Puya - Meithaba: The Date Controversy

Chabungbam Amuba Singh *

Flag of Manipur flying high on Observance of  285 years of Puya Mei Thaba  at Hanjing Meekollok, Heingang
Flag of Manipur flying high on Observance of 285 years of Puya Mei Thaba at Hanjing Meekollok, Heingang :: Pix - Deepak Oinam

If God grants me the power to reverse a single event in the history of Manipur I would choose the event of burning of the Manipuri manuscripts during the reign of King Pamheiba in the second quarter of the eighteenth century. I have no evil feeling about King Pamheiba embracing Hinduism - because religion is always universal and anybody on earth can follow/adopt any religion of his choice. Faith is the essence of any religious practice. Campaigning against another religion is no religion. As conversion is morally acceptable and, in fact, is universally practiced Pamheiba's conversion into Hinduism with all its subsequent ramifications should be nobody's moral issue. But his act of burning up the Puyas is a unforgivable sin.

When I visited Tamil University, Thanjavur, as a member of a UGC team for evaluation of its XI Plan proposal what struck me most was not its sprawling wooded campus but the large collection of old palm-leaf manuscripts in its Tamil language department and also in the city library which has an imposing collection of palm-leaf manuscripts, each written on chemically treated dry palm leaves and stacked and bound (stringed) between two wooden strips as cover.

Moving in the large stack rooms filled with such manuscripts my mind was momentarily caught up with a yearning to have a glimpse of the lost puyas and wondered how those might have looked. When I read Saroj Nalini Arambam Parratt's lucid description of the process of making the Meetei paper on which the currently available Cheitharol Kumbaba (in Meitei script) copies are written I could not help wondering whether the old puyas were also written on similar material which can be called paper. This innocent musing assumes significance, as elaborated below, in the context of the currently popular belief of 'Tai-origin of the Manipuris', .

If we have any convincing evidence of the Meiteis having mastered the basic technique of paper making say in the first millennium A.D. that could be a significant evidence in support of the oriental origin of the Meiteis. For, It is generally known that paper was invented in China around the beginning of the 2nd century A.D. and that the art/technique reached Egypt in the 10th century and Europe only in the 12th century.

Not long ago there was a news item in a local daily which implied that R K Jhaljit Singh and H Bihari Singh had claimed that the episode of burning of Puyas did not at all occur in the history of Manipur. Coming from two prominent experts and eminent scholars - this comment, if at all they had made, should not be left un-debated.

Without prejudice to the debate-in-call, let me point out that there is no convergence of opinion on the date assigned to the tragic event of Puya-Meithaba. Before I proceed further I wish to make it explicitly clear that I am not contesting the truth of the occurrence of the event; I am simply dealing with the controversy about the date of occurrence.

Three different dates have been around:

1. A prominent group of Intellectuals (led by the Meitei National Front) has been observing the Puya-Meithaba day on the 23rd day of Wakching (since 1978!) maintaining that the sad event occurred on "Thursday, the 23rd day of Wakching in 1729 CE". The same date is maintained in a Wikipedia article on the History of Manipur with the further addition that the event occurred between 9 and 10 am.

2. In an Internet article entitled 'A Brief History(Puwari) of The Meiteis of Manipur' P. Lalit says, "On the full-moon day of Mera(October) 1732 AD he (Pamheiba) collected all the holy books(Puyas) and burned them". This date is identified as Friday the 3rd October 1732. [As the author has not cited the source of this information it may be taken as an educated conjecture.]

3. In the Cheitharol Kumbaba published by the Manipuri Sahitya Parishad (MSP), Imphal , in the Bengali script (second print, 1988),edited by L Ibungohal Singh and N Khelchandra Singh, the date of the event was recorded as Sunday the 17th day of Mera of Sakabda 1654 which, in the Common Era calendar, is the 5th October 1732. [This was, perhaps, a wilful editorial distortion of the original recording in the manuscript in Meitei script, as pointed out and positively criticised by Saroj Nalini Arambam Parratt in her book ,"The Court Chronicle of the Kings of Manipur The Cheitharol Kumpapa". In the latest print of the MSP's Cheitharol Kumbaba in Bengali script (2012) the original recording has been restored and there is no mention of burning of Meitei books(Puyas). However the editorial note on page 93 still persists implying that the event of burning of 'Meitei Lairik's occurred on Sunday the 5th October 1732]

[ Another prominent intellectual group (The Akom Lup, Kangleipak) supports this date,- according to a news item in the local daily The Poknapham of March 1, 2014,-by saying that there are so many books in support of this particular date].

A scrutiny of the first date with comments :

The first mentioned date, viz, "Thursday ,the 23rd Wakching 1729 CE", cannot be right per se. Because, the 23rd Wakching of 1729 CE was not a Thursday - it is, in fact, Saturday the 22 January 1729. This can be verified from the following facts: (i) there was a lunar eclipse on Sunday the 13th February 1729 (NASA Eclipse record, also recorded in the Cheitharon Kumbaba), and (ii) the first day of the month of Phairen of 1729 CE was also a Sunday (30 January 1729)(Cheitharol Kumbaba).

It is probable that a mistake was committed while translating the Sakabda year to the CE year. It is emphatically pointed out that the rote practice of converting a Sakabda year into the CE year just by adding 78 is not right for the months of January, February and March. For the first three months of a Gregorian year (also for a part of April) the correct procedure is to add 79 (not 78!). Digressing a little, let me point out that many historians of Manipur wrongly write that King Marjit ascended the throne in 1813 CE - a result of the simplistic practice of converting the Sakabda year 1735 into the CE year by adding 78. The truth is that Marjit ascended the throne on Wednesday the 17th day of Shajibu Saka 1735 which translates into the 6th April 1814 (not 1813!).

Suppose that such a mistake had crept in inadvertently and that the sad event occurred in the year of Sakabda 1651, then we could say that the event of Puya-Meithaba occurred on "Thursday, the 23rd day of Wakching of 1730 CE", because this day was indeed a Thursday.

This well-intended attempt to remove a lacunae meets the dead end of plausibility. KIng Pamheiba and his spiritual guru Shantidas were not at the palace(Kangla) on the 23rd Wakching Kum-Sok 1651 (Thursday, 12 January 1730 CE). They left the previous day for raiding/subduing the Kabui Nungshai tribes and returned to Kangla a week later, according to the Cheitharol Kumbaba.

A simple way out of the inconsistency is, of course, to suppress the lacunae by striking out the word 'Thursday' and simply say that the event took place on the 23rd day of Wakching 1729 CE without mentioning the week-day. This however amounts to making a significant departure from the hall-mark practice, adopted by the Manipuri Court scribes, of mentioning the week-day immediately after the lunar date of the day while recording an event.

* Chabungbam Amuba Singh wrote this article for
The writer is Former Vice-Chancellor, Manipur University and can be contacted at camuba(dot)singh(at)gmail(dot)com
This article was posted on March 03, 2014

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