Shamanism and Sanamahi
A factor for close bonding
between the Meitei's and the Hanguk Saram (korean people)

* Langlenthoibi Laishram

With globalization the phenomenon of 'Hallyu' is spreading to every nook and corner of the world and it indeed reached Manipur within a short span of time. This phenomenon if the popularity of Korean culture can be traced in our very Manipuri society which is otherwise secluded from the mainstrean ideas and culture.

The liking of the Korean culture is increasing day by day and as evidence we witness the huge popularity of Korean movies, serials, language or the dressing style every teen wants to imitate. So we sometimes imagine if we have anything common in our heritage besides our similar looks.

Yes, we do have something common with the Koreans and that is none other than our traditional religion Sanamahi and the Korean's indigenous religion call Shamanism. South Korea's Shamanism and our Sanamahi practices is quite similar and their culture of mudangs and our own maibi culture of Manipur is an interesting discourse which will be unfolded in this article.

A Maibi performing

Shamanism is a non-official religion of Korea which is an indigenous faith of the Korean people. It has been the root of Korean people's belief and has the most systematic structure with a naturalistic form-primitive, devoid of modern and artificial refinements.

In Shamanism the most important figure is called the mudang i.e.the priestess who perform the rituals necessary to appease the spirits and acts as link between the living and non-living beings. Those spirits worship by the mudang could be of their ancestors or the mountain gods call Sashin or the spirit of the seven stars call Chilsung.

It has a maultiferious phenomenon comprising of traditional cultures such as dance, literature, musical instruments, dress, ornaments and food and drama. The korean people often consult the mudang for good fortune, prosperity, to heal sickness and to seek materialistic comforts. In the rituals conducted for the above reasons the mudang appease the spirits by offering them food or sacrifices.

The rituals of Shamanism consistes of two parts - kut and pison. Here, the pristess preside over the rituals and the Priest(Paksu) assists the pristess. There are various rituals for various purposes like for good fortune call chesu kut, to heal an illness through sacrifies call uhwan kut, to send the ancestors soul to paradise call chinogi kut.

The Shamanists traditional scriptures necessary for its rituals are its legends and songs containing theories about the order of the universe. In short it is call the magical songs. The followers of Shamanistic traditons are call tan'gol with mudang at the centre.

Shamanism had its hey days before and during the Koryo dynasty and the mudangs were accorded a high status. They were patronised by the masses and even the royal household. They were ofteh called upon to predict the future of the kingdom and to ward off any mishap in future.

But towards the end of the Koryo dynasty, Shamanism saw its dark days as it became the target of criticism and attacks by the Confucian scholars. However, in Choson dynasty they were everely criticised and systematic persecution of those who profess shamanism started. This act was mainly due to the state's poliical ideology. Thus, the shamans/mudangs/Paksu were degraded to the lowest class of the Korean society.

During the japanese colonial rule, the shamans suffered to a great extent as the practices of shamanism were discouraged and repressed by the Japanese. Instead, the Japanese promoted Shintoism, the Japanese religion. They often raided shamanistic ceremonies, trample down the offerings and arrested the shamans who perform the rituals.

It was in yi dynasty that shamanism was encouraged again by Queen Min and she even tried to upgrade the status of one particular shaman to that of a princess. But all her efforts went in vain when she was murdered by the Japanese officials.

Yet, one important development during that colonial period was reconstruction of shamanists traditions by the Korean nationalists historians and folklorists to counter the Japanese onslaught of the Korean culture and to arouse the anti-Japanese feelings among the Koreans. It was chosen especially because they felt that Shamanism was a tradition not tainted by foreign elements.

Though the Korean people were liberated after the Japanese defeat in the 2nd World War, the shamans and their followers did not share the same faith. In South Korea, the western educated intellectuals and the government felt that Shamanism was a hindrance to the newly moderninsing Korea due to its backward principles.

The Korean Christains also denounced Shamanism stating it as worship of devil. Moreover, the children's of the shamans were ridiculed and humiliated by people so their life became all the nore difficult.

However, there is a revival of shamanistic rituals in present day South Korea. This is eveident from the consultation of the shamans rising upto 3 million Koreans per year. Moreover, there are around 100 shamanist temples around the capital of South Korea, Seoul and the number of shamans have risen to 40,000 according to a newspaper report. Thus, despite rapid industrialization and urbanization, a strong religious impulse remains intact in the contemporary South Korean society.

After going through the elements of shamanistic traditions, we see a lot of similarity between Sanamahi and Shamanists practices like the rites and rituals performed through a mudang (the role of maibi), fortelling the future of the state or individual (maibi laipoa) or taking the help of the mudang to heal an illness or ward off an evil spirit or for material comforts (maibi laiwa sonba)and the worship of nature (compare Lai Harouba and the worship of Umang Lai).

Another important similarity is the revival movement shamanism went through during the colonial period of Korea. The same process can be trace even in our Manipuri history at present wherein the revival of Sanamahism is taking place and the solace it offer the manipuri people. Above all the inherited tradition of priestess(maibi/mudang) taking the lead in rituals signifies the importance of women in both the societies.

Therefore, much attention needs to be given to both the religious practices to understand the origin of both the ancient religion which is still obscure at the present due to limited sources besides the myths and legends.

All these similarities in both our culture and traditions are laying down the road for a close bonding between the Koreans and the Meiteis in future.

* Langlenthoibi Laishram, a Research Scholar of International Studies at J.N.U., New Delhi, contributes for the first time to . You can contact the writer at langlenthoibi(at)gmail(dot)com . This was webcasted on June 01st 2008

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