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Lanmei Thanbi : Re-imagining the Light Spirit

James Oinam *

An illustration of 'Lanmei Thanbi : Re-imagining the Light Spirit '
An illustration of 'Lanmei Thanbi ' by James Oinam



In the olden days, in Manipur, a spirit called Lanmei Thanbi was said to haunt the forest at night. This spirit appeared in the form of light spontaneously. The spirit was sometimes said to follow people and sometimes it led the person astray if he chased it.

The knowledge of this spirit is vanishing in time, if not forgotten already, by the present generation. What did Lanmei Thanbi look like? Is this spirit based on some real experience? If so, did other people around the world also see flames where they should not be? According to science, facts are reproducible.

In other words, if our ancestors did see flames that appeared spontaneously out of nowhere, then these will most likely also be observed in other places around the world. And they do! There are parallels of Lanmei Thanbi all over the world famously called the Will-o'-the-Wisp, Jack-o'-Lantern, ignis fatuus, etc.

According to a podcast on stuffyoushouldknow.com, it is mentioned in Milton's Paradise Lost, where the misleading of Adam and Eve by the Snake has been compared to misleading of innocent people by the 'light'. The diversity of texts and authors who have reported this phenomenon is enough to convince anyone that it is not fictitious, although its explanation may vary. (The said podcast says even Isaac Newton has mentioned it in his work.) These lights are reported to be bluish-green in colour. So what are the scientific explanations provided for this 'spirit'?

The most popular explanation is the marsh gas. These lights or 'spirits' are said to appear in swampy areas. This has led to the belief that it is marsh gas. Also, marsh gas is considered hallucinogenic, even toxic at times. That may explain some part of spirit angle, victim falling into some kind of spell.

The environment that released the marsh gas may have vanished. So we no longer have those 'visions'. When I was a child, I have seen large well-like holes in the grounds (one of them I remember was near the Nambul River, near Chingna Makha), sputtering up mud due gases coming out from underneath.

Geologically speaking, Manipur is a lacustrine. It means the land was formed over water body. Because of this, swamps, and consequently marsh gas, might have formed in Manipur in plenty in the past—there are still plenty of swamps but it possible that human proximity/encroachment may have altered their ecological complexity and age.

Recent studies by a British geologist Alan A. Mill who recreated the marsh gas condition did not observe the kind of 'spontaneous combustion' people down the centuries have described, as other than the 'light' plenty of smoke was produced (when combustion of marsh gas was induced), which is not reported in case of the apparitions.

(The marsh gas may have plenty of different kinds of hydrocarbon gases, which are formed in inorganic condition, due to decay of organic matter, that is, dead plants and animals, by bacteria. Phosphine and diphosphine gases burn when it comes in contact with air/oxygen. So even a small amount of these gases, if emitted, would burn up the marsh gas.)

Mills has proposed an alternate 'cold flames' hypothesis, which is pre-ignition luminescence of the gases to explain this anomaly (Source: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will-o'-the-wisp). Cold flame would not release any smoke although it would emit light.

The other theory is it may be certain species of organisms that emitted light (in other words bioluminescence—just like fireflies). Their behaviour of tempting people to follow them and themselves following people, in turn, may be explained by this. Also, comparative absence of this spirit nowadays may be explained as the species going extinct due to human encroachment.

Manipur is in a mega biodiversity zone. My cousins who climbed the Koubru Mountain when I was a child reported seeing mushrooms that glowed in dark. Fluorescent plants and animals or insects can play tricks on impressionable mind, under certain environmental and weather conditions, by creating mirage for example. The species that appeared to our ancestors may have gone extinct or may be on verge of extinction, hence the comparative absence of the 'spirit' nowadays.

Maybe a generalized explanation for this spirit is not possible as we may not be looking at one phenomenon only. (Some may have encountered marsh gas and others bioluminescent organisms, and all of them called it Lanmei Thanbi.) These flames may have burnt out from our neighbourhood forests, but they continue to burn in our hearts.

In the Pixar's animation movie Brave, the princess is led to a woman, who later turns out to be a witch, by a light. This light is said to be the will-o'-the-wisp, or the Lanmei Thanbi for us Manipuri. Not everything our gullible ancestors said is a lie or imagination just because it is not true enough for us. Just because I have never seen kangaroo does not mean kangaroos don't exist. Sometimes we need a little faith to embrace the fact.




* James Oinam wrote this article for e-pao.net
The writer can be contacted at jamesoinam(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on March 23, 2017.



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