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E-Pao! Manipur - Manipuri Muslims: Socially speaking

Manipuri Muslims: Socially speaking

By: Farooque Ahmed Makakmayum *


The term "Pangal" is derived from "Pang" by adding the suffix "al" as early Pang ethnic (tribal) group was the first to embrace Islam. Then the Naophangba period "Musalman" saint (scho-lar) was henceforth recognized as "Pangal Musal-man guru" in subsequent puya literature handed down through generations of Meitei tradition of history preservation.

Since the Muslim preacher ('Musalman' is Persian terminology for 'Muslim') lived among the Pangs, he was addressed as "Pangal Musalman guru". Pang ethic group is mentioned in the Poireiton Khunthok puya too as a Tai group.

Similarly Muslims gave the name "Bengal" (Bangal) by adding the Arabic suffix "al" to the place called "Bang" (Dr. Sushila Mandal: 1970: 1; Ain-I-Akbari, trans. by Jarrett, vol. 3: 120, 141). The Muslim saint was Amir Hamza who probably reached China and went back to Arabia where he died shortly after the battle of Uhud in 625 AD (The Sangai Express, 18 May 2006).

Some other accounts noted that Saad bin Waqqas, another uncle of Prophet was the one who went to China but Abul Fazl Ezzati himself believes that Waqqas did not go beyond Persia (Ezzati: 1994: 331). So we are left to wonder who was that uncle of the Prophet Muhammad who, as George Watt 1892 wrote, was an immigrant to China. It shows that the Prophet of Islam had high opinion about Chinese civilization and their tradition of education.

While in Manipur, at that time Meiteis seemed to live on highlands (hills) and worshipped their deity at Koubru Hill as much of the valley region was waterlogged. Overall population was small, hill-slop cultivation and shifting cultivation was the main subsistence of agricultural practice; it was pre-feudal Chieftainship mode of social structure. The few Pangals (Musalmans) too followed this Chieftainship pattern of way of life.

The London School of Oriental and African Studies made available a document in 1983 (also translated in the 'preface' of the Pangal Thorakpa puya, by R.K. Sanahal Singh, 1985/89: viii-xv), which made studies on the process of the formation of the various clans about 50 in number.

The document noted that the Palace pandits (Meitei scholars) are of the record that Manipuri Muslim clan formation initiated with what is named as the "Aribam sagei" since the period of king Naophangba. Hence he must have reigned around 590- 680 AD.

This Pangal population as found in 930 AD was adept in preparing salt from dug-wells since their Muslim coreligionists used to collect salt from the Bengal sea beach according to B. Kulachandra Sharma (1997: 62). Muslim population in 1859 AD and 1873 AD is estimated to be 3461 and 4500 persons respectively (see also R. Brown: 1873: 13-15).

The first ever Manipur Census in 1881 put the total Muslim population to be 4881 persons. B.C. Allen found Pangal (Muslim) population to be 10,383 in number making up 4% of the total state population in the year 1905 (Allen: 1905:61, 135).

We have a range of sources on the accounts of the activities of the pre-16th century Muslims, but their population was small and insignificant, and when, at later period, histories emerged about them, they were all described as "Ariba Musalmans", though they had different ethnic make-ups as local Pang converts, Bengalis, soldier groups, ethnic Pashas and Pathans who were foreign elements as Turko-Afghans, Mughals, Black Abyssinians, and then low caste converts as well who were all later on collectively called "Pangals" since most of them came from Bengal side; one theory is that "Pangal" is a corrupted word of "Bangal", which is less likely because Hindu Brahmans (Meiteis) now Bamons who came from Bengal are not called Pangals.

Abdur Rahman (1981) in a research paper wrote that many Muslims or Mongoloid Muslims also came from China through upper Burma where Muslims are called Panshi (R.K. Sanahal: 1989: ii). These Muslims came from Yunnan between 1215-94 when the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan, who was the ablest grandson of Chingis Khan, ruled China covering Yunnan and Kublai Khan ravaged Upper Burma in a series of expeditions that forced many Shan, Tai and Chin-Kuki groups to flee to northeast India.

Kublai Khan made Nasiruddin, a Muslim the Governor of Yunnan (Kulachandra: 1997: 74) and because of the silk route across Manipur, trading activity along the Manipur-Yunnan (China) route was active. In other provinces too, wrote Marco Polo, these Mongol Khans (yet not Muslims) put Muslims as Governors.

"In the face of native (Chinese) hostility, the Mongols in China as elsewhere employed many foreigners, particularly Moslems from Central and Western Asia, in a sort of international Civil service" (Edwin O. Reischauer & John K. Fairbank: 1960:276). Earlier "the first ambassadors from the Islamic Caliphate came to China in 713" (P. 236).

The silk route across Manipur leading to Yunnan was stopped since c. 1820 AD. "The Panthay (Muslims) of Burma are chiefly known as muleteers (sturdy horse-riders) on the trade routes. They are excellent caravan drivers, carrying goods as far as Rangoon and Moulmein. They are mostly engaged in trade and cultivate only just enough to supply their immediate needs" (Scott and Hardiman: 1900:606-13).

Probably these same people were called Panshi in China and Pasha in Manipur as found in Ningthourel Lambuba. Once in Manipur the only local economy that made them possible their affairs of economy was cultivation, fishing and farming because of the changing nature of riverine paths and flood; they made a sedentary mode of livelihood and economy.

(Pemberton: 1835:33). Ningthourel Lambuba described that two Pasha and one Pangal village flourished during the reign of king Irengba who reigned between 984-1074 A.D (O. Bhogeswor, 1967: 74, 94). Living at Khuga valley at that time, these Pangals introduced the practice of "rice broad-cast & transplantation" procedure in Manipur (Bhogeswor Moirang Ningthourel Lambuba, vol.2, 1988:47) as they did in frontier Bengal where the Muslim rulers and pirs encouraged clearing forest for human inhabitation and agriculture (Richard M. Eaton: 1997:207).

At this time, Muslim ethnic composition was diverse; they became a close-knit society because of the egalitarian and congregational nature of Islam; yet community authority was feudalistic. Tona Malik was the Qazi-ul-Quzat and Muhammad Sani was the Qazi in 1606 (Sanahal: v)

As regards the Prince Shuja ordeal in Manipur, Sir Jadunath Sarkar (1973:378) informs us while Shuja was in Arakan en route to Tripura: "The European traders who had free access to Aracan were likely to be best informed and I believe the truth lies in what they have recorded of Shuja's fate".

Historian Niccolai Manucci from Venice who served in Mughal army for a time and came to Bengal in 1660s wrote about Shuja's Dacca-Arakan-Tripura route: "The date of flight was June 5, and arrived in Arakan on August 26, 1660. They (Dutch Factory Register) record that on Feb 6, 1661 after the Prince's household had been surrounded, he set fire to it and escaped with his family and 300 followers but his eldest and youngest sons were captured. With his middle son, he made for Tipperah (May 16).

The news of Shuja's was sent to Mir Jumlah and he forwarded it to Aurangzeb (Oct. 18)" (Niccolai Manucci, Storia do Mogor or Mogul India, 1965 reprint, pp. 356-7). Then Aurangzeb wrote a letter to Tripura king that read: "I have definite knowledge that… Shuja is hiding in your kingdom… I hope you will capture him and take care to send him under the surveillance of your army officers and thereby oblige me, so that the age-old friendship may continue unabated" (N.R. Roy Choudhury: Tripura Through the Ages: 1983: 28).

Shuja immediately sensed the situation and fled to Manipur. Naorem Sanjaoba summed up: "We learn from the Persian historians that Prince Shuja, the son of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan was the governor of Bengal. He was defeated by Mir Jumla (Mughal governor of Bengal) in a battle and he fled from his capital Dacca to the Mogali (Manipuri) country. We also learn from Niccolai Manucci…." (Naorem Sanjaoba, Manipur - Past & Present, vol.1, (ed.), Delhi: 1988: 44).

The rest is history, which only God knows. Yet we have aclue that the enigmatic cave called Shujalok at Heingang (Kairang) at the east of Imphal is generally to be the shelter and later the own graveyard of Prince Shuja that is adjacent to a grave of one Iphammayum elder man called Munawar Khan according to M.A. Janab Khan (Manipuri Muslims: 1972: back flap-page).

The Mughals who later came to be called Makak-mayum (B. Kulachandra: 1997:95) came by 1612 only through Cachar. "Manipuri Muslims of Cachar had a glorious past. They got settled in Cachar during Islam Khan's (Nawab of Bengal) invasion of Cachari kingdom during the reign of Yasonarayan.

They were the horsemen and veterinary doctors to look after the horses of the armed forces…The Cachari rulers welcomed them and even granted them lands…In the rural Cachar they had the reputation of medical men…There is a Yumnak sagei (clan) and 'Piba' among the Manipuri Muslims…There is a group of Manipuri Muslims who are called Funga nai, i.e., household slaves who embraced Islam…The position of the women in the Manipuri Muslim society has always been lagging behind the other communities…There was no Purdah system in Manipur at the end of 19th century" (Suhas Chatterjee: 2000-79-81).

"They were divided into Siead, pathan, Seikh and other mixed communities according to the English writers" (P. 128).

"The Mangol Shanglen that existed earlier was later converted into an institution entitled as Mughal Shanglen for the Muslims of Manipur after the immigration of a few Mughal princes during the reign of King Paikhomba" (N. Birachandra: 1984:89).

This is described as: "In 1678 AD (the 6th of Inga, 1601 Saka on Friday), two Makak princes from Makak (Mughalpur) named Sunarful and Lakhiayrful, traveler Millia Shaikh, saint Fulleicha Shantullah Shaikh with their attendants and slaves all numbering 37 persons arrived in Manipur on elephants in pomp and grandeur during Paikhomaba's reign (1666-97) [Sanahal: 1989:v]. "The brothers Sunarful and Lakhiaful became the ancestral founders of Makakmayum Angouba and Makak-mayum Amuba respectively (B. Kulachandra: 1997: 95) as they brought two kinds of flowers from Makak (Plumbaginaeae/Plumbago Indica)[Janab: 1972: 69].

That was the time as Suhas Chatterjee (2000: 80) observed: "There is no distinction of high and low among the Sagei of Manipuri Muslims and they can marry from any Sagei. But intermarriage of the same clan is not common to the Manipuri Muslims and probably it may be the customs of the Meiteis… The marriage system of Manipuri Muslims is a combination of Islamic and the Meitei customs".

R. Brown (Statistical Account of Manipur: 1873: 15) gives us a brief: "Musalman or Meitei Pangal - There is considerable population of Musalman, descendants of settlers from Bengal for the most part; they number about 900 families or 4,500 men, women, and children. They chiefly reside to the east of the capital. The Manipuris say that from great antiquity Musalmans have formed part of the population of the valley as well as Hindus.

The Musalman populations appears, before the devastation of the country by the Burmese, to have attained a very considerable amount; but, as was the case with all the other sections of the Manipur community, the greater portion of it was carried into captivity by these ruthless invaders, and the present Musalmans are the descendants of the few that then escaped being captured.

The Musalman population has undoubtedly arisen almost entirely from emigrant Bengalis, chiefly reside from the districts of Silhet and Kachar, who have formed connections with the women of the country and settled in the valley. All the Musalmans have a decidedly Bengali cast of countenance. They chiefly follow the trades of gardening, turning, carpentry, pottery, & c.; numbers of them also serve as sepoys, and nearly all the buglers and drummers attached to the Raja's army are Musalmans.

They have over them a kazi, who is appointed by the raja. They have no Masjid, and are, for the most part, very ignorant of the religion they profess. Their women conform to the customs of the country as regards non-seclusion. They have the reputation of being an honest, hard-working class, and perform lallup as Manipuris".

Actually Manipuri Muslim mosques don't have domes and are built like simple homes which are not indistinguishable from each other to outsiders; hence Mr. R. Brown in 1873 could not distinguish mosques. A 'Kazi', as he mentions, means a 'learned religious man' and is supposed to have a mosque. Anyway he made a fairly good observation.


Farooque Ahmed Makakmayum wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on June 02nd, 2006

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