The unbreakable umbilical cord: Tangkhul folklore and Meitei connection

Yenning *

 Mera Wayungba - In the month of Mera, every house arranged a limelight in front of the house :: November 17 2013
Mera Wayungba - In the month of Mera on November 17 2013 :: Pix - Ashok Ningthoujam

Folklore plays a significant role in uncovering our origins by offering valuable insights into the beliefs, customs, and traditions of our ancestors. It provides a window into the collective memory of a community or culture, enabling us to comprehend their values, history, and worldview.

Tangkhul folklore on the origin of the Meiteis holds significant insights into the historical connection between these two communities, as American folklorist Alan Dundes noted in "Interpreting Folklore" (1980).

Dundes emphasized that folklore is not merely a collection of old stories and customs, but a dynamic process of oral communication that reflects the changing times in which people live. Tangkhul folklore, encompassing legends, myths, and proverbs, carry symbolic meanings and specific social functions, offering a deeper understanding of our origins and cultural heritage.

In this edition of "Hoi Polloi & Mundanity", we delve into some aspects of Tangkhul folklore concerning the origin of the Meiteis, drawing upon the wealth of knowledge presented in YL Roland Shimmi's "History of the Nagas" (2013).

In Tangkhul tradition, it is believed that the name "Meitei" originated from the southern Tangkhuls and can be traced back to the word "Mateimi". Meiteis have a tendency to drop the suffix, so "Mateimi" becomes "Matei". Over time, the prefix "Ma" transforms into "Mei/Mee", aligning with the Zeliangrong and Maram way of naming. Thus, "Mateimi" eventually becomes "Meitei/Meetei", the official name. To the Hundung Tangkhuls, "Mateimi" signifies "our people who have adopted another culture",

Tangkhuls recognize that, like them, the structure of Meiteis' society is organized into seven clans known as Salais. Interpretations other than these seven clans or principalities are not considered original. The seven Salais are Mangang, Khaba-Nganba, Sharang Leishangthem (Chenglei), Angom, Luwang, Khuman, and Moirang.

Concerning the Lai Haraoba ritual and festival of Moirang, Tangkhuls believe that it shares a close connection with the dismembered Lungka Tangkhul village, whose inhabitants merged with Kampha, present-day Sirarakhong Tangkhul village. During the Moirang Lai Haraoba ritual, references to Tangkhuls are often made, signifying their influence on the festival.

Following Tangkhul mythology, a sizable stone cave engulfed a deer, a dog, and a man. Distraught, the man's second wife courageously stood unclothed before the cave, thus birthing the Moirang Lai Haraoba ritual. According to the legend, the stone found amusement in the woman's nakedness, resulting in the cave's mouth opening. While the man and the dog successfully escaped, the deer was unable to do so.

The Shangshak Tangkhul legend speculates that the deer in question was of a white variety, and a similar tale is recounted among the Rengma Makhel tribe. Due to the enduring influence of this festival within the Moirang community, Tangkhuls firmly believe that a significant portion of Moirang's population consists of Tangkhuls.

  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

About the Angom Salai, a considerable segment of the clan is believed to be comprised of Tangkhuls who migrated from the Khangkhui Tangkhul village. Similarly, the Tangkhul Chahong clan, also known as the Keishing clan, asserts that it originated from the Imphal Valley and settled in Tashar Tangkhul village. As a result, the Tangkhul Chahong claims a connection to the Meitei Angom. Both the Meitei Angom and Tangkhul Chahong clans share the belief that their ancestors descended from the sky.

Regarding the Khuman Salai, it is upheld by Tangkhuls that they belong to a Tangkhul clan that migrated from the Kabaw Valley. Contrary to the Meitei assertion that Poireiton visited Khamnung, the specific location referred to is Kham Lungpha, situated in Khambi Tangkhul village.

Poireiton also paid a visit to a Tangkhul village called "Small Samjok" in the Kabaw Valley, where he met his kinsmen such as Tangkhuls, Moyons, Marings, Anals, and others, as well as other locations in the southern region. Notably, during his expedition, Poireiton did not venture to the Chin Hills nor the present-day Churachandpur side.

Consequently, the assertion that the Meiteis possess more Chin ancestry than Nagas lacks a solid basis. Furthermore, the name Khuman can also signify "Old Village" since the words Kha, Khu, Khul, and Khun are commonly found among both Nagas and Meiteis and cannot be exclusively attributed to the Chin community.

Tangkhul's' account of the Mangang clan presents an intriguing narrative. In Meitei tradition, it is believed that Pakhangba's ancestor was Hung Shitaba. In the Mao and Tangkhul dialects, the term "Hung" signifies the colour red. Within Hungpung village, also known as Hundung, the term "Hung" specifically refers to the clan of the Hundung Chief, symbolizing the "Red Clan".

However, this Meitei clan identifies itself as the "Mangang Clan", which also means the "Red Clan". Because in Manipuri, "Ngang" also denotes the colour red. According to Tangkhul's beliefs, the corona encircling the sun represents the passing of a nobleman from the Hung clan. Conversely, for the Meiteis, the corona signifies the birth of a prince from the Mangang clan.

Additionally, both the Hundung and Mangang clans share a totemistic belief that they are descendants of a mythical serpent, with the Hundung tradition tracing their lineage back to the second offspring of this legendary creature.

Per Hundung tradition, Mangang is the younger brother of the Hundung Chief. In the early days, the life of the Meitei Mangang was marked by immense hardship, with the valley lacking in almost every aspect. During that time, the younger brother relied on his elder counterpart for vital provisions. However, as time passed, the younger brother began neglecting his brother, prompting the elder brother to descend to the valley and assert his rightful share.

The Hundung Chief received his rightful share. This event gave rise to the tradition of Hao Chongba, where the Hundung people, with the Meitei king's permission, would collect desired items from Sana Keithel (the market) during every Hao Chongba festival. On that particular day, the Meiteis would sell only edible items, particularly sweet puff rice or roasted rice (Kabok).

However, this exchange was more than just symbolic "ransacking". It entailed the exchange of gifts. Furthermore, according to Hundung tradition, in each generation, the Meitei king would present a buffalo to the Hundung Chief, symbolizing their clan tradition. In times of enemy attacks, the parent village would always come to the aid of their fellow clansmen, and in return, the clan would offer a buffalo or a Mithun to the parent village, thus maintaining kinship ties.

In 707 AD, Samlong, a Shan or Pong Prince, arrived in the Loktak region during the reign of Meitei king Hongnemyoi Khunjao Naongthingkhong. The Pongs were preoccupied with securing their own position, leaving little time or capacity to conquer distant lands. Samlong surveyed the Imphal Valley for a decade. However, it seems that Samlong was a perceptive observer. Conquering the valley alone was not enough.

He also had to deal with Meitei's brother, the Tangkhuls. If the Shans had engaged in the Imphal valley, their conquest would have been fruitless. Subduing the Tangkhuls would have resulted in prolonged warfare. Therefore, it is likely that the Shans gave up their plan and headed towards Northern Burma.

Similarly, the Khumans could have been the most powerful clan in the valley. However, Poireiton's attempt to secure the throne was unsuccessful. There was something significant behind Pakhangba. The Hundung Chief, who was powerful and located just 40 miles away from Kangla, could always come to the aid of his kinsmen, the Mangangs. Poireiton likely observed the frequent visits of Hundung Tangkhuls to Kangla.

At that time, Hundung stood as the most powerful Tangkhul village, feared by neighbouring communities. The only power that could provide assistance to the Mangangs was their elder brother, the Chief of Hundung. With his help, Pakhangba ascended to the Kangla throne in 33 AD and initiated the consolidation of the Manipur kingdom.

These stories harken back to a time when Manipur was filled with various principalities, each clan holding influence over a specific territory. And one might say, these are mere folklore. However, these stories highlight an unbreakable connection that exists. Tangkhul folklore intricately weaves together the destinies of the Tangkhuls and the Meiteis, serving as a timeless reminder of the unbreakable umbilical bonds that connect these communities.

The richness of Tangkhul traditions offers a deeper understanding of the profound connection between these cultures, inviting us to embrace unity and celebrate the enduring ties that bind us. Preserving and cherishing this vibrant tapestry of our collective past ensures that the unique Meitei-Tangkhul connection remains an inspiration for future generations, fostering a cultural appreciation for years to come.

If you visit any Tangkhul village and gather around a fireplace, the Khullakpa (Chief) is bound to share more stories about the enduring bond between the Tangkhuls and the Meiteis. It wouldn't be surprising if they inquire whether you still light your courtyard during Mera (September-October) to let the Tangkhul brothers know that you are well.

Mera Wayungba is another symbolic cultural bond between the valley people and the Tangkhuls including other Naga tribes. However, at the moment, perhaps, the Hundung Chief is watching with a sense of sadness as he witnesses the suffering and violence endured by his Meitei brothers.

* Yenning wrote this article for The Sangai Express
Yennig can be reached at hoiyenning(AT)proton(DOT)me
This article was webcasted on 20 July 2023.

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