Economic History Of Manipur (1826-1891)


The Meiteis have been living in the Manipur Valley at least since the beginning of the first millennium. What was initially a small clan principality grew into a powerful monarchal state comprising the valley of Manipur and the surrounding hills inhabited by the Nagas (there were no Nagas in those years, the name came into existence with the British. They were referred to according to their tribes such as Angami, Tangkhul, Ao, Kabi) and the Kukis including a few other small ethnic groups.

The Meiteis have a rich cultural heritage. Their written language and literature have a long history. In 1110 AD a written constitution was promulgated by the ruling king. It codified the customary laws, codes, conventions and defined Meitei polity embodying the concept of absolute monarchy. The kingdom was divided into six pannas for facilitating the organization of the lallup system under which every citizen with a few exceptions from the age 17 to 60 years was required to work for the king for 10 days in every forty without any wages. But each lallup worker was given 1 pura (roughly 3 acres) of land for cultivation on payment of the usual land revenue to the Raja. Manipuri men had indomitable martial spirit; they were skilled horse riders and could fight as fierce cavalrymen in wars. Men could keep on fighting wars being away from for prolonged periods because the women were industrious, enterprising, business-minded, adept in weaving, agriculture and horticultural farming and selling and buying of goods in the market. The favorable aspects of Meitei character combined with a strong political structure and economy placed them quite ahead of the other ethnic groups living in the surrounding hills in terms of social, political, economic and cultural developments. Therefore they succeeded in dominating over the hill people. But over the centuries there has occurred the fusion of certain traits of Meitei culture and that of the hill-dwellers. Ultimately the kingdom of Manipur emerged as one distinct political entity with the territorial spread encompassing the Manipur valley and the surrounding hills.

Everyday Life of Manipur People

In the pre-industrial and pre-capitalist economy material life of people represents ‘the informal other half of economic activity, the world of self-sufficiency and barter of goods and services within a very small radius'(Braudel 1986:24). Destruction of the material life is something like ‘weighing up of the world’ and comprehending the limits of what was possible in the pre-industrial world. The material life of the people was possible in the pre-industrial world. The material life of the people was manifested in the images of daily life’.

1. Manipuri’s daily bread: rice, fish, and dal

2. Varieties and mode of rice cultivation: nineteen varieties: a few were early and many late varieties of higher yield. Late varieties cultivated by following the method of transport

3. The importance of rice: Culture of rice growing influences the socio-political and economic life and institutions of the people.

4. Salt: Manipur depended on the natural salt wells for indigenously producing salt.

5. Meiteis balanced diet: rice, fish, pulses, beans, vegetables and seasonal fruits.

6. Stimulants and drugs

7. Dwelling houses

8. Economics of the housing sector: it manifested as essential element of Manipuri’s self-sufficient economy

9. Dress and fashion: reflected the spirit of plain living

10. Hillmen’s economy: The Nagas practiced both shifting and settled cultivation. The Naga villages having locational stability could follow land use planning in accordance with the communities’ perception of sustainable use of land. Kuki villages were not stable as the Kukis continued to migrate farther northward. The art of settled cultivation was not acquired by them. The Kuki village chief was very powerful. The hillmen’s economy was not an insular subsistence economy. They produced cash crops like oilseeds, cotton, pepper, ginger, etc.; parts of such produces were traded with the Manipuris to procure salt, iron tools, agricultural implements, fire-arms, glass beads, utensils, ornaments, livestock, Manipuri quilts and cloth etc. The hillmen also exported to the plains forest products and few household industry products like cloth mats baskets, etc.

11. Sources of energy: (I) Animal power, (II) heat energy

12. Transport system

13. Manufactures: (I) cotton textiles, (II) silk textiles (II) iron tools manufacture (III) leather manufactures (V) pottery (VI) jewelry

14. Professional skills of the Manipuris

15. Money and exchange

Political Scenario under the rule of the Rajas

Economic performance of a society is influenced by the structure of its economy comprising ‘the political and economic institutions, technology, demography and ideology. Until the occupation by the British in 1891, Manipur was constitutionally a monarchal state. The Raja enjoyed almost absolute power of rule. He dictated and enforced the terms and conditions of enjoyment of civil liberty and of property rights by his subjects on the different inputs of production, such as, labor supply including self-labor, land and other natural resources, outputs turn out by them as well as on different items of immovable and moveable assets as individuals and groups of individuals. The nature, extent and effectiveness of enjoyment of property rights largely determined the people’s incentives to produce beyond the subsistence level. The king benefited from increased volume of production of goods and services as his monopoly rent thereby went up. He devised the administrative, bureaucratic and military structure for keeping the system going and for maximizing the extraction of monopoly rent in cash and /or kind, such as, in the form of land revenue, taxes, duties, levies and free labor services etc.

The absolute power of the king was limited by certain factors, three important ones were: (1) He had to appoint agents- administrators, judicial, and military functionaries to run the state structure and realizes taxes, labor services, etc. on the king’s behalf. It could not be possible for any king to constrain his agents fully where interests did not completely coincide with that of their master. No wonder, at times the king’s agent colluded with the subjects to divide up some of the monopoly rents.

Secondly, the monopoly power of the king was limited by the threat of invasion by neighboring states and/or potential rulers within his own state.

Thirdly, in every state, the role of the civil society that is, peoples’ collective will in protecting at least by some measuring civil, political and economic rights of the individuals acts as a limitation on the powers of the state authority. Burmese invasion from 1819 to 1826 severely disturbed the internal organization of the state. After becoming the king of Manipur in 1826 Gambhir Singh had to rebuild the system, of course, without any marked deviation from the traditional system

1. The system of lallup

2. The Lois, the Kei-roi-thou

3. Slavery

4. Singlup(wood club) or village panchayat

5. Land system

6. The role of civil society in regulation the land system

7. Position of Women in society, economy and civil society

8. Property rights, debt settlement, etc

9. Ideology

10. Deficiencies of the political-economic institutional structure

Economic Growth and Recovery after 1826

Manipur’s economic recovery after the end of the Burmese occupation in 1826 proceeded along with streamlining of the administrative structure and some liberalization of modus operandi of economic transactions as carried out under the British influence and even mild pressure at times. The British policy vis-a -vis Manipur was shaped by the objective of putting on Manipur as a strong defensive base against aggressive designs of Burma. They also sought to use the territory of Manipur to open up an overland trade route to Burma and there from to Yunnan Province of China. In pursuance of these objectives in nurturing closer political and military ties with the king of Manipur and making agreements with him to facilitate and promote flow of trade between British India and Manipur and Burma with Manipur’s co-operation.

1. British Manipur Trade and defense agreement of 1833

2. Manipur’s parting with Kabaw Valley under British pressure

3. Posting of British Political agent in Manipur, 1835

4. Signs of growth since 1826

Eight years of peace and stability during the reign of Gambhir Singh were the years of reconstruction of Manipur’s economy. Many of those who fled Manipur returned to their homeland, increasing areas of land were reclaimed for cultivation by clearing weeds, grass etc. The damaged roads were constructed, old markets reopened and new markets opened, trade flow between Cachar and Manipur and that between Manipur and Burma increased in volume as some of the trade restrictions were withdrawn. The Nagas were freely allowed to bring down again their cash crops like ginger, cotton, pepper, etc for exchanging with goods of their needs in some designated markets. Construction activities were undertaken on a wide scale as the destroyed villages were rebuilt. A new capital at Langthabal about 8 kms south of Impala was built.

The signs of the growth were manifested in the growth of population, increased degree of specialization and diversification of productive activities, raising of new crops, increasing volume of monetization of transactions, commercialization of agricultural production, increasing volumes of internal and external trade etc.

*The article is written by Oinam Somorendro Meitei

*The author is based in Guwahati, Assam, India.

*The author can be reached at

*Permission for republication of this article is awaited. Due to the importance of the said article, ManipurOnline has taken the liberty to republish this article.

*You may visit for further readings.

(Courtesy: The ManipurPage)

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