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Origin Of The Meiteis

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).

The People

The origin of the Meiteis cannot be precisely determined from the literature available. Horam2 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 scholars. 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 Babhruvahana 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 Sankritization4 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 agrees 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.

The Division of Clans

The literature shows that the people who inhabit the central valley of Manipur (the Meiteis) were once a different people group who descended from the hills (Hodson 1908, 7). This concept is strongly supported by Doren Meitei, a respondent, who says, after a long struggle for supremacy, they were amalgamated.

They were believed to have been different ethnically, speaking different dialects and occupying their own territory under a ruler who was both a political chieftain and a social head of the clan (Kabui 2003, 70). Today there are seven salais (clans) in the Meitei society: Ningthouja, Angom, Khuman, Luwang, Moirang, Sarang Leishamthem, and Kha-Nganba. The names of the clans are slightly different according to Telem Indra Kumar who says the seven clans are: Mangang, Luwang, Khuman, Angom, Moirang, Chenglei, and Kha-nganba (Kumar 2004, 37).

These various tribes were unified through the war and conquest under the powerful rule of King Pakhangba, the chief of Ningthouja salai (Zimik 2000, 16). Ray states, “Ningthouja, the royal clan and the progenitor of the royal line, subdued all other rival clans and established political authority over all other clans under the generic term Meitei in the 15th century.” (Ray 1990, 269).

According to McCulloch, it was the Meitheis (Meiteis) who subdued the whole clan and the name Meitei became applicable to all. He states, “From the most credible traditions, the valley appears traditionally to have been occupied by several tribes, the principal of which were named Koomal, Moirang, and Meithei, all of whom came from different directions. For a time Koomal appears to have been the most powerful, and after its declension, the Moirang tribe. But by degrees the Meitheis subdued the whole, and the name Meithei has become applicable to all.” (McCulloch being quoted by T.C. Hodson 1908, 5-6)

Whatever the tradition, the whole groups of people who inhabit the plain of the Imphal are known today as the Meiteis. According to Tombi Singh, the Meiteis can be broadly divided into three sections: (a) The Bangmons or the Brahmins, who were believed to have migrated from other states. Their settlement begins with the coming of Hindu Vaishnavism. (b) The Rajkumars, who were the latest ruling clan. They are believed to be the original inhabitants of Manipur. (c) The remaining general castes who formed the bulk of the population (Singh 1975, 52).

Socio-Cultural Scenario of the Meiteis

The research indicates that culturally the Meiteis, except for the Brahmins, were not very different from the surrounding hill people until the advent of Hinduism. Even today the marks of similarities and relationships between the hill people and the Meiteis are seen, particularly during the time of Phumbankaba (coronation), when both the king and the queen are dressed in Naga6 costumes (Hodson 1908, 6). L. Bhagyachandra Singh states, “The practice was followed right from the time of Nongtalai Pakhangba, the first ruler of this land in the historic age till the last king…So close is the relation that still today a native blanket called leiroom is a customary by the bride’s parents in every Meitei marriage ceremony. Leiroom is a real Tangkhul cloth pattern.” (Singh 1991, 17-18).

The relationship is also seen during the time of the Lai Haraoba festival every year. This festival is very important to the Meiteis, since it is one of the most ancient cultures preserved by them (Parratt and Parratt 1997, 17). In this festival, the divine partners are presented in the form of Tangkhul, male and female, and the dancers act out the jhum cultivation during the festival.

Another area of similarity between the Meiteis and the hill people group is seen among the Lois, who are believed to have been the original Meiteis. Until today, they rear pigs, eat meat and drink rice beer, which is not permitted by the Hindu Meiteis. All these show that the Meiteis were not very different from the hill people before they became Hindus. T.C. Hodson observes, “The records distinctly show that up to the formal introduction of Hinduism in the reign of Pamheiba the people buried their dead, ate meat, drank ardent spirits, and behaved just like the hill people of the present day.” (Hodson 1908, 115).

This statement by Hodson is clear and supportive of the fact that the Meiteis were like the tribal people until they were forcibly converted into Hinduism.

The Rich Meitei Religion

The Meiteis had their own rich religious tradition before they became Hindus. They were animists and worshipped many gods in the form of natural objects and mythical gods.

They worshipped natural objects such as fire, the sun, the moon, Soraren (sky), the god of the homestead, and wind. According to Kumar, “The chronicles and ancient literary texts such as Leithak Leikharol, Thiren Layat, Sakok Lamlen Ahanba of the Meitei reveal that the ancient people of the land worshipped a number of gods and goddesses. They include natural phenomenon such as Sun, Moon, Sky, Stars, Darkness, Wind, Water, Fire, Lightening, Earthquake, etc, and also mythical and legendary figures, cultural and political heroes, tribal and clan progenitors, and the like.” (Kumar 2001, 28)

Hodson supports the idea that the Meiteis were animists when he says, “We are justified in holding them to be still animists” (Hodson 1908, 95). Singh writes,

The worship of natural objects by the ancient Manipuris is simple. There was no icon. When they worshipped the Sun, they worshipped the visible orb of the Sun. When they worshipped fire, they worshipped the brightly burning fire; likewise, when they worshipped Soraren, they spread a seat, say a piece of clean cloth, for the god to sit on and after invocation, they believed that he had come to their midst to accept their simple offering. In ancient times there was no icon of the god of the homestead. (Singh 1992, 26)

Other than natural objects, some of the important mythical gods worshipped by the Meiteis before they became Hindus are: Shidaba Mapu (Immortal Owner),11 Pakhangba, Lainingthou Sanamahi, Ima Leimarel Shidabi, Apokpa, Imoinu, Panthoibi (goddess of valor and battle), Yumjao Lairenbi, Phouoibi (goddess of bounty), Marjing (god of sports), Thangjing, and Wangbren (god of rain)(Kumar 2004, 92). They also worshipped the Umanglais (forest gods/spirits).

It will not be possible for us to discuss all the deities in detail in this research. Only the ones that are considered more important and regularly worshipped by the people will be discussed here.

The Concept of a Supreme God

Though the Meiteis were believed to have been animists, they had the concept of the existence of a Supreme Being.

They called him with different names such as, Atiya Maru Shidaba, meaning the Immortal Seed in the Sky, Shoraren (the sky), Shidaba Mapu (Immortal  Owner), and Taibang Panba Mapu (Lord of the Universe). He was believed to be the supreme God in the Meitei religion. He was the creator, impersonal and absolute. He was, in other words, the high God assumed as existing prior to anything (Kumar 2001, 66). He was also understood as forefather of all gods, men, animals and planets, and also the husband of Leimarel Shidabi, the goddess earth. According to Kumar, this concept of a Supreme God came from a long and complex process of evolution in the Meitei traditional belief. The diverse traditional belief enabled them to develop a concept of polytheism and finally to monotheism. After monotheism was attained, the supreme God was mythified as being manifested in many forms, which were of the polytheistic state (Kumar 2001, 44).

There is a legend how this supreme God (Atiya Maru Shidaba) created man. Atiya Maru Shidaba decided to create man, and so a deity called Kodin was emanated from him. He asked Kodin to create creatures, which by the virtue of its birth would be subjected to death. Accordingly, Kodin created seven frogs and seven apes. But Atiya Maru Shidaba was not pleased with those creatures. So he asked Kodin to look into his (Atiya Maru Shidaba) eyeball and create exactly what he saw. Kodin created human beings in Atiya Maru Shidaba’s image, and was called mee, 12 which literally means image or shadow. However, he was not able to give life. Therefore, Atiya Maru Shidaba breathed inside the created image, and the man came into a living being.

According to Parrat, this supreme god is also believed to be embracing the whole universe as a boundless envelope. He is the only everlasting god who alone remains when everything disappears (Parrat 1980, 31-32). Kumar says that the ultimate goal of ancient Meitei religion was to ‘Know Him’ (Kumar 2001, 28).

Many younger generations have no clear idea about this Supreme Being, as he is not worshipped frequently. The Meiteis believe that when they worship other gods and goddesses, he is included because they are his manifestations. Kumar writes, “However, all these gods and goddesses were in latter periods considered to be the manifestations of the Universal lord, Taibang Panba Mapu” (Kumar 2001, 28). Some are of the opinion that He is included when they worship the Surjadeva (sun).

Ima Leimarel Shidabi

Ima Leimarel Shidabi (great princess, immortal mother) is the most important female goddess worshipped by the Meiteis. She is the wife of Atiya Maru Shidaba, and mother of Sanamahi and Pakhangba. She has a special place of worship inside the house close to Sanamahi kachin (Sanamahi corner). Her place lies near the wall north of the fireplace. She is not worshipped every day, but publicly worshipped on the Cheiraoba, the first day of the Manipuri calendar year (Singh 1987, 28). She is believed to be the goddess of all blessing and prosperity, and is the sustainer of all living beings. In her worship place an earthen pot or pot made of metal brass full of water with a lid is kept on her behalf on the platform. The pot is filled with water every Tuesday or Thursday.

Worship of Sanamahi and Pakhangba

Sanamahi and Pakhangba are the two sons of Atiya Maru Shidaba and Ima Leimarel Shidabi. According to the legend, Sanamahi was an adopted son. He was picked up from the river by Ima Leimarel Shidabi. He was named Amashuba, which means ‘first’ or ‘number one’. Pakhangba was the real son, and his name was Anishuba, which means ‘second’ or ‘number two’ as he was younger. There are two traditions on how Sanamahi and Pakhangba became deities and are worshipped by the Meiteis. The first tradition says that it was a test made by their father, Atiya Maru Shidaba, to know who should succeed him to be the king of the Kangla (Manipur). He ordered the two sons to tour the Nongkhong (world) seven times. When they returned, they were to bring rootless vegetables and rootless firewood. The one who brought these first to the father would be the king.

Sanamahi, physically stronger than his brother, left for the journey. But number two son, Pakhangba, being unable to tour the world, went to his mother weeping and asking her counsel. His mother instructed him to go around his father’s throne seven times, and when asked what he was doing, he was to respond that going around his father’s throne is similar to touring the world. This signifies his respect for his father’s throne. He also was instructed to say that the rootless vegetable is Ishang (moss), and rootless firewood is shanthi (cow-dung).

He did it accordingly and was then given the name Pakhangba, which means ‘the one who knows the father’.

When Sanamahi returned to his father, his brother was already on the throne. Sanamahi was angry and tried to kill Pakhangba. The frightened Pakhangba took refuge among the lairembis (goddesses). Angry Sanamahi made a vow that if it was a man who betrayed him by helping his brother, he would be killed. But if it were a woman, she would be taken as his wife. Later on he came to know that it was his mother, Ima Leimarel Shidabi. As per his vow, she was taken to his house as his wife. Their worship places lay side by side inside the house of the Meiteis to this day.

Pakhangba became the king of Kangla (Manipur), and Sanamahi was given the kingship of the entire household of the Meiteis families. Pakhangba is worshipped as the ruling deity of the kings, and Sanamahi is worshipped as the deity of the entire Meitei household. All sacrifices are first offered to the Laininghtou Sanamahi, and then to Pakhangba.

There is another tradition of how Sanamahi and Pakhangba were worshipped differently. According to Kumar, there was a conflict between Sanamahi and Pakhangba. “After a no-win fight, there struck a compromise between the two by which Apanba or Pakhangba was to be the ruler of the earth just created, while Asiba or Sanamahi was to be the ruler of every household” (Kumar 2001,30).

Whatever the tradition, Pakhangba is worshipped by the people as the ruling deity of the kings. Sanamahi is worshipped as the household deity of the whole Meitei family. Today, Pakhangba worship seems to be losing its place among the Meiteis who are influenced by Hinduism. But Sanamahi worship still has a special place in all the Meitei families. Sanamahi has a special place inside the house of every Meitei family called Sanamahi kachin (Sanamahi corner) located in the southwestern corner of the house. Sanamahi literally means ‘liquid gold’. In the Sanamahi corner, the Meiteis keep Sanamahi (gold) coins as the image of Sanamahi. It is washed ceremoniously every morning. Rice, cake, fruits and flowers are offered to him with recitation of mantras. Even the Hindunized Meiteis still worship Sanamahi as their household deity.

Worship of Lais

Phungga Lairu

The Phungga Lairu is an important place, rather than a person. It has a great religious significance in every Meitei family. Phungga literally means fireplace, and phungga Lairu refers to the fireplace in the main room of the house. It consists of a small hole dug in the western corner of the fireplace. Singh says that the older generation bows down every day before the lairu and keeps their valuables in its hole. This hole is so respected that even a thief will not touch it (Singh 1987, 27). Phungga Lairu is considered to be the goddess of wealth and prosperity. They offer to her whatever they have to eat before having a meal. The Meiteis consider the Phungga as the cleanest place in a house. They are to enter the Phungga barefoot. When a mother enters in the morning for preparation of food, she enters only after bathing.


The Apokpa originated from the word ‘pokpa’, which means to ‘beget or give birth’. This is the ancestor god of a particular family. They are the deceased males of the previous three generations who look after the interest of the family. This worship is carried out by each household as a closely knit group. This worship is non-Hindu and requires no Brahmin. The offering includes, Kabok (puffed rice), Larou (sweetened parched rice), fruits, flowers, nine seeds of sesame, nine grains of rice, an earthen pot, a coin representing the deity, and betel leaves.


The literal meaning of Umanglai is forest god. ‘U’ means ‘tree’, ‘Umang’ means ‘forest’, and ‘lai’ means ‘god or spirit’. There are different opinions regarding the number of Umanglais. According to Kumar, there are three hundred seventy-eight Umanglais (Kumar 2001, 52-62). According to Singh, there are four hundred forty-six Umanglais representing each Meitei clan (Singh 1987, 29). They are the protectors of the State. The public worships them during Umanglai haraoba (pleasing the forest gods). They are offered according to what the worshippers have, such as bananas, flowers, fruits and animals.

Umanglai haraoba is one of the biggest religious festivals among the Meiteis. It is celebrated over the valley of Manipur State. There are four types of ‘Lai Haraoba’, namely, Kanglei Haraoba, Chakpa Haraoba, Moirang Haraoba, and Kakching Haraoba. The duration of the Haraoba varies from one another. Some Haraoba last for two weeks and some even for a month. During the Haraoba, different dances are performed, and indigenous games played. Dances include the display of creation of the world, romance, and daily activities.

During this festival, an offering of certain items, including animals, is prepared every morning. The offering of sixteen hens is a compulsory item for everyday. At least one of the hens must be white in colour, which is meant for the Nongpok Ningthou (King of the East). Kumar writes, “On the last day, in addition to the hens, a black dog and two pigs must be offered for sacrifice” (Kumar 2001, 96).Umanglais are considered to be ancestor gods, and therefore the Hindu Brahmins are not allowed to participate in the worship. Since Hindu Brahmins migrated from other places, they are prohibited from participating in the festival. Only the original inhabitants of Manipur celebrate this festival. The priests and priestesses are from the original Meitei religion. This is practiced even to this day. They consider Lai Haraoba more important than other Hindu festivals.

The Coming of Hinduism and its Impact on the Meiteis

The Coming of Hinduism

As discussed earlier, the Meiteis were not Hindus until the early part of the 18th century when they were forcibly converted to Hinduism. Hindu Brahmins started coming to Manipur during the reign of King Kyamba, which was in the latter part of the 15th century and the early part of the 16th century. Jhalajit states that King Kyamba received a gift from Choupha Khekkhomba of Pong (Shan Kingdom in Burma), a little image of Vishnu. During his sickness he offered sacrifice to this image and was cured. He then constructed a temple at Bishnupur and Vishnu worship was started (Jhalajit 1992, 94). Kumar also believes that Vishnu worship in Manipur started sometime in 1470 (Kumar 2001, 35). However, Vishnu worship was confined to the royal family and no Meitei was formally initiated into the Vaishnava form of Hinduism (Kumar 2001, 36). According to Kumar, “It was King Charairongba, who was formally initiated into Vaishnavism in April, 1704 (5th of Sajibu, Wednesday) by a Brahmin named Krishnacharya, alias Rai Vanamali, from Shweta Ganga, Puri” (Kumar 2001, 36).

Though there are traces of Hinduism in Manipur as early as the 15th century, Hinduism became the dominant religion of the State during the reign of King Pamheiba whose Hindunised name was Garibniwaz in the early part of the 18th century (1709-1748). According to Ratan Kumar, the conversion of the Meiteis was not through their own belief and choice, but was forced upon them by king Pamheiba, son of Charairongba (Kumar 2001, 37).

According to Nipamacha, 15 Hinduism came to Manipur from the blood of a Hindu Brahmin named Vishnu Goshai who came from Bengal. Goshai came to Manipur as a Hindu priest and met King Charairongba. The king had no child so Vishnu told the king that he would get a son if he let his wife worship with the priest for three months covered by seven rounds of clothes without letting anyone know the worship. The king agreed, and the priest stayed with the queen for three months. The queen then conceived with the son, possibly from the Hindu priest.

The Meitei priest prophesied and told the king that if the child was a daughter, nothing would happen, but if it was a son, there would be much trouble in the land. The king ordered the child be killed if it was a boy. But Nungthilchaibi, the queen and the mother of the boy child, did not want to kill him and told the king that the child was stillborn. She entrusted a tribal parent to take care of the child and offered a big reward. He was later called Pamheiba.

After the child grew up to boyhood, the story was narrated, and the king was old and he accepted him as his own son since he did not have a son. He was later called Garibniwaz, a Hindunised name, when he became the king of Manipur. By then Vishnu Goshai had returned to Bengal where he was originally from. He told his son, Sandidas Goshai, about his stepbrother in Manipur who by then had become the king of Manipur. Sandidas Goshai went to Manipur and with the help of his stepbrother, Garibniwaz, the King, Hinduism took its root in Manipur.

This theory is supported by the fact that the descendents of Pamheiba have the title “Shai” in their names. There is the possibility of taking this word from the suspected blood-father, Vishnu Goshai.

The eighteen names of the descendents of Pamheiba listed by Singh in Appendix IV are: Shyam shai, Murari shai, Jitshai, Nandashai, Dangko shai, Sheibya Shadhi shai, Bharat shai, Shatrughna shai, Hiracharan shai, Gadadhar shai, Dullove shai, Dhara shai, Hari shai, Ngawbram shai, Anatashai, Tulsi shai, Meghashai, and Kishoreshai (Singh 1987, 212).

Unlike his predecessors, Pamheiba became a religious fanatic and launched an onslaught against the traditional Meitei religion (Kumar 2001, 37). He punished those who violated Hindu laws, such as consumption of any type of meat, and rearing of pigs and chicken. Those who did not want to accept the new religion were faced with severe punishment. The Lois and Yaithibis are an example of the punishment meted by the king. Cremation was made the compulsory method for disposal of the dead. He also destroyed many Umanglai temples, and ordered to destroy and burn the Puyas, holy scripture of the Meiteis. A new name “Manipur” was given to the land. The Meiteis to this day observe the day of burning of the Puyas as “Puya Meithaba”, to commemorate the unfortunate act of King Pamheiba (H. Bhuban Singh, in The Sangai Express).

The Meiteis know that Hinduism is not a religion born in their land, yet they continue to follow this religion because of the striking similarities between the two (Rimai 1993, 11). According to Singh, both Hinduism and traditional Meitei religion claim to have grown out of divine tradition. He says that the Meitei theory of creation as presented in the Puyas bears resembles the doctrine of creation depicted in the Nasadiya Hymn of Hinduism. In both traditions, man is understood as the cream of creation. The plurality of deities is found in both religions (Singh 1975, 89-90). According to Singh, another reason why the Meiteis follow Hinduism is that they are allowed to continue the worship of their local deities, where each individual, as well as their family, is responsible for the worship ceremony (Singh 1991, 26-27).

The Impact of Hinduism on the Meiteis

Hinduism has had a great impact upon the life of the Meiteis. It is not too much to say that Hinduism has become the culture of the Meiteis, or at least made them feel that way. Their worldview, way of life, dress, and food has been greatly influenced by Hinduism. As discussed before, they were like the heathen tribal people before they became Hindus, eating meat, drinking rice beer, did not look down on tribals, and so on. But when the Meiteis became Hindus they adopted the concept of “touch me not” attitude. They treated the hill people as untouchables and called them “Hao”, which is a derogatory meaning for “uncivilized”. This led to the creation of a gigantic barrier between the Meiteis and the hill people.

Within the Meitei community, there are Lois and Yaithibis who were driven out of the Meitei community as untouchables for not accepting Hinduism. They live in the outskirts of the mainline Manipuri people.

Hinduism has had a great impact in the life of the Meiteis, both socially and religiously. They are briefly discussed below in separate sections.

Social Life

Singh (2004), in “The Kingdom of Manipur” in The Sangai Express, says that “with the adoption of Hinduism in the kingdom of Kangleipak, the Meiteis took the word “SINGH” very importantly and seriously instead of using their own SALAIS, SAKEIS and YUMNAKS.” The Meiteis started using the word ‘Singh’ after their personal names as an imitation of the Mayang’s (mainline Indian) custom. The Meiteis not only gave up their original religion, but also their own original name system. The last names such as Singh, Kumar, Kumari, Sharma, Devi, and so on, are not the names of the Meiteis but adopted from the Mayangs.

Singh (2004) also says that with the adoption of Hinduism, the king accepted the word ‘Raja’ as the title of kings “instead of using their unique paragon title called ‘Meitingngu’ or ‘Meidingngu’ and their descendents are still borrowing so-called Rajkumar as a respectable title” (Singh 2004).

According to Kumar, the Meiteis were allotted gotras for the seven salais, namely, Sandilya for Ningthouja, Kaushik for Angoms, Bharatwaj for Chenglei (Sarangleishangthem), Kashyap for Luwang, Madhukalya for Khuman, Atreya for Moirang and Gautam for Phantek. (Kumar 2001, 38)

With the coming of Hinduism in the State, a caste system was introduced in the Meitei society. During the reign of Pamheiba, Hinduism was forced upon the people as the state religion. Anyone who did not accept the new religion was considered unclean and out caste. They were sometimes hanged or chased away from the land. The Lois and the Yaithibis are two of the people groups who did not accept Hinduism. Today they are considered lower or out caste people in the Meitei society.

On the other hand, those who embrace Hinduism are told that they are holier than the rest of the people, including the tribals. They have stopped eating any type of meat, stopped drinking rice beer, stopped rearing pigs, and even stopped burial of dead bodies, and started cremating their dead. According to Singh, he (Garibniwaz) was the first Manipuri king to introduce the practice of burning the dead bodies according to the chronicle. And the bone gathering ceremony was also introduced after some days. On 20th February-March, Sunday, 1724, Garibniwaz had the ceremony of burning the bones of his forefathers with great éclat on the bank of the Ningthi River. (Singh 1980, 125. within bracket added).

Singh writes, they (Hindu gurus) also married Meetei’s girls. Pamheiba and his Guru Santidash substituted Meeties script by Bengali script and changed the original or personal name of Meetei into a Hindu’s name (e.g. the Meetei name of ‘Pamheiba’ was changed into a Hindu name ‘Garibniwaz’ and ‘Kangleipak’ into ‘Manipur’ etc). Morever, his (Pamheiba) scholars were advised forcefully to write many ‘Sanggai Phamang Puyas’ (ie Mix and wrong Puyas). Those new Puyas were intercourse by Hindu’s literatures, ideas, philosophy, history, culture and religion. …And his Mayang Gurus forcibly offered to drink their KHONGBI MACHUM (the water after sinking their big toe) to Meeteis in the name of purification and conversion into Hinduism. Till now, the descendants of some Meeteis who are following Hindu customs are consuming CHORONAMITRA of the GURU who is baptising at the event of ‘LAIMING LOUBA’ (baptism). (Singh 2004, The Sangai Express, the spelling mistakes are from original script)

With the introduction of Hinduism as superior religion to the original Meitei religion, the Meitei Mayek (Script) was also burnt and replaced by Bengali script (Singh 1980, 130). Singh continues to say that the king was against the use of the Meitei script, songs and prayers. It is believed that many of the history of the people were re-written by the Bengali Brahmins. This is the reason why the accuracy of the history of the Meiteis, especially their Aryan origin, is questioned by modern scholars.

Religious Life

When it comes to the religious life of the people, there has been a significant change. With the exception of small Umanglai temples in the woods, there were no permanent temples erected for the deities. The religious practices of the Meiteis were more of animism, which is the worship of natural objects. Today, there are many temples in the city including some huge Umanglai temples. The Meitei original religion worship emphasized more on household worship, but they have adopted the corporate worship.

The women folk go to the Govindajee Temple everyday for worship. All Hindu religious festivals and rituals are followed by the Meiteis along with the traditional rituals and festivals. According to Kumar, under the policy of King Pamheiba, “the social, cultural and religious life of the Meitei was drastically transformed” (Kumar 2001, 37). He continues to say that several abodes of traditional deities were destroyed, including nine Umanglai whose images were buried; seven deities were destroyed (Singh 1980, 129-130). The Meitei festivals were changed or renamed after Hindu festivals. Kumar writes, “New names of the Meitei festivals were given Hindu names. For example, Heikru Hitongba festival was renamed as Jal Jatra; Ayang Yoiren Iruppa was changed into an annual ‘Snan’ at Lilong Sahoupat. The Waira Tenkap festival was replaced by a Kirtan of Lord Rama. The festival of Poirei Apanba was changed to Loipan festival. …The Wakambung Chingnu Nongombi was substituted by Dasana Kwatanba of Burga Puja or Dusserah.” (Kumar 2001, 38).


Scholars such as Iboongohal Singh argue that Manipur was part of India from ancient times. But it is found that Manipur was never part of India in ancient times. She was an independent nation ruled by kings at different times. Some even argue that she is the Manipur found in Mahabharata, where Babhruvahana, the son of Arjuna, ruled. However, from the literature available, the name Manipur was not the name of the present Manipur State in ancient times. This name was given when the State was Hindunised during the reign of Pamheiba.

When it comes to the origin of the Meiteis, scholars differ in their views. Some advocate that they are Aryan in origin, whereas others see them as Mongoloids, and many scholars agree that the Meitei people have no racial purity. Konghar has stated that it is “more accurate to say that the Meitei people have no racial purity, but they are a mixture of both Indo-Aryan and Mongoloid blood” (Konghar 1996, 36). However, from the arguments brought by different scholars, based on their appearance, physical stature, and linguistic structure, it is beyond doubt that the native Meiteis were Mongoloids, and not Aryans. In the words of Singh,

Meiteis are generally classified as a pro-Mongoloid group of people. While Meiteis without a doubt are mongoloid in origin, in the modern global view, Meiteis are seen as Aryan descendants because of wearing the Aryan mask (‘SINGH’ and ‘DEVI’) (Singh 2004).

Regarding the socio-cultural practices, though Meiteis have their own rich culture, they are amalgamated with the Hindu culture. The caste system has been introduced in the society, and the tribals are considered unclean by the Meiteis. The daily bath ritual gives them a “holier than thou” attitude to the Meiteis.

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.


*The article is written by Dr J Rimai.

(Courtesy: The Sangai Express)

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2 Responses to " Origin Of The Meiteis "

  1. kamaljit says:

    Many references are cited here but none of them is given in any standard format of referencing. Please look into this carefully in future, because for layman like me, I’d like to have a look at those references too, to understand the very core of this topic, which is very important to know the origin of our community.

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