My memories of Imphal from 1941
- Part 9 -

Dr Mohendra Irengbam *

 Ward Lake, Shillong   2006. Dr Dorendra (deceased), Neil and Margaret
Ward Lake, Shillong 2006. Dr Dorendra (deceased), Neil and Margaret

In my school days, my heart went mushy about Shillong after reading Dr Kamal's book 'Madhabi'. But my baptism of fire quickly smouldered with smoke when I leaped out of my skin to chastise a college professor for slandering my character, which deprived me of my hostel accommodation.

I went to college in Shillong for a change of climate, and peace and quiet, after two years of a care-free and frivolous college life in Bombay. I was then a Meitei youth with the geometry of my community. In my most ungovernable moods I still retained a sense of propriety.

Coincidently, I travelled to Shillong in the company of Moirangthem Gojendra and Yellangbam Sonamani, who as lecturers at DM College in Imphal, were going to Shillong for military training at Happy Valley, for the newly founded NCC in their college.

A retiring Indian Army Captain, an Anglo-Indian, called Harnet, was sent to set it up. After retirement, he was employed as the Commanding Officer of Manipur Rifles with the rank of Major. And he did a very good job of it.

Retracing my steps forward to 1941, Imphal town could only be described as a leafy and peaceful market town, where the townspeople lived with a mendacious kind of tradition and literalness. Imphal had so long piqued itself on being an honest and moral town that it had grown to fancy itself too genteel. Medical practice was not available to many.

People died and they were thought to have died of natural causes, having only quack physicians, known as 'Maiba'. Every death required a Maiba to pronounce that life had gone out of the person, saying 'thong hangle' (door is open). A person must not be allowed to die indoors as the house would become unhallowed. He/she would be brought out to the mangol to die.

We children before the War, had small pox vaccinations every year, by technicians who did home visits every summer. After the War, malaria in Imphal was a rarity following the WHO program of malaria eradication with DDT sprays. Only seasonal cholera outbreaks, though not often, disturbed the tranquillity of this quiet town.

As young boy I had seen someone dying from Cholera within 5-6 hours with severe watery diarrhoea and collapse. It was seasonal but sporadic. It was amazing, considering cholera is a water-borne disease and Imphal lacked sustainable central purified water supply. This might have been mitigated by the legendary clean lifestyle and hygienic eating habits of Meiteis, who lived in Imphal town. The source of drinking water used to be 'pukhri ishing' (pond water) before the construction of a water treatment plant at Kangchup in 1913.

Even then, the water treatment plant was so small that it did not provide drinking water for everybody. The main source was many large community ponds. A few that I remember, are Thangmeiband pukhri, Lalambung Pukhri, Mantri pukhri, Nungjen pukhri at Kangla, and Ningthem Pukhri (Royal Pond) at Wangkhei the largest that was dug up by the royal patronage of Meidingu (king) Khagemba. It was open on Sunday 2nd Kalen (May-June) 1726 CE.

There were smaller ponds that catered for a Leikai or a large community. We had two at Khoisnam Leikai. As these ponds stored naturally filtered ground water, they were fairly clean in that no disease was ever seen to have spread from them. You could go and have a bath in it. For cooking, women of the family would collect water from the pond in reasonable-sized brass pitchers known as sanabul. Many ingkhols had small sized ponds for washing and cleaning. It was customary to have a pond on the left side of an ingkhol and in front, if it was large enough.

The first water filtration plant was constructed on top of Kangchup hill, in West Imphal valley in 1913. The treated water from the plant was piped down underground, towards Imphal. It was made to run up under its own steam to the top of Iroishemba hillock so as to enhance its potential energy for running downwards again to Imphal town. From there the water was piped along Uripok Road and elsewhere in Imphal.

Standpipes, known as toti in Manipuri (Hindi = spout), were put up at different distances along the main roads. The water from the stand pipes was used not only for drinking but for some, for bathing and washing clothes.

As a boy I used to cycle along our Uripok Road and right up to the Kangchup Hillock where I would rest a while, drink a glass of water from the small reservoir, in which I would drop an orange tablet. Then I came down. I used to cycle as fast as I could. One day I had a head-on collision with a lorry. I had a minor concussion. I was then infamous for fast-cycling and fighting after a collision with other young bikers.

During the rainy season, there was not much time for the small water treatment plant to clear the clay and sand sediments. My father used alum (fitkiri in Hindi) to have clear and purified water while the sediments settled down. Many other people just used the pond water.

Meiteis customarily, used the left hand to drink water from a metal jug or a glass. They had certain cultural ethos in terms of their collective spirit that valued the importance of respecting their elders. This was manifest in their daily eating habits at home and formal communal utsab chaba (ceremonial feasts) functions.

In the family, father and children would eat first, followed by mother and other women in the extended family. Father ate scrumptious Meitei cuisines, sitting cross-legged on a small low stool made of wood, while women squatted to eat. Small boys like me, ate with father, sitting on his right side eating from the same pukham (large metal plate). For breakfast children ate the cold leftovers from the meal of the night before. It is worth mentioning that only the British ate cooked hot breakfast. Europeans eat only cold bread and butter.

The floor of a Yumjao was always clay. The eating place must be wiped clean with water and dried before food was laid down. The cooking was done by the woman of the household. When the family grew large and extended with the son or sons having married, the daughter in laws would take over the cooking for the family. As a matter of hygiene, a menstruating woman would not cook for the family or join the family in eating the meal.

By tradition, many Meitei families who could afford, organised utsab as the midday meal, on the death anniversary of their parents or grandparents, and for Pirtu tarpan (offerings to their dead ancestors) in the month of October. The custom demanded a strict order precedence in the seating arrangements. They sat in rows, the eldest first and then the rest in descending order of age.

But some important persons would be allowed to sit higher up. When everybody was seated, the person at the head would announce that everybody could start eating. He would indicate when feasting was over and everybody could get up.

The meals were laid neatly arranged on two halved banana leaves that were neatly cut circular, one half overlapping the other slightly. A heap of rice was placed in the centre, surrounded by different dishes. A metal jug or glass was provided for drinking water, placed on the top right hand corner.

The Brahmin cooks would go round distributing one dish of food after another. The feast ended with rice pudding followed by a small quantity of a warm sweetish fruit dish. A small quantity of salt that was already provided would be used to help remove the turmeric stain on the fingers.

The greatest setback in terms of physical civilisation in Imphal was the lack of sewage system. But unlike 80 per cent of people who live in the villages in India and use the vast open fields for toileting, residents in Imphal town as well as in the villages used drop-latrines.

Some towns in India, including the old parts of Agra City used drop-latrines that were cleaned by 'mehatars'- Indian name for those who do this 'monumental tasks of cleaning human waste every morning by men, and cleaning the dry toilet by women. They were known as 'untouchables'. Mahatma Gandhi called them Harijans and now Dalits. When I was in Shillong I was surprised that there were Sikh Dalits to clean toilets.

In Imphal, we used drop-latrines that were dug-out in the ground. When one was full, another one had to be dug up. Anyone who went to use the toilet, had to leave his clothes nearby. After completion and ablution, they would wash not only their hands but feet as well, before dressing up.

Meiteis were very clean people. They would not for example, eat their midday meal without a bath and without changing into freshly laundered attire. That, they would do even in cold winter and with freezing water. Those who could afford to bathe in hot water were very few, usually the elderly head of the family - the father.

Because, heating water for bathing was not only costly but inconvenient. They had only 'phunga' for it. The phunga was a fireplace in the middle of the Yumjao, which burned eternally and very gingerly with paddy husks. They washed their brass or bell-metal pots and pans with the ash from phunga and washed with water. Over the phunga was laid a metal tripod to heat water, especially for washing the feet of the family members at night and before going to bed. They had been walking all day bare-footed.

Paddy husks were freely available as the majority of Imphal families had them after pounding paddy to get rice, which is the staple food for Meiteis. While poor people would buy their daily unrefined and cheaper brown rice from Khwairamband Keithel, most families stored paddy, which had to be pounded almost daily, by women of the family.

The pounding was done with a wooden pole tipped with an iron cap. It could be done singly or by two women alternating. They often had a song to time with the poundings, known as 'phousum Ishei' (rice pounding song).

Later on, small stone grinders about 50 cm in diameter in two halves, placed one on top of the other were available. The top half had to be turned round and round with a hand holding a short wooden handle on top. The paddy was fed into a conical hollow in the middle of the top grinder. The husked rice had to be winnowed.

Many townspeople owned rice fields in the countryside. They had contracts with villagers as tenant farmers who tilled the land to produce rice. The condition was that, for every Pari they gave 14 "Sangbai-full" of paddy every year, to the owner of the land, and they kept the rest for themselves.

A sangbai is a basket made of interlaced bamboo strips. It holds about 30kg. A pari is one hectare or 10117 sq meter.

The system worked fairly well. Even now, two-fifths of the world's population that are engaged in agriculture, constitute as tenants and their families.

* Dr Mohendra Irengbam wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at irengbammsingh(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on December 17 2020 .

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