Religion As A Marker Of Caste System In Meetei Community
Manganleibi Loktongbam *
A Clip from The Coil Pottery of Manipur in Andro and Thongjao :: Video by Bibinaz Thokchom
Manipur which lies in the north-eastern region of India has come across various aspects of resistance and movements. The land has been inhabited by different communities - Meeteis/Meiteis, Lois, Yaithibis, Tangkhuls, Kukis, Pangals, Bamons, which practice the different religion. Mentioned may be made that the Yaithibis are considered as an exile and war captives, but they are hard to find, it is said that they hide their identity, and they called themselves as the Lois (Bino:4).
The Loi group or the Meetei Ariba (old/ indigenous Meetei) in Manipur are considered as the other category in the Meetei society. The Lois and Yaithibis are recognized as the Meetei scheduled caste in Manipur.
ORIGIN OF THE LOIS
Though there are many connotations regarding the origin of Lois community, considering the local people and researchers viewpoint, the Lois are the Chakpa people which are the constituent of four villages of Andro, Phayeng, Sekmai and Khurkhul in Imphal district. In this paper, I would focus on the parallel axiom of the Lois and the Meeteis who follow the Meetei marup, which were not influenced by Vaisnavism.
It is also observed that the similar accounts of locating the people who follow their indigeneity were excommunicated and were considered as "mangee", which literally means not pure that lead to the idea of " mangee or sengee" (impure or pure),and also generated the notion of caste system in Manipur , which is locally known as "Atonba Kanglup".
RELIGION AS A CASTE MARKER: A STUDY ON PHAYENG VILLAGE IN RELATION TO THE MEETEIS WHO FOLLOWS HINDUISM
When we look pertinently in the field of religion as a source of caste marker in the Meetei society it is inevitable to say that, the dual division amongst the Meetei who follows Vaishnavism and the Meetei who follows Meetei Marup and the Lois of Manipur clearly demarcated. The notion of caste differentiation arose with the coming of Shanti das Gossai, a Bengali brahmin who came from Sylhet during the reign of King Pamheiba, later changed to Garibnawa in an around eighteenth century. According to Sanamahi Laikan, Shantidas Gossai spread the Ramanadi cult which is the worshipping of Rama and Hanuman.
Gossai was one who had a strong opposition against the worshipping of the indigenous Sanamahi Laining and the Umanglais, and also the use of the Meetei scripts. It can also be noted that Gossai in a way to convert holistically the people of Manipur, he brings the Bengali script and instigate Garibnawaza to burn the Puya( manuscript) which contains the holy texts, cultural history of Sanamahi and the genealogies of the kings', solely written in the Meetei script by the Maichows(scholars) of the time.
The Nongthang Iruppa or Lukun Thangba which was the process of purification and conversion to Hindu religion by holding and swearing in the presence of the sacred leaf Nongkhrang tree chanting as " I will not give up Ramanadi Religion if I retract I will die vomiting out blood ( Chingtamlen:24)", at the adjoining rivers of Lilong river, This incident was crucial in developing the caste system in Manipur.
In the Meetei society, it is observed that class division and the hierarchy amongst the seven principalities – Ningthouja, Angom, Moirang, Khuman, Luwang, Chenglei, Khuman, Khaba- Nganba were prominent during the Pre-vishnevite era in Manipur. Each of the clan preserved their dignity and capabilities. Historians and researchers had traced formally the Meetei civilization since 33 AD during the reign of Nongda Lairen Pakhangba under the Ningthouja dynasty.
Saroj Nalini Arambam Parratt's translation of 'The court Chronicle of the Kings of Manipur: The Cheitharon Kumpapa' is use extensively as an authentic book for a reference point to date. But it is crucial to note that caste system was not known to the Meetei kingdom. Bino in her book 'The Lois of Manipur', remarks that "With the advent of Hinduism, the Meiteis began to imitate caste system of the Hindus"(pg. 10).
With this notion, the caste differences eroded in the soil of Manipur. But somewhere the hardcore believer of Meetei Laining of worshipping the Sanamahi religion, which is the embodiment of the ultimate Godfather as the spiritual principle ( Chingtamlen:25), raised against the idea of converting and absorbing to the idol worship of Hindu.
The Meeteis who follow Hinduism started idol worship and constructing temples. One could be noted that Sanamahi Laining was sacred enough that it cannot be overshadowed by the Hindu religion. Sanamahi religion remained as the divine and the sacred God, that in each corner of the Meetei house, Sanamahi is worshiped despite the different religion that one follows. Simon Laishram also stresses the miscegenation of the ancient tradition and Hinduism, stating that ''At day, the Meeteis chanted bhajans at the Sree Govindaji Temple, and by night, burned tokens of fire to the Laimarel and Lainingthou (P.g2)".
In this juncture, the Meeteis who follow Sanamahi and Lois who settled in the periphery of the state have some close affinities of worshipping the indigenous religion. According to Laxmi Ningthoujam, a resident of the Phayeng village of the Loi community states that "Each of the Lois who belongs to different villages has their form of origin and myth, but culturally and emotionally they are one".
Bino in her book 'The Lois of Manipur', strongly point out that the four villages of Loi community, belief that they are "the descendants of the Soraren( King of Gods)"(P.g 13). In this scenario, religion wise the Lois and the Meeteis who follow Sanamahi has similar affinities.
All the four Loi villages of Phayeng, Andro , Khurkhul, Sekmai also preserved their dialect, culture, tradition and custom. It is observed that their ways of thinking, food habits, and lifestyle are completely different from the Meeteis in the urban areas. In this juncture, the Meetei who follow Hinduism looked down the Lois as the other or the untouchable caste (mangee ) in the society.
The informant, the resident of Phayeng village also gives an example of food habits that existed and preserved since the inception of the Phayeng Village, that " In the Phayeng village , after the death of someone in the family , the neighbouring villagers who came to help and condole the death were served with pork (oak ),as a marked of respect to the soul and villagers", she also continued that this form of culture is unique and distinct, that it embodies their identity.
One could be observed that in the Meetei family who follows Hinduism or the Meetei marup in the urban areas, the symbol and respect for the death soul is marked by starving the food on the date of the death and remained vegetarian for 7 days ( Meetei Marup) and 14 days for the ( Meetei Goura). The idea of categorizing the Lois which I focus on the Phayeng village, as the untouchables or the other is itself a biased view by the Meeteis who were converted to Hinduism.
One should be noted that the strong position in those days was held by the upper caste of the Meetei community, that is the royal King initiated by Garibnawaza and their relatives which later developed to the surname Rajkumar/Rajkumari, the Brahmins, and the followers and supporters of the King.Hence the idea of degrading and making strange of one's culture is purely installed in the Meetei community.
According to one of the versions of the origin of the Lois community, Bino says that " the Chakpa Lois who are considered as the earliest settler in the valley might have come from Meikhel and Koubru"( P.g. 13), where the Koubru hill also stands as the birthplace of the Meeteis. It could be assumed that the Meeteis and the Lois belong to the same blood.
WHAT CONSTITUTE LOIS TO DATE ?
The term Lois is very controversial and interpreted in many ways by different scholars, but there were no written recordings of how they were named as Lois. One could be observed that in the Lois village ( Phayeng ) the Ningthouja and Angom clan were settled wholly and intermarriage occurred to this two clan, It is clear to understand that the Lois of the Phayeng village belongs to the seven principalities of the Meetei genealogy.
The overlapping thoughts of why it is termed as Lois, are one who pays tribute as "Loi Kaba" or who is put into exile known as "Loi Pupa". It is observed that the latter corresponds to the idea of constructing them as untouchables ( mangee) and sending them to the periphery of the state. They were excommunicated by the King, for their incessant act of preserving their identity and not embracing Hinduism.
Though time has changed and each of the individuals is evolving, in this rapid pace of development the idea of being a Loi and what constitute a Loi is still ingrained in the minds of the Meetei society. Discrimination and stigmatization of belonging to a less fortunate caste define Lois to some extent.
Till now in Manipur in the Meetei inhabited areas, i.e in valley, the practiced of untouchability and the idea of " mangee or sengee"( impure or pure), is still evolving, one of the instances could be: The Meetei Brahmins and the other followers of Hinduism can share the food cooked by the same cook but differences arises when they share food with the people who follow Sanamahi or the Meetei Marup .
The Meeteis who follow Hinduism has a different ritual of painting Chandan on the forehead, nose and the neck, that basically marks the respect of the Hindu God, whereas People who follow Sanamahi paints on the forehead with the soil, which means the earth is sacred. For the Meeteis who follow Sanamahi Laining and the Lois, worshipping of Umanglais (Forest God) is crucial.
In the present state, the Lois got the status of the the Scheduled caste. Mentioned can be made that sharing food or celebrating the festival in indigenous Meetei form is considered as untouchable. The Meetei Brahmin and the followers of Vaishnavism are vegetarian except for common food 'Ngari'. Cooking of meat inside the kitchen is considered as 'mangee'.
It is observed that, though there were no written records in the history of the Lois and the Meeteis who follow Sanamahi Laining , of the untouchability and excommunication, that was/ is practiced in Manipur. It could be noted that personal memories, historical books like Cheitharol Kumpapa and other history books, help in defining that caste system and differences do exist in Meetei community to some extent with the coming of Hinduism in Manipur.
CONCLUSION : A NEW THINKING
The revivalist movement initiated by Naoria Phullo in an around nineteenth century, slowly fade away Vaishnavism in Manipur to date. It was a major outbreak in the history of Manipur, a game changer in the history of the revival of the Meetei indigenous religion called Sanamahism.
John Parrat in their book 'Wounded Land: Politics and Identity in Modern Manipur' eloquently called this form of movement by the Meetei as 'de-Sanskritization' of the Meetei religion.( Pg33) . It is quite interesting to add that this revivalist movement also generates in the evolvement of the use of the Meetei script which was abandoned and restricted for a long time. In the present Manipur, people slowly tend to follow the Meetei Marup and started reviving the Meetei script.
o Ningthoujam, Laxmi, informant a resident of Awang Leikai Phayeng. Interviewed on 4th April 2017. Hyderabad.
o Bino Devi, Lairenlakpam, The Lois of Manipur.Mittal Publications. 2002. New Delhi.
o John Parrat , Wounded Land: Politics and Identity in Modern Manipur 'Cultural renaissance and political awakening. Mittal Publications 1nov 2005.New Delhi.
o Sairam Nilabir ,Lainingthou Sanamahi Amasung Sanamahi Laining Hinggat Eehou.2002, Puthiba Press Computarise.Khurai Lamlong Keithel Imphal, Khurai Nandeibam Leikai
o R.K Jhalajit A short history of Manipur, R.K Jhalajit. Seven Union Press,Paona Bazar Road Imphal ,1891.
o Aarambam Parratt ,Saroj Nalini The Court Chronicle of the Kings of Manipur The Cheitharon Kumpapa Vol.2 ,1764-1843 CE . Cambridge University Press Pvt.Ltd. Ansari under the imprint of Foundation Books Road, New Delhi. 2009
o Iboongohal, Lairenmayum , Introduction to Manipur. The Saraswati Printing Works, Imphal , Manipur 1987 third edition.
o Wangkhemcha Chingtamlen A short story of Kangleipak ( Manipur) part III, G.K Printers Uripok Flyover Bridge, Imphal , The Kangleipak Historical & Cultural Research centre. 2014
o Kunj Bihari Singh, Manipur Vaishnavism :A Sociological Interpretation. Sociological Bulletin. Voll. 12, No. 2 ( September 1963), pp. 66-72. Indian Sociological Society.http://www.jstor.org/stable/42864621 accessed on 08-03-2017, Hyderabad.
o Simon Laishram , Dual Religious Identification of the Meeteis of Manipur:Miscegenation of Ancient Tradition and Hinduism. Cultural Studies EST 642A.
https://www.academia.edu/8639776/DUAL_RELIGIOUS_IDENTIFICATION_OF_THE_MEETIES_OF_MANIPUR?auto=download accessed on 21-03-2017, Hyderabad.
* Manganleibi Loktongbam wrote this article for e-pao.net
The writer can be contacted at manganleibiloktongbam(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on April 08, 2017.
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