History of Sanatan Dharm in Manipur & the Meiteis’ Resistance to Christianity

In several states of India, there is a custom of engaging the newly married couple in several games as a part of the post-wedding rituals in a traditional wedding ceremony. In Assam, one such game is called Aanguthi-Khela in which the wedding rings of both the bride and the groom are hidden in a huge vessel filled with raw, uncooked rice. The newly-weds are supposed to search for one another’s rings in the rice vessel while the elderly ladies add to the atmosphere their own aura of merriment by singing numerous songs called Biya-Naam. These songs are sung in enthusiastic praise of the virtues of marriage, childbirth, and growing old together. The saying goes so that whoever is able to find the ring in the first place, will be definitely going to have an upper hand in the marriage.

A friend from Rewari, Haryana, recounted a similar tale to me during one of our conversations at a friend’s wedding ceremony in Delhi. They have a somewhat similar ritual, the only difference being that in place of rice, the rings are dipped in a vessel of milk or ghee. The womenfolk gather around to shower praises on the couple through different songs popular in the region. The striking similarity of this ritual and several others as practised in a north Indian state to that of a border state in northeast India bears ample testimony of the idea of oneness that the Indian cultural civilisation has nourished within itself since time immemorial.

The wedding songs sung by women in both the regions are reflective of a common pan-Indian way of life that binds all the different and disparate cultures and societies of Bharatvarsha into one single entity. They are generally passed on orally by women from one generation to another and hence are a repository of the rich cultural handover.

The Hindu festive season begins after the end of the 16-day period of shradh-paksha/pitr-paksha, immediately after the end of Ganeshotsav on the full moon day of purnima shradh and concludes on the new moon day called sarvapitru amavasya. It not only corresponds to the changing cycle of seasons but also connects different geographical regions of India from the north to the south and from the west to the northeast on a common cultural plane. Since there is no single codified book, text, scripture, idea or tenet that defines who is a Hindu or what the Hindu way of life is, each region of Bharatvarsha defines a Hindu in its own way.

Although much of North-East India has served in what seems to be a perfect destination for the Church, yet there are sections of people here who have still been able to fiercely hold on to their own culture and traditions, and most importantly, their faiths and belief systems. Besides Assam, the state of Manipur and particularly the lush-green Imphal Valley, stands out as an apt example of the same. United by a common thread of civilisational oneness, the diverse festivals celebrated by the people of Northeast India showcase the rich cultural and societal values of the people here at its optimum best.

Bordering the southeast Asian nation of Myanmar in the northeast, Nagaland in the north, Mizoram in the southwest, and Cachar district of Assam in the west, Manipur represents a rich mosaic of traditions and unique cultural patterns. Manipuri handlooms and handicrafts such as bedsheets and bedcovers, embroidered textiles, colourful shawls, curtains and table mats made of water reed, cane and bamboo crafts, wood carving, moirangphee sarees, skirts and gowns, souvenirs, etc. are famous world over for their unique craftsmanship and remarkable ingenuity, vibrant colours and utility.

The ancient kingdom of Manipur, a neighbour and ally of the Shan kingdom of Upper Burma called Pong, was formed as a result of the amalgamation of several independent principalities under the leadership of Nongda Lairen Pakhangba (33-154 A.D.), who belonged to the Ningthouja salai (clan). Pandit N. Khelchandra Singha has argued that the word ‘Meitei’ which eventually came to be used to refer to the people of the Manipur Valley, was originally applied only for the Ningthoujas. It was after the formation of the confederacy of the salais and its subjugation by the Ningthoujas that the word ‘Meitei’ or ‘Meetei’ became the common nomenclature for all the people inhabiting the Manipur Valley.

Commonly known to the outside world as Meitei Leipak and Poireinamthak Saron Pung, Manipur inevitably formed an important link, culturally and otherwise, between India on the one hand and Southeast Asia on the other. It was referred to as Kathe by the Burmese, Mekhali by the Ahoms, Kangleipak, Sanaleibak, or Meitrabak in a few ancient texts such as ‘Panthoibi Khongul,’ ‘Pombi Luwaoba,’ etc. written by Meitei scholars. With the gradual popularity of Vaishnavism in the valley during the reign of King Pamheiba, Kangleipak soon came to be known as Manipur, having its roots in Sanksrit language (Mani meaning jewel and pur meaning land).

There is a popular Vedic belief that the valley of Manipur was once submerged deep under water. It was only when Bhagwan Shiv had pierced the hill Chingnunghuk with his trishul, a hole was created which helped to drain the water out and the valley finally became habitable. As a mark of celebration of the happy event, Shiv together with a host of other devi-s and devta-s performed a dance which is believed to have been the Lai Haraoba dance form still popular in Manipur. Overwhelmed at the beauty of this land and Bhagwan Shiv’s dance, Bhagwan Vishnu sprinkled it with precious, sparkling gems; hence, the name Manipur.

The worship of Vishnu in the form of a serpent or python identified as Pakhangba in the Meitei pantheon has thus been in vogue among the people of Manipur since antiquity. In fact, the name of the district Bishenpur or Bishnupur, hailed as the cultural and religious capital of Manipur, has been derived from Bisnu/Vishnu. The Sakta cult of Ma Durga is also widely prevalent in Manipur among different sections of the Meiteis. The travelogues of the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Huien Tsang in the 7th century A.D. are also dotted with several references of Manipur in the context of the kingdom of Kamarupa.

In the 15th century, Gaudiya Vaishnavism of Sri Chaitanya became immensely popular in Manipur as a result of the efforts of King Bhagyachandra who, along with his daughter Bimbavati Devi, visited Nabadweep and established a temple here dedicated to Govinda. This strand of Bengal’s Gaudiya Vaishnavism continues to influence the cultural life of the people of Manipur even today, the primary examples being the traditions of nat sankirtan, manohar sai, and Krishna ras leela.

Geographically speaking, Manipur is nestled in the grace and grandeur of nature with rugged hills on all the sides and a fertile saucer-shaped valley (Kongba) in the centre that constitutes a mere 8% of the land area of the state. It was after the Treaty of Yandaboo (1826) that erstwhile kingdom of Manipur, then ruled by Raja Jai Singha, was annexed into the British empire. It formally came under the British rule as a princely state in the year 1891. Imphal was occupied by the Japanese forces during World War II. After India attained Independence from the British Raj in 1947, Manipur became a Union Territory and it subsequently achieved full-fledged statehood on January 21, 1972. It is one of the least populated states of India and a land where a large section of its people have staunchly resisted all attempts of Christian proselytisation.

The three most important ethnic groups inhabiting present-day Manipur include the valley-based Hindu Meiteis which are the most dominant, numerically; the hill-based, predominantly Christian Naga communities such as Kabui, Tangkhul, Khoirao, Maring, etc.; and, the Kukis which are relatively smaller in number, e.g. Thadou, Hmar, Vaiphei, Gangte, Simte, Zou, etc. Almost all groups of the Nagas and the Kukis in Manipur are Christians. The increasing popularity of Christianity in Manipur can be gauged from the fact that it is today the second fastest-growing religion in the state, accounting for about 35% of the total population, as per the census data of 2011. Marwaris, Bengalis, Biharis, and Punjabis are some of the other communities residing in different areas across Manipur.

The Meiteis (derived from mei meaning man, and tei meaning the worshippers of Sanamahi, believed to be the Chief Creator of the Universe) are probably the only significant community in entire northeast outside Assam that has strongly resisted the aggressive evangelist missions of the Church. The valley being adequately safeguarded by the surrounding mountain ranges is still not easily accessible; hence, the Meiteis have been able to preserve their own distinct cultural traditions, art, music, and dance forms from appropriation by any foreign force. Agriculture and weaving are their primary occupations.

The Hindu Meities of Manipur worship the tulsi plant and revere Lainingthou Sanamahi (Sidaba Mapu or King of the Gods) as their chief protector and saviour even today. Being ancestor worshippers, they share much in common with the Tai-Ahom community of Upper Assam. The Buranjis (historical texts), especially the Tungkhungia Buranji, of the Ahoms are replete with several references of matrimonial alliances between the Ahoms and the Meiteis.

The Meiteis are linguistically close to the Burmese, Kachins, Singphos, and Bodos. Their language Meiteilon or Maitai (also known as Manipuri), is the lingua franca of the state, and was recognised as one of the national languages of India under the 8th Schedule of the Constitution in the year 1992. Just like most other states of northeast India, Manipur is undoubtedly a hill state; but, it’s picturesque valley has served as the cradle of a rich Sanatan heritage of not only the Meiteis but that of the hill-dwellers too.

Acknowledgement: A special note of thanks to my team members, Diana and Babeena, for taking me to the archives and helping me collect research materials on the subject.

(The author is a PhD, Researcher on the Sanatan Hindu past of Poorvottar Bharat, Writer & Columnist).

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