TODAY -

Origin of the Meiteis
- Part 2 -

* Dr J Rimai



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 people group 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 Naga[6] 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)


Lai Lam-thokpa during Lai Haraoba at Khunthokhanbi, D.M.College campus on May 05, 2009.
Picture Courtesy - Gnet Cyber Cafe, Khoyathong Road
Browse Photo Gallery on Lai Haraoba here



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 everyday, 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 bow down everyday before the lairu and keep 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 Phun-gga barefoot. When a mother enters in the morning for preparation of food, she enters only after bathing.

Apokpa 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.

Umanglais

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.



References:

  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.


To be continued ...




* Dr J Rimai wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on April 23, 2011.


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