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THE Great Meitei Nation

Emperor Constantine of Rome who brought Christianity to the Empire proclaimed majestically standing atop’¦ that ‘Under God’s watch, we shall conquer and never fall!’ Well what you can see now are the ruins of a once great nation, but the inspirational sentiment still moves the soul. The Meitei nation that was once so powerful looked like it would never fall. Well what we see now is the decrepit ruins of Kangla but its motivating thought still moves the Meitei soul. Destiny spares no one. The Roman Empire came to a definite end on March 29 1453 with the fall of Rome when the Ottoman Turks took Byzantium (Constantinople). The mini Meitei Empire ended abruptly with the fall of Kangla on April 27 1891. A rose by any other name will wither and die.

The Meiteis had their days of glory and a mini empire, which stretched from Thiboma (Kohima) to Ningthi Turen ((Ningthi River = Chindwin River) during the reign of king Pamheiba (Garib Nawaz) in the 18th century. ‘Garibnawaz was the greatest conqueror and military leader Manipur ever produced.’ (G Kabui History of Manipur Vol 1 p240). They defended themselves and defeated the Chinese, Burmese, Assamese, Tripuris, Cacharis and many tribes in Manipur. The great Meitei nation began with the establishment of the powerful Ningthouja Kingdom by Pakhangba, who ruled Manipur for 150 years (33 ‘“ 184 CE). ‘During the reign of King Khagemba there began the inception of the development of civilization in Manipur.’ (Hodson The Meitheis p26). The Cheitharol Kumbaba, the Royal Chronicle records historical events of the Meiteis for 2,000 years.

The Meiteis were considered brave (daring); courageous (ability to face danger without fear); and gallant (persistent and courageous in the face of overwhelming odds). Manipur is the gift of the Meiteis to the various indigenous tribes. It was because of the blood, sweat and tears of the Meiteis that Manipur is what it is today. The memorandum of David Scott (1746 ‘“ 1805), Agent to the Governor General of the East India Company, on North East Frontier of Bengal in favor of Prince Gambhir Singh’s Manipur Levy bears testimony to it. ‘Of all the various tribes and nations of the eastern frontier the Manipuris were the only race from whom any effectual and variable assistance could be expected, either offensively or defensibly against the powerful nations like the Burmese.’ There is no doubt that the Meiteis were brave people with an element of foolhardiness (Apang thouna). Their recklessly adventurous trait is like ‘˜a dog with the bone’. They will not just let it go.

Without the Meiteis Manipur would have been torn apart long time ago. More recently in 1947, Athiko Daiho and a few tribal leaders wanted to establish a separate Naga populated areas of Manipur. For about 55 years many ethnic Nagas want to take away parts of Manipur to Nagaland with them. The immigrant Kukis want to carve out a Kukiland. Zomis of Churachandpur wants to merge with Mizoram. Not surprisingly, a handful of Hmars wants a bite of the cherry. I am not for a moment saying that they should not have done that. They know what is best for them. So do the Meiteis and they had been working on it since the formation of Meitei kingdom to keep the integrity of Manipur intact.

Before the merger of Manipur with India in 1949 the majority Meiteis elected an independent democratic government of Manipur in 1947. The ’18 June 2001 uprising’ claimed the life of 18 Meiteis to keep Manipur as a whole. For the past 40 years or so the major Meitei insurgent groups have been fighting for an independent composite Manipur.

Why did the Meiteis survive as an independent nation for nearly 2,000 years? There are a whole range of factors. It has something to do with their geography ‘“ a valley surrounded by rows of mountain ranges. The Meiteis have inborn ingenuity e.g. the capacity to figure out how to cross the Barak River in spate using a fallen log. Johnstone commented (M&N Hills p97): ‘The result is a fairly homogenous people of great activity and energy, with much of the Japanese aptitude for acquiring new arts. The men seem capable of learning anything, and the women are famous as weavers, and in many cases have completely killed out the manufacture of cloths formerly peculiar to certain of the hill tribes, over whom the Manipuris have obtained mastery by superior intellect.’

Manipuri artisans manufactured matchlocks and breech-loading guns of iron. During the reign of King Khagemba (1627 CE), the Manipuris experimented to make big guns and learnt the art of manufacturing gun powder (Hodson pp 20 21). Manipuris were good carpenters, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, jewelers, workers in brass, and metal castors, bone setters and house builders. They even experimented with the making of wooden dentures. They made earthen vessels for cooking and storing water. They had iron smelting plants; and made arrowheads, spears (Ta) with iron tips, sword (thanshang), Dao (thang) scythe (thangol) and so on. They made metal tires for wooden wheels of bullock carts. No one knows who introduced the wheel, which is perhaps man’s greatest invention (invented only 3,000 BCE by an unknown inventor). ‘The use of the wheel indicates that that they have reached a higher standard of skill than the Nagas, who mould their vessels on a bamboo cylinder and work it into a rounded shape by hand.’ (Hodson p 33).

They produced salt, lime, cooking oils, paper, ink and their own coin (sel), to mention a few. They grew enough rice to feed themselves. They cultivated the silk worm and weaved fine silk cloths. They were experts with turning in wood and ivory. Sandstone bowls were nicely made and polished. They could also silver glass and electroplate; made good serviceable locks and could at a pinch repair and clean a clock. Hodson commented (p28): ‘I have had two photographic cameras made by them, complete in every respect and serviceable, which would not show unfavorably when compared with the more common run of English goods.’

This paper tries to individuate various aspects of an anthropological analysis of development aiming to draw a modicum picture of the Meiteis before 1947. A number of background questions encourage this attempt. This necessitates paraphrasing of the above references. In doing so a clear picture of the erstwhile self-reliant, self-sufficient Meitei kingdom emerges from the shadow of darkness, reminding us that Manipur was once politically stable, economically viable and ethically justifiable to exist as an independent sovereign nation. Though unlettered in modern educational terms the Meiteis were intelligent people. They had all the civilized values and an advanced culture. They had their own spiritual and religious philosophy (Sanamahism) and a cosmological concept (Lai Haraoba) that operated by generating an inherent belief in supernatural beings and a supreme God, Atiya Sidaba. They believed in an immortal soul (thawai) that continued to exist in the afterlife. Though the Meiteis in general were uneducated, there were few known as Meichous (Royal chroniclers) who were educated in their own language of Meiteilon. They had a written history for 2,000 years recorded in their own Alphabet. They maintained history books (Puyas).

The Meitei intelligent profile is that they are born intelligent. Contrary to popular belief, education does not make you more intelligent. Whatever your intelligence after the age of 16 is the same as it was at your birth. For the most part your I Q (Intelligent Quotient) remains constant. Being born intelligent creates many options. One of them is that you can choose your own destiny. The Meiteis chose not to be different from the Mayangs. That is why since the Independence we have been competing with them in any field or discipline such as education, and for any national professional post without asking for any reservation quotas and exemption from paying taxes. Mainstream is an odd word for an Indian nation. Whoever coined this word must have been out of his mind. The person must have thought that the Mongoloid Northeast Indians are the tributaries. There is nothing like mainstream Americans or French. It means non- Mongoloid Indians (Aryans and Dravidians). I prefer to call them Mayang (outsider) Indians as they call us Pahari (hilly) Indians.

If we follow the dry humor of Mark Twain: ‘˜history never repeats itself but it often rhymes’. I am also reminded in this part of my article what Aristotle said: ‘He who overcomes his fears will truly be free.’ If old adage proves true, and given the chance, the Meiteis merit a viable independent state in this early 21st century with contiguous territory, where they would be monarchs of all they survey, and their rights there would be none to dispute. However, there is caution in the air. According to Daniel Moynihan on Foreign Relations in International Law April 11 1996: Although ‘secession itself is not considered illegal per se, the International community generally does not look kindly on it despite the recent secessions such as Eritrea from Ethiopia.’ (Moynihan151). ‘In International Law the rules of the game were established to favor existing states; secessionist movements are still required first to establish their own existence or at least a recognized state of belligerency before they can apply for international legal rights (Moynihan 151-2).

This article is not really an attempt to describe the past kudos of the Meiteis. While professional historians place their focus on change with changing times my article wishes to explore and discuss the past social and cultural habits of the Meiteis by focusing on their original identity with the need to forge living past that would give meaning not only to the present but also to the future. I am not Don Quixote who took windmills for giants and sheep for armies. This is an attempt to study their cultural habits and how the economic activity in that period, was affected by human patterns and processes. It is a memoir rendering permanent a particular part of our culture’s past. Memoirs provide the perfect combination of personal history, historical insight, factual data and descriptive detail along with their culture of that period. They give access to individual lives and written accounts of them. To stress the way in which changes took place before the end of the War, I have divided Meitei culture into three parts, each with a span of 50 years, although there are never clear-cut turning points in history: pre-modern: 1897- 1947; (2) modern: 1947 ‘“ 1997 and (3) postmodern 1997 ‘“ 2047. Fifty years is a good length of time for cultures to change.

It is the span of time over which the conservative tendencies built into the structure of an ethno-nationalistic culture over the previous 50 years begins to change. Society and customs changes far more quickly; for instance, in the past thirty years there has been a remarkable change in the societal status of Meitei girls as well as in their hair style (short hair) and dress code (phanek with blouse only, and jeans). There are now many young Meitei career women.

The study of a society and social culture are related to a number of factors, concepts, cultures. The family, eating habits, housing and social class and then to try to pin down the nature and extent of social change. These are tall words and my experience after 1945 as a young boy cries out for a brush more loaded than that.  Social change accommodates culture and vice versa, for example, the present Meitei society accommodated the culture of alcohol as social trends. Culture is a very little understood term. It involves values, beliefs, feelings and a way of life. The integration of culture is more complex involving many human aspects of life such as eating and drinking habit, dress, religion and simple day to day living. The cultural integration between the Meiteis and the Lois and other hill-dwelling tribal people were very difficult even during this period when the eating and drinking Habits were the same.

In the 20th century ‘culture’ emerged as a concept to central to anthropology, encompassing all human phenomena that are not purely results of human genetics. ‘˜Cultural materialism’ is a scientific research strategy. It is based on the simple premise that human social life is a response to the practical problems of earthy existence (Marvin Harris). The central unstated tenet of modern biology is based on strict materialism. Everything about our living system is intertwined with the technological infrastructure, which is going to change our culture as it has over the last 50 years. We are now using gas cookers, washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators, fridges, and shower for bath. Color television programs keep us in contact with the realities of the world at click of a remote control button. The computer science has dominated our cultural metaphors of both computation and living systems. Online internet has proven the ancient mathematical theory that time and space has become one.

The Meitei brain and their culture were interrelated. Present research shows that there is a close relationship between the brain and culture. In Brain and Culture Bruce Wexler explores the social implications of the close and changing neurobiological relationship between the individual and the environment. The groundbreaking connection he makes allows for reconceptualisation of the effect of the cultural change on the brain and provides a new biological base from which to consider such social issues as ‘culture wars’ and ‘ethnic violence’. This could be seen among a handful of Meitei Christians and the tribal people, who have adopted Christianity, as cultural differences alter the brain’s hard-wiring by manifesting the diversity, strengths and fragilities of their culture.

Recent research shows that between birth and early adulthood the brain requires sensory stimulation to develop physically and during that period each generation shapes the brain for the next generation by changing the cultural environment. By early adult hood, the brain and mind shape themselves to the major recurring features of their environment. The Meitei energy and love of freedom for independence were largely shaped by the environment of Manipur. If we follow the research in cultural neuroscience, the culture of the post-War Meitei youths were conditioned by the relational recoding of a host of cognitive functions related to the War, that enable the formation of their socially shared meanings and practices. This is the cultural anthropology and developmental psychology of the modern culture of the Meiteis.

With this preamble my article follows to investigate how relationships between culture and events shaped the living conditions of the pre-modern Meiteis and how the economic pattern affected the living conditions of the period between 1897- 1947. The British rule in Manipur began in April 25 1891. For the next 5-6 years the Meitei culture was in a limbo, in a state of shock. At this point of history (2010), looking into that period of which I was a part of the fag end of the era, it will not be too difficult to paint a picture of Meitei cultural history and cultural evolution.

Time and space ‘˜has become one’. I can still remember our mathematics Professor at St. Xavier’s college in Bombay explains why time and space have become one. In mathematics space and time is any mathematical model that combines space and time into a single continuum. In physics, a part of the boundless four-dimensional continuum is known as spacetine or space-time. In relativity events time cannot be separated from the three dimensional space. Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, over one hundred years ago had this thing to say in his book Critique of Pure reason: ‘our comprehension of time and space are therefore not concepts we learn through experience but rather represent two of the means through which we inherently perceive, and, consequently interpret reality.’

In modernity, time and space are concepts that we learn from experience. I can arrive in Imphal from London in 12 hours. In the pre-modern period it would have taken a month. It used to take 4 hours from Imphal to Kolkata by the Dakota in the 1950s and now 1hour 15 minutes by the Airbus. When my father and then my eldest brother went to study in Dacca University in the Pre-modern period they walked for 3/4 days along the old Cachar Road (Tongjei Maril) of 132 miles to Cachar and for another 3/4 days from Cachar down the Brahmaputra by boat. Now you can reach Dacca in 3/4 hours via Kolkata. Time and space has almost become one.

In cultural terms, for the ancient Meiteis time and space was always one, as exemplified by the old Meitei saying: pung, pung Meitei pung, matam chadana chatpa pung (Time, time, Meitei time; no relation to time). It was partly because to the Meiteis time was non-existent. They had only morning and evening. After the British occupation of Kangla, happily for the Meiteis, at 12 O’clock in the morning every day, a siren was sounded from the Kangla cantonment to tell the Meiteis it was noon. The concept was also partly because of the small space of the oval shaped Imphal valley (700sq miles); 36 miles north to south and 18 miles across i.e. 108 miles that one can do a marathon run around in one day. They did not need a mathematical model. The illiterate Meiteis had philosophies of the kind all shamanistic people all over the world had. They had a culture, a national culture that became a bit stagnant and old fashioned, needing a breath of fresh air. Things however changed after the end of the Second World War in 1945.

Having encapsulated the origin of the Meiteis in my preceding article this paper looks at how the primitive Meitei social structure might have influenced the economic, legal, political, religious and cultural systems of Manipur. Social structure is the parent system of these various systems that are embedded in it. Social and cultural systems are interrelated. The term ‘society’ was used prior to ‘culture’.

This piece is simply a narrative of my experiences of Meitei social structure and mores, which I remember as a young boy of 8-11years, just before and after the War. This is not an in- depth study in Meitei social sciences or their cultural ethos or, for that matter, a serious study of the economics of that time. It is just an overview. There is nothing that has not been written by others before.

One of the earliest accounts of social structure was provided by Karl Marx, who related political, cultural, and religious life to the mode of production (an underlying economic structure). Social structure is a term used in social sciences to refer to patterned social arrangements that form society as a whole, and which determine, to some varying degree, the actions of individuals socialized into that structure. The organization of social structure, for example, by industrialization will influence the economic system and as a result, the social system. We now find that as a result of urbanization the Meitei cultural system of inviting neighbors, mainly old people, to utsab chaba (religious feasting) at home is replaced by a restaurant type of invitation at a temple mandab, provided by a contractor, charging so much per head.

A cultural system (belief, ideological) differs from a social system. For example, Meitei Vaishnavite culture differs from the modern social system. Meiteis now socially drink alcohol and eat meat. Another example is capitalism, a cultural system rooted in economic practices in which the societal wealth distribution varies, more concentrated in the urban area. The cultural system of the Meiteis was endowed with the Meitei political system, religion, philosophy, sciences, code of ethics, statecraft, arts and crafts, and study of warfare.

The economic pattern of the Meiteis of the pre-modern period (arbitrarily, before 1947) was shaped by their social structure and patterned social arrangements i.e. the way they lived their lives. The Meitei social structure was a relationship between different groups of Meiteis, the seven clans, which endured a stable pattern of relationship. The Meitei social entity was grouped into structurally related groups (e.g. Leikais) or sets of roles, with different functions and meanings or purposes. The Meitei society was a self-contained, self-sufficient population united by social relationships, bounded by geographical locations in the Manipur valley while neighboring tribal people lived in the hills. Though the geographical limitations were not insurmountable, the Meiteis did not try to impose their societal system as a corporate identity uniformly on the neighboring communities, regardless of any consideration of local economic, environmental, or cultural factors.

Meitei society was vertically structured (individuals were ruled by the king on top). There was no social class system. Nor did they have a simple occupational classification. There was hierarchy in the nobility and they assisted the king in running the administration. Equality in social and economic status was shared among the Meiteis. They lived in close-knit village communities (e.g. Uripok, Sagolband) with a dense social network. According to Zuckerman (2003); Dutta & Jackson (2003) and others, that social structure, especially in the form of social networks, affects economic outcome. Shared ideas about the proper way to behave are clearer, more firmly held and easier to enforce, the more dense a social network.

Manipur was a feudal and non-capitalist country. It had a self-reliant economy as an extension of the social system. Self-reliant economy was perfectly feasible in Manipur as the agricultural produce and natural resources were just enough to feed all the families. There was enough land for cultivation of rice, the staple food as the population was very small. There was sufficient water because of the many rivers and rivulets crisscrossing the valley from the surrounding hills. The Meiteis had long developed the art of weaving, spinning and dyeing. They knew how to culture silkworms and cultivate mulberry plants. Manipur is the origin of silk worm, not China as often mentioned. They grew cotton plants. They made their own cloth of cotton and silk. There were a variety of seasonal vegetables, fruits and fish to provide the Meiteis with a balanced diet ‘“ the results were athletic and muscular Meitei warriors. They bred a kind of Meitei ponies that were trained for war. The bred Meitei dogs from the wolves’ puppies. They loved sports, which were played all the year round. They distilled spirits and brewed rice beer.

There were many lakes that sustained a variety of fish, fowls and edible vegetables. They knew animal husbandry and hunting techniques though they did not hunt for food after Hinduisation. Bir Tikendrajit was attributed to killing a tiger with only a sword and shield in his hands. When I was a schoolboy, there was a Bengali book, ‘Bichitra Manipur’ with a painting of Tikendrajit fighting a tiger with his sword and shield, on the cover page.

Meiteis did not have what is now known as the ‘˜classical political economy’, which is concerned with surplus ‘“ the concept of exports for generating wealth.  Money used to buy local food stayed in the local economy, which in turn helped sustain the economy. They did not import any essential goods from outside and there were no favorable trade relationships with Burma or other neighboring states to supplement their economy. They were capable of producing basic necessities for survival such as permaculture, autonomous building, renewable energy, and sustainable agriculture.

The political equilibrium and the political geography of Manipur based on a stable socioeconomic structure ensured Manipur’s independence until the British conquest. The Meiteis were free to choose their political, economic and social pattern, whose foundations were laid by the Meitei kings.

We owe toward our kings, including the last king Bodhchandra, a great debt of gratitude. Maharaja Budhachandra tried to keep Manipur as an independent country. I used to see Bodhchandra Maharaja, who had a bonny face like that of Buddha when he came to play volleyball on most Sunday evenings at the Khwairamband Mapal volleyball ground. He played as a server. My eldest brother Gokulchandra in his team was a very good volleyball player. It was largely due to our kings that we had an independent Manipur till 1891. Our kings were able generals and good rulers. With the formation of Ningthouja dynasty they provided a good monarchical system beginning with Ibudhou Pakhangba, with an unwritten constitution. A written constitution was introduced by King Loyamba in the 12 century. Loiyamba Shilen gives a very good account of the economy of Manipur. The singing of Ougri ‘“ a recitation that exhorts the duties and courage of the king before he set off to conquer an enemy – started with him.

There was not much change in the monarchical system after Pamheiba converted himself and compelled his subjects to embrace Hinduism in the early 18th century, apart from rituals connected with Vaishnavism, such as cremation of dead bodies. However much we dislike the invasion of a foreign religion, Hinduism brought early civilization to the Meiteis with a different social system molded by sanskritisation. It was the beginning of a new social order, and a religious system ‘“ a system of Hinduism that accepted a version of the Ramayana -Valmiki (the other is Tusidas Ramayana) wrapped around Sanamahism, whose philosophical tenets did not differ much from Hinduism. However coercive the king was, the Meiteis would not allow Hinduism to replace Sanamahism. The practice is similar to the Japanese who practice Buddhism along with Shinto, getting the best out of the two. The excellent thing Hinduism brought to the Meiteis was the habit of cleanliness.

Manipur’s economy was boosted by natural resources from its Kabaw valley. It is very unfortunate for Manipur that Pundit Nehru in a state of mental disequilibrium gifted away this valley, nearly as big as the Imphal valley to U Nu of Burma in 1953 at the Mapal Kangjeibung. I was present at this sad moment of history, when I came home from college in Bombay. The proper and rational exploitation of the various resources in this valley would have given a much needed fillip to the growth of Manipur’s economy. This is modern history, which is amenable to change. We should seriously petition the Government of India to restore our rightful territory. Some of our kings and our forefathers fought hard for this bit of our territory. We should not let them down.

*The article is written by Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh.

*The writer is based in the UK.

*The writer can be reached at imsingh@onetel.com.

*You may visit www.drimsingh.co.uk for further readings.

(Courtesy: The Sangai Express)

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