My memories of Imphal from 1941
- Part 12 -

Dr Mohendra Irengbam *

Manipur Hockey Team visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra 1962 : Standing (L) ex-IGP Waikhom Damodar (deceased). Standing (R) author
Manipur Hockey Team visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra 1962
Standing (L) ex-IGP Waikhom Damodar (deceased). Standing (R) author

The subject matter of this article is about ancient Meitei sports. Meiteis are sport-loving people and they play a variety of indigenous and modern sports, including Martials arts. And presently, they are quite good in all kinds of sports. Functional characteristics are important in determining sports performance. Studies show that athleticism may be in the genes, inherited from a parent or parents.

I am twitching the curtains to see if this Meitei trait for sports could be related to their innate national character, which is poignant, passionate and unashamedly old-fashioned with a tendency to physical confrontation when they run out of sensible arguments. It seems now that the Meiteis are vying for a rightful place in history of India, with the coming of the Sports University in Manipur.

Before I continue with a few ancient Meitei sports, can I take a little digression towards the Taj Mahal in Agra, the Monument of Love, which my friends in the above photograph, came to see.

The city of Agra was the capital of Mughal Emperors, Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan, from 1526 to 1558. The Taj Mahal is the pride and passion of Shah Jahan's love, wrought in living white marble. Mumtaz Mahal died at the age of 33 during the birth of her daughter, named Gauhara Begum in the Deccan (present Madhya Pradesh). It is said that Shah Jahan loved her so much that, 'she had a child every year of their marriage'.

According to experts, the Taj Mahal complex is the replica of the Islamic Paradise. The mausoleum, which is set on the south bank of Jamuna River and right at the far back, is the symbolic replica of the heavenly throne of Allah. The beauty of Taj Mahal in the full moon of October, can only be described as an exquisite but plaintive mausoleum bathed in eternal love.

After this short detour, I am back on the main road safely. Manipuris now excel in many fields of sports in India. It is mainly because they have an aptitude for them. The success of the boxer Mary Kom from a small tribal community in Churachandpur, defies definition. She is presently, a Member of the Upper House of Indian Parliament and recipient of Padma Vibhushan. Amongst so many other medals, she won the bronze medal boxing in the 51kg category, in the 2012 Summer Olympics.

My wife and I booked tickets months before, to watch her box in the London arena. We were very animated. She also became the first Indian female boxer to win a Gold Medal in the Asian Games in 2014 at Incheon, South Korea. A Bollywood film has been made about her trials and tribulations to becoming an Indian female boxing legend. A road in Imphal has been named Mary Kom Road.

Another famous Manipuri woman boxer is Laisram Sarita Devi from a poor family in Thoubal. Among others, she won a Bronze medal, a Silver medal and a Gold medal at different World Championships. She has been conferred an Arjuna Award for her substantial achievements in the field of sports. A documentary film on her life, has won the 'Best film on Woman's Outstanding Achievement Award' in the Tagore International Film Festival in November 2020.

Speaking of Meitei indigenous sports, we begin with the annual 'Hiyang Tannaba' (Boat Race) that was one of many sports and pastimes, which Meiteis indulged with buoyancy and enthusiasm. Anybody and everybody could take part in it if he was adept. The universality of the sports, especially 'sagol kangjei' (polo) was mainly due to Meitei social structure that was socialistic and egalitarian. It recognised only a few differences in wealth, power, prestige and status.

Historically, the annual boat races in the month of September (Langban in Manipur calendar), took place on the Kangla moat that surrounded the Kangla on three sides and lasted five days. It was the most important festival in Manipur, celebrated with feverish excitement in the presence of the reigning king.

Each boat race was immediately followed by hockey matches (Kangjei sanaba) that took place on the Mannung kangjeibung (Inner Polo Ground). No prizes were given for boat race. It was only for the honour.

241st Heikru Hidongba at Sagolband Bijoy Govinda Thangapat, Imphal :: 09th September 2019
241st Heikru Hidongba at Sagolband Bijoy Govinda Thangapat on 09th September 2019 :: Pix - Shankar Khangembam

During my boyhood, we had boat races, only on the moat, Bijoy Govinda Thangapat, by the main road to Terra Keithel. That was also only for a short distance. It was held in the month of September. Thousands of people would throng by the moat to watch the spectacle. It was not just a physical sport, as in the case of Oxford and Cambridge annual race on the River Thames, but it was ritualistic and religious.

The race was called Heikru Hidongba, the literal translation would be the 'Boat ride of the gooseberry'. It had something to do with gooseberry. I don't exactly know the significance. It was introduced in 1779. On the day of the race, 180 gooseberries were threaded and festooned.

Another was made of rice grains, each of which was husked by fingers. These were offered to Lord Krishna or Shri Govinda before the start of the race. One or the other of the two wreaths had to be placed on the deck of a boat. The decision was left to Pundits to decide on a particular auspicious day. After performing certain rituals, the rowers and the cox, who were dressed in traditional costumes and special stylish koyets (turbans) would begin the race, starting from the eastern end of the moat.

The Meiteis have been using boats, not only for sports, but for transportation since early days in their history, especially during the rainy season when the rivers swelled up. There were long dug-out canoes that transported merchandise, such as thatched grass, fire logs, and glazed earthen potteries from far away villages in the south of the valley. The boats would ply up the Nambul River and anchor by the Khwairamband Bazaar at Wahengbam Leikai waterfront.

Boats were also used by people inhabiting the shores of Loktak Lake, which was larger than the present dimensions of about 235 sq km, with a few floating agricultural areas. It is a bit like the Inle Lake of Myanmar, which is half its size (119 sq km). They used the boats for transporting people and goods from one village to another and for fishing. Manipur had many deep lakes, such as Lousi Pat, Charang Pat, Waithou Pat, Khoidum Pat and others. People living on their shores likewise, used boats as the main transport and to eke out a living.

It might not be too presumptuous to infer that Meiteis were born with an element of sports in their veins. They had many other indigenous sports apart from Hiyang Tannaba, both outdoors and indoors. They also played many modern sports.

 Formal Mukna Sanaba in 19th century
Formal Mukna Sanaba in 19th century

The indigenous outdoor ones were Yubi lakpi (Rugby), khong kangjei (hockey). Sagol kangjei (Polo), Mukna Kangjei (wrestling-hockey), Mukna sanaba (wrestling), Thang-Ta (martial arts) and arambai hunba (throwing of darts).

Hiyang Tannaba as mentioned above, was the most important of all the sports. Mukna sanaba in the early 1940s was more popular in the countryside. During my stay in the village of Senjam-Chirang every year Mukna sanaba was the main sport that was performed during the Lai Haraoba festival (cf. Part 14).

The one who beat everybody was called 'jatra'. Among the young female girls "Oolalubi" was very popular. Mukna Kangjei was usually played at the end of Lai Harouba festival.

Meiteis also played modern sports, such as Football, hockey, Volleyball and others with finesse. An outstanding one I remember, was the championship of the volleyball by the Imphal Sporting Club, based at Uripok, in the Assam Olympic Games that was held in Jorhat in 1941. My eldest brother Gokulchandra was a player in the team.

The pride and joy of Imphal was and still is the Mapal Kangjeibung or the Outer Polo Ground. Manipur is reputed to have introduced to the world the modern polo as it is played today. Mapal Kangjeibung is still played on, as it has been for centuries.

Before the War, every Sunday afternoon in winter, polo matches were played between 2 panas, with one or two British officers on each side. The pana was an administrative unit during the reign of Meitei kings. There were four panas: Ahallup, Naharup, Khabam and Laipham. A Meitei must belong to any of these four 'districts'.

The contemporary game of polo was born in Manipur over 2,000 years ago, as recorded in the Cheitharol Kumbaba 'Royal Chronicle' (33-1897 CE) of Manipur. It is now revived by the Manipur Polo and Horse Riding Association and is flourishing. There have been annual International polo tournaments in Imphal in November each year, since 2012. My wife, son and I are polo enthusiasts and have been visiting Imphal every year to watch the matches beginning from the 8th International polo in 2015.

Manipur, as the bona fide origin of the modern sport of polo has been accepted by the Hurlingham Polo Association (HPA) the governing body of polo in the UK, Ireland and many other countries. The American Westchester polo club the parent body of American polo also accepts Manipur as the genuine origin. The Guinness Book of Records (1991 edition p 288) traces the origin of polo to Manipur circa 3100 BCE, where it was played as Sagol Kangjei (Hockey on horseback).

Mukna - Indigenous Games of Manipur at  Sangai Festival at Khuman Lampak :: November 22 2018
Mukna - Indigenous Games of Manipur at Sangai Festival at Khuman Lampak in November 2018 :: Pix - : Lamdamba Oinam

Among the Meitei indoor sports, Kang sanaba was the most popular among the girls and the boys as they often played together with one or two men on each side, the girls in their best, with make-up and beautiful attire. It was played in the afternoon of Sajibu Cheiraoba, the New Year's Day for Meiteis. On that day, before the War, our awang shangoi was booked every year for Kang sanaba. My father as an engineer, kept its clay floor perfectly level and smooth.

Cheitharol Kumbaba recorded that the game was introduced by Meidingu Loitongba (1122-1150 CE) as he accidentally played with the seed of a creeper plant in his garden. The plant is of pea family and grows up high on the trees. It was known as Kangli or kangul, probably Entada phaseoloides. I believe some modifications were introduced later on.

Basically, the kang that was nearly circular and very smooth was placed upon the ground upright with its broadside towards the party by whom it was to be struck, when it was pitched at with an ivory disc.

At another time, it was placed edgewise, when it was to be struck by the disk propelled on its flat side along the surface of the ground. They did this with great force and precision, using the middle finger of the right hand flipping off the forefinger of the left. The side that scored the most hits was the winner.

Another outdoor game that was very popular among the young girls were called "Woolaobi". Meiitei mythology has it that it was played by "Helloi Taret - seven spirit sisters. It's a bit like the Indian Kabadi. They play among two teams. There are no dividing lines.

A girl from one team will raid the opposite team saying "woo" and without stopping try to touch someone. Whoever is touched is out of the game. If she breaks her "woo' she will be caught and out. The team that scores most by touching is the winner. The loser team had to entertain them next day with food or refreshments.

Helloi Taret refers to the ancient Meitei shamanist spiritual belief of the existence of seven sister spirits, the youngest, and the most beautiful. When I was a boy, I encountered a couple of women who were supposedly possessed by Hellois and needed a shaman (Meitei maiba) to exorcise them with holy water from a nearby temple. The 'possessed, always a woman, rambled a lot, non-stop. In Medicine, it is considered a 'hysterical conversion'.

As there is mass education of women the 'possession with Helloi' is unheard of know.

Author's website:

* Dr Mohendra Irengbam wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at irengbammsingh(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on January 07 2021 .

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