Phases of Manipur Culture: A Historical Perspective
- Part 1 -

Hareshwar Goshwami *

'Malem Paphal Art Exhibition Manipur' at Iboyaima Shumang Leela Shanglen, Imphal :: May 27 2015
'Malem Paphal Art Exhibition Manipur' at Imphal in May 27 2015 :: Pix - Shankar Khangembam

(* Paper presented at the Workshop on 'Perceptions on Manipur Culture', organize by Centre for Manipur Studies, Manipur University, 14 February 2018)

Who we are and how we live is in one way or the other the outcome of our geopolitical situation, but to point at particular individuals or events would not help us understand how "we" as a people, a community, or a society came to be. Rather, we must go back to the past, dissect it, and seek the answer within. Our history, just like any other, has undergone its own metamorphosis. At different phases, it has been composite or multicultural.

For a more careful analysis, I have classified three phases of cultural sequences with regards to the state of Manipur before reaching the so-called post-modern :
1) Early Period of Exclusive Composite Culture,
2) Medieval Period of Inclusive Multi-culture (12th century to 19th century), and
3) Modern Period of Inclusive Composite Culture (19th century to 2nd half of the 20th century).

Early Period: Exclusive Composite Culture

The beginning of the Early Period, i.e. the Period of Exclusive Composite Culture, may be located in 33 AD, when Nongda Lairen Pakhangba ascended the throne. It was the dawn of a new historical period: the seven Meitei yeks or clans were amalgamated or acknowledged the suzerainty of Lai-ningthou Pakhangba, and peoples of different ethnic origins, like the Mon-Khmer speaking Austronesians, the Tibeto-Burman and the Siamese-Chinese speaking Mongoloids were assimilated into one cultural and political unit. The influences left by these new cultural groups are reflected today.

For example, the use of betel nuts and leaves, coconut and rice in worship, holding the wedding ceremony at the bride's residence, cremation of the dead and burial of pieces of bones and ashes by fixing megaliths over the spot, offering of food to the spirit of dead, use of cowries and conches, the game of 'Kang Saannaba' which has similarities with the indoor game called 'Saba', the design of Meitei Yumjao houses that looks like an inverted boat, are said to have come from the Austronesians. The names of places like Jiri, Oinamlong, Kambilong, Dikhu, and Nongpo, are said to be of Austronesian origin. Even the name used by the Burmese for Meitei—Kase/Kate - is a derivation from the Mon Khmer language Khasi or Khasiya [3].

As for extant Tibeto-Burman Cultural traits, examples that can be cited are the worship of Boroi (Lainingthou), Bathou Buroi (Langi Lairembi), and Mainao (Phou-oibi), the Goddess of Paddy of the Tibeto-Burman Cacharis. The use of clothing such as khudei, pheijom and phanek is also exhibited by Tibetan-Burman Bodos and Cacharis. The belief of considering it an omen if a cat or snake crosses the road in front of a personis still prevalent among Meiteis are believed to be of Tibeto-Burman origin.

The Chinese-Siamese linguistic group of people too left their mark. Even today, many of us do not cut our nails and hair on the day of our birth. We throw broken teeth over the rooftop, we do not take the seats and utensils meant for our elders, we avoid using loud colours and heavy ornaments at old age, we do not sleep with our heads pointing north, and we do not sweep after dark.

The importance Meiteis give to clan/lineage (sagei-salai) bears similarity to how the Yi/Wu-man ethnic group of Yunan held theirs in high esteem. When meeting someone new, they would frequently ask about their clan name and family name. These similarities are believed to be of Chinese-Siamese orign.

This period of exclusive composite culture lasted till the period of Meidingu Loiyumba (1074-1112 AD), a period of about twelve hundred years. It cannot be said that cultural incursions did not occur during this long phase - Naothingkhong (663-763 AD) married Chingurembi, a Mayang princess and a number of her followers were absorbed in the Meitei fold; while Meidingu Khongtekcha (763-773 AD) worshipped Shiva and Devi, as per Phayeng copper plate.

Nevertheless, they did not disturb the cultural traditions and religious practices of the society. Pakhangba and his descendants continued to identify Sanamahi as the State God and a household deity, propagating the principle religious philosophy that truth means knowledge, realization, and Sanamahi.

Medieval Period: Inclusive Plural Culture

Beginning of Plural Culture: Once Meidingu Loiyumba (1074-1122 AD) ascended to the throne, a new era of administrative reforms began. Most important of all was the Loiyumba Silyen, also known as Yumnak Mashil (Surname wise assignment of Duties), issued in 1110 AD. It gave invocation and assignment of duties for worship, economic activities, rules on royal decorum, costumes, rewards, administration of justice, etc. Thirty yumnaks were assigned to design and weave cloths, and forty-five families to look after the forty-five abodes of the gods.

Prof. Gangumei wrote that this Loiyuma's royal decree "laid the foundation of the emerging feudal form which existed till the end of the nineteenth century." It strengthened the socio-economic and political order in the kingdom, and encouraged subsequent kings to work on territorial expansion, particularly in the fertile plains of Trans-Irrawaddy basin of northern Burma.

Mention may be made of Meidingu Khumomba's (1263-1278) defeat of the Shans, Meidingu Ningthou Khomba's (1432-1467) conquest of Tamu, and Meidingu Kiyamba's joint venture with Pong king Chaopha Khekhomba for conquest of Kabaw valley followed by distribution of boundary between Manipur and the kingdom Pong on the east, repulsion of the invading Mayang Thongnangs on the west.

The expansion of the kingdom on the east was continued by Meidingu Mungyamba (1562-1597) who invaded and conquered Mungkhong Mungyang in the year 1565. The trend of annexation lasted till the time of Meidingu Khagemba, whose military campaign in the Trans-Irawaddy basin extended up to the border of present Yunan in China.

Emergence of Plural Culture: One may theorise that the military campaigns compelled the kingdom to increase its manpower for war and economic activities. It so happened that this era of annexation coincided with the Muslim conquest rule in the mainland India. As a result of the attack on non-Muslims, a number of Brahmins migrated to Manipur during the time of Meidingu Kiyamba (1467-1508 AD). They were employed as astrologers and engaged in religious works.

The Brahmin ancestors of Adhikarimayum, ShijaGurumayum, Leihaothabam, and Phurailatpam immigrated to Manipur and settled here during this period. Non-Brahman migrants such as Lairikyengbam were given the job of royal scribes. Their knowledge of foreign language and culture were useful while dealing with foreigners from the west. RK Jhaljit observes, "The arrival of Brahmins enriched the cultural life of the kingdom."

Kiyamba also constructed a temple of Vishnu at present Bishnupur (Lammangdong) to place the statue of Vishnu (Pha) gifted to him by Pong king Khekhomba in 1474 AD. The Brahmans were allowed to worship the idol of Vishnu and to practice their own religion and belief.

Meidingu Khagemba (1597-1652 AD) permitted Muslim and Cachari invaders captured in 1606 and Shan captives of war to settle in Manipur. It is said that Muslims lived in Manipur as peaceful citizens with Meitei wives. They were provided land and allowed to practice their own religion. They couldg overn as per their own customs and conventions with Qazis who were well-versed in Islamic laws. In due course of time departments related to Panggals, such as Panggal Shanglen, Panggal Ingkhol, Panggal Phundrei were established. They were given new surnames, such as Aribam, Ayekpam, Khullakpam, Korimayum,and Makakmayum.

As mentioned earlier, a need for increase in manpower was felt for boosting the socio-economy and for military purposes. The ready assimilation of theIndiam migrants including Brahmins and the Panggals could be attributed to this necessity. During Khagemba's reign, there was tremendous progress in the field of agriculture and the manufacturing industry. Rivers and streams were dredged; canals like Kyangkhong and Takhelkhong were dug. Ten new markets and numerous villages were established.

Though Khagemba was a staunch follower of the Meitei religion, he allowed religious syncretism or dual worship of traditional Meitei Gods and Hindu Gods (Gangmumei). The present form of the Nata Sankitrtan was developed from the VisnuArati, which was performed during the time of Khagemba. In fact,he paved the way for the occurrence of the Golden Period in Manipur history in the first half of the eighteenth century, when Meidingu Garibniwaz took over as king.

Cultural Assimilation and Dissemination: Garibniwaz's reign marked the beginning of a new synthesized culture: he fully adopted Hinduism and converted his subjects. This is where the big question arises: how did a wise and brave king, who had invaded Burma more than ten times successfully, subdued all his enemies and introduced a strong administrative system, get so easily brainwashed by a mere preacher into conversion? It has prompte scholars to revisit the geopolitical situation of the region at that point of time.

At that point of time, Manipur was a nation surrounded by three powerful kingdoms, namely Tripura, Ahom and Burma. Out of these three, the Tripuris' hostility to Manipur consisted of occasional raids and skirmishes as their kingdom was vast and had its capital at Kholongma near present Dhaka. Furthermore, they were mostly preoccupied with checking the Muslim invaders from the west.

The Ahoms and the Manipuris, on the other hand, maintained a close relationship most of the time. The Ahoms were friendly and cooperative, and the Manipuri ruling family was related to them. They concentrated their expansion on the fertile valley of Lower Assam, confronting the mighty Mughals. This was how Burma grew to be the sole adversary of Manipur and Garibniwaz became the Burmese's most ferocious enemy with his domination of Upper Burma.

Thus the Burmese emerged as a power to be reckoned from the 15th century onwards with the rise of two powerful kingdoms- the Toungou (Tongoo) Dynasty (1510-1752 AD) and Konbuwang (1752-1885). Having restricted themselves to Lower and Middle Burma for a long time, their presence in Upper Burma was felt mostly after the thirteenth century. Their presence was strongly challenged by the Manipuris and the Shans. Though the Burmese could cope with the Shans and subdue them, they remained at constant warfare with the Manipuris, whose country was well fortified by nature.

Manipuris continued their fierce attacks against the Burmese from its stronghold at present day Imphal Valley. The Burmese too devastated the kingdom of Manipur more than once. The first Khuntak Lanshi Ahanba occurred during the reign of Jai Singh (1763-1798) and the Burmese king Shinbyushin (1763-1776), and the second one between 1819-1826 during the time of Meidingu Marjit (1813-1819), a descendant Garibniwaz. Unlike the other two neighboring kingdoms of Ahom and Tripura, the Burmese kings were Buddhist.

At this pivotal moment, some 39 Brahmins from the court of Ahom king visited Manipur on a goodwill mission in 1715 AD, led by Gopal Das Beiragya and Santidas Mahanta (later on given the title Gosai). After Gopal Das Beiragya left Manipur in 1720, Garibniwaz was initiated into Ramandi Sect of Hinduism by Shantidas the Goshai.

A few theories on why Garibniwaz converted to Hinduism have been postulated. The first considers the possibility of his considering Buddhism as the religion of his traditional enemy, the Burmese kings, and the absence of alternative religions like Islam and Christianity.

The second theory claims Garibniwaz might have seen Hinduism as a good or friendly religion or as a necessity, as his friendly Mongoloid neighbors, the Ahoms and the Tripuris had already adopted it. Here, it is important to mention that most of the powerful kingdoms of the world at that time had chosen one of the four major religions: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism or its branches.

The third theory suggests that Garibniwaz might have assumed that foreign preachers like Shantidas Goshai, much like Christian missionaries from abroad, would do no harm politically to the land and his people as he knew little about them. His country was after all surrounded by Mongoloid nations.

The fourth theory focuses on religion as a political strategy. It was an age during which the most vital role of the king was to protect his kingdom and defend his people. Clashes of religions was frequently carried out in the guise of expansion and colonisation. As such he might have considered it safe from his two powerful western neighbours if he adopted Hinduism in the face of the Burmese challenge.

Lastly, Garibniwaz might have been impressed by one of the sermons of Hinduism that 'those who killed in the battlefield depart direct to the Heaven'. It could have been a very useful discourse in an era of war and turmoil, especially against the (Buddhist) Burmese.

To be continued...

* By Hareshwar Goshwami, MCS (Retd) wrote this article for
The writer is a Writer & Politician
This article was contributed by Aheibam Koireng who can be contacted at akoireng(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on February 17, 2018.

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