Symbolism in the Tribal Art of Manipur
- Part 1 -

Mutua Bahadur *

 >Mutua Bahadur  speaking at Interactive Lecture series on  15 January 2019, at CMS, Library Hall, Manipur University
Mutua Bahadur speaking at Interactive Lecture series on 15 January 2019, at CMS, Library Hall, Manipur University

Symbolism in the Tribal Art of Manipur
Mutua Bahadur
Cultural Activist & Member, Kangla Fort Board.

(Presented as the key speaker in the Interactive Lecture series organised by Centre for Manipur Studies, Manipur University, 15 January 2019, at CMS, Library Hall)

Various tribes inhabiting in the hills of Manipur since the earliest times had their respective separate art forms. In all material objects used for their existential day-to-day need, and in various activities in their lives, carving and painting had been compulsorily associated since times immemorial. On walls of houses and on objects and artifacts related to mortuary rites, the tribes used to carve and paint. Easy motifs like birds and insects were used to be carved on wood and attached to tips of house-roofs, with a sign of V.

The origin of these arts was traced to the practice of representation of real life events, imitations of happenings and experiences of individuals in day to day life. These carvings and paintings were reminders to those incidents or achievements of individuals etc. Certain villages today reflect genuine concern for the continuity of these art works and cultural expressions and with it a desire to preserve these art forms had also arisen. Influences from modern times were sometimes assimilated in the continuity of these forms and at the same time there were strong indicators to preservation and continuity without substantial departures from original models.

Many villagers however are still following traditional practice. A few areas where modern education had penetrated show awareness of the necessity of preserving these arts. All these art forms were built up on the intrinsic relationship with the culture, customs and traditions of tribal life. With the passage of time, no doubt, new forms and concepts were however added to the carvings and Paintings.

These tribes did not know the use of the saw for piecemeal use of planks. To hack a piece of wood took quite a long time amongst these tribes. In order to hack a solid timber, the Maos used a tool called 'Mari' (axe'), with an elongated chopping system on the whole length of the wood and then using the same process on the reverse side ofthe plank, and thus finally getting two planks from one after a repetition of these chopping processes. In order to piece out from one, the wedge system was utilized.

After that the axe work continued. This system was similar amongst various tribes. To carve the figures on the planks, the tool called 'Chiro', which had a curved face, with flat tooth. 30 cm. in length, and 5 cm. broad, and the angular fixing of the handle at 45 degree, was utilized. For the Tangkhul, the tool was called 'Thingsokngaho', which was similar to the chiro, but slightly larger in size with 50 cm. in length, 13 cm. in breadth and weighing about 2 kilograms. These tools were never sold in the markets. Local blacksmiths used to prepare these tools, and were also self-made by the owner.

 [See Picture. 1: Above: Mari (Axe), Below: Chiro (Carving tool)]
[See Picture. 1: Above: Mari (Axe), Below: Chiro (Carving tool)]

 [See Picture 2: Above: The skulls in the verandah ofthe Tangkhul's house at Ukhrul Khunjao. Ukhrul District. Below: Carving in the front wall of house : Human heads and women's breast. Size : 0'30 m x 3 m x 0'06 m, at Choithar village, Ukhrul District.]
[See Picture 2: Above: The skulls in the verandah ofthe Tangkhul's house at Ukhrul Khunjao. Ukhrul District. Below: Carving in the front wall of house : Human heads and women's breast. Size : 0'30 m x 3 m x 0'06 m, at Choithar village, Ukhrul District.]

At each carved houses of tribes, it was customary to have animal heads, especially buffalo heads and mithun (bofrontalis) heads. These animal heads have their distinctive differences from one village to another. Most of the Mao tribal houses have animal heads carved in high relief, and with dimensional thrusts.

 [See Picture 3: Carving in the front wall of the 'Posingka' of headman's house. Front & side views: Human heads upside down human figures. tiger. buffalo heads. Size : 0.06 cm x 2.'70 cm. Oinam, Senapati District]
[See Picture 3: Carving in the front wall of the "Posingka" of headman's house. Front & side views: Human heads upside down human figures. tiger. buffalo heads. Size : 0.06 cm x 2.'70 cm. Oinam, Senapati District]


Choosing certain suitable spaces at the walls, the tribes used to carve or paint the images of the sun, moon, stars etc. At Mao, taking the cue from the brightness of the sun, they used red and white colours to paint circular symbols. For the moon, it was usual to draw two circles one inside the other, the thickness of the lines in the circles somewhat similar to one another and these lines were painted by the same colours. At sight, these figures reflect the gentleness of the moon.

The Tangkhul houses however have carvings of many other suns, moons and stars' but the carvings are sharply on linear forms' The representation of the sun is basically designed with delineation of inner and outer circles with division into smaller and bigger ones, with the lines wavy, elliptical, joining in the circles with an intense relief.

At first sight, they give an impression of a circling ball of fire. At some Mao tribal houses, the moon is represented by a circle on high relief. There are also bending and curving lines on the faces of the circle, in order to represent the blurs on the face of the moon. The stars are represented on the upper beams and cross shaped X on the tip of the roofs. At some front friezes of Meetei nobilities houses, they have paintings of a circular base in which were projected representations of the sun and the moon.

At the 'ahongyum' of the Kabuis, paintings of the sun, moon and stars were traditionally done. There were similarities between the Kabui and Tangkhul tribes on the practice of representation of the sun and moon. They however have the practice of carving the half moon representing the moon. In most of the tribal houses, the practice of carving and painting the sun, moon and stars are done on the upper corners of the front walls. At Mao areas, the moon is represented in between the two horns of animals.

Other Aspects

Some of the things represented on the wall of tribal houses are scabbards, spear, spear handle, wooden seats etc. Some of the wooden seats are represented without any differences, the carvings done with a broadened upper frame and the waists narrowed down. The Tangkhul carved the scabbards in lines.

At Mao, Purul, Oinam, Tungam etc., there are carvings of discs, with a thickness of approximately 2.5 centimeters from the surface, with a hollowed out depression 5 centimeters diameter. At Tusem khunjao, there is a carving of a mortuary symbol called 'hakoi' , a sort of conical headgear, with inner and outer lines. There is also a pyramidal, gothic type symbol called 'kongra', which is representation of the presiding deity of the ravines below the hills.

At the Tangkhul houses, some very prominent lines and designs are carved in the geometrical pattern, which are intrinsically one with the designs embroidered in the traditional costumes of these tribes.

The Kabuis also paint the traditional cloth designs on the walls of the ahongyums. The Kabuis reflect articles of day-to-day use in families in geornetrical forms on the walls, but at the same time add other experiences provided by changed outlooks and new visual aids.


Most of the tribes in Manipur used colours provided from natural sources, by herbal and mineral materials. Most of the colours used were white, black, red and green. Paintings on the walls of the houses seem to be the natural propensity of the Kabui tribe alone. The Mao and Tangkhul tribes however use colours on the friezes and crossed X with decorative flower patterns. In some of the carved portraitures, there are some coloured designs too.

In some areas, the carved buffalo and tiger heads do have paintings on them, though most of them were in patches, without a full colouring process.

 [ See Picture 4: Carving in the front wall of the House. Front and Side View. First, Tops. Mao Senapati District; Second, Wooden seats discs, Mao; Third, Beak of hotn bill, discs. Purul, Senapati District; Third, Discs. Purul.]
[ See Picture 4: Carving in the front wall of the House. Front and Side View. First, Tops. Mao Senapati District; Second, Wooden seats discs, Mao; Third, Beak of hotn bill, discs. Purul, Senapati District; Third, Discs. Purul.]

To be continued ....

* Mutua Bahadur who is the Cultural Activist & Member for Kangla Fort Board , wrote this article .
Aheibam Koireng Singh sent this article to
The sender is and can be contacted at akoireng(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on January 21st 2019 .

* Comments posted by users in this discussion thread and other parts of this site are opinions of the individuals posting them (whose user ID is displayed alongside) and not the views of We strongly recommend that users exercise responsibility, sensitivity and caution over language while writing your opinions which will be seen and read by other users. Please read a complete Guideline on using comments on this website.

  • 46th AMWJU Foundation Day : Gallery
  • Machengluang cleared Tamei road
  • Scrapping of Constitution Article, 35 & 370
  • Her Kitchen :: Poem
  • Career in journalism
  • BMSA Freshers' Meet : Thanks Giving
  • Mass Awareness for PMJAY & CMHT
  • Oscar Winning Film - Hugo screening
  • Need for JAC & school to act reasonably
  • Traffic Challans & other challenges
  • Hinduism in Manipur #3
  • Atomacha, Adibo, Leikoiba :: eMing
  • An interaction with Dr. O.K. Singh #2
  • Loneliness :: Poem
  • Let Road Users have their say ..
  • RIST Talk: Binary Recurrence Sequences
  • Racial profiling & criminalization of people
  • ZPO rejects its dissolution
  • 10 houses torched in inter-village dispute
  • Heikru Hidongba #2 : Gallery
  • Attitude to life and family
  • Breaking the glass ceiling
  • 28th NAMA Convention at Chicago
  • Inpui Naga Karing Ngei 2018 : Book
  • Dr. Md. Hamidur Rahaman : AMP Award
  • World Patient Safety Day
  • The Killing Fields 2013-18 : News Timeline
  • Peace talk reportedly at final stage
  • Chayom Thupki (Meetei Philosophy) #11
  • 48th Foundation Day of RIMS : Gallery
  • Tarpon: Annual offerings to the dead
  • Licypriya : Climate change in Angola
  • World Ozone Day 2019
  • iKON 4th anniversary : Indian iKONIC
  • Gratitude to Dk. Korungthang
  • Xavier Board Higher Education Conference
  • Confusing announcement: ban on plastics
  • Nongpok Sanjenbam village #1: Gallery
  • Chaklam Khongchat Numit #4: Gallery
  • Ways of seeing Atiyagi Maya
  • National Lok Adalat at Lamphel Court
  • Take Me Home :: Poem
  • Money Lending business in Nagaland
  • Ambeshori : Gold at Jr Women Natl Boxing
  • Crime against nature deserve punishment
  • Khamba Thoibi Museum #1 : Gallery
  • Time- Is it an illusion? Certainly not
  • Can there really be peace without justice
  • Enrollment Program for PMJAY & CMHT
  • Heavy traffic fines, Harekrishna krishna
  • Jenil Khuman : Heroes of India award
  • Cracking the whip on driving by minors
  • ST demand: Is this a consensus decision..
  • Mukna - indigenous game : Gallery
  • An interaction with Dr. O.K. Singh #1
  • Cry of a Dying River - 92 :: Poem
  • Missing person : Dongminlian at Tirupati
  • Google Earth for ground & aerial survey
  • Mary Kom 1st woman athlete for Vibhushan
  • Delivering a point maturely
  • There should be a toll free grievance cell
  • Hiyang Tanaba @Lamlai #1: Gallery
  • Shrinking safe spaces
  • Child sexual abuse (CSA)
  • Demands: Flag for Naga & ST for Meitei
  • Proud of our scientists & ISRO
  • Daanveer Dutta Karna : 2nd best play
  • Inner Line Permit (ILP) Demand :: Timeline
  • Significance of Sept 11 to TSE
  • Climate Crisis, People, and the State
  • Ibudhou Marongkhong Haraoba #3: Gallery
  • Conundrum for Manipur govt over CAB
  • Violence against medical fraternity
  • Thongkhatabam Ankita : Governor's Award
  • The Enchantress :: Poem
  • Sunyata & Kenosis: Search of Ultimate Truth
  • Lim divide continues to run deep
  • Of nationalism, patriotism & against nature
  • Heikru Hidongba #1 : Gallery
  • Komrem Students Day @B'lore : Gallery
  • Protective Thinking: Village Nationalist #1
  • Haipou Jadonang: A Social reformer #3
  • Ungracious :: Poem
  • Naga Peace Process :: News Timeline
  • IAS Officer: Hero- Whipping boy- Villain
  • Petition CM to revoke breach order in Edn-S
  • Stand against illegal immigrants
  • September and Hijam Irabot
  • Impact of Christianity among Vaiphei #3
  • Kakching WW II Memorial Run : Gallery
  • Framework Agreement: Divide the state
  • Training Program for Remand Advocates
  • Hunt for North East designers & models
  • Kakching World War II Memorial Run: Report
  • Common Admission Test for IIMs
  • No school bags day for young students
  • GoI backtracking on Framework Agreement
  • Trekking to Dzukou #3 : Gallery
  • English as a Lingua Franca for NE
  • A Good Place to Spend the Night : Poem
  • The idea of Manipur
  • Vacancies at Hadron Techs, Imphal
  • 8th Convocation of Assam Don Bosco held
  • Yogurt based DIY packs to try
  • Big Bang Edge Test
  • Bhabananda was right; it was not only him ..
  • Chaklam Khongchat Numit #3: Gallery
  • Judicial administration under Bhagyachandra
  • Reena Bhavsar(Pebam ningon): Mrs India
  • Sick Education System should be blamed ...
  • Foundation Day of Physics Dept, MU
  • 26th World Congress of Political Science
  • DBC, Maram bags SBSI National award
  • Regulate pay of Pvt school teachers
  • Chingda Satpi Engellei #1 : eRang
  • The Endurers : a growing tribe
  • Swachh in Manipur
  • Khongoinaba & Kanglei Chanura Kanba
  • The ten in between :: Poem
  • Happy for no reason
  • Convocation: Assam Don Bosco University
  • Sounding the alert at the entry points:
  • Victims of greed
  • Folk Dance @Retreat ceremony #2: Gallery
  • Call for Papers : NACETER 2019 at Aizawl
  • Celebrating Teachers' Day 2019
  • Draft Bill on violence against healthcare
  • From the heart - Transcending fears
  • Her Richness :: Poem
  • Beauty benefits of mint
  • Return of the power struggle
  • 'We Dont, So Shouldnt You' of Mayangs
  • Licypriya: Peace Prize : Gallery
  • Haipou Jadonang: A Social reformer #2
  • Licypriya : World Children Peace Prize
  • Champions at 5th Intl Thang-Ta C'ship
  • International Geological Congress 2020
  • Manipur Tourism: Best cultural Award at TTF
  • 46th AMWJU Foundation Day
  • NDPP leaders called on Nagaland Governor
  • Condemns UP Govt for case against Journo
  • Looking to CBI to deliver: The trust deficit
  • Mockery of the legislation
  • Hinduism in Manipur # 2
  • No mee should disturb peace in Kuki Hills
  • Cry of a Dying River - 91 :: Poem
  • Human service demands need to save river
  • Aromatherapy as career option
  • Khelen Thokchom Media Fellowship
  • Rejoinder to Yanthungo Patton
  • New traffic rules and regulations
  • Myopic leaders and misplaced priorities
  • Over 19 lakhs excluded in Assam NRC
  • Chaklam Khongchat Numit #2: Gallery
  • Sangai Fest: Maibi Jagoi : Gallery
  • FMGE -Foreign Medical Graduates Exam
  • Referendum in Catalonia
  • Allergen-specific blood test for allergies
  • Better investment climate: Challenge of Govt
  • AMWJU Identity Card
  • Chayom Thupki (Meetei Philosophy) #10
  • September Calendar for Year 2019 : Tools
  • Freshers Meet/Musical Night at Bangalore
  • Surgery over Healthcare
  • Discussion: Identity at India-Myanmar Border
  • A Euphoric Day Of Freedom :: Poem
  • Remembering the past famine...
  • Stalls- Hathei Phanit, Ukhrul #1: Gallery
  • AMSU & Naga Peace Talk
  • Hypocrisy of 'The Federation Of Haomee'
  • Introspecting renewed Hydropower push #2
  • Enrolment Program for PMJAY & CMHT
  • Martyrdom of Haipou Jadonang: Gallery
  • The traffic maze
  • Haipou Jadonang: A Social reformer #1
  • Chinglensana Kangujam : Arjuna Award
  • A Rainy Morning in Summer :: Poem
  • Apple Farmer Mayengbam Shyamchandra
  • The idea of a book club Imphal
  • Condemns act of locals in ICFAI Univ
  • Free medical camp at Ithai Barrage
  • Attacker on Childline must be arrested
  • Computer Courses at IP Infotech
  • Dead men or dead girls tell no tale
  • Going beyond people's expectations
  • Chaklam Khongchat Numit #1: Gallery
  • Wainu Chara : An indigenous rice breed
  • The sugarcane crisis
  • Positive Teachers-Students relation
  • NDPP & BJP met with Bishop of Nagaland
  • Zero budget natural farming
  • Helmet drive with sweets at CCpur
  • Responsibility matters
  • Manipur Independence Day : Gallery
  • Manipur Heli Service : Gallery
  • Kariang nuna sip eh :: Poem
  • River Rights as legal person
  • Athokpam Right: Kalams Book of Record
  • Be Educated; Be Empowered 0.02 Edition
  • Separate flag and separate Constitution
  • Manipur on a high: Drug menace
  • Impact of Christianity among Vaiphei #2
  • Introspecting renewed Hydropower push #1
  • Jhulon @ Imphal #2 : Gallery
  • Climate variability in Phalee khul, Ukhrul
  • What vows does a catholic priest take ?
  • Leg Pain : What to do ?
  • Convention: Defense of Democratic Rights
  • Transit route to manufacturing unit
  • Khangkhui Cave, Ukhrul #5 : Gallery
  • Meeting on Road project at Phalong
  • The road that halted us by earthfall
  • National Entrepreneurship Awards 2019
  • Strategies to adopt for IAS Exam
  • Discussion: Issues of Legal Services
  • Irregularities of Non-NET Fellowship in MU
  • Threatened democracy
  • Nagas await historic day: NSCN (I-M)
  • Hathei Phanit @Ukhrul #1 : Gallery
  • Dr Ak Priyokumar : Golden Achiever Award
  • Lai-Harouba @JNMDA #2 : Gallery
  • Sangai fest: Dance Drama : Gallery
  • N'Jang-Ngi Thangal fest : Gallery
  • Jhulon @ Nabadwip, WB : Gallery
  • School Fagathanshi Mission : Gallery
  • Healthy & active lifestyle: A healthy Manipur
  • Heikat-Leikat [13 Aug] #2 : Gallery
  • Babysana: Student - Aug 10 #2: Gallery
  • Jhulon @ Imphal #1 : Gallery
  • Eyek Tamba :: Learn Manipuri script
  • Chayom Thupki (Meetei Philosophy) #9
  • Patriots' Day @ Pune : Gallery
  • Babysana: State bandh - Aug 9 #2: Gallery
  • Folklore of Hao communities #3
  • Aliyah #2 (Film Scenes) :: eRang
  • Babysana's last rites performed: Gallery
  • Featured Front Page Photo 2019 #3: Gallery
  • Tolloi, Ukhrul :: 360 Panorama View
  • Manipuri Calendar for 2019 : Download