Cultural Heritage Of Manipur

Nesting in the slopes of the south flowing Sub-Himalayan ranges in the north east of India at the latitude 23.80o N to 25.68o N and longitude 93.03o E to 94.78o E, lies the State of Manipur. With beautiful ranges of hills surrounding an inter-mont through like valley of some seven hundred square miles. The region became the home of more than thirty ethnic groups at historical time, with varying responses to the changing geo-cultural environment.

The people inhabiting both the valley and the hills are of Mongoloid origin, with common racial roots for many and with settlements in the ancient cliffs of hillsides with pattern of descent into the fertile valley below. Migrations from the east and the south east with the urge of delineate areas of settlement and subsistence led to the dispersal of groups to various nook and corners of hill ranges and at the valley below, one predominant group called the Meitei took responsibility of building an ancient State, with an organized religion, a sophisticated social and political system with writing, and a supravillage political organization.

Other ancient ethnic communities where spread out in the hill faces, with a subsistence pattern derived from the culture of the periodic fertility of hill soil through slash and burn, and other groups in the north east practicing the system of terracing which gave resonance to the continuity of the communities.

Glutinous rice is cultivated in the valley and inter-mont river basins of the hills. Transplantation methods in the valley cultivations led to substantial growth of population with a distinct peasantry, associated with riverine and lacustrine village settlements. River banks and lake side resorts were littered with rows of mud houses with neat wood, bamboo and thatch interlaces, and the south-east were particularly predominant with pile dwelling, where men, animals and fowls inter-acted with a close food chain.

The architecture of the north and the north-east were embodiments of ethnic pride with timber structures of the finest wood carvings imaginable. The Zeliangrong Talangkais were great constructions dedicated to the ancestors, and belief systems of men in communion with nature. Fertility concepts were naturally inter-woven in the fabrics of ritual dances, architectural constructions and textile motifs. The region as a whole provides an exotic mosaic, rich in the tapestry of colour, rhythm and movement.

Certain characteristics or internal processes nurtured the outpourings of the region’s creative talents, the people’s ability to absorb experiences, and inheritance of a strong aesthetic tradition. The ethnic communities though were ranged often in mutual clashes and hostile conflict in the eternal quest for resources, yet in the structure of their relationship with nature, climate and vegetation, they developed some common patterns and forms born out of long, traditional racial affinities.

Folklore and legend grew on the ancestral unity, of common settlement and dispersal from Makhel in the north, and of emergence from caves of many of the south-eastern tribes. The ethnic configuration, their relationship of love and hostility, dominance and dependence provided the rich texture of the historical development of the region. Yet the racial roots genetic inheritance and the physical characteristics with their psychic associations gave variety and tempo to the songs, dances and emotional outpourings in fabric, poetry and tales.

The Meiteis, the ethnic group in the plains had a genetic inheritance of a sophisticated bone structure, a flexible thumb and neuro-physiological accomplishments conducive to soft, lyrical, curvilinear movements of dances and other physio-kinetic activities. The prehensile quality and dexterity of the hand benefited the variety of skills in weaving, embroidery, building and other crafts.

The possession of the multi-dimensional dagger (Thanjou) used all round for digging, cutting or fighting, the solidity of the hand-axe (Shingjang) presaged the development of wood and bamboo architecture. Housing adaptations near the riverbanks provided ecological balance. Fine contour swears noticed in the mud plastered houses and garden plots in the valleys.

The cleanliness of the mud houses itself, with solid roofing structure with intricate patterns in wood, bamboo strip and thatch in elaborate details indicated a well knitted patriarchal social structure. The munificence of the pangyong or fly shuttle handloom with lavish supply of cotton from the hills, the exotic nature of the silkworm and silkmoth reared in Chinese style and their products testified to the independence and personality of Meitei women.

For more than thirty ethnic brethren in the hills surrounding the fertile valley, life had not been that easy, in view of the harsh nature of the terrain, organisation of a sparse economy, and almost unproductive food producing system. They live in a secluded, isolated and distanced form of life, which enforces in them a close system of kin interdependence. This small secluded world make do with whatever resources nature provide them. Their sinews are hardened with labour, for they do back breaking work the rest of their lives. Their world is indeed small, insecure and fragile. Yet they exude a contented outlook on life and have full vigour of expression.

Awareness accruing from the presence of outsiders give these communities a sense of their identifies, a sense of their own differences from the outsiders. The ethos of these simple people, isolated within own experiences yet depending on their own extrinsic kin for living up to the challenges of the modern world provide the onlookers a strange experience. Their interdependence needs cyclic, communal enchantment, which are regularly worked out in ritual sacrifices. Rhythmic repetitive dances and solidarity festivals, ushered through dim vestiges of tradition provide the energy link of their once thriving world, which the harshness of the modern economy now threaten to extinguish.

In a yearly cycle, we see exotic calls for communal celebrations, of colourful feasts of merit, when the community is fed and feasted by the ritual celebrants. The hill slopes reverberate with the sound of gongs, cries and echoes of singing men and women, while drum beats drown out the regular monotony of isolation. Freshly cut meat from fattened calves or semi-domesticated bulls or mithuns provide rich fare for communal gourmet.

Joint sipping from the common pitcher of the native brew re-enforces old patterns of mutual oneness and solidarity. It also acts as bulwarks of cultural defense against intrusion. Recharging of communal energy are thus processed during the cyclic festivals, which provide additional zest to the back-breaking routine work for the individuals down into the ravines and river beds for the rest of the remaining seasons.

Thus amidst the ethos in the surrounding hills, there are ritual celebrations of venerating the spirits of the seasons as they help the agricultural cycle, that each phase of the changing season required the blessing of Gods in rice cultivation, the advent of rain and supply of water, and in the dry season for harvest, the Gods are called again to effect plentiful supply of the rain.

Worship of the rich-spirit mother enjoin spending time in the field, sacrifice of fowl, reading of signs and ritual acts for fertility. Evil spirits are forced out of the villages, sometimes by lit wood fuel being thrown beyond thatched roofs by members of the community. There were times when lineage males of the south-eastern groups celebrate their elevation into the social ladder after a successful crop, that the community go out and sing and dance for the man, take him out to a choice spot in the village, erect a megalith or memorial stone, and they would wine and dine the whole day. There was also many socio-religious events throughout the life-cycle of these ethnoses.

Mention may be made of festivals of Maos (Chi-su Nee, Saloni, Onnuni etc), the Tangkhuls in the east (Lurra, Yara, Mangkhap etc.) the Aimol, Moyon, Monsang and the Anal (Ikam, Tutankham, Zaka etc.) the Zeliangrong in the west (Chakkan Gan Ngai, Ring-Ngai etc) and the Kuki-Chin- Mizo (Chavang- Kut etc.) which are now resurgent celebrations of identification and solidarity.

Flexibility of the body is a richer characteristic of the plains of a distinctive body behavior of the Meitei. The early weapon system of these ethnic communities reflect peculiar physiological characteristic and culture of the bodies. The hill ethos have a bigger association and culture of the bodies. The hill ethos have a bigger association with the spear, which emphasizes thrust, attack on the front and broadside, but less maneuverability at times of defense.

Most of the stockade positions of the hill villages are static, and the gates are the frontal, strategic areas of defense since most of the sides are naturally safeguarded by deep ravines and steep hill sides.

The Meiteis, on the other hand, have both the spear and the sword in the weapon system, and the shaping of their martial training is based on defense from all round attack, active protection of the body from thrusts and strikes, which signifies the carriage of the body of the minimum volume and dimension, yet with an inbuilt capacity to expand, to convert to spring action energizing the body to a great extent for furious attacks on the enemy.

The utilization of the horse also resulted to the integration of clans into a corporate society, creation of the state which the entire citizenry were kept trained through their own indigenous games. The Sagol Kangjei (Horse-Hockey) was famous from which the modern Polo emerged. The culture of martial art Thang-Ta or Huyen Lallong itself is a byproduct of and active corporate group deeply conscious of survival.

For the state, the whole artistic cultural centre was Imphal the capital. In ancient times, it was rather a conglomeration of villages around the ruler’s seat rather than a proper town. Yet it was also an ancient metropolis, in the sense of being the resting and dispersing centre of various items of trade from India to China and South-East Asia and vice-versa.

What was also interesting was the phase of ancient trade in Hindu sacred manuscripts or scriptures, being received, translated for the newly converted population, and also being transmitted to the Shan states of Burma (Myanmar) as well. Books on the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Puranas, the Bhagavata Gita, articles of wisdom and knowledge on astronomy, numerology and other mantic sciences went in and out of this subtly deceptive isolated bowl. 

An indigenous writing tradition developed which gave the Meitei, their place in the community of literate little traditions in the shadow of the great traditions of India and China, yet comparable with that of the Myanmarese, the Mons, the Thais, the Ahoms, the Indonesians etc. in the possession of the chronicles, histories and various other forms of literary products which are known as the Puyas.

Kangla (Palace) which is now garrisoned by the Assam Rifles, was the cosmic centre of the universe of the land and its people, a centre of dignity and pride of the state. The entire demographic and political engineering of the polity was organized from the ruler’s seat in ancient times.

Though the King’s status and position was neutralized through the democratic moments of the 20th century, the Kangla’ s ritual and cultural status remained a significant pointer to the state’s independence and identity.

Hinduism, that entered to the state in the 15th century and converted the Meities in the 18th century, and Christianity which came in the late nineteenth were two universal religions which profoundly affected the ethnoses. Hinduisim brought in a resurgence of the most graceful and sophisticated cultural expression in dances, songs and manner and behavior of the valley people, while Christianity modernized the hill population.

Ras Lila was a product of the synthesis of a world religion with native beliefs which celebrated the construction of Lord Krishna as ruler of the kingdom and the spiritual liberation of the devotees. Indian performance forms as synthesized with indigenous system resulted to popularization of dance theatre form like Gostha –Lila (18th) Goura-Lila (early twentieth) Ulukh Ras (19th) etc. Open-air performances were already there, in the traditional Lai-Haraoba ritual celebration, which were the interests of the ritual communion with the ancestors. Clowning and improvisatory skits (phagee) was an independent art form, courtyard enacted plays (shumang leela) became very popular in the late nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. 

All the changes in the functioning of culture in the valley were organized at the behest of the new aristocracy or court-elite, working closely with Hindu priestly functionaries, with active participation and support of royal power. It legitimized their higher status and position in the feudal set-up, enhanced their association with the finer elements of the great Indian tradition.

Incessant efforts at Indianization resulted to the detriblization of plainsmen, with the hills relegated from the social scheme of the new religion. Taste food habits and styles where considerably effected. Extreme demands in court etiquette that coupled with brutal suppression of social and moral indiscretions helped consolidate the feudal hierarchy.

The desire of the new elite for higher and sophisticated living styles under the new dispensation alienated them from the general masses and slavery as a social system reached its apogee. The alienation of the nobles and aristocrats from the ancestral, tribal collective was complete and total. Hindu orthodoxy and its resultant social stratification reached its nadir when the social collective had to face the onslaught of a totally new and powerful force-the capitalistic colonial power of the British. It was thus the rigid Hindu orthodoxy with its concomitant social structure that lay prostrate at the battlefield of Khongjom in the war of 1891.

Flashes of brilliance in the sacrifice were racial, but the feudal ethos built up on the Indian culture aspirations lay in ruins. If Hinduism got entrenched during the cataclysmic days of Burmese occupation in the eighteenth century, the selfsame religious ethos lay brutally ruptured in the tragic defeat at the hands of the British colonial power.

After the defeat by the British and development of a new cultural system based on the principles of the White Man’s burden, there were traces of what could be called the process of modernization, the results of which are yet to be properly investigated in the realm of culture changes in a traditional plural polity. Due to colonial education of British, there were major shifts in artistic pursuits through the development of new genres of literary production – novel, drama, short stories, essays, collection of poems etc.

Manuscript newspapers came in 1922. Manipuri dramas appeared in 1925. The language of the Meitei was transformed. The native archaic Meetei script, the languorous, repetitive yet flowery style was discarded, and its place was substituted the administrative, staccato, materially patterned language of the new Manipuri suffused with loan words from Bengali and Sanskrit. But the talent of new writers like Kamal, chaoba, Angahal, Nabadwip and Dorendrajit gave the new language a repeatability and identity, though the masses retained idioms and colloquialisms.

The language, though it remained a lingua franca in the interior and peripheral areas, should no longer represent the collective elan of various ethnic communities after the advent of ethnic nationalism in the seventies. The new post-Christian cultural development in the hills also gave a new sense of direction towards modernization, the processes and patterns absolutely distanced from the life of the valley. The divide between hills and plains became greater.

The post colonial cultural heritage in the hills of Manipur were phenomenal in the sense that the church became the focal centre of the new life, though with some distance for traditional cultural forms. This led earlier in the 20th Century to negate folklore, customary practices and beliefs, and other patterns of old life.

Modernization was the new outlook, with faith in the Promised Land of Christianity. Later in the fag end of the 20th Century, Culture identification however brought forth the revival of the collective songs, dances, rituals and traditional patterns of expression. The new discovery of identity, the pride and ethnicity of lustrous textiles, the red, black and yellow and array of color in the identity of ethnic women became the new watchword for the resurgence.

The powerful red color of the Tangkhuls of the north-east, with a splash of yellow strips in the headgear were representative of the traditional notion of victory, strength and chivalry, which were indicative of the collective desire for assertion and recognition. The Kut festivals of the south-eastern Kuki-Chin-Mizo groups were powerful indicators of group solidarity and oneness.

The whole hill ranges of the Sub-Himalayan terrain are now reverberating with the echoes of cultural renaissance and assertion of ethnic identity.

The culture of politics and management of polity however are in deep throes of conflict and competition for control of resources and dominance over mutual friends or enemies. Old prejudices often crop up in a volatile modern set-up or maneuvers for power and control.

Culture as silent indicators of human identification is not enough in the realm of sub-terrainean forces of dissidence and division, which are results of deep historical and social fissures. The new culture as demanded by modern times is the search for new paths for common destiny, which however is still a far cry in the history of the turbulent north-east.

Courtesy: Dr. Lokendra Arambam

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