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Traditional Religion Of The Meiteis

Vaishnavism is of comparatively recent origin in Manipur. This religion came to the land in a most unexpected manner from the east in 1470 AD. (Shakabda 1392) Thangwan Ningthouba king of Manipur, better known by his reign-name Kyamba, the conqueror of Kyang (1467-1508 AD) and his all Choupha Khekkhomba, king of Pong, conquered Kyang Khambat (a Shan Kingdom in Kabow valley) with a combine force. They shared its territories. After this, there is an interesting story or history about the advent of Vaishnavism in Manipur. As part of the celebration of victory, they exchanged presents, and one of the presents received from the Pong King was a little stone image of Vishnu riding on the back of Garuda and holding the usual weapons and the lotus. It was given in a casket.

King Kyamba once fell sick and no physician could diagnose his sickness. The oracles were consulted and advice was received through Maibis or Amaibis (Priestess) that the king could be diagnosed if worship was offered to Lord Vishnu. Some Brahamins who were well acquainted with puja (ritual) of Lord Vishnu were available in Manipur in those days.

The King was diagnosed through the proper worship of Vishnu. Thus began the regular worship of Lord Vishnu in the palace of the king and a brick Mandir or temple was built in the palace at Lamangdong. In the later part of history, this palace Lamangdong was known as Vishnupur (land of Vishnu). Although the worship continued, the King Kyamba was not initiated into the new sect.

During the reign of King Khagemba (1597-1652 AD) in 1635 AD a new feature was introduced in the annual Hiyang Tannaba (boat races). A special boat was set apart for the image of Lord Vishnu mentioned above, supposedly for the lai to witness the festival. Like King Kyamba, Khagemba was not initiated in Vaishnavism too. The worship of Lord Vishnu was found non-stop in various stages of the history of Manipur.

Pitambar Charairongba was the first Manipuri king to be formally initiated to Vaishnavism. In 1619 Charairongba was inclined to the Madhavcharya sect of Vaishnavism, so he began to worship the Radha Krishna. But he never attempted to impose to this new faith upon his people. Charairongba erected the statue of Panthoibi and the Laiwa Haiba (Sanamahi). The new faith, Vaishnavism became the dominant religion of Manipur during the reign of Garib Niwas (1709-1748). To the royal will of Pamheiba, the monarch in whose reign the fortune of the State reach their zenith, Hinduism owes its present position as the official religion of the state.

At first the decrees of the king received but little obedience and the opposition to the change central mainly round the numerous members of the royal family who were supported not unnaturally, by the maibas, the priests of the older religion. Religious dissent was treated with the ruthless severity as was meted out to political opponents, and wholesale banishments and execution drove the people into acceptance of the tenets of Hinduism. However, there is evidence of early Vaishnava influence on the people of Manipur.

Some Brahmins came from the west and settled in this land during the reign of King Kyamba in the 15th century AD but they did not have significant impact on the life of the Meiteis in absence of any help from the king. Brahmins of different place continued their migration presumably with the permission of the kings of the Meiteis. This increased by leaps and bounds in Manipur.

MT Kennedy says that Vaishnavism of the Chaitanya sect was introduced in Manipur as early as the 17th century. During the reign of Charairongba, he paid respects to the old faith and temples were created in honors of the lais (Gods) of the traditional religion. This shows that he loved the traditional faith so much in place of the new faith.

After his death, his son Pamheiba became the king of Manipur in 1709 AD. He was pro-Hinduism. He wanted to initiate into Vaishnavism. As a result of this, he was initiated into this new faith by Guru Gopal Das. The King Pamheiba punished those who were anti-Hindu dietary laws. This proselytizing of King Garib-Niwas displaced the traditional deities. Thus he destroyed several temples of Umang-lais and broke down the statues of several deities namely Sanamahi and other Umanglais. In lieu of traditional deities and places, he put Hindu gods or names such as Mong-bahanba Laishang to Mahabali Mandir (temple of Hanuman Thakur), Imoinu to Laxmi, Lamang-dong to Bishnupur, etc. In the later part of Garib Niwas’s reign, a Brahmin called Shantidasa, came to Manipur from Syllet and began to preach Vaishnavism.

After converted, he severely persecuted not only the followers of the traditional religion but also those who belonged to the other sect of Vaishnavism. Through the resentment of Shantidasa, the king collected all the puyas (written record of the Meitei traditions) and ancestral records. Those puyas were burnt at Kangla, the palace of the Meitei Kingdom. Then by a royal decree books and those records in Meiteis scripts were banned. Maichous – the priests as well as the scholars who were in possession of the ancient text went to remote areas of the hill and the plain to keep their treasure concealed.

It is a long journey in the history of the Meiteis Vaishnavism influences the traditional religion of the Meiteis in various ways such as mainly in religion, education, social system, untouchability etc. In many ways Vaishnavism plays very important role in the life of Meiteis. The co-existence of Vaishnavism and the traditional faith of the Meiteis were uneasy for some time, but slowly began the process of assimilation and the result was the Hindunisation of the Meitei faith.

Vaishnavism is a mixture of ballets and rites. In many fundamental points there are some similarities between Vaishnavism and the traditional religion of the Meiteis. Both of them claim to have grown out of a divine tradition.

The Vedas are the foundation and footprint of the Hindu religion. So it is also believed that they are not of human compositions of formations and the Rishis of the Vedas are not the real authors like Hinduism, the faith of the Meiteis too has no particular author. However, there were persons of divine arrangement who enlightened people about the Gods and their functions.

Manipur Hinduism gradually became a synthesis of the old Meiteis religion with its gods and goddess and myths, its own legends and traditions, its social customs and usages and its priest and ceremonial and of Brahmanical Hinduism with its special worship of Radha and Krishna. Meiteis never gave up their culture and tradition.

So, the Meitei religion is not sectarian and also not a mere structure of creeds. But this faith is a living force that brings out all the manifold experiences into a system. The sectarian faith brings diversions among the upholders of different beliefs. But the Meiteis faith transcends narrow individuality and small interests. So the term ‘Meiteis’ signifies mankind. Thus the followers of the Meiteis religion is nothing but the religion of man which is universal in outlook and is not built around any particular interest. When the new faith – Vaishnavism came to be the state religion of Manipur, there was in the beginning resistance to change on the part of the devotees of the traditional cults.

Thus resistance was more political than doctrinal. The Meiteis deities were brought into Hindu pantheon. And also all Hindu deities were absorbed into the Meitei culture. Thus there is no conflict between the two faiths. The Hindus festival Ras Lila is based on the traditional dance of the Lai Haraoba, the pleasing of God. In short, the Lai Haraoba festival is a genuine festival of the Meiteis that has raised this stylized dance to the domain of a very high artistic and aesthetic expression and has produced one of the beautiful and authentic traditional schools of religions dancing in the world.

*The article is written by Dr Angom Shyam

(Courtesy: The Sangai Express)

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