one I knew, was by the Maharani Bridge-end of Uripok, by the roadside, with lots of people exulting in the thunder and tumult of the occasion. Hindi film love songs and devotional hymns metallically erupted out of loudspeakers during the day, and a lot of fireworks went off at night, while erratic explosions in the sky lit up the darkness, sending sprays of myriad fireworks.

Most children in Imphal, including me, celebrated it. The prime excitement was the decoration of the small Durga house about 1.2m x 0.5m, with various coloured tissue papers that were cut into strips with a string and stuck with glue to the small hut. A vibrant tapestry of pretty paper flowers, all enriched with colour and flamboyance were the trademark.

A colour poster picture of Durga in her martial form with eighteen arms, destroying the demon Mahishasura in the form of a buffalo, was installed inside. Towards the end of the Puja, called Dussehra, there were animal sacrifices, such as at Kalighat Temple in South Calcutta and at Kangla cantonment in Imphal. As Meiteis were pescatarians, we sacrificed a 'torbot' (ash gourd) to appease the goddess. It didn't mean anything to me. Just going through the rituals.

In the Kangla Cantonment in Imphal, Kalimai (Black Mother), another form of Durga in its dark hue with a red protruding tongue and multiple arms, as the goddess of war or power (Shakti), was venerated by the Gurkhas. They celebrated Durga Puja every year at the Inner Polo ground. The main event was the sacrifice of buffaloes to propitiate Kalimai on the day of Dussehra.

When I was a little boy, my father as an invitee, along with some British officers, took me to watch it. A buffalo was led out by a rope around its neck and tied to a decorated wooden pole. It came happily enough, but not the ones after. They seemed to have sensed the smell of the blood that was immediately covered with sand.

Nearby a platoon of Riflemen holding their 303 rifles on their right shoulders stood. A priest would hold a long sword that was curved outward and broadened at the end, with his two hands, and strike at the neck of the buffalo when the riflemen would fire a single ceremonial volley. The body of the animal would slump without its head, when four riflemen would grab the hind legs, two on each side and drag the carcass around the pole a few times until it stopped writhing. Further sacrifices of goats and chicken followed by individual Gurkhas.

The Gurkha battalion had a unit each, stationed at Ukhrul, Tamenglong and Churachandpur to fly the British flag. When I was a small boy, it was a pageant once a month, to watch a column of Gurkhas marching to a light infantry quick step, down Uripok Road from Tamenglong, led by their military band playing bag pipes and beating side-drums and big drums. The big drummers always wore tiger skins. At the approaching sound of drumbeats, men, women and children from both sides of Uripok Road would rush to the roadside to see the spectacle.

Durga puja celebration is Navaratri (9 night) and 10 days, in south India and Dussehra in north India, which are celebrations for the victory of Rama against Ravana when effigies of Ravana are burnt, as in the Ram Lila ground in Delhi. It also is the festival to mark the victory of goddess Durga in her battle against the demon Mahishasura, who could change into different forms. The festival, in essence, epitomises the victory of good over evil.

 Meenakshi Temple complex (one Tower out of 14 towers of various heights) :  Madurai, Tamil Naidu. November 2019
Meenakshi Temple complex (one Tower out of 14 towers of various heights)
Madurai, Tamil Naidu. November 2019

Once, my wife, son and I visited the famous Meenakshi Temple in Madurai in South India, as a guest of the Chairman of the Temple Board. It is a huge complex and a beautiful temple constructed in the Dravidian architecture. It was during Navaratri that we saw the big procession through the hall of numerous sculptured pillars inside the temple, when the followers took the idol of Shiva from his quarter in the temple, after the final prayer of the day, to join his consort Parvarti (another name for Durga) in another quarter for the night. Meenakshi in Tamil means "fish eyed" or beautiful eyes. Her statue is of greenish tint, indicating her dusky Dravidian origin.

As theories go, Indus valley people moved to the Gangetic plain when the valley was devastated by a flood. Another theory entertains that fair-complexioned Aryan people from the Steppes, south of Russia, migrated to the Gangetic valley, pushing the indigenous people to the south. They brought the Vedic rituals of fire worship and animal sacrifice, performed by a priest. Their indigenous rituals included the worship of various images such as the Sun, tutelary deities, such as Vishnu and the phallus (Shiv lingam). Hindus still follow these liturgical practices with some alterations.

The indigenous rituals and beliefs of Meiteis are just the same as those of Hindus, such as worship of Atiya Sidaba, animal sacrifice and the sexual imagery in Lai Harouba. Now of course, changed with the adoption of vegetarian Hindu life style.

Hindu mythologies explain Hindu philosophies of life in parables, such as Rama in Ramayana, is the philosophical Absolute. Lai Harouba on the other hand (see Part 14), chronicles the growth of Meitei cultural Absolute.

* Dr Mohendra Irengbam wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at irengbammsingh(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on December 23 2020 .

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