TODAY -

On the reconstruction of Manipuri history

Pooja Elangbam *

A statue of Pakhangba at Ningthem Pukhri Mapal on the Imoinu night on Dec 31 2006 :: pix - Ranjan Yumnam
A statue of Pakhangba at Ningthem Pukhri Mapal on the Imoinu night on 2006 :: pix - Ranjan Yumnam



Having studied Indian History for two years, I was hard-pressed to find any mention of the histories of north-east India. The term north-east India is itself a misnomer considering how diverse the traditions and culture of different groups of the respective region is but for the sake of convenience, the term may be retained while referring to the whole of the region.

But if we decide to get into regional histories, we would have to pick up individual strands such as Manipuri history, Ahom history and so on and so forth. The reason (which is a perfectly good excuse to leave out huge chunks of the history of a significant population of India) given by Indian universities for not including the histories of the north-east is that they have not been adequately researched or written about which, unfortunately, is true to some extent.

Taking the case of Manipuri history (because this is the one I am familiar with), we will find that the Cheitharol Kumbaba(Royal Chronicle),which is of one of the major sources of history, is a list of genealogy of kings of the Ningthouja clan that ruled Manipur and most of the accounts are fantastical records of myths and legends which are used to legitimize the divine rights of kings by raising their ancestral kings especially Nongda Lairen Pakhangba to the status of God.

This kind of legitimization and justification is not confined to Manipur but it can be found in many other parts of India where the king is projected as incarnation of Rama, Krishna and other gods.

At the same time, Cheitharol Kumbaba being a court chronicle must have been written to please the ruling family and therefore there will be an exaggeration of the generous qualities of the kings. It is pertinent to find out when this chronicle was first written down to get a better understanding of the social, political and economic conditions of that period.

History writing is no longer confined to narrative history of kings and the royal skirmishes and battles, we need to examine the social and political conditions under which the Ningthouja clan is supposed to have unified(or subordinated) the other clans and to have emerged as the ruling clan.

In most probability(as some of the esteemed scholars of Manipuri history have surmised), the Ningthouja clan gained ascendency after winning important battles against the other independent principalities so it was military superiority that enabled its rise to power.

There are many questions that need to be asked at this point-
Was it a war state?
Was the kingdom of Manipur well-defined?
Was it organized on a military footing?
How was the control over the defeated principalities exercised?
What kind of an administration was set up?

All these questions need to be re-asked at crucial periods of Manipuri history to mark important changes that might have come about.

British writing of Indian history in general condemned India as uncivilized and negates the idea of the process of evolution of institutions of not just the state but other aspects of society. They also dismissed the indigenous sources of history as un-historical because they dealt mainly with accounts of only myths and legends and not facts and figures.

This view has been discarded by the scholarship that has emerged-post Independence and this critical analysis may be applied to the study and research of Manipuri history. Instead of confining ourselves to the stories that we find in our sources, we can read between the lines and try to interpret the kind of society and political order that existed.

What was the role of women in society? There is a common consensus that women in Manipuri society were given far more freedom than those in other communities of India. But this needs to be backed up by evidence. It is important to ask if the freedom of the women included economic freedom such as right to own property, individual freedom such as right to choice of husband otherwise the so-called freedom would be limited.

It is also important to understand the process of Sanskritization of Manipuri culture in the 18th and 19th centuries with the advent of Vaishnavism and the adoption of Vaishnavism as state religion. So at this point could the state be called a theocratic state? Did mass conversion and proselytisation take place? Was this mass conversion sanctioned by the state or other non-state institutions?

The fact that the name of kings like Garib Niwaz meaning “King of the Poor people” is a distinctly Hindu name suggests a syncretisation and interaction with other Hindu communities? Does it suggest that Manipur was under the ambit of a pan-Indian Sanskrit culture to some extent? The outcome of the amalgamation of the indigenous culture of Manipur and the pan-Indian Hindu culture is what we still practice in our times and it would be interesting to trace the process of evolution.

The new generation needs to take the torch from the previous generation of historians and make further inroads into the study of regional history by not just delineating the chronology of kings but by trying to paint a larger picture of the civilization that existed and has passed on its traditions to us in the 21st centuries.


* Pooja Elangbam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is a student of St. Stephens College, Delhi University and can be contacted at poojaelangbam(at)gmail(dot)com
This article was posted on July 04, 2013.



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