Glimpses of the History and Culture of Manipur through the lens of the Puyas

Dr Rosy Yumnam *

 Puya text of Chainarol (Way of the Warrior) :: Pix Courtesy :: Human Right Alert
Puya text of Chainarol (Way of the Warrior) :: Pix Courtesy :: Human Right Alert

The Meitei community of Manipur in North-East India is known for its rich storytelling traditions in the form of myths, fables, legends and chronicles. The glorious history and the enticing culture of Manipur is manifested in the Puyas. The Puyas are the ancient manuscripts of the Meiteis. They form an important source for the study of the culture, traditions, values, politics and history of Manipur.

The Puyas deal with diverse subjects such as religion, rituals, genealogy, medicine, code of warriors, migration, history, politics, geography, natural phenomena, astronomy, etc. They were also used as manuals of administration, social and cultural affairs. The existence of the Puyas can be traced as early as the 1st century AD.

The Puyas were written in an ancient script called Meitei Mayek (Meitei script). Many of the available Puyas are transliterated from Meitei Mayek into modern Manipuri script and very few have been translated into English.

Various Puyas have chronicled the history of Manipur through phases of evolution. In the early times of Manipur, there was no such division between the hill and the plain people. According to the Puya, Meihourol Pukok, before the existence of the clan system of the Meiteis, different communities settled in the hills. People inhabited only the hills as the plain area of present Manipur was a water body.

When the water body dried up, people from the hills came down to the plain areas and settled. The archaeological evidence shows that the present valley of Manipur was submerged in water during the quaternary period.

And, the earliest human settlements could be located in the hills but gradually extended towards the valley. Through the accounts of various Puyas, it is believed that the Meiteis successfully drained a waterlogged valley through a network of small waterways and they started inhabiting the valley almost 2000 years ago, in around 33 AD.

The Puya, Leithak Leikharon describes Lord Sanamahi as the creator of the entire universe and the most important God in the Meitei pantheon. The myth involving Lord Sanamahi is chronicled in the Puya, Sanamahi Laihui and so it acts as a vital source for the revival of the indigenous Sanamahi religion of the Meiteis.

Lord Sanamahi is described as being incarnated as the eldest son of Meitei King Khagemba (1597-1652 AD.) and Queen Nongthil Chaibi. It is believed that King Khagemba worshipped Lord Sanamahi and devoted his life to meditation. King Khagemba is attributed to the introduction of the worship of Lord Sanamahi in his iconic form.

An important Puya that helps in constructing historical memory is the narratives of the official royal chronicle called Cheitharol Kumbaba.

Cheitharol Kumbaba is believed to have recorded the historical events of seventy-eight kings spanning over two thousand years from Nongda Lairen Pakhangba (33-154 AD.), the first historical king, to Bodhachandra Singh (1941-1955). The chronicle also states that the first Meitei King, Nongda Lairen Pakhangba ascended the throne in the year 33 AD.

The recordings of the events associated with the kings are also found in the Puyas, Ningthou Kangbalon, Moirang Ningthourol, Ningthourol Lambuba and Angomlon.

The Meitei kings and the Maichous (scholars) recorded the historical accounts from their own experiences. Furthermore, the development of the political power of the Meiteis was related to the control and organization of resources around the Imphal valley and the hills.

The Puya, Loiyumba Shinyen also called the first written Constitution of Manipur, is the origin of the early political development of Manipur. It is described as a royal edict issued by King Loiyumba (1074-1112 AD.) in 1110 AD on various disciplines like economic, social and administrative functions. King Loiyumba unified the entire plains and hills of Manipur.

The former kingdom of Manipur was formed under King Nongda Lairen Pakhangba (33-154 AD) by merging independent principalities. For the administration of the kingdom, the decree of Loiyumba Shinyen has been used with certain changes from the time of its first declaration until 1891.

The establishment of the Brahman caste in Manipur can be traced from the Puya, Bamon Khunthoklon which discusses in detail the arrival of the Brahmanas from Tripura, West Bengal, Mathura, Orissa, etc., around the 15th century AD. They were allotted clan names, marriages between them and the local women took place and in this way, they settled down in the valley.

The study of the migration of the Brahmanas is a very important aspect of the history of Manipur as it traces the gradual transformation of the Meitei's religious history from ancestor worship to Hinduism. The advent of Hinduism which took place during King Pamheiba's (1709-1748) reign among Meiteis created an influential drive to cultural pluralism. Thereafter, Indian cultural influences can be observed in the life of the Meiteis especially after Manipur was merged into the Dominion of India in the year 1949.

Early Manipuri prose highlights the clan dynasties and their struggle for power which was a common phenomenon in the early Meitei history. A cult of heroism flourished till the late 19th century which gives birth to a rich literary tradition narrating the vibrant culture and the heroic deeds of the kings, the prince and the generals.

Chengleiron, Numit Kappa, Chainarol, Tutenglon, Thawanthaba Hiran and Nongsamei are some of the Puyas which detail the heroic ideals and heroism in the early Meitei history.

Chainarol is a literary work which chronicles 27 personal combats collected from real-life incidents dating from the 1st century AD till the 16th century AD. Chainarol is the tradition of chainaba, a personal combat between two warriors who fight under a moral code of conduct institutionalized in society.

Justice and a sense of honour may be the motive of the disputing communities. Ethical virtues are immensely revered in personal combat. Langlol is a short text of ten leaves only. It chronicled the moral and ethical doctrines imbibed by the traditional Meitei society.

Nongsamei is a literary work which chronicles the accounts of the Meitei kings from King Khagemba (1597-1652 AD) to King Chingthangkhomba (1759-1798 AD). This Puya describes in detail the historic fights of King Khagemba with the Cacharis, the Burmese, the Muslim mercenaries and the various tribes in the neighbouring hills.

Chinglon Laihui, Chinggoirol, Chingsatlon, Nunglon narrates the legend of Lord Koubru. These Puyas give a detailed understanding of the holy place associated with the Koubru mountain range. Koubru is regarded as a sacred place of various communities of Manipur like the Meiteis, Kabuis, Marams, Liangmais and Maos. Nungpan Ponpi Luwaopa narrates the love story of a Luwang prince named Nungpan Ponpi Luwaopa.

The young Luwang prince fell in love with the Koubru princess, Koubru Namoinu. Panthoipi Khongkul details the intense love story of the legendary Panthoipi, the daughter of a Meitei king and Nongpok Ningthou, Lord of the Liangmai Hills. The union of the lovers are celebrated with dance and music which can be seen even today in the Lai Haraoba festival.

Moirang, the region of mystic tales and folklore, is known for its rich culture and clan dynasty. The ethereal love stories of the seven pairs of lovers are of delight to the young and old bridging an intense connection to the culture of the bygone days. The seven pairs of lovers are believed to be related through their successive births attributed to the will of Lord Thangjing, the presiding deity of Moirang.

This consists of the following love stories which have been engraved in bits and pieces in various Puyas : Phouoibi and Akongjamba, Henjunaha and Lairuklembi, Khuyol, Haoba and Yaithing Konu, Kadeng Thangjahanba and Tonu Laijinglembi, Ura Naha Khongjomba and Pidonnu, Wanglen Pungdingheiba and Sappa Chanu Silheibi and Khamba and Thoibi

The close association of the Meiteis with nature and the forest can be alluded to from the Lai Haraoba festivals. Relatedly, the Puyas have played a significant role in ascertaining an oral mnemonic structure of the Meitei community.

A very important religious and social festival of Manipur is the Lai Haraoba festival where the revered ancient spirits, Umang Lais are venerated. The religious rites, rituals and cultural practices of the Lai Haraoba festival have been recorded in the Puyas, Lai Khunta Lon, Leithak Leikharon and Panthoibi Khongkul.

The Meiteis believe in ancestral worship in the form of the revered Umang Lais in the forest areas. There are around 365 Umang Lais in Manipur. To please the Umang Lais, Lai Haraoba is performed every year to honour and gain their favour.

Sacred groves spread over a wide ecosystem, are well preserved due to their religious and cultural significance. These sacred groves abound not only in religious significance but also showcase the innate relationship between humans and nature.

The Meiteis believed that the disturbance of the sacred grove would draw wrath of the Umang Lai. So, cutting trees and forests is prohibited in and around the sacred groves. The Meiteis believed that non-human forms like trees and plants have souls. So, if one has to cut trees or plants for some purpose, one should do so by making some offerings to show reverence to the non-human forms.

Hijan Hirao is a Puya showing reverence to the non-human forms. Hijan Hirao narrates the boat-making event of a Meitei king, Luwang Ningthou Punsiba who is believed to have reigned around the 5th century to the 7th century AD. So, to make the boat, the King's reliable artisans performed a ritual rich with offerings, prayers and sacrifices to the 'non-human tree' as a mark of respect for a living being before cutting down the tree.

Language acts as a crucial cultural component for a community to exist. Culture can signify language as it is considered one of its features.

The Puyas such as Wakoklon Thilel Salai Amailon Pukok and Wakoklon Thilel Salai Singkak played a critical role in the reinvention of the ancient script called Meitei Mayek. In the year 1980, the Government of Manipur recognized the alphabet with 27 letters. More recently Meitei Mayek is a part of the academic curriculum of Manipur.

The deliberations, therefore, contend that the historical and cultural memory of the Meitei community is entrenched in the myths, legends, folklore and traditional religious practices manifested in the Puyas.

The Puyas have played a crucial role in retelling the past events through rediscovering a lost narrative and restructuring the social, cultural, religion and language of the Meiteis into a new historical approach.

* Dr Rosy Yumnam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is Associate Professor at The English and Foreign Languages University, Shillong
and can be reached at rosy(DOT)yumnam(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on February 29 2024.

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