Zeliangrong settlement at Heibokching, Imphal West
- A historical perspective -
- Part 1 -

Dr Budha Kamei *

The Zeliangrong are one of the natives of Manipur belonging to the Tibeto-Burman family. The population of this ethnic group is found mainly in Tamenglong and Noney districts of Manipur. These people are found scattered also in the valley districts of Imphal West and Imphal East, Thoubal and Bishnupur; outside the state, they are found settling in Nagaland in its Paren District, and Kohima District, and in Assam in its Haflong sub-division of Cachar District and Hailakandi District. In this article an attempt is made to trace how and when the Zeliangrong (Rongmei) people came down from the Western Hills and settled in the Manipur valley at Heibokching.

Heibokching, one of the historical places of Manipur located on the south of old Langthabal capital and Manipur University (MU) (the highest learning place of human resource development) is about 10 kilometers away from Imphal; it falls under Wangoi sub-division of Imphal West District.

It has four ranges of hills and is bounded by Chandranadi River on the east, Manipur University on the north, Nambul River on the west and Naran Konjin on the south. Heibokching is covered with forest which is rich in flora and fauna. Now, the Zeliangrong (Rongmei), the Meitei (Nararikonjin) and the Meitei Pangal (Muslim) inhabit at the foothills of Heibokching.

The scenery of Heibokching is enchanting that one has to take a pause at least for its praise. In his novel Madhavi, Dr Kamal wrote,
"Sajikbu Hougatlakpada Heibokching-gi Drishdi Pukning Hunabagi Mashakni.
Nongchup Thngbada Nambul Turenna Eichen Khoina Khoina Chelli.
Nongpok Thangbada Pat Macha Ama Lei.
Pat Asi Matam Leiba Khibikta Luraba Eshingna Changjou Mannana Lei.
Tharo, Thambal, Thariktha Khibikki............................
Patki Eshing Marik Marikna Englaba,
Pat-ta Houba Thamna Amasung Chingkhada Houba Hei-Leina Manam Nungshihllaba Nungshitna Humkhiduna Ching Napom Pumnamakpu Thoidokna Manam Nungshihalli.
Chingthaktagi Nganu Thangong Pareng Pareng Chaktage Haina Pairakli”

According to Heibok Chingoi Lon, Langthabal was called Thonglen Taibi and subsequently it came to be recognized as Langthabal. The narrow road that runs between Heibokching and Langthabal capital is locally recognized as Langthakpham, a place of keeping trap. It is believed that if a Langkom is found lying on the road, it is a trap of deities; and one is advised to return home.

This tradition is still in practice; marriage party or procession is forbidden to go through this road in the belief that one of the couple will become widow or widower in near future. The Langthabal area does cover the Heibokching and its surrounding villages like Khoupum, Chingkha (Namkaolong), Chingthak (Lubanglong), Mantrikhong etc.

The 18th century was a landmark epoch in the history of the Zeliangrong people. It was during this period, a large number of Zeliangrong warriors engaged in the famous Burma campaign of Garib Niwaz and also in the war of liberation of Manipur from the Burmese occupation under the able leadership of Bhagyachandra. Consequently, the Zeliangrongs (Rongmeis) were permitted to settle in the valley at Langolching, Chingmeirong, Langthabal (at the present site of SBI, MU campus) and Heibokching and started an era of friendship between the Meiteis and Zeliangrongs.

Pamheiba popularly known as Garib Niwaz (1709-1748), the 50th Raja, ascended the throne of Manipur after his father (Charairongba) death, on the day of Wednesday, 23rd day of Thawan (August), 1709 C. E at the age of twenty. All Naga chiefs were invited at the coronation ceremony. The official and ministers of his administration received the Naga chiefs, made friendship and intimacy with them. The king entertained the Naga chiefs with good feast and wine.

Garib Niwaz was often designated as Maharaja because he was the head of seven Pibas of Angom, Khuman, Moirang, Luwang, Khaba-Nganba, Chenglei and Ningthoujas. Following the footsteps of his father Charairongba, Garib Niwaz also did maintain friendly relations with the hills chiefs. He advised his nobles to have friendly relation with hill-chiefs. Some colonial writers mention that Garib Niwaz was a Hillman by birth because of his intimacy with the hill people.

In 1735 C.E, Maharaja Garib Niwaz issued a royal decree according to which village functionaries like Khullakpa, Khunbu, Luplakpa and Lambu were introduced; he replaced the traditional village chief by Khullakpa. In fact, it is a policy to centralize his administration. He did try his best possible means to put in force the new administrative system even in the remote villages of the hills and those who opposed it were punished and invaded.

As a part of punishment, he invaded at Zeliangrong (Rongmei) villages of Tokpa (Mukten), Nungnang Taobi (Lungrang), Rangkhong (Rangkhum), Thinglon (Thiulon village in the west bank of Barak) and Charoi Chagotlong (Poulinglong) in 1748 C.E. In his Charoi invasion, a Tamna, an insect of green colour was presented to the king by the village chief as a token of love and respect. By the middle of 18th century, the writ of Manipur kingdom over several Zeliangrong villages like Noney, Rangkhong, Nungtek, Charoi Chagotlong and Haochong was established.

With a view to have good relationship with the hill tribes particularly the Zeliangrong, he made a visit at Noney and Noney Khullakpa was privileged to ride an elephant of the king. And on the day of Saturday, 18th day of Langban (September), 1746 C.E, he also gave permission to the three villages of Chingkhoupum and Luwanglon (Ganglon-Khullen and Khunou) to sell their commodities in the market of the state capital. It is suggested that the present Hao Macha Keithel near Majorkhul was the market place of that time. Chingkhoupum was untouched by the king.

Now, it is clear from the above historical facts that the then king of Manipur, Garib Niwaz did try his best to keep his hegemony over the small villages inhabiting mainly in the area of Chingkhoupum and Tongjei Maril and at the same time, he also attempted to maintain friendly relations with the Zeliangrongs with the objective of bringing unity to fight against the Burmese locally known as Awa/Ava.

In this regard Gangmumei Kamei has rightly stated that Garib Niwaz invited the hill tribes, Tangkhul and Zeliangrong to join the Manipur army in his invasion of Burma. Many of them went up to the Irrawaddy and survived to return home. Garib Niwaz allowed the Burma veterans among the Zeliangrong to settle in the Manipur valley, Chingmeirong, Langol Hills and Langthabal and began an era of friendship between the Meiteis and Zeliangrongs.

According to 'Ningthourol Kumpaba, ' an unpublished text, it was in 1735 C.E. that the Zeliangrongs who returned from Burma campaign (Expedition to Myedoo in upper Burma) of King Garib Niwaz were allowed to settle at Langol Hills and Chingmeirong. In the Meitei Puyas, the Zeliangrong who had rendered help to the Meitei Kings in their war against the Burmese in 1734 C.E were permitted to settle on the Chingmeirong and Langthabal Hills.

It was during the reign of Bhagyachandra also known as Chingthangkhomba from 1759-1762 and 1763-1798; a new chapter of friendship between the two communities was opened despite the religious orthodoxy of the Hindu Meiteis. It is noted that this was the key achievement of the noble king Chingthangkhomba. Chingthangkhomba, this name of the king was popular among the hill people and womenfolk in the valley.

Like his grandfather Garib Niwaz, Bhagyachandra also strictly followed the policy of appeasement towards the Zeliangrongs; as a result, there was mutual understanding and co-operation with the hills people during his reign. It was during his reign, Alaungpaya of Konbaung dynasty, a powerful king of Burma and his successors like Hsinbyushin invaded Manipur several times and defeated Manipur due to lack of unity among the ruling princes. From 1758 to 1826 C.E within this period of 68 years Manipur was overrun and dominated by the Burmese times without numbers.

In the meantime, Wayenbamcha Khellembal Khenlei Nungnang Telheiba, maternal uncle of Chingthangkhomba, the chief of Moirang (Khellemba was appointed as chief of Moirang by Gourashyam (Moramba) in the year 1757 C.E) rebelled and seized the throne of Manipur. So, the fugitive king Bhagyachandra took refuge in the land of Zeliangrong and appealed to the Zeliangrong people to help in fighting against the Burmese. Then, he proceeded to Ahom (Tekhao) and exiled there from 1765-1768.

Manipur was ruled by Khellemba as puppet king for three years under the protection of Burmese army. In 1768 C.E, Bhagyachandra returned home with the forces of Ahom king Rajeshwar Singh of the Tunkhungia dynasty (1765-1769 C.E). On the way back, at the Merap river there halted for sometimes and he raised a Naga force consisting of Zeliangrongs and as he proceeded, almost all the people of the country welcomed him as their king that time the Burmese army left Manipur on hearing the arrival of the Ahom forces.

To be continued .....

* Dr Budha Kamei wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be reached at budhakamei(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on June 18, 2019.

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