Water as cultural symbol of Meiteis
- Abstracts from NE Water Talk 2023 -

Mamta Lukram *

 Kanglei Haraoba Festival at Ibudhou Marongkhong Chingdrensana Pakhangba Laibung, Imphal :: June 07th 2017
Kanglei Haraoba Festival at Ibudhou Marongkhong Chingdrensana Pakhangba Laibung, Imphal in June 2017 :: Pix - Shankar Khangembam

The Meitei evolutionary myths believe that concept of God is connected to the entities of Nature. God dwell in Heaven, Goddess in water and enshrine on Earth. It is heaven-earth-water syncretisation. Water is considered as the most scared realm where God dwell in.

'Lai ikouba' is a ritual of spiritual invocation of God from water appeasing them to enshrine on earth for blessing peace, prosperity, happiness and oracles instilling preparedness to face possible ill- for- tunes too.

In 'Lai-Haraoba' or Merrymaking of Gods rituals, Lai-ikouba is the traditional opening ritual. Rituals are performed by 'Amaibi' priestess assisted by 'Amaiba' priest. Water is a cultural symbol engrained with mosaics of identity to the Meitei community.

The eight (8th) lunar month, 'Langban' usually falling during September-October is traditionally dedicated to worshiping of ancestors and departed souls called 'Langban Heisoi Katpa'. Married away daughters of the family would bring fruits, flowers and other ritual items to their ancestral homes a day ahead or on the day's early morning. Families with no daughters support on their own.

Preparation of fruits slicing in specified uniform manner and other ritual items along with flowers are done by female family members. Offerings are made by elders of the family into the nearby water body, rivers in particular or wetlands.

 Beautiful landscape of Loktak Lake as seen on 8th June 2022
Beautiful landscape of Loktak Lake as seen on 8th June 2022 :: Pix - Shankar Khangembam

Water is Mother. The goddess of water we call her Ereima, Mother water. We call our 'Loktak Lake' Ema/Mother. The story of community resistance in all contestation of interests with development stake-holders and the margi- nalised fishing community of lake has always been spearheaded by Emas, mothers. They understand it as their obligation to protect and conserve the lake's ecology.

Simultaneously, they also believe it as their birthright to live with Blessings of Loktak Ema. Nevertheless, the womenfolk who lead the resilience movements are often left aside from negotiating tables with minimal partici- pation in policy making.

Besides the narratives of good water, there are also myths of evil water. Amongst the Meitei community cases extreme skin rashes and itchy feel on the skin is traditionally referred to as 'Erai-khonglai,' a skin infection rather temporary in nature, believed to befall when the evil Goddess that resides on the natural drains and ditches is being offended.

Onset of monsoon season is the time when it usually happens, where medical science has its explanation on the cause. Belief system of the cure is based on appease, negotiate and chase away. Traditional healers would make offerings called 'Khayom Lakpa,' done in water bodies. Healers identified the items of offerings and chanting.

Similar instances are found in narratives of people of other ethnic commu- nities like Maring tribes of Manipur who inhabit around Tengnoupal district. It is believed that muscle cramps, sickness or skin rashes are due to mistaken contacts or utilisation of water from stream or water source identified of possessing negative energy. Cases mostly spike during onset of monsoon season.

Traditional healers perform the healings by making offerings that include selected herbs. Coincidentally these practices have been proving effective ever since. Hopefully there may be scientific reasons behind for such cure.

 Langban Heitha Leithaba Numit : For martyrs of Great June Uprising at Kekrupat :: September 30th 2023
Langban Heitha Leithaba Numit at Kekrupat on September 30th 2023 :: Pix - Khaba Kh

Faith in Rain God is another animistic entity of the Meitei people. Worshipping of rain God in times of urgencies like drought or rain is a popular oral history. 'Nong Kouba' invoking the rain God is traditionally performed by a group of women when there is drought or no rain for many months.

It is believed that the rain God must be made to listen to the clarion call from the earth below for its blessings of rain on earth. The reverse myth is also apparently there, 'Nongkhamba' is the faith of halting the rain for specific time/hours. In certain cases, whenever there are important occasions, to divert the rain direction people use bamboo basket tied on a pole with negotiating remarks followed by simple rituals.

There is also popular culture of 'Pangan Maiba' Muslim priest in cases of drowning and manual rescue operations. As a land with plenty of water bodies and wetlands, one non-negotiable incident is cases of drowning. Rescue operations are usually relied on community people. However in tough situations, reference is made of 'Pangan Maiba.'

May be coincidence, expertise or myth, search operations have been successfully carried out in extreme cases. Without any scientific equipment for life support, they evolved calibre of staying underneath water for long during the search.

The concepts of youth's connectedness with concepts of water and water bodies are tap water, recreational parks and picnic spots. Youths of today's generation are over indulged in phones killing inspirations for physical works. It also afflicts the patience and listening capacity.

Generally speaking, hardly do youths initiate volunteerism of cleaning a polluted water body. Instead, picnic spots are the locations of preference for the youths. Post-picnic spots littered with irresponsible scattering of polluting items are becoming iconic youth culture connected to water in Manipur.

Management of water bodies is becoming the striking key note with regards to all discourses on water in Manipur. Shrinking wetlands, mismanaged water bodies, polluted rivers, untreated direct dumping of waste into the water bodies, refilling and reclaiming land acquisition over wetland ecologies, imbalanced development projects are some challenges the State is currently facing.

In the valley of the State in the name of irrigation and water supply, dams have been constructed, blocking the natural flow. The outcome of the dams and the cost-benefit analysis has given clear picture of how those barriers over our rivers have brought more damages than gain. Simultaneously, agricultural productivity is affected a lot losing the self-sufficient food status of the State.

The second 'Nupi Lan,' women war of 1939 against the massive export of rice from Manipur would never come back again in the history after dams are constructed, as productivity decreases with losing away of land, population increase and inevitable dependence on the imported products. The height of impacts farmers are facing due to mismanagement of water bodies is an alarm.

A lot has been discussed on the issues of the valley, while bringing up an issue from the hilly region; rivers in Tamenglong side are taken for granted natural streams for the development stakeholders. The construction works of Railway Tunnels and due to direct dumping of waste into the rivers and erosion, natural flows are blocked.

It affects the water quality, volume and velocity of the rivers. Streams are drying up and the rivers are not able to supply the quantum of water they used to before obstructions. It severely affects the productivity of tribal community who are known for their margina-lised economic background.

Water commercialisation and water conflicts are foreseen future if the lacunae is not checked efficiently. Water, a natural resource where the people harness it without any hesitation is more becoming issues of inter-village, intra-village and inter-community conflicts.

The current ethnic crisis and the connected discontent with massive deforestation and depleting catchments regions of the many perennial rivers, streams and springs is a point to be pondered upon. The rise of commercial water supply plants and water tankers monopolising the water issues in all pockets of the State shows the ineffective public water supply schemes. While people struggle for water, commercial water traders prosper.

Use of single use water bottle is the trending culture amongst the Meiteis. Once break open the cap, a bottle is being understood as used. Sharing bottles is not encouraged, may be more an impact of COVID-19 pandemic, where half-full, quarter-full, just caps open water bottles are disposed in plenty.

During feastings, social functions and occasions, biggest challenge in the post-event management are the discarded water bottles. Water bottles and bottles everywhere is the intriguing water culture of the Meiteis.

* Mamta Lukram wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on November 01 2023 .

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