Composite History Of Manipur
(A dose of minimizing ethnic conflict)
- Part 1 -

Dr. Dhanabir Laishram *

The First Nupi Lal 1904 (Women agitation against british).
The First Nupi Lal 1904 (Women agitation against british) :: RKCS Art Gallery
Warning: These images CANNOT be reproduced in any form or size without written permission from the RKCS Gallery

It would be a profound error to allow geographical dimensions or statistics of population or complexities of religion, caste and language to belittle the significance of what is called the integrated Manipur of the past. Hinduism, Sanamahism, Islam and Christianity all of them have played their important role in the social development of Manipur. We have witnessed some social movements such as Nupilan Ahanba( First Women Agitation,1904), Thoubal Agitation (1912), Kuki Rebellion (1917-1919), Jadonang Movement (1921 onwards), Irawat Movement(1934 onwards) and Statehood Movement. All these movements were launched by all the communities for the better future of Manipur. Thoubal Agitation was shared by Meetei Pangals as one of the leaders, his name is Alip Chaoba. Kuki Rebellion was also shared by Meetei leader, Chingakham Sanajaoba and his followers. All the ethnic groups are not heeding the hidden force of religion in the structural work of society and its politics. They have no common religion but have developed common traits of character and have common economic and cultural interest.

The ethnic clash among them is of a recent growth and is the outcome of manipulation by interested politicians mainly from outside. Besides, what is important in the formation of an integrated Manipur is not mere physical relationship like race, language, and religion but a common memory in the past and a common ideal in future. That is why we do not try to die away the emotional and spiritual bond of unity.

Manipur had been for centuries the home of several ethnic groups. Almost nine-tenths of the area of Manipur is hilly regions and about seven hundred square miles comprise the fertile central valley. From time immemorial the central valley of Manipur had been the home of the seven clans, to day collectively they are known as the Meeteis while the surrounding hilly regions of the state are inhabited by the hill men, they are known as the Nagas and the Kukis. According to 1881 census the total population of Kukis was 25,384 and Nagas were 59,904 while the Meeties were 1, 17, 103, (EW Dun: Gazetteer of Manipur p15). The Meeteis is known as Tammee (Plainsman) and the Nagas and the Kukis are commonly called as Chingmee ( highlanders). All of them are known as Manipuris (including Meetei Pangal). Manipuris means those indigenous people who inhabit in Manipur. It does not mean only the Meeteis. Nowadays a good numbers of hill people both Naga and Kuki are settling in very precious areas of valley even including zero miles at Imphal.

The Meetei is the outcome of successful ethnic pluralism canvass done by the Ningthoucha clan. He subdued all the clans of valley and collectively called as Meetei. It was going on up to 18th century. All the hill people would also be within the umbrella of Meetei, if the Hindu religion didn't come to Manipur. Unfortunately, the external force interfered in this process of ethnic pluralism canvass. After that the British came and we had two different administrations. Valley was ruled by the native king and hill areas were administered by the British. The same administration was followed by India after Manipur was annexed to India also. Thus the cleavage between hill and valley became more and more widen. All these were handiworks of the external forces not by the Meeties.

Origin of Manipuri people:

Different legends had given that the highlanders and valley people are from a common ancestry. According to one such story still retold in Manipur that the whole valley came under a deluge during some prehistoric period. The people living in the valley fled to the hills and lived there as long as the flood was lasted. When the time came to return to the plains, some of them stayed on while others came back to their original habitat. The people of the valley, thus, got divided in to the hill folk and the plain folk.

All the groups had blood relationship from time immemorial. The first king of Manipur, Nongda Lairen Pakhangba married high landed girl, her name is Laishna (this is not a hill folk's name but it is likely that the prince gave her name of his choice). Another king also married a high landed girl known as in Manipur history as Linthoi Ngambi. It was the story of the beginning of the 15th century (R. Constantine: Manipur Maid of the Mountain, p22-26). King Paikhomba also had nuptial relationship with Ingallei, daughter of Maram Khullakpa as wife of him. Some kings had tribal women in their seraglios. It indicates that a few of the rulers of Manipur were blood relations of the tribes. Still this inter-marriage in between the hill and valley people is being practiced.

In Manipur there was no caste system during the pre- Hindu period. Even today caste system is not practicing in Manipur. Instead there was class system. The early Meetei population may be broadly classified into three categories- the nobles, the commoners and the slave (K. B. Singh: Social Stratification and Mobility in Manipur, p62). Nobility was not hereditary for all sections of the population and one could become a noble if one received recognition and favour of the king. Tribal Chiefs also got it. During the time of Pamheiba (1709-1740), the ministers and the Phamdous of Manipur used to receive Naga Chiefs quite frequently and dealt with them as good friends.

The slaves on the other hand did not comprise as separate community or group. They were mainly discharging their duties for royal family members and noblers. Both Meeties and tribal were working under this category. Slavery in Manipur was different from that of other parts of the world. They live in the same house of their master, ate with him and worked together like member of the family. The valley and the hills also had the same food habits. Before Veisnavite came, the meat was the best part of the valley's menu. Today also Meeteis are not Vaishnavites completely (James Hestings Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics Vol.8, 1964, p402).

They had inter-dinning from early period of history. King Charai Rongba invited the different tribal Chiefs to the grand feasts. His son Pamheiba made the great days of hill valley entente, almost a close thing to harmony. He, like other rulers, ascended the throne in Kabui tribal costume. He did not arrange the Royal feasts without inviting the chiefs of different hill areas. In short the Meeties had similar habits, manners, customs and beliefs with Naga people before contact with other advanced groups and adoption of Hinduism (M. Horam: Naga Polity, 1975, p.42).

In the relationship between highlanders and plainsman, they had different political and economic system on account of geographical condition and existing of some evil social practices. There were no mass-mixing among the different ethnic groups of highlanders and valley people due to having unsound communication system. Only the chiefs of highlanders could contact Meetei Ningthou (King) and his subjects. Moreover there was practicing of head hunting among the different tribes of highlanders. So they had fear psychosis among them and in between the clans. That is the result that their isolation and geographical barriers could not be broken down. In the earlier period of Manipur history there was no hill leader who was trying to give good massage to the people for tribal unification. Instead, they were taking henoise action against each other. Such evil reaction ever remains in the minds of different tribal groups.

But in valley the seven clans were united under the Meetei king, he was more powerful than the others. So he succeeded ethnic pluralism canvass in the valley. Unfortunately, he could not extend his canvass up to hill areas because of internal interference done by the Hinduism. Even a good numbers of Meeteis could not convert Hinduism by paying money. They are settling in different part of Manipur such as Sekmai, Pheiyeng, Andro, Kakching, Kotha etc as Loi. Still they are practicing the same food habit, culture and custom as hill people. Then the British came and administered Manipur based on divide and rule policy. We had different laws and rules of administration within one country. The same trend was followed by India also when Manipur was annexed. So, one may safely conclude that all these cleavages in between hill-valley relationship were done by external forces.

As consequence, there was different political aspiration, not common culture, religion and customs. Nevertheless most of the tribal chiefs were under the control of the Meetei kings. Maximum numbers of tribal chiefs were members of Phadous (council of Minsters sixty four in numbers). So the history of Manipur is the history of hill and valley people. Most of the people of early period conceived the idea that Manipur is for both hill and valley people. In our Pena Eshei (Song with Indigenous musical instrument), all the singers are always starting their songs with blessing of hill and valley people.

The valley people had a written script and highly rich literature from an early age. Most of the literature was based on the relationship between hill and valley people. They had a sense of history and most of their manuscripts are historical records. But the main defect of the Meetei king was that he did not make adequate provision for the administration of the hills. Chiefs of the highlanders were also unable to launch ethnic plural canvass in the hill areas in order to convert the Meetei. Even when they came to palace, Bramma Shabha defied accepting them as Meetei Hindu. It was the big tragedy of hill and valley people in the part of the history of Manipur. The king of Manipur was also antipeople in his administration owing to fulfill the desires of the colonial masters British.

The Kings of Manipur, who ruled in the later part of history were not having the tendency of improving the Manipur in the field of social, economic and political for both hill and valley people. They simply collected taxes from his subjects in order to meet the British needs. There were forced labour commonly known as Chakat ( feeding state servants), Yarek Shantri (Guarding the state servants at night when they came to villages), Chandan Senkhai ( Subscription of a little amount of money for decorating Chandan, a past of sandal wood, on the forehead of all Hindu Meeteis), Pothang (Carrying state servants' luggage without payment)etc. Even they charged the tax of Mangba while he or she turned as sengba by offering Rs. 82 Ana, pai.

The people of valley got the acid test of feudal system while the hill people simply had given tax to the British. So Meeteis were really in grave condition when they were under the control of the British and the king. In short valley people were under the control of feudal lord and British colonial system. Thus, before annexing to the Indian union the hill and valley people of Manipur seemed to exist separately having separate political culture and political socialization with different methods. That is the seed for germinating the idea of theory of two sons of soil. Nevertheless, after independence of Manipur 14th August 1947 maximum effort was given by the intellectuals and political elites of both the groups in order to make close up the gape between the two groups. But still it is in vain. So to trace back their genesis as part of composite history is highly needed and imperative to conceive that it is the historical bond of us.


Indeed, some kind of lexical relationship of Meetei with both Mon- Khmer and Tai cannot perhaps be debated. The conquest of this valley by the Tai prince Ko-lo-feng during the reign of Nao-Thing-Khong (8th century AD), the Meetei King and the subsequent Tai rule for ten successive years, for instance, must have left behind considerable Tai influences on the language and culture of the Meetei people.

The archaeological findings in Manipur also point out to the existence of Mon-khmer origin people in Manipur from the very early period of history. Scholars opined that the Mon-Khmer related people like Funan-Maring, Siammee (Sen-mi) and other sub-groups had once roamed and settled in the hills and valley of Manipur. In due course of time many of them had assimilated with the local population of Manipur. There is a historical account that Taothingmang (263-364 AD), the king of Manipur had once confronted with Funan Telheiba an expert archer. Funan Telheiba was the chief of Funan people who had occupied a considerable portion of territory including a range of low lying hills situated some ten kilometers south of Kangla, the capital of Manipur. Till to-day there is a Maring village in Funan hills.

The presence of Austric speaking Mon-Khmer people in Manipur and North- east India is also indicated by the existence of place names like Kha-Jiri, Awang-Jiri, Jiri-bam (Jiri-bong), Tipai-mukh, Di-bong, Oinam-long, Kambi-long, Phe-long, Siva-long(now Sibilong) and Sita or Sita Lamkhai in Manipur; Di-ma-pur, Di-boi, Di-phu, Di-yang, Di-hong, Di-khu in Assam and Nong-po, Nong-stron, Nong-pao in Meghalaya state. Further, the use of Austric speech forms like lap-duh (death and life) Jaka-puta (place-land), Lum-Wah(hill and river), nam-burom (fame and honour) by Khasi-Khara people of Meghalaya State are also related with Austric speaking Mon-Khmer people. Even the term Cassay, Kathe, Kase, a name given by the Myanmarese to the people of Manipur seem to be related to Kasia, Khasia, Khasi people of Meghalaya state who are closely related to the Austric speaking Mon- Khmer people. The chewing of betel-nut (kwa) with betel leaves (Kwa mana) and lime (Sunu) by the Manipur Meetei (Kate) and use of betel leaves, betel- nuts, coconuts (Yubi) and verities of sea-related cowries ( charik-likon), conches (Moibung), etc. for various socio-religious purpose in Manipur show the influence of Mon-khmer culture in the Manipuri Society.


The original homeland of the speakers of Tibeto- Burman language is considered to be the upper course of the Yangtse Kiang and the Howang-ho rivers in China. The speakers of this language in Myanmar are the Myanma, the Kachin, the Singpo, the Karen, the Rakhine, the Chin, the Sak-Kadu- Thet people and so on. The people of Manipur fall under the Kuki-Chin-Meetei-Bodo-Naga linguistic sub groups of Tibeto-Burman speaking people. In Manipur, many groups of Myanmarese Chin origin people are mostly settled at present day Churachandpur and Chandel district adjacent to Myanmar and hills adjoining the valley of Manipur.

The Myanmarese Chin and its sub-groups are known by different names as Thadou, Paite, Gangte, Hmar, Vaiphei and so on in Manipur. The Chin people is said to have same parentage with the Karen people. Again people like Mao, Maram, Poumai, Rongmei, Puimei, Liammei, Zeme, Tangkhul, Maring, Kabui, Thangal and so forth are placed under the Bodo-Naga linguistic sub-group. The Meetei or the Kate is the most prominent intermediary group of Kuki-Chin and Bodo-Naga linguistic people in Manipur. The Sak- kadu languages are spoken by the Andro-Sekmnai people in Manipur state, the adjoining Myanmar districts of Myitkyiana, Katha and Upper Chindwin. Thus the Sak-Kau Thet, the Meetei, the Chin-Kuki and Bodo-Naga People of Manipur and the Tibeto-Burmese people Myanmar are closely connected.

The Manipuri Kates are also closely related to the Lai a sub-group of Tibeto- Burman people and a branch of Chin people of Myanmar. The Manipuri people believed that they are originated from Lei-khun or Lai-khun meaning village or land of Lai. It also could be a hole or cave or place through which they emerged before descending to the valley of Manipur from the surrounding hills and mountains. Lai is a sub-group of Tai race though Manipuri interpreted as the sense of heavenly God. Originally the Lais are predominantly a sub-group of Tai a Siamese-Chinese linguistic group of people who became Tibeto-Burmans because of their association and assimilation with the Chins and other Tibeto-Burman people. Nongda Lairen Pakhangba who ruled Manipur in the first century AD is regarded metaphorically as half Lai (God) and half Mee (Man).

The theory of his half god and half man could be allegorical presentation of his ethnic blending of Siamese- Chinese and Tibeto- Burman or he could be a person of Lai (Siamese- Chinese) origin who was made king of Manipur by the people of Tibeto-Burman (H. Goshwami : Relationship of the Erstwhile Kingdom of Myanmar and Manipur). Further the classification of the Age of Lai (age of God) and the Age of Man (age of Man) could be a division of period predominantly ruled by the people belonging to Siamese- Chinese and Tibeto- Burman. In Manipur the Lai people had initially settled at Koubru hill top facing the valley on the north and other hill tops adjacent to the valley. In ancient archaic texts and literatures, the Koubru hill top is described as Laiyam Khunda ahanba (foremost place inhabited by the Lais).

The Lai chiefs who made their abodes on the hills tops adjoining the valley have Lai names besides their local names such as Koureng-Ngeng for Lai-ningthou Koubru ( ruling deity or chief of North-west), Khak-Lenchi for Lai-ningthou Thangjing ( ruling deity or chief of South west), Wang-hu-kup for Lai-ningthou Wangbren (ruling deity or chief of South), Maram-chingi- hu-kup for Lai- ningthou Marching (ruling deity or chief of North) and so on. The Lai people had lost their separate identity after they descend to the hill slopes adjoining the valley of Manipur and mixed up with indigenous people.

To be continued...


- Mc Culloch, Major M: Valley of Manipur (1980) p9
- Grierson, Dr GA: Linguistic Survey of India, Vol.1 part1 (1967) P42.
- Pemberton, R.B.: Eastern Frontier of British India (1979) pp12-20.
- Johnstone, Sir James: Manipur and Naga Hills (1971) p97
- Gogoi, Lila: The Tai-Khamtis (1971) p15
- Singh, Moirangthem Chandra(ed): Poireiton Khunthok (1979) pp18-19.
- Kolb, Albert: East Asia (1971) pp2-3.
- Leach, E.R.: Political System of Highland Burma (Astudy of Kachin Social Structure) (1964) p30.
- Dalton, T.E.: Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal, App 69-70(1872) p317
- Malik, SC: Indian Civilisation: Formative Period (1968) pp.84-89
- Sardesai, D.R.: S.E. Asia: Past and Present (1981)p8
- Singh, Kh.Yaima (ed): Poireiton Khunthok (1971)pp29-31
- M.S: Chakpa Khunda Khunthok ( Source: N.Khelchandra Singh)
- Singh, Ibungohal and Khelchandra(ed): Cheitharol Kumbaba (1967)p9
- Lebar, Frank M: Ethnic Groups of Mainland S.E. Asia (1964)pp38-44
- Hudson, T.S: The Meitheis (1975) p55.
- Majumdar, RC: Hindu Colonies in the Far East (1974) p14
- Singh ,Ch. Budhi: A Social Anthropological Analysis of a Meitei Myth on Succession in Eastern Himalayas (eds) T.C. Sharma (1980)
- KC Chang: The Archaeology of Ancient China (2nd Edition)1978
- Max Muller(ed): Sacred Books of the East(The Sacred Books of China) transl. by James Legge Vol.11 Part 1.1970
- Singh O.K.: Archaeology in Manipur (Napaching: A Stone Age Site in the Manipur Valley) 1983.
- P.Gogoi: The Tai and the Tai Kingdoms, 1968.
- R.B. Pemberton: Report of the Eastern Frontier of British India, 1966, pp140-141.
- G.E. Gerini: Researches on Ptolemy's Geography of Eastern Asia (Further India & Indo- Malay Archepelago) 2nd Edition.1978.

* Dr. Dhanabir Laishram wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at dblaishram(at)yahoo(dot)com
This article was posted on October 24, 2012.

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