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E-Pao! Features - Buddhism In Manipur

Buddhism In Manipur
By:- Prof. M.S. Ningombam *



Buddhism in Manipur has never been well developed in spite of its geographical proximity with Myanmar. The people of Myanmar are of Mongoloid stock, having similarities in the social practices with the people of neighboring country in absence of caste system, agrarian life style, and women's role in society, beliefs and temperament with the people of Manipur.

But the elements of Buddhism are found far and wide in the hills and valley of Manipur long before the advent of Hinduism. The Epic narrative of Khamba and Thoibi, the folk tale of a boy who became a king of Burma, Mitay chronicle of Nongpok Haaram (a record of the migration of people from the east), to mention a few are examples of close relationship of the people of the two sides. The migration of the people of Shan origin in large number is also a historical fact.

Hinduism flourished in Manipur during the reign of king Garibaniwaaj (1709-1748), adopted it as state religion; reached the climax of ritual dance in the theme of Raadha and Krishna and later became the well known Manipuri Raas. Thus he established a Hindu kingdom.

The Nongpok Haaram (an account of the migration of people from the east) and Nongchup Haaram (an account of the migration of people from the west) bear undoubted evidence that those people who migrated to Manipur were assimilated in the Hindu fold.

Saikyamuni, for Buddha in China, is known as Kawtumuni (Gautam Muni) in Manipur. It is a term familiar to the common people of Manipur before the advent of Hinduism (C. 17th century). Another term Sanaa khongnaang is sacred to the ancient Mitays, for they bow down to it before they start a journey.

The Sanaa has denotative and connotative meanings. The word 'gold' is the denotative meaning and 'royal' is its connotative meaning. A prince is always addressed as Sanaa Ibungngo (Ibungngo means a young man / boy or a male descendent of noble birth) and a princess Sanaa Ibemma (Ibemma means a young lady or a lady of noble birth).

Sanna, its literal meaning is gold and Khongnaang means Baniyaan tree. It may also means the Golden Tree or the Royal Tree perhaps symbolizing the tree under which Prince Siddhartha attained his enlightenment.

Sanaamahay, the royal fruit, has always been implied to the essence of the teaching of the Buddha. Over the time, the connotative meaning of it has vanished into thin air due to the impact of Shaivism. Perhaps the term Sanaamahi has been derived from Sanaamahay.

The myth of the circumambulation of the throne of Shiva by his off-spring, Ganesh and Kartika has skillfully introduced in Manipur in the guise of Sanaamahi and Pakhangba, appearing to have nipped the growth of Buddhism in the bud.

In 1470, the king of Pong (of Myanmar), Chawphaa Khekkhomba presented a statue (perhaps of Buddha) besides other gifts, keeping it in a silver cascade to king Kiyaamba (1467-1508) of Manipur.

King Kiyaamba is said he was neither a Buddhist nor a Hindu, a Sanaamahi by faith (Jamini: Khuroy Haawraa Lamlaang-tong P. 16).

But, later on the same statue been considered Vishnu of the Hindu pantheon, was installed in a temple at a place known as Lammaangdong (Lamlaangtong), and the place is now known as Vishnupur. The circumstances under which Khekkhomba, a Buddhist king of Myanmar presented a statue of Vishnu to a non-Hindu king of Manipur is a matter of debate even now.

There are a number of places at the periphery of Manipur valley where worship takes place, such as: Inggawrok Mahaadeba (Shiva), Thongngaam Mondum, Kwaarok Mahaadeba, etc., which are believed by modern historians as statues of Buddhisatvas. Gangmumei in his history of Manipur says "In Manipur Buddhistvas are worshipped as Shivas".

The Shiva cult was once had its influence in the Mitay society is well documented in a well known novel Paanthoybi Khonggul and also in Paanthoybi Naaherol written in archaic Mitay language.

The indelible evidences of Buddhist architectures in and around Imphal city are the roofs of G.M. Hall, Open Air Theatre Hall at the palace compound and temple building at Hiyaangthaang about 11 kilometers off Imphal.

Besides, the drawing found in the Subikaa (a book on astrology in archaic Mitay language), are of Buddhist elements. And marble statues of Buddha, collected from different places of Manipur, are well preserved in the State Museum, Imphal.

In spite of the evidences of the cultural impact of Buddhism in the life of the people of Manipur in the early history of the land, Buddhism as a religion was hardly known to the people in general.

And for those who knew it considered Buddhism as part of Hinduism. It has also been considered that Buddhism spread to Myanmar passing through Manipur by successive waves of Buddhists from mainland India. However, curiously Buddhism did not flourish in Manipur; perhaps Hinduism of the later period had absorbed it, as the political climate was not favorable.

About the Author: In 1972, Prof. Ningomba, himself a Buddhist, formed a small group of Buddhists, conducted group meditation, seminars, and arranged meditation camps, published booklets giving outlines of Budhism, translated books on Buddhism including Dhammapada in Mitay language (Manipuri).

Soon the group became larger, increased its activities and through media coverage the existence of Buddhism and its group was thus known to the people of Manipur. Thus was born the All Manipur Buddhist Association (AMBA) and got registered under section 20 of the Societies Registration Act of the Government of India and as in force in Manipur on May 17, 1982 and the first Buddhist monastery was started at Moreh, a border town 110 km off Imphal towards south-east.

Now people started taking interest in Buddhism for its catholic outlook, absence of caste system, for its principle of self-reliance, simplicity and modesty in daily life especially among the educated elites of Imphal.

The majority of the members of the All Manipur Buddhist Association, Imphal are the teachers of various colleges, and the universities in Manipur. With the opening of a new policy of 'Look East' of the government of India, we now see a future of Buddhism in Manipur by having closer tie with our brethren of the South-East Asia.

Currently Prof. Ningomba is the chairman of All Manipur Minorities (Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and Sikh) Forum, Imphal.


* Prof. M.S. Ningombam, a devout Buddhist, wrote this article.
(Courtesy: Indo Myanmar Fraternal Alliance, Manipur)
This article was webcasted on 19 October 2005.


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