A Short Introduction to The Culture Of Manipur

A Short Introduction to The Culture Of Manipur

This is a transcript of a talk I gave at The Nehru Centre in London at the request of Tara Douglas. She is a British animator who was introduced to tribal culture in India through a Scottish cultural animation project – Adivasi Arts Trust West Highlands, to animate stories from Indian tribal cultures. Interestingly, she was born at Almora near Nainital, a hill station in the Kumaon Hills in India and she speaks fluent Hindi.


Ladies and Gentlemen

My name is Irengbam Mohendra Singh. The first part of my name is ethnic Manipuri, the other two are Hindu.

I am a Manipuri Meitei who is not classified as a tribal but an ethnic minority. From time immemorial, Meiteis were synonymous with Manipuris. For the purpose of this talk I will use Manipuri instead of Meitei.

There is now sea change in the Sanskritisation of Manipuri names. The new generation of Manipuris have removed the surname Singh for male and Devi for female, as these surnames do not suit their Mongoloid looks. These Indian surnames confuse people of Manipuri identity. They feel that they are not regarded as Indians by Indians in India and these surnames are a source of mockery.

I am a doctor by profession, but I write books and articles as a hobby. I am a regular Sunday columnist of a popular daily newspaper in Manipur, called The Sangai Express. I also write articles for Kangla online. That is where Tara found me.

I am also a scientist in that I believe in science rather than in creation or in an intelligent design. I am very grateful to Tara for asking me to give a talk about Manipuri culture.

I come from Manipur – a small state in the northeast of India with a current population of 27 lakhs (2.7 millions). Its name was Meitei Leibak (Land of the Meiteis) before it changed to Manipur (Land of the gems) in the early part of the 18th century when the Meitei king at that time, and most of the Meiteis, were converted to Hinduism. Those who refused to be converted were exiled to remote villages and they still exist as ‘Scheduled caste’ people.

Apart from the majority Meiteis, there are 36 tribal communities in Manipur. A tribal is called Adivasi in the Indian Constitution (Article 336) and Tara’s Adivasi Arts Trust is for their benefit. Adivasi (Adi-vasi) in Hindi means earliest inhabitants or indigenous people. First, I will show you some slides of how various tribes of Manipuris look and dress over three generations and who the Manipuris are before I talk about their culture.

There are 8 states in the Northeast of India, which are inhabited by Mongoloid-looking tribal peoples like me. Together they form the Northeast of India. Their population of 39 millions makes up 3.8% of the total population of India.

One of the problems of the Northeast Indians is that north and south Indians do not know that there are Mongoloid-looking Northeast Indians. The people in the Northeast are still foreigners to the rest of the Indians. This is not really their fault. It is because of a lack of exposure of these Mongoloid people of the Northeast to the rest of India.  

Historically, there were no Mongoloid ‘Northeast Indians’ during the British Raj. Pre-historically, they were Kiratas mentioned in the Mahabharata, which the Sanskrit lexicon describes as pale-looking mountain people who eat any meat and drink alcohol at any time.

For those who are not familiar with the Kiratas it may be noted that the famous Hinduised kiratas are Shiv, the south Indian god; Gautam Buddha from Nepal; and Valmiki from UP who wrote the Ramayana.

The Northeast region was never part of British India except for Assam, which then included the present Meghalaya and Shillong as its capital.

Manipur was loosely administered by the British and was not fully integrated into India. After Indian Independence in 1947, Manipur was merged into India in 1949. Then, the successive Indian Governments completely ignored the peculiarities of the Mongoloid people of Manipur.

Manipuris remain cloistered by the mountain ranges and isolated as they were during the British time, with no economic development plans and with an annual budget of a few crores or millions of rupees, just enough to run the government machinery. Lack of economic advancement, cultural assimilation and physical recognition degenerated into a cult of violence known as insurgencies.

To make matters worse, Manipur has been declared a ‘Prohibited area’ barring foreigners from visiting it and there have been complete media blackouts, thus restricting its exposure further to the rest of India. Tara is doing a good job by giving some exposure to these poor Northeast Indians.

After the creation of Bangladesh, the Northeast is precariously connected to the rest of India by only the 8.6 mile-wide (14km) Siliguri corridor in West Bengal. The Northeast has less than 1% of its borders with India.

When the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army came down in 1962 from Tibet through the Nathu La pass in Sikkim – up to a point just above the strip, we were very frightened until their unilateral withdrawal. We thought we might have become Chinese nationals. Pundit Nehru in his radio broadcast, almost said ‘good-bye to the Northeast’.

These were many praise-words for Manipur in the old days. In the colonial period, Manipur was described by St.Clair Grimwood who was the wife of the Political Agent of Manipur (1891): “A pretty place more beautiful than many of the show places in the world”; Lord Irwin – the Viceroy of India (1931): “Switzerland of the East”; Charles J. Lyall – a scholar and one time Chief Commissioner of Assam (1908): “A singular oasis of comparative civilisation and organised society”. After Independence, Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru described it: “The jewel of India” in 1953.

Manipur, now a state in India, was previously a little country situated between India and Burma. It is only 60 miles (96 km) from the Burmese border, across the mountain ranges. During the Second World War, a motorable tarmac road was constructed by the British Army to bring troops from Burma to India.

Manipur was an independent, self-sufficient and self reliant country for over 2,000 years except during an interlude of British occupation from 1891–1947.

Manipuris defended themselves, and defeated all the adjacent kingdoms and tribes – Burma, Assam, Nagaland, Tripura, Cachar, Mizoram and the Chinese invaders. At one time, one thousand Chinese soldiers were captured and settled in a village called Kameng in Manipur.

Manipur was under the British Raj for only 56 years from 1891, while India including every bit outside of Manipur including the present Nagaland, was under British rule for varying periods lasting up to 200 years.

This was because the British found Manipuris very helpful in defending British India (Assam) against the Burmese. Unfortunately, in-fighting and palace intrigue between the princes of Manipur brought the British to rule over Manipur.

The capital of Manipur is Imphal city. To give you a picture of what Imphal was like I am going to quote the first line from a book called IMPHAL (1962), by Lt General Sir Geoffrey Evans: “The year is 1944. The place, Imphal, capital of Manipur, a remote and inaccessible State on the north-east frontier of India; a beauty spot and the last place on earth likely to suffer the horrors of the modern war.

But here was fought the most fiercely contested battle of Burma campaign, the battle which, if for no other reason, will go down in history as the greatest military disaster ever suffered by the Japanese on land. And yet, if the Japanese had succeeded and had invaded India, no one can say what might have happened.”

From Imphal the Japanese Imperial Army, or what was left of it, had to walk back through the jungles of Burma and then by boat down the Chindwin River. Around Imphal 80,000 Japanese soldiers and 17,000 Allied troops lay dead.

Manipur has the majority Meiteis (60%) in the Imphal plain (10% of the total area) and 36 other tribes (40%) in the surrounding hills (90% of the total area). That is, 16 lakhs (1.6 million) are Meiteis and 11 lakhs (1.1 million) are tribals.  

Manipur is now Hell on Earth with 30 insurgent groups both in the hills and the plain, and because of this the Indian Government deploys a large number of military and paramilitary forces in Manipur. The last time I counted there were 21 soldiers for every Manipuri.

Manipur is in political turmoil. The tribal Nagas in the 4 hill districts of Manipur want to join Nagaland and the Kuki tribe in the 5th district wants an autonomous homeland, while the Meitei insurgents want an independent Manipur consisting of both the hills and the plain. So the Meiteis and Nagas are at loggerheads with opposite political agendas.

The culture of Manipur is sadly the culture of the majority Meiteis from ancient times by overshadowing traditional cultures of the other tribes. It is similar to the British culture which is of the majority English and the Burmese culture that is of the majority Burman culture.

Manipuri culture is a blend of the indigenous Meitei culture and Indian culture. Besides, there are 36 different colourful tribal cultures along with their distinctive costumes. Most of these tribal people have embraced Christianity. Thus they also have a mixture of indigenous and Christian cultures.

Manipuri culture is very rich and exotic, and Hinduism taught those high moral values and cleanliness. They eat fish but not meat. Alcohol is a taboo. Nobody eats lunch or cooks a meal without first having a bath and wearing freshly washed clothes.  There are more festive public holidays in Manipur than anywhere else in the world, altogether totalling 41 days in a year.      

Manipuri women are tougher than men. They often lead men in political agitations. There were two such agitations during British rule, known as Female Agitation 1 & 2 that nearly brought the British Administration down.

In modernity, in 2004, 40 women stripped naked and protested at the gate of an Indian Army cantonment, because of the brutal rape and killing of a 32 year-old woman called Manorama by Indian Security Forces.

Currently, one 40-year-old woman Sharmila has been fasting for 12 years, and is being kept alive by force-feeding in an Imphal hospital. She has been fasting to repeal a nasty law called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which allows army personnel to enter anybody’s home without a warrant, search and arrest, and shoot suspected insurgents with no questions asked afterwards.

The Manipuri language is one on its own. It is not Tibeto-Burman unlike the other languages of the tribal peoples of the Northeast except that of the Khasis of Meghalaya, who speak an Austro-Asiatic language. It is one of the 22 recognised Indian languages of the 8th Schedule of the Indian Constitution.

Manipuris had a unique culture in that they loved to show their bravery by physical force. They believed themselves to be courageous though nobody ever thought so.

They were peasants in peacetime and soldiers at times of war. Everyone had three or four ponies and they formed a fearsome cavalry for battles and were good polo players during peace time.

Their courage can be illustrated by their last stand against the mighty British troops in what is now commemorated every year as the Khongjom Battle Day of 1891. At the battle which the Manipuris lost to the British, 400 Manipuris armed with swords and a few with Martini and Snider rifles, stood inside an earth-work enclosure against 1,800 British, Indian and Gurkha soldiers armed with superior weapons, until almost every one of them was killed or wounded.    

Because of their fighting tradition they have produced many officers in the Indian Army and Air Force. Currently, there is 1 major general, 2 brigadiers and many colonels. Two of my nephews are colonels. Another nephew who was a pilot – a Wing Commander died during the Kargil War in 2006. There are a handful of women pilots. It is a language that speaks loudly of their culture, considering that we are only 1.6 million while India’s population is 1.2 billion.

Manipuris love sports. They play many indigenous sports as well other world sports. Manipur is the origin of polo as is now played worldwide. A few Manipuris will represent India in the coming 2012 London World Olympics.  

Manipuris are very artistic. Manipuri dance is famous all over the world. Besides, there are colourful tribal dances, distinctive with each tribe in their vibrant dresses which are a treat to watch. Our Manipuri tribal peoples have very proud independent cultures, some of which Tara has been trying to bring to the notice of the world at large and the United Kingdom in particular.

Website: drimsingh.com
Image Credit: wildfilmsindia.com

Dr IM Singh

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