The Tangkhuls in the historical traditions of Manipur
- Part 1 -

Ch Budhi Singh *

 A scene from the Laiharaoba's Tangkhul Saba and a Nurabi
A scene from the Laiharaoba's Tangkhul Saba and a Nurabi :: Pix - Hueiyen Lanpao

A local historical tradition bespeaks of 'Nongda Lairen Pakhangba,' the first coronated king of Manipur, to have had been a fugitive scion of a great royal House of the ancient Occident, and discovers him at his stash about the desolate criss–crossing hill-tract adjoining hodiernal Manipur and Nagaland at the head- water of the Iril river. A version of the tradition hints at Naga descent of this royal scion on his maternal line or his nurture by a Naga surrogate mother.

'Poleilomba,' chief of Angom community of the early first century A.D. fetched him from the said spot of his hiding sojourn amid the Nagas, and enthroned him as the first king of the hitherto anarchical land of Manipur of early history. Notably of this part of the local historical tradition, this king-maker 'Poleilomba' had infiltrated down the Manipur Valley leaving behind his elder brother at their parental village, Hundung of Southern Ukhrul (Okphurun of archaic Meitei). Hereat is indicated Tangkhul affinity of 'Poleilomba,' anchor of the Angom unit of the inchoate Meitei heptad clan organisation.

One catches a glimpse of the story of separation of the kin duo in T.C. Hodson's The Naga Tribes of Manipur. The story briefly reads: for a time the younger brother maintained good relations with his brother in the hills, the later sending him every year gifts of produce of the hills, and in turn receiving presents of manufacture of the valley. The relation over time, however, suffered setback as the younger brother stopped sending the annual gifts upon which his elder kin counterpart of the hills 'promptly came down and took what he had been in the habit of getting' ( to use Hodson's own words).

To this European author the story, rather a legend, was invented to explain 'the curious custom which allowed the Tangkhuls to loot the women vendors at Sena Kaithel of certain articles on the day of Hao chongba or the Naga sports … The Manipuris got round the difficulty by ordering the women who sold the produce that custom made liable to this undesirable impost to stay away from the market on that occasion'(Hodson quoted).

A fabrication or an authentic one, the story echoes certain vibrating nuances of a binary opposition of the socio-cultural relationship holding between the two brothers, they representing the plains people (Angom community, in particular) and the Tangkhul community. Their relations territorial as well as political, are all conceptualised in the story in terms of the kinship idiom of brotherhood.

The stereotype of a jealousy situation does not, however, appear looming large in the mutual relationship of the two brothers; their conflicting relations arise only on the exercise of the prepotent right and authority by the younger brother.

A pristine order of propotent right and authority of the younger brother seemingly prompts writ large the conflicting plot from behind the background as is so evinced by the local creation myth of succession to the throne in which narrative of the two competing celestial brothers, 'Sanamahi' ('Ashiba') and 'Pakhangba,' the later (the younger one) is adjudged the rightful claimant to the celestial throne in their trial of wisdom; and also in another local legendary story of 'Shen-treng', the younger brother's ascension to the throne in supersession of 'Kuptreng,' the elder one's during the absence of the former.

Worth-noticing in equal terms in our story of the two brothers, harmony in their post-separation relationship turned jeopardised following withdrawal ex cathedra of the younger brother from the reciprocal exchange deal once he 'waxed fat and proud, and abandoned the custom of sending presents to his elder brother in the hills…' (Hodson's expression retained).

As a fall-out thereof the elder brother now irefully swooped down the valley at its periphery on raid and plunder for booties, an irate hit-upon which should not have been let loose, to contain which was eked out the Meitei custom of allowing the Tangkhuls to loot the women vendors at the market of certain articles on the day of Hao chongba. The wisdom of this customary practice consists in its contemplation to nib in the bud any further possible untoward conflict situation in the structural relationship of the two sets of people.

The issue of conflict resolution yet recurs in the 'Tangkhul vs. Nurabi' brawling episode staged customarily as an unavoidable ritual programme on the closing night of Meitei Lai haraoba festival in which the pair of opposites, 'Saram Tangkhul Pakhangba' Vs. 'Saram Tangkhul Nurabi' simulate quarrel over the question of ownership of the land to cultivate at 'Nongmaiching' hill. The dispute in this dance drama is settled to a holly/collective/joint/shared possession of the apple of discord on a divine tryst of arbitration by the local divinity 'Nongshaba'(possibly of Tai/Shan extraction) appearing in the scene in guise of 'Meitei Lambu'.

Leeward of the harmonious side of the dyadic relationship under observation we may now allude to certain traditions of the Meitei on distribution of power and status. Thus we take to the curious norm of royal coronation: coronation of 'Angom Ningthou'(king of the Angom royal House) preceded as a rule by a few days that of the king of the Meitei kingdom (possibly honoris gratia in respect of certain earlier historical eventuality that led to the conceptualisation of the relationship inter-se of the duo in terms of kinship seniority of the former).

The actual kinship relationship later in history between the two royal families: one that of the entire Meitei kingdom, and the other, that of one of the important clans of the larger Meitei body social, was that of 'sons-in-law' and 'fathers-in-law', i.e.., they indulged in matrimonial alliances practicing delayed exchange of princesses at alternate generations, based on which a select few of the kins involved in the marriage exchanges and their children monopolised certain unique royal kin terms of reference, and the corollary cultural prerogatives.

And, with his distinctive coat of arms only was the 'Yubaraj' (eldest son of the Meitei king) atop of the 'Angom Ningthou' in the hierarchy of the twenty-four or twenty-five member judicial body of the 'Cheirap,' the chief court of the kingdom.

Interested in this on-going narrative, one may ask for the reasons justifying so much importance being given to the descendants of the Tangkhul-turned Angom (Meitei), the younger brother of our story. One reason may be fixed in the decoded history of relationship of the two peoples that had been transmuted into the structure of kin relations of the two brothers in which the Tangkhul horde represented by the elder brother must have been brought to the light of history earlier than formation of the larger Meitei society into which the younger brother of the story and his descendants were absorbed, thereby which the former duly received ample dispensation of respect, honour and special status.

Anticipated at the beginning of the present discourse, 'Poleilomba' of the Angom royal House, a cynosure and connoisseur of his time braved the onus of undertaking the stupendous task of discovering the fugitive 'Nongda Lairen Pakhangba,' and enthroning the latter as the first king of Manipur with which was obtained momentum of emerging into the historical kingdom of Manipur.

Herewith one finds the deep historic contribution of 'Angom Poleilomba' to the 'Pakhangba dynasty' of Manipur history (monarchical Manipur was over all her history under the rule of this single dynasty), indeed a great service which the culture-history of Manipur reciprocated in terms of the aforesaid and the like other exclusive cultural perks, perquisites and prerogatives conferred upon the members of the Angom royal families; and, more anon.

'Angom Ningthou' was honoured with two highly exalted terms of reference, too: 'Angouba' and 'Angou Panba'. In Manipuri vernacular the former term means 'the white'; when the suffix 'ba'( local word for English 'the') is replaced by 'Pan,' the article 'ba' be affixed thereafter, the resulting word order 'Angou-Panba' is formed.

Further, examined in the light of comparative philology, this expression 'Angou-Panba' may rightly be compared with the expression 'Bal-Angwe' of the southern Cham kingdom of ancient Indo-China; the two differ from each other only in transposition of their word order (one being anagrammatised from the other).

Furthermore, following Col. G.E. Gerini's in-put: '… as regards the Cham Bal especially, that in India Bal is a synonymous term for Isvara, i.e., Siva … and that Balei may just as well be derived from Bal-alaya… the 'Lord's Abode,' i.e., 'capital;' mayhap also 'Siva's ( i.e., the king's) dwelling,' kings being in Indo China likened, as a rule, to Siva.' The necessary inference therefrom is: Bal is Siva's 'residence' or 'capital'. And, where the attribute 'white' or 'silver' be attached to the term 'Angwe'( Manipuri 'Angou') that would be so on account of the people's fascination with silver ( the precious white metal), and its mines that had been once extensively worked in also Indo-China of history.

The above equation of the Cham kings with 'Shiva' (the cardinal Hindu God of Dravidian extraction) highlights reminiscence of the Dravidian impact on the local Mon-Khmer populations scattered widespread from the land of present-day North Bengal and farther west, to the eastern littoral of Indo- China; the Kalingas and Andhras had swayed over the vast tract of land from the eastern border of Magadh to Western Burma and the Arakan region before the end of the third century B.C.

This historical background recalled, the Tibetans used to call Assam and its adjoining areas 'Monyul', i.e., the 'country of the Mons'. Incidental upon this historical backdrop historical constructs of the Mon/Taliang/ Taleng/Tareng/Wa-base of the Angom community of early Manipur, stand firm, well, also with the prop of the local philological evidence: 'Kup or kut-treng', name of an early ancestor of this community is a derivative of 'Kup -or Kut-Taleng', name of a section of the Taliang/Wa who stayed on in Kentung province of Southern Shan States of Burma after its conquest by Khun -Tai of Yunan.

One must have been aware of the above metaphoric association of the precious metal 'silver' with Shiva, and likening of the local kings/leaders to this Dravidian divinity, as well as of the syllogistic inference from these two premises to associating the local royal or the like personalities with 'white' and 'silver'. This logical reasoning would explain the Manipuri tradition of revering and exalting 'Angom Ningthou' as 'Angouba' and 'Angou-Panba', i.e., he is put to simile with 'Shiva', and ipso facto, with 'white' and 'silver'.

All this arrays the possible series of local cultural constructs, given the historicity of the Dravidian phase of the early history of Manipur, too. By now, I rest assured that the Manipuri literary appreciation of the geographical fabric of Manipur as being woven into with silver wefts (locally expressed: lupana maphel phenba lam) goes pretty well with attribution of silver quality to 'Angom Ningthou' anent the status and role he assumed in the then kingly state of Manipur, whereas rhetoric embellishment lengthwise of the fabric as Sanana mayung kaaba lam refers to its gold warps, it implying the auric property of the 'Pakhangba ruling House.'

In good sooth, 'Pakhangba royal House' with its closest socio-political aide 'Angom Ningthou' was the very axis mundi of the monarchical rule of Manipur in history.

(To be contd)

* Ch Budhi Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The author is formerly a Professor of Social Anthropology at Manipur University, Canchipur.
This article was webcasted on May 30, 2019.

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