Phases of Manipur Culture: A Historical Perspective
- Part 2 -

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)

Cultural Dissemination: Whatever reasons Garibniwaz may have had, the impact of the conversion on the socio-cultural life of his people was tremendous. It polarized the Manipuri society. The introduction of 'Varna' system, as precursor of 'Mangba' and 'Sengba' added the sufferings of the common people. The cultural gap between the hill and valley inhabitants widened. New shift of allegiance from traditional beliefs like worship of hills and mountains, rivers and streams to alien topographical features like Ganga, Jamuna, Himalaya etc. occurred, endangering the native ecological and environmental systems and resulting in serious threat to the existence of the population.

The burning of Puyas and destruction of the temples of Umang-Lais are condemned to this day, even if most of the Puyas listed to be burnt are still available. It created a psychological atmosphere of cultural humiliation and dependency. Imposition of numerous taxes related to the new religion put a heavy burden on the common man and affected the economy of the kingdom. Prohibition of the rearing of pigs and poultry, eating of meat, also reshaped the socio-cultural visage of the Manipuris.

Religious Syncretism: It is little or no wonder that Garibniwaz is treated as religious fanatic by many of his critics. Still there are aspects that could be taken as considerate to some extent. Examples may be cited to the worship of royal deities like Nongshaba, Panthoibi, and TaibangKhaiba (Sanamahi) by Brahmins, indicating that there was still room left for religious syncretism and cultures.

Though Hindu festivals replaced the traditional festivals, the hill people were allowed to practice their own culture and religion. The killing of animals for food during Mera Haochongba known as Mera Sanduba was allowed in the capital, which shows cultural toleration and pluralism. Haomacha Loishang was reorganized and properly maintained. Muslims who had already settled in the kingdom were not forced into conversion. It shows his tolerance and forbearance towards other beliefs and religion.

The accession of Meidingu Chingthangkhomba popularly known as Rajarishi Bheigyachandra (1763-1798 AD), signaled the promotion of a cultural syncretism that is found even today. The Chaitanya school of Vaishnavism replaced the Ramandi cult propounded by Garibniwaz and his preceptor Shanti Das Mahanta. He was formally initiated to Goudiya Vaishnavism by Shri Rup Parmannanda Thakur.

He installed the idol of Govindajee in 1776 and introduced Ras Lila, a combination of traditional Meitei dance form and Vaishnavite theme. It is said that there are many similarities between traditional 'Maibi Jagoi' and 'Bhangi Jagoi' of the Ras Lila. The pattern of 'Champra Okpi', 'Champra Khaibi' of the Bhangi dance is said to be adopted from 'Lei-hekpa' 'Lei-khaiba' of the 'Lai Haraoba' of the Meiteis. Meiteis being lover of dance and music found expression of their sentiment and emotion in devotional songs in Shri Govindajee and Nata sankritan.

The Manipuri Vaisnavism as propounded by Bheigyachandra cannot be described as a purely transplanted brand of religion from Bengal. It was formed to suit the local taste and ideas. Thus a socio-religious syncretism occurred resulting to the emergence of present culture of the Meitei-Hindus.

Modern Period: Towards Inclusive Composite Culture (1826 1972)

This period witnessed the resurgence of a composite culture in the Manipuri society. Random contact with the British had already begun since the time of Raja Jai Singh (Bheigyachandra). However, direct link commenced after the signing of Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826. The meddling of the British Raj in Manipur's politics is clearly visible in the matter of cessation of Kabaw Valley to Burma in 1834. After the first Anglo-Burmese War, the British felt it necessary to establish a Political Agency in Manipur. Captain Gordon (1835-1844) was appointed as first Political Agent.

The constructive part of British contact with Manipur was the introduction of western education. Among the pioneers, mention may be made of Major General W.F. Nuthall, Dr. L. Brown (1867-1875), Sir James Johnstone, Rev. Pettigrew. Nuthal-Brown's vernacular school was established in 1872. Though not successful it paved way for future western education in the State.

As a result, in 1920 Manipuris went outside the state for obtaining western education with State Scholarship. The arrival of western education acted as an agent of social change, altering existing outlooks and beliefs, and leading to the emergence of an elite group that wanted progress and modernization.

The outcome was the birth of various movements like revivalist, social reformation, and revolutionary movements in Manipur in the first and second half of the twentieth century. The revivalist movement was spearheaded by an educated teacher called Naorem Phullo popularly known as Naoria Phullo born in 1888 at Laishram Khullen Jaribond, of the then Cachar District.

The movement aims at reviving the traditional religion, custom, culture and usages of the Meiteis. But the leader who had awakened the Manipuris from its long slumber and defied colonialism and feudalism was Lamyanba Hijam Irawat Singh, born on 30th March 1896. He was an educated leader of high social status who once became a Darbar Member.

After the defeat of Manipur in 1891, the British taught and trained the Maharaja to be rapacious and cruel against his subjects. They enabled him to collect taxes and revenues effectively so as to fulfill their colonial aspiration. As a result, various obnoxious taxes like Hajam-napet, Kang-thouri, Chabok-wangol, Chandal-senkhai, Jal-sambhandhi and harsh and compulsory duties like Yarek-santri were imposed on the common people.

Above all, there prevailed many evil social systems like, 'Mangba-sengba', 'Inthokpa-loushinba' etc. However, with the emergence of educated middle class, the authority of the king, his nobility and priestly class were questioned. Dead bodies that were buried earlier as 'unholy' were taken out, cremated and last rites performed. The payment of obnoxious taxes and the system of 'sacred' and 'unsacred' were defied.

As a result of the efforts made by Lamyanba Irabot and likeminded people, cultural disparity began to wane and the characteristics of a composite culture prevailed again. The King was no longer absolute.

Establishment of Constitutional monarchy in 1949 is a vivid example in this regard. Religion was no longer the source of truth and reality. Reason and logic won over faith and belief. This change heralded the beginning of Modern Period in the Manipur History.

Conclusion: At a time when Manipur was yet to consume and fully embrace the age of science, the complex digital revolution in 1970s kick started the Information age. The Information Age is a period in human history characterized by the shift from traditional industry to a society based on information technology.

As a result of sharing of knowledge through information technology, people's socio-economic and political outlooks have changed tremendously. It even challenges science as source of truth and reality; truth stopped being absolute as it became subject to interpretations. Man had moved on from objectivity to subjectivity.

The existence of other gods and cultures is acceptable in the mind of the post-modern people as there is no single defining source of truth beyond the individual. For posts-modernists spiritual pluralism exists. God is welcomed until he doesn't play God. Neither religion nor science is the yardstick to measure truth, beauty and goodness. As such post-modern culture itself defies certainty and absoluteness.

They group and re-group with likeminded people beyond the traditional cultural and religious boundaries. Post-modernism makes assimilation and integration more fluid. But individual or group ideologies can be clashed in the absence of an unifier, that might spin towards social chaos and anarchy. To me this is the social order prevailing today in Manipur though the characteristics of both modern and pre-modern still persist.


* 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 22, 2018.

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