Socio-cultural Ties Among The People Of Hills & Plain In Manipur
- Part 1 -

Dr. Priyadarshni M. Gangte *

Mera Houchongba  : re-affirming close bond and ties between hill and valley people at Sana Konung on  29 Oct 2012
Mera Houchongba : re-affirming close bond and ties between hill and valley people at Sana Konung on 29 Oct 2012
Pix - Bunti Phurailatpam

Introduction: Lapiere R.T.(Sociology, McGraw, New York, 1946; p.68) said,
"Culture is the embodiment of customs, tradition, etc. of the learning of a social group over the generation",
and so said, Melville J. Herskovits in his book on Cultural Anthropology (Oxford and IBH Publishing Co. Delhi, 1955: p.3)

"Culture is the ways man has devised to cope with his natural setting and his social milieu; and how bodies of custom are learned, retained and handed down from one generation to the next". We may examine as to how far are the people of Manipur who can be broadly divided into Meitei, Kuki and Naga, living in the valley and the hills surrounding it are related or otherwise in consideration of their culture, tradition, customs, etc., more particularly so in view of the fact that while the Meiteis living in the valley profess Hinduism, the Kukis and the Nagas living in the hills surrounding the valley embrace Christianity.

Origin and Ethnic Affinity:

According to Grierson, (Grierson, G.A.; Linguistic Survey of India, Vol.II, Calcutta, Government Printing Press, Calcutta, 1904; p.6), the Meiteis, Kukis and Nagas are all of Mongoloid stock belonging to the Tibeto-Burman Family, and their language is clubbed in the Kuki-Chin group of language which would have been a better appellation had it been given the Meitei-Chin linguistic group. This will enable the whole group divided into two sub-groups, the Meiteis and the various tribes which are known under the names of Kuki and Chin. By this, it only proves that the Meiteis and the Kukis and the Nagas are closely related in terms of language. All the same, the Kachin connection has been proved by the linguistic affinity between the Meitei and the Kachin (Hudson, T.C., The Meithei, London, 1908 : p.10).

McCulloch, (W. McCulloch:The Valley of Manipur, Gyan Publications, Delhi: 1859 : p.4) stated that in view of striking affinity in the language and culture of the people of Meiteis and the hill tribes of Manipur including their folklore, he was prompted to advance a theory that the Meiteis are descendants of the Kukis and Nagas. (R. Brown: A Statistical Account of Manipur, Government Printing Press, Calcutta, 1874 : p.28) also subscribed to this view of tribal origin of the Meiteis and speculated that "should it be a correct view that the valley of Manipur was at no very distant period almost covered entirely by water, the origin of the Munniporees from the surrounding hill is the proper and only conclusion to be arrived".

Similarly, Hudson, (op.cit : p.11) was bold enough to say, "Two hundred years ago, in the internal organisation in village, in habits and manners the Meiteis were as the hill people now are. The successive courses of foreign invasions, Shan, Burmese, Hindu and English, each left permanent marks on the civilization of the people so that they have passed finally away from the stage of relatively primitive culture with one of comparative civilization but their ultimate homogeneity with the Nagas and Kukis of the hills is undoubted".

An important feature is the indispensable Customary Law elements in regard to the parts played by each 'Salai' and to ensure participation of several ethnic and tribal groups in bringing and contributing different kinds of wood available in their regions which were used in the construction of halls in Kangla. Their participation in coronation-ceremony was essential. It was customary to collect water from different pools (Naoroibam Indramani : Coronation of Manipuri kings, Sanathong Monthly Journal, Imphal, 2001, Vol.VIII, No. 4, pp.15-18) belonging to the seven different 'Salais'.

Use of different designs and colours on clothes both among the seven Salais of Meiteis and the tribal groups, a practice followed since the reign of Pamheiba, reveal the divergent cultural base. Wearing of Tangkhul customary dress by the King during the coronation ceremony was a demonstrative impact factor for the people to integrate. These are seen as attempts to depict characteristics of the occasion to project the King as supreme authority of all the people living, both in the Valley and the hills, in expression of solidarity and integration of societies.

To light the most important fact about the origin of the Manipuri, the Kukis, the Meiteis and the Nagas as having a common origin. A folk song often sung at the Laiharaoba – a festival of the Meiteis reveals – that whether it be the settlers of the hills or that of the valley, both are of the same stock (W. Damudor Singh : Merger of Manipur with the Dominion of India; The Sangai Express : dt. 27-29, Sept., 2006). The song,
when sung in its indigenous and primeval tune significantly expresses inseparable 'one-ness' and deep relationship that existed between these groups of people.

That the Kingdom of Manipur, a segmentary state, had been in existence since the early Christian era constituted of the people belonging to the hills and the valley, cannot be denied the indigenous groups of people categoriesed as the TAM-MI (the people who settled in the valley) and the CHING-MI (the people of all groups irrespective of their indigenous ethnic divisions settled in the valley or those who remained in the hills) (Amal Sanasam : "Social Integration in Early Manipur, some Aspects" – A Seminar paper on Ethnic Relations Among the People of North-East India with Special Reference to Manipur, organized by Centre for Manipur Studies, Manipur University, Imphal.) because of their customary laws and socio-political common terminology found in their respective administrative units is also a fact.

Meitei, Kuki and Naga Ethnonyms :

Jhalajit, ( R.K. Jhalajit: A Short History of Manipur, Imphal, 1964, p.14) said that whatever be the genesis of its derivation, the ethnonym, Meitei, was historically found to have been applied to the Ningthouja clan-dynasty founded by Nongda Lairen Pakhangba and other groups absorbed by this dynasty politically and integrated into its social structure.

It is interesting to note what Shimray has maintained, regarding the term, MEITHEI, it is derived from the Tangkhul dialect Meithei (Mei = fire, Thei = saw) (Shimray, W.A. Sothing: The Tangkhuls, Imphal, 2000, p.10). The Tangkhul legend indicates that at one point of time, one younger brother from the Tangkhul country retracted back to the valley (Shimray : Op. Cit; p.11) his departure from the hill the elder brother asked to signal his existence in the valley by lighting up a fire. So whenever the elder brother looked down from the hill and saw the fire in the valley he used to think of his brother and knew that his younger brother was still existing in the valley. And in course of time, the elder brother nick-named the people of his younger brother MEITHEI people (the letter 'H" later omitted due to phonetical convenience). (Ibid).

The origin of these Meitei tribes is still obscured and complicated due to lack of information regarding their migration before their arrived in Manipur Valley. However, clan genealogies prepared by the Ningthouja royal court shows common origination from a single divine personality. This may be a later interpolation to create a myth of common origin of the Meiteis which was a necessary ingredient of nation building, said Kabui, (Kabui Gangmei: History of Manipur, Vol. I : Pre-Colonial Period. National Publishing House,Delih-2, 1991:p.20)). As a matter of fact, sociologically, the Meiteis have absorbed many foreign elements and completely assimilated into their social milieu. Over and above this strong political and social pressure of assimilation, there is the dynamic and all absorbing Meitei language which turned out to be the backbone of the process of the Meiteinisation of indigenous elements. It is likely that the Meitei as distinct ethnic, linguistic, cultural and social entity was formed in Manipur valley which was a melting pot of culture.

"The Kuki tribes of Manipur are a branch of the great Kuki Chin family of people. They are linguistically related to Meiteis. Ptolemy's Tiladae is identified with the Kukis by Gerini; and Kukis were included among the Kiratas. Kuki is a generic terminology. Some Kuki tribes perhaps the Chothe, Maring, Anal, etc. migrated in Manipur hills in the pre-historic times along with or after the Meitei advent in Manipur valley. Greater migration occurred in the 18th century onwards due to the great Kuki exodus which affected the demographic landscape of the hills of Manipur and adjoining areas, said, Kabui, (Op.Cit. : p.23).

Verrier (Elwin Verrier : Nagaland, Shillong; 1960:p.4) said, "The derivation of the word is still obscure". Gangmumei said "If the Kiratas of the later Vedas, Epics and Puranas were the Indo-Mongoloid tribes of eastern India, the Nagas were definitely among them. But the Nagas of the Sanskrit literature, especially of the Puranas are not the present Nagas under discussion". Robinson (William Robinson : A descriptive Account of Assam, Gauhati.1841:p.380) said, "The origin of the word Naga is unknown; but it has been supposed to have been derived from the Sanskrit word 'Nanga' and applied in derision to the people due to scanty nature of their clothing. Be it as it may, the theory of Naga coming from Sanskrit or Hindustani Nanga cannot be easily discarded. The Meitei historical and literary works refer to the Naga tribes as having been in occupation of the hills of Manipur.

Some aspects of homogeneity :

In confirmation, their close affinity is still in manifestation in many aspects of the life-style of these people but for professing of Hinduism by the Meiteis which seemed to have pushed apart these homogeneous groups of Meiteis, Nagas and Kukis. Yet, it would be interesting if we can highlight some such life-cultures of affinity among them.

(1) Attention to genealogy : McCulloch, (Op.cit : pp.56-57) said,
"I have before noticed the circumstance of the Koupooees believing themselves to be occupying the sites of villages which once belonged to the southern tribes, and as this belief tallies with the Khongjai (Kuki) idea, … the latter had formerly occupied the position now occupied by the Koupooees (Kabuis). …They pay great attention to their genealogy, and profess to know the names of their Chiefs in succession from their leader out of the bowels of the earth…"

Similarly, he said of the Meiteis that the attention of these tribes to their genealogy is curious, and the circumstance of "… the Munniporees preserving in each family a "Mei-hou-rol" or genealogical tree is a coincidence of custom worthy of notice". Such is an instance of cultural relationship of the people of Manipur without explanation in detail.

(2) Disposal of dead culture : It needs hardly be overemphasized that when a person dies, the corpse is buried. This culture is prevalent till date since time immemorial without change despite the fact that the Nagas and the Kukis have embraced Christianity these days. This burial tradition among the Meiteis was prevalent till the time of Maharajah Garib Niwaz who ordered that the Meiteis should exhume the bodies of their ancestors which they used to bury formerly inside their compounds. It is well known that upto the advent of Hinduism, the dead were buried, and the chronicles mentioned that Khagemba Maharajah enacted a rule to the effect that the dead were to be buried outside the enclosures of the houses. This was altered during the reign of Garib Niwaz. It is said that he exhumed the bones of his ancestors and cremated them on the bank of Engthi (Ningthi) river. Since then, he ordered his subjects to burn their dead. This change took place sometime in the year 1724, said Hudson, (Op.cit : pp.116-17):

Regarding the death rites and rituals the Meiteis (Ningthoujam Memcha, aged 35 years, Leimaram, Manipur interviewed on 4/7/2003) and NingthoujamNingol Nungleppam Ongbi Tombi, aged 51 years, Phayeng, Manipur (interviewed on 5-10-2005) residing at places like Sekmai, Pheiyeng, Loitangkhunou, Khurkhul, Andro, Leimaram and Kwatha are more or less same as that of the Kukis. The Meiteis of Pheiyeng observed death rites even the same as are prevalent among the Thadou society. The female relatives of the deceased (Chanute) such as own daughters and grand-daughters are obliged to kill at least a pig of 5(five) wais (one fist) to observe exclusively the family members of the deceased in token expression of sorrow and grief. It includes persons who took part in digging the grave at the burial ground and those who are near and dear ones. The eldest son, though not the heir also has to perform in like manner to pay respect to the departed soul. Offering cooked rice to deceased is also one of the features performed in token expression of sympathy.

(3) Sanskritic Origin : In as much as protagonists of Aryan origin of the Meiteis claiming descent from Pandavas through Babrubhahana, there are ample Sanskritic backgrounds of the Kukis. Grierson, (Op.cit : p.383) said, "In the Raj Mala, Siva is stated to have fallen in love with a Kuki woman, and the Kukis are mentioned in connection with the Tipperah Raja Chachag who flourished about 1512, A.D." Similarly, Kabui, G. (Op.cit,: p.23), said, "If the Kiratas of the later Vedas, Epics and Puranas were the Indo-Mongoloid tribes of eastern India, the Nagas were definitely among them." And so, said William Robinson (Ibid) that the word Naga had been supposed to have been derived from the Sanskrit word 'Nanga' and applied in derision to the people due to scanty nature of their clothings which must on no account be easily marginalized.

(4) Mera Houchongba Festival : Banned by Garib Niwaz on acceptance of Hinduism on ground of purity and impurity or touchable and untouchable between the hills and the plain, Mera Houchongba Festival as a common culture among the people of the hills and the plain is one glaring evidence that had been in existence for centuries together before it was forcibly made to abandon.

On this occasion all the people from the valley and the hills brought together their offerings to the King all varieties of new arrivals of the year's crops and vegetables including paddy from their fields and made their festivities in the presence of the King and in praise of the Almighty for the abundance of blessings given to them and for a more rich harvests in the years to come. Unfortunately, with the embracing of Hinduism this was discontinued with a decree from the King. It was revived in recent years mainly with a view to bringing about a closer and better relationship and emotional integration among the people living in the hills and the valley. Yet, all the while, such a rich culture has been in vogue among the hill people which have now been officially declared as general holiday on the day of Kut for the Kukis and Lui-Ngai-Ni for the Nagas.

(5) Affinity in Vocabulary : Being under the Tibeto-Burman Family group speaking dialects of the same language, the Meiteis, Nagas and Kukis ought to have certain amount of linguistic affinity which should be manifested in their vocabularies. In this regard it will be relevant to note that –

Kuki language is called in Manipur Thadou-Pao. This language does not have 'L' for 'R'. Thus for a word that requires 'R' in its spelling it is substituted by either the letter 'L' or 'G' as the case may be;

The Nagas do not have a common language unlike the Meiteis and the Kukis. Yet, the most outstanding advancement in developing a common language is the Tangkhul Nagas who adopted the Ukhrul dialect as their common language. So when language affinity is made on comparative study Tangkhul language will be used.

Higgins, J.C., the then Political Agent, Manipur (1919 : KPM/37/198) said, "Manipuri and Thadou (Kuki) contain certain roots in common, but are quite distinct languages and a knowledge of one does not enable a person to make himself understood by persons speaking the other. Assam Government, therefore, grants a separate reward to Officers passing in both".

To be continued ...

* Dr.(Mrs) Priyadarshni M. Gangte wrote this article for The Sangai Express and Hueiyen Lanpao (English Edition)
The write is a Lecturer at Department of History, Damdei Christian College, Manipur.
This article was posted on March 03, 2013

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