TODAY -

Origin of the Meiteis
- Part 1 -

* Dr J Rimai



The Land

According to the literature review, Manipur was an independent kingdom before the colonization by the British Empire (Singh 2004, 4). However, the extent of the so-called Manipur border is in debate. Some scholars believe that it reached Kabou Valley in Myanmar (Burma) in the east, the Chinese territory in the north, and the Ahom kingdom of Assam in the northwest (Singh 1987, 2-3). This is challenged by the Nagas who inhabit the hills that surround the valley of Manipur. The Nagas say they were never under the rule of the Meitei kings, and that they were an independent nation (Naga Peoples Declaration. 28th June, 2001).

The literature also shows that the name of the present state, Manipur, was given to this land after the declaration of Hinduism as the state religion. It was during the reign of Pamheiba whose Hindu name is Garibniwaz, in the beginning of the eighteenth century (Kumar 2001, 1) that the name 'Manipur' came into being. According to Kumar, She (Manipur) had different indigenous names such as Tillikoktong Ahanba in Hayi Chak, Mira Pongthoklam in Haya Chak, Hanna samba konna loiba in Khunung Chak and Muwapali Mayai Sumtongpan in early Konna (Langba) Chak.

In the later ages of Konna (Langba) Chak, it was popularly known as Kanglei Pungmayol, Kangleipak, and Meitreibak. Her other names were Chakpa Langba, then Muwapali, and then Wangang Tengthong Mayung Kuiba Lemthong Maphei Pakpa and, later on she was called Poirei Meitei after the advent of Poireiton. (Kumar 2001, 1-2)

The present Manipur state has many other indigenous names, each indicating its unique meaning. To some, it is known as "Flower on the Lofty Heights" (Singh 2003), and to others it is known as "Kashmir of the Eastern India" (Singh 1980, 1). It is also known as Sana Leipak, which means land of jewels. This is because the land is fertile and rich in its tradition and culture. The other name for Manipur is Kangleipak meaning "Land of the Kang".[1]

Manipur lies between latitude 23.83° and 25.68° north, and longitude 93.03° and 94.78° east. It has an area of 22,356 square kilometers (Kumar 2004, 5). The central valley, which is made up of only 700 square miles, is inhabited by the Meiteis who make up more than 61% of the total population in the state (Singh 1980, 2).



RKCS paintings on the walls of temple of Ibudhou Thangjing at Moirang, Manipur.
Picture Courtesy - Recky Maibram.
See entire Photo Gallery of RKCS Painting at Ibudhou Thangjing here



The People

The origin of the Meiteis cannot be precisely determined from the literature available. Horam[2] observed that the origin of the Meiteis is obscure (Horam 1990, 4). This has become a subject of endless debate (Tarapot 1993, 62). Kumar states that great controversies still persist regarding the origin of the Meiteis (Kumar 2001, 3). This is because most of their written records were composed after they became Hindus and therefore are not very reliable (Bhattarcharya 1963, 180; Dun 1992, 15).

Scholars differ sharply in their opinion on whether the Meiteis are Aryans or Mongoloids. There are those who claim that the Meiteis are descendants of Arjuna of Mahabharata and are therefore Aryan in origin. Others believe that they, like the tribal people, belong to the Mongoloid race. This difference is seen within the Meitei scholars themselves.

Aryan Origin

The first opinion that they belong to the Aryan origin is advocated by the Brahmins, royals, and nobles of the eighteenth century (Kumar 2001, 4). Scholars such as Iboongohal Singh, R.K. Jhalajit Singh, Atombapu Sharma, and many others believe that the Meiteis are Aryan in origin.

According to Iboongohal Singh, "The original inhabitants of Manipur were the Kiratas (some tribes of Nagas). By that time Manipur valley was full of water" (Singh 1987, 10). They were settlers in the hills. People started moving to the valley as the water slowly dried up. Iboongohal believes that it was at this time that the Aryans started coming to the Manipur valley. He writes,

But this time a group of people came headed by a Poireiton and settled here. These people from East and West came to Manipur and began to settle here, each group headed by a Poireiton. Thus Manipur became a large Aryan colony.

The present Manipuris are the descendants of those new comers who came under the leadership of those Poireitons and Mahadev and the original inhabitants. (Singh 1987, 11-12)

R.K. Jhalajit Singh writes, "a great wave of pure Aryan blood passed through the Manipur valley during the time when India and China were prosperous countries" (Singh 1992, 53). He continues to say that Manipur has always been a part of India, and that she was known to the rest of the country from ancient times, from about 300 B.C. (Singh 1992, 55). According to Kumar, the Manipur found in Mahabharata is the present Manipur state. In the story, Arjuna marries Chitrangada from Manipur and has a son from their wedlock. His name was Babhruvahana, and accordingly, the Meiteis are descendents of Babhruvahana who was the son of Arjuna of the Mahabharata (Kumar 2001, 4-5).

Though some scholars and a few influential Meiteis want to trace their origin through this tradition, it is sharply objected and challenged by many modern scho-lars. Historians and scholars such as Kabui, Horam, Thumra, Bhattarcharya, and Roy are a few to be mentioned here who reject this theory. J.H. Thumra3 writes,
"The rulers of Manipur, and a small but influential segment of the Meitei, claim that they belong to the Indo-Aryan race. They claim that they are the descendants of Arjuna of the Mahabharata, through whose wedlock with the princes Chitrangada, their son Babh-ruvahana was born in Manipur". (Thumra 1976, 105)

Gangmumei Kabui believes that this could have been an outcome of the adoption of Hinduism by the ruling family and the people of the valley in the eighteen century (Kabui, 2003, 15). This view is supported by Kumar who says,
"The theory of the Indo-Aryan descent of Meitei was propounded by the Brahmins and supported by the royal patronage and a few sections of the people of Manipur. It was the result of the adoption of Hinduism by the ruling family and the people of valley in the eighteenth century". (Kumar 2001, 4)

Dun argues that there is no proof whatsoever that Arjuna had a son in Manipur (Dun 1992, 16). It is also arguable that even if he had a son, the people who were living before the wedlock of Arjuna were not Aryans. In support of this, some scholars, such as B.K. & Sashi Ahluwahlia and Gait, believe that the Manipur mentioned in Mahabharata is not the present Manipur state. Gait writes,
"The Manipur mentioned in the Mahabharata was the capital of Babhruvahana, king of Kalinga. It must therefore have been situated somewhere in the south of Orissa or north of Madras (now called Chennai). Various sites in that tract have been suggested by Lassen, Oppert and others. Its exact position is still uncertain, but there can be no doubt whatsoever that it was nowhere near the place of the same name in Assam." (Quoted from Gait by R.K. Saha 1994, 26)

According to the literature, the journey of Arjuna to Manipur by sea is yet another reason why the present Manipur state cannot be identified with that of Manipur found in Mahabharata. In no way or side is the present Manipur state connected to the sea. Kabui, quoting R.C. Majundar, writes,

As regards Manipur, its identification with the present state of Manipur has been rejected by many scholars…. Arjuna first proceeded to the Mahendra Mountains (i.e., in Eastern Ghat) in Kalinga and then proceeded to Manipur on the sea. This evidently locates Manipur on the Orissa Coast, a view taken by a number of scholars. (Kabui 2003, 5)

Other scholars such as Roy and Bhattacharya hold that from the linguistic aspect, since the structure and vocabulary of the Meitei language agrees more with the Tibeto-Burman origin, the Aryan origin is unacceptable (Roy 1973, 4; Bhattacharya 1963). T.C. Hodson and Kabui argue that such tales of Indo-Aryan ancestry are obviously tainted by the influence of Hinduism. They were believed to have been invented by the Brahmins to flatter the newly converted Meitei King and his subjects (Hodson 1908).

Kabui also points out that there is no mention made about Babhruvahana or Arjuna in the genealogies of the royal family, which was founded by Nongda Lairen Pakhangba. He says,
Manipur's alleged Aryan connection should be viewed as an aspect of Sankritization[4] to gain respectability in the Hindu World, especially among the royal families of India, which was the normal practice of all converted ruling families either Hindus or Buddhists in North East India and South East Asia. (Kabui 1991, 3)

Another strong reason why the present state Manipur cannot be the Manipur found in Mahabharata is that it is not the ancient name of the state. According to a Manipuri historical work, the Sanamahi Laikan, "the name Manipur was first officially introduced in the early eighteenth century during the reign of Hinduised Garibniwaz (1709-48)" (Kabui 2003, 1). According to the literature, the region's original names included Kangleipak, Sanaleipak, Kanglei Pungmayol, Poireipak, and Meitrabak (Singh 1991, 3).

Mongoloid Origin

Another tradition, which is widely accepted by scholars and writers, is that the Meiteis originated from the Mongoloid race. Historians and scholars such as Roy, Thumra, Horam, Hodson, N. Tombi Singh, and Parratt support this tradition. N. Tombi Singh, a Meitei scholar, states,
"Many ... think that there is a basic difference between the valley people of Manipur (Meiteis) and those who are in hill areas. In fact it is not so. The entire people of Manipur belong to the same ethnic group and trace their origin more or less to the Sino-Tibetan group of human species." (Singh 1972, 17)

Saroj Parratt comments, "Physically, the Meiteis are Mongoloid in appearance, which suggests that their origin should be sought further east" (Parratt 1980, 2).

Based on the Manipuri legends and historical records, V. Chakravarty (1986) concludes that the Meiteis had their ultimate origin in the hill areas of Manipur. Elwin's description is similar when he says, "By the casual observer the so called Manipuris (Meiteis) would be pronounced a mixed race between the Kukis and the Nagas" (Elwin 1969, 451). T.C. Hodson, who was the Assistant Political Agent and Superintendent of the State of Manipur, after careful observation, remarks :
I think it is probable that when only a small part of the valley skirting the hills was capable of cultivation, the hill men bordering it used to descend and cultivate the little land there then was, returning to their homes in the hills after reaping their harvests; as, however, land increased, some few of them settled permanently in the plain, gradually increasing in numbers. The various tribes thus settling in different parts of the valley would in time come into contact, and after a struggle for supremacy, amalgamate. (Hodson 1908, 7)

Singh concludes that the Meiteis are Mongolian race. He writes, "From their general appearance they seem to be Mongolian race. Their hair is long, black and straight in most cases. ... they are well built, healthy and sturdy." (Singh 1980, 16).

There are some scholars such as Johnstone and Singh, who would argue that there is no racial purity among the Meiteis. The theory that the Meiteis originated from the Mongoloid race is the most widely accepted theory by modern scholars and writers. The younger generation among the Meiteis agree to this theory rather than the Aryan origin.

From this research, it is most accepted that the Meiteis originally belonged to the Mongoloid race. There are some instances where influential Meiteis do not want to accept this tradition.

Konghar states, "These statements (that Meiteis behaved like the tribals before they became Hindus) are not accepted by the majority of the Meiteis, especially the upper class, who always deny their alleged origin from the hill tribes" (Konghar 1996, 15). However, from the interviews, it has come to the light that many educated younger generations among the Meiteis accept the tradition that they are of the same descent with the hill tribes of Manipur.

Laishram Kumar, a respondent, says their forefathers were meat eaters, and they buried the dead. All these support the belief that the Meiteis behave like the tribals in the hills, suggesting the possible conclusion of Mongoloid origin.

Though generally accepted that they belong to the Mongoloid race, they also have some traces of Aryan features (Hodson 1908). Sir James Johnstone, who was the political agent in Manipur, writes: The Manipuris themselves are a fine stalwart race descended from an Indo-Chinese stock, with some mixture of Aryan blood, derived from the successive waves of Aryan invaders that have passed through the valley in pre-historic days. (Johnstone 1896, 97)

Jhalajit Singh believes Indo-Aryans came to Manipur and married local Mongoloid women in the first centuries of the Christian era. He is perhaps right when he says, "as a result of the fusion of Indo-Aryans and Mongoloid peoples, the nucleus of the Manipuri speaking people (Meiteis) of today was formed" (Singh 1992, 19-20). Scholars and writers, such as E. Dun (1992), Hodson (1908, 2), and M. Bhattarcharya (1963, 183) also support the tradition that the Meiteis were originally Mongoloid, a close kin with the tribal people in the hills, and were latter mixed with Aryan blood. "The mixture of blood has made the Manipuri both handsome and healthy" (Bhattarcharya 1963, 183).

It is difficult for the Meiteis to claim any racial purity due to their long stories of migration and a series of invasion by the Aryans, Shans, and Myanmars (Singh 1988, 149).

However, it is beyond doubt that they originally belonged to the Mongoloid race. Another group of Meitei people, who are the Brahmins, are believed to have come from Bengal with the coming of Hindu Vaishnavism during the seventeenth century. They are altogether a different people group, probably belonging to the Aryan race.



References:

  1. "Kang" is a traditional indoor game played by both male and female. It is believed to have been played by deity Panthoibi.
  2. Horam is a professor of history at Manipur University.
  3. Jonathan H. Thumra was the principal of Eastern Theological College, Jorhat, Assam, under Serampore University.
  4. This word should be spelled as 'Sanskritization'.
  5. The spelling of this word differs from one to another. Konghar has spelled this as "Ningthouchas," but it seems more appropriate and agreeable to spell it as "Ningthouja."
  6. Nagas are the second largest people group in the State who live in the hills, surrounding the plain on all sides.
  7. Lai Haraoba literally means the merry-making of the deities. It is a religious festival of the Meiteis. This will be dealt with later at length.
  8. The Tangkhuls are a people group within the Naga community who live in the Northeastern hills of Manipur.
  9. Jhum cultivation is also called shifting cultivation practiced only by the hill people group of Manipur State. The Meiteis, being in the valley, did not practice jhum cultivation.
  10. The word Loi means degraded. They were so called because of their refusal to become Hindus during the reign of Pamheiba. Today they are considered as lower outcast by the Hindu Meiteis. They are the people from Awang Sekmai, Andro, Leimaram Khunou, Koutruk, Kwatha, Khurkhul, and Phayeng.
  11. This god is also called "Atiya Maru Shidaba" which means Immortal Seed in the sky. Some called him 'Atingkok Shidaba'. In this writing, the name Atiya Maru Shidaba has been used more frequently. This is because this is the most common name used by the people.
  12. The Meiteis called human beings as Mee or Mee-oiba.
  13. This very word 'Lainingthou' was attributed to him when the Meiteis consider him as deity. Laining-thou literally means King of the gods.
  14. This is an oral tradition preserved by the people. It was narrated to the writer by Doren, an interviewee.
  15. Nipamacha is a respondent of the interview.
  16. The writer personally experienced this while he was young. His family has a very close Hindu family. Whenever the writer visited the house of the Hindu, he was not permitted inside the house. As a child he remembers sitting in the courtyard of the Hindu family.


To be continued ...




* Dr J Rimai wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on April 19, 2011.


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