Cheiraoba and the Cheitharol Kumbaba

Chabungbam Amuba Singh *

Sajibu Nongma Panba : The Meitei New Year day on 16th March 2010
Sajibu Nongma Panba : The Meitei New Year day on 16th March 2010

The appearance of Cheiraoba on two different dates in the same year in the MANIPUR calendar issued by the DIPR is a display of intellectual bankruptcy of the Government of Manipur. While the people, in a secular democracy, should be free to observe the festival on a date of their choice, based on belief and custom, a Government who values its authority has only one choice to make and hence the Government's decision to have two one-day holidays on two different dates for the same occasion—the beginning of the new year—only reflects its inability to exercise its moral authority.

At no time in the history of Manipur, at least in the period covered by the recordings in the royal chronicle Cheitharol Kumbaba, the Cheiraoba was observed on two different dates in the same year. It has always been on one date—either the Shajibu-Nongma-Panba, the first day of the month of Shajibu, or the day of Shajibu-Palok—but never on both. The following narrative will put this observation on a clearer perspective.

Nowhere in the Cheitharol Kumbaba, the term 'Cheiraoba' finds a mention. Going by the significance traditionally attributed to it, Cheiraoba marks the beginning of the new year and not the end of a year. It is commonly accepted that the practice of 'Cheithapa' was formally introduced by Meidingu Kyamba in the year Saka 1407 with one scholar named Hiyangloi appointed as the royal scribe. This is corroborated by a corresponding entry in the Cheitharol Kumbaba.

However, over the period of 203 years beginning with this landmark year, there is no indication in the records of the date or day on which the new year began, although there are ample indications that this particular date comes after the month of Lamda. It was only in the year Saka 1610 (1688 CE), during the reign of Meidingu Paikhomba, that a clear evidence of the new year beginning on the first day of Shajibu could be found.

From this particular year of the scribe (Cheithaba) Wangkheirakpam Khongchomba - Saka 1610- onwards, the new year began on the first day of the month of Shajibu until a new system of marking the beginning of the new year was introduced 56 years later in the year Saka 1666 (1744 CE) during the reign of Meidingu Pamheiba (1709 - 1748 CE). The new year-mark was called 'Shajibu-Palok', and it corresponds initially to the Vishnu Sankranti in the Hindu calendar. (Later, from 1786 CE onwards, the correspondence was to the day following the Vishnu Sankranti as discussed later.)

For the year Saka 1666 (1744-45 CE), the day of Sajibu-Palok was the 28th day of Shajibu which is 10 April 1744 CE. Significantly, the preceding year Saka 1665 consisted of 365 days. This probably marks a transition from the lunar calendar to the luni-solar calendar system. [Such a transition from the Islamic Hijli calendar which was a lunar calendar to the Bengali calendar called Bongabda or Bangla Shon which was a solar sidereal calendar took place in Bengal during the reign of Akbar the Great (1556 CE-1605 CE). Akbar reintroduced the Bengali calendar on consideration of its practical advantage of tax collection from the farmers in the season of plenty].

However, after four years, the practice reverted to the old system of the year commencing on the first day of Shajibu. In fact, in the last year of Pamheiba's reign (Saka 1670), the new year again began on the first day of Shajibu. The old system continued right up to Saka 1699 (1777-78 CE), although over the twenty years' period from Saka 1677 to Saka 1696, the royal scribes had not mentioned the date of beginning of the year—which is a clear indication of confusion reigning among the Manipur Pandits or Maichous (I have not come across the term Maichou in the Chronicle). It may also be noted that the said period (1755 CE- 1774 CE) were years of unrest due to repeated Burmese invasions [ Alaungpaya 1758; Hsinbyushin 1764,1768,1769,1772]

From the year Saka 1700 (1778 CE) onwards, the traditional practice of marking the beginning of the year on the first day of Shajibu was altogether abandoned. For that year and the next (1778 and 1779 CE), the new- year day was on the day of the Shajibu Sankranti (in the month of Lamda) which fell on the 15th of March. For the next three years, the records show no indication of the date on which the new year began. From the year Saka 1708 (1786 CE), during the reign of Bhagyachandra, the situation stabilised with the reintroduction of the term Shajibu Palok which has been used thenceforth consistently to mark the beginning of the new year.

Using the methodology of 'eclipses as mile-stones', I have determined the Gregorian dates of all the days of Shajibu Palok recorded in the Cheitharol Kumbaba, starting with the year Saka 1666 (1744 CE) and down to the last year of the Chronicle viz., Saka 1869 (1955 CE)—the year of Maharaja Bodhachandra's death.

It is of considerable interest to note the following trends:

(1) that, upto the end of the 18th Century AD—i.e., upto the year Saka 1722 (1800 AD)-the Shajibu Palok fell on 10/11 April (mostly on 11 April);

(2) in the 53 years' period-from 1801 CE to 1853 CE-the Sajibu Palok fell on 12 April with the lone exception of the year 1843 CE for which the Palok day was 13 April;

(3) in the 46 years' period-1854 CE to 1889 CE---the Palok day fell on 12/13 April (with the exception of the years 1878 CE and 1887 CE for which the Palok days fell on 14 April);

(4) for the period 1889 CE to 1900 CE, the Palok day fell on 13 April with the exception of the year 1892 CE for which it was on 11 April;

(5) from the year 1901 CE onwards, the Shajibu Palok fell on 14 April with the exception of the years 1924 CE, 1925 CE, 1926 CE for which the Palok days were 13 April and the years 1939 CE, 1943 CE and 1955 CE for which the Palok days were 15 April.

An observation having immense cultural significance is that the Meitei chroniclers had introduced the following four interchangeable terms as a calendar marker: Bishu Sankranti/Beshu Sankranti/Pishu Sankranti/Bishuva Sankranti. These are obviously corruptions of the Vishnu Sankranti. The latter is an important landmark in the Indian astrology. On this day, the sun enters the Mesha Rashi (Aries) in its annual journey across the Zodiac. It is actually called the Maha Vishnu Sankranti (also known as Mesha Sankranti) and falls on the 13 / 14 April. (It is called Vishuva in Orissa and Vishu in Kerala.)

This Sankranti day invariably precedes the Shajibu Palok day from the year 1786 CE onwards. In other words, the Cheiraoba always comes one day after the Vishnu Sankranti just as the Bengali new year's day Poila Boishakh falls one day after the Charaka Puja which is observed on the day of the Vishnu Sankranti. By the way, Charaka Puja is a festival of southern Bengal worshiping Parvati and Shiva celebrated on the last day of the month of Chaitra (corresponding roughly to the lunar month of Lamda).

It has nothing to do with the Vaishnavism practiced in Manipur. It is very unfortunate that prominent Manipuri scholars who were educated through Bengali literature had erroneously identified the day of Cheiraoba-which is the new year's day-with that of Charaka Puja-which is the year-ending day. As already mentioned, the Cheitharol Kumbaba systematically differentiates Vishnu Sankranti from Sajibu Palok from the year 1786 CE onwards.

Summarising, the practice of observing Cheiraoba on the first day of Shajibu had been totally abandoned by the Manipur royal court with effect from the year 1786 CE (during the reign of Maharaj Bhagyachandra). Since then, Cheiraoba has been consistently observed on the day of Shajibu Palok which is the day after the Vishnu Sankranti. Since the beginning of the 20th century CE, the Shajibu Palok day has generally fallen on 14 April (except for a few years for which it fell on the 13 or 15 April). It is, therefore, absolutely wrong to identify the day of Cheiraoba with the Charaka Puja of Bangali Khutpai (Almanac).

If anybody cares for my personal opinion, well I am in favour of continuing with the practice of observing Cheiraoba on the day of Shajibu Palok (14/15 April) for the following reasons:
(1) It is at least a 225 years' old unbroken tradition initiated by the Manipur Royal Court.
(2) It has astronomical basis to fit into a solar calendar.
(3) It coincides with the New year's day observed in many parts of South and Southeast Asia (Assam, Bengal, Orissa, Kerala, Sri Lanka, Punjab, Nepal, Burma (Thingyan), Thailand (Songkran), Combodia (Chaul Chnam Thmey), Laos (Bpee Mai), Dai people of Yunan etc ).

And I am not in favour of reversion to the older system of observing Cheiraoba on the first day of Shajibu for the following reasons:
(1) It has no astronomical basis whatsoever to fit into a solar calendar and hence, it is completely devoid of any practical significance.
(2) Intellectually, scientifically and socially, it will be a retrograde step.

It is now for the Government of Manipur to find the moral strength to make a firm decision-- Cheiraoba on the first day of Shajibu or on the day of Shajibu Palok.

* Chabungbam Amuba Singh wrote this article for . The author is a former Vice Chancellor of Manipur University and can be contacted at camuba(dot)singh(at)gmail(dot)com
This article was posted on December 19, 2011.

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