Glory Days of Manipur in the 18th Century

Yangsorang Rongreisek *

 Oneness March : Mera Houchongba , re-affirming close bond between hill and valley people from Sana Konung to Kangla :: 05 Oct 2017
Oneness March : Mera Houchongba , re-affirming close bond between hill and valley people from Sana Konung to Kangla on 05 Oct 2017 :: Pix - Shankar Khangembam

The news that the Govt of Manipur is going to sponsor the first ever State Level Mera Houchongba Festival this year on October 5 is amazing and highly encouraging. In the early 70s, loving functionaries of a hill village to which the writer belongs, used to tell about it and their interaction with fellow hill chiefs in the royal palace in the 40s/50s fondly. The festival which occurs in October every year is for a heart warming festival of diverged communities of Manipur—recalling the past glory of the land.

The pre-harvesting season is filled with ecstatic joy and the bounty of beautiful scene in the hills all round the valley with irresistible charm of the starry heaven overhead stretching in an unending expanse in which man has the feeling of elation and elevation amidst such beautiful things at the time leaves start changing its colours with climate becoming milder.

On the 8th July, 1861, Colonel McCulloch, the Political Agent in Manipur wrote to the Governor General in Council of British India, thus....”In the month of Mera it was agreed that an expedition should proceed to the Angami Hills: I would urge it”. Striking to note it. As this writer is acquainted with or well-versed in Manipuri, the Lingua Franca of a large portion of the India’s North East Region, both in speaking and writing, he is fond of the impressive word “Mera” mentioned in the letter of the Political Agent to mean October month in Manipur.

In the version of Dr.R.Brown, F.R.C.S.E. (1873), ‘The festival called Hawchongba, in October, lasts for only one day: it is a gathering of the hill tribes under the Manipuri Government, and is a curious sight on account of the great number of different tribes assembled, with their curious dress and weapons, differing from each other in feature and language, but all unanimous in one particular, to get drunk as speedily, and remain so as long as possible.

The hill-men indulge in feats of strength before the Raja, such as carrying heavy-weights. They also indulge in war dances and sham fights. The sports of the day conclude with a feast, at which they are regaled with the flesh of the cows, buffaloes and dogs. The flesh is dried and preserved on purpose of their meat”. Besides Mera Houchongba, other festivals were celebrated in the royal palace.

Captain R.Boileau Pemberton (1835 A.D.) said Pamheiba ascended the throne under the title of Gharib Niwaz in 1714 A.D. but 1709 A.D. according to Bijoy Panchali. It’s difficult to be accurate of the exact coronation date and year. In the ascension ceremony, immensely interesting was that all the Naga chiefs were invited. The ministers and officials of Manipur received the Naga Chiefs, made friendship and intimacy with them. The Raja entertained the chiefs with good feasts and wine.

Candidly to depict the scene at Kangla in the ancient past, King Khagemba(Khagingamba) also sacrificed 100 buffaloes, 100 goats, 100 sheep, 100 ganders, 100 ducks, 100 doves, 100 hens, 100 pigs and 100 dogs along with a variety of fruits and flowers to seek the blessings of various gods in 1631 A.D.(CK,P-38).

In one’s realm of imagination, the ceremony must have been performed like a festival with the participation of hill chiefs: for such a large number of cattle and fowls were butchered in the royal palace. Not only this sacrifice, from time to time, tigers and leopards caught by the hill-men were brought to the palace as a token of love and respect to the king. Animals brought to the royal palace were for meat.

The writer is absolutely absorbed in the Moirang Kangleirol and fascinating folk-tales of the land retold by his oldies in his high school days. Folk-tales and fables so retold at night falls were thrilling and enchanting--never less than listening to tales of life at sea or Arabian Nights.

One such delightful tale is now a part of modern history of Manipur as it occurred in the 18th Century. In that century, four wise men (Maichous) were born in Kangleipak namely Langol Lukhoi, Shamurou Lakpa, Salang Maiba and Khongakhul Chief who regaled with meat, fish and drink together in a session once at the peak of Khonga Hill standing at about 2400 Fts above the plain below on Imphal-Jiri Road.

What happened overtook them within seconds trekking at a high altitude when the tree-topped Khonga Hill in its altitude was, at times, lost in the clouds. At the height of their popularity, the four wise men often gathered for us to undertake a further research work on their wits and feats in many different ways.

“Like a fairy tale, oldies retold that by chanting mantras, Salang Maiba called up a large amount of fishes from Ijei River to the peak for curry, Shamurou Lakpa had already arrived there with plenty of rice and Khongakhul Chief who was the host of the drinking session managed meat and home-brewed wine. Langol Lukhoi, the famous predictor procured spices for the curry from his home in the valley working on a miracle”.

This tale is intended for saying --there was no segregation or debasement in ancient Manipur and Houchongba was an amusement enjoyed by the royalists with their hill brethren, eating and drinking wine profusely together in merry-making. Thus, the hill-valley relation was highly cordial and there was so much love among the people of Manipur in the 18th Century. Then, quite a strange chapter was added to the history of Manipur when Shantidas Adhikari, a wandering Fakir from Sylhet arrived in the Royal Palace soon after Pamheiba ascended the throne.

According to Prof.J.Roy in his History of Manipur at Page 54, “Nothing was known about the life of the Vaishnava Missionary Mahanta Shantidas Adhikari (Goswami) before his arrival in Manipur. Local accounts refer to his arrival from Sylhet. He might have entered Manipur from Sylhet side, but there was little probability of his belonging to Sylhet. After the advent of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in Bengal, Ramananda had few followers there. Sylhet being the ancestral home of Shri Chaitanya undoubtedly came under the magical influence of that great personality. Lord Rama did not gain popularity in Bengal at any time. Also, the centre of Ramanandi cult was at Varanasi and Lord Rama was still sovereign in the heart of the people of Northern India”.

Therefore, there were reasonable grounds to hesitate in coming to a conclusion that Shantidas came from Sylhet or any part of Bengal. Whatever it was, by his oratorical skill, best mind and modest manner, Shantidas could win the heart of the Manipuri Raja to convert to Vaishnavism. At the confluence of Imphal and Iril rivers at Irong near Lilong, both the Raja and the Priest immersed in water for ceremonial purification.

The immersion being over, Shantidas started calling the Raja Maharaja for the first time and Guru for him. In the month of November, 1737 A.D., 300 of them led by the Maharaja tied nokuns (sacred threads) around their necks (Sarangthem Bormani, P-109). Yet, the old faith was not dead entirely or discarded. Ancient deities and temples were spared, and attended to side by side with Vaishnavism, the new faith. Years after years and even after more than three hundred years, Mera Houchongba Festival continued to be celebrated annually in the palace.

Till the 1873 A.D., the population of the valley of Manipur and that of the surrounding hills were estimated to be about 74,000 hill men and 65,000 souls in the valley (R.Brown). The figure rose to 29 Lakh and 70 thousand or 2.97 million in 2016 alarmingly.

With this sharp rise in the population, hill and valley people of Manipur should learn to live like brothers and sisters of the same community as in the glory days, helping each other in the hospitals, workplaces, shopping complexes, govt offices, schools, colleges and universities.

For it, every effort should be made to create an atmosphere in which ethnic tribal minorities won’t feel looked down, ashamed, embarrassed, harassed and exploited. Liberal outlook or positive attitude of man toward his fellow being is indispensable for drawing communities closer to him. Let Manipur march ahead for a turning point with the October Festival to herald peace and prosperity in the fertile land. The spirit of the festival and the way it was organised colourfully on 18 October, 2013 should come back once again.

Wishing this year’s event a far more successful extravaganza!

Published in The Sangai Express on the 20th September, 2017

* Yangsorang Rongreisek wrote this article for
The writer is a Longa Koireng in Kangpokpi District and can be reached at yangsorangr65(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on May 21, 2019.

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