Dialogue  January-March, 2011, Volume 12 No. 3

Feudalism in Pre-Colonial Manipur

Gangmumei Kamei

The evolution of a state formation passed through several stages of which feudalism was an important stage. It is proposed to examine the feudal elements or tendencies in the polity of pre-colonial Manipur, based on the historical data of nineteenth century. This paper will examine the characteristics of European feudalism and that of the feudalism in India. We will examine, whether there was feudalism in the history of Manipur. It is proposed to explain the aspects of European Feudalism, Feudalism in India and that in Manipur?

European Feudalism
        According to Marc Bloch (Feudal Society 1939: 1961) the term feudalism comes from the French ‘Feodalite’ (Latin Feodum). It was first used in 1727 by a French scholar named Comte de Boulanviliers in his “Gouvermant Feodal and Feodalite”. It was popularized by an Enlightenment writer Montesquieu by his use of “Lois Feodalis” to describe the ancient regime in France. The leaders of the French Revolution were opposed to the feudal regime; and the National Assembly of Revolutionary France abolished the Feudal system on 11
th August, 1789. As it is well known that Karl Marx in his Communist Manifesto (1848) and subsequent writings examined the place of feudalism as a stage of socio-economic formation in Europe. The Marxist writings examine this phenomenon both in theory and practice. Feudalism is located at the third stage of the social, political and economic formulation of European history: Primitive communism, slavery based society, feudalism, capitalism and socialism.
        Marc Bloch says Feudalism is a type of society and a stage in the social, economic and political development. So it is both a type and a stage of society. Historically, Feudalism as a social and political system originated in the western Europe in the middle age. As a category of economic system it preceded the growth of capitalism in Europe. It was basically a system of land tenure, and the rights and privileges attached to it. Under the feudal land tenure, the land belonged to the king. The land grants were given by the monarch to social and political classes: namely, the nobility, clergy, knights, and peasantry including the serfs. The feudal social system was based on the bond of personal relationship amongst the different groups of the feudal hierarchy. But there was the social and political predominance of the land holding aristocracy and the resultant exploitation of the small and weak by the powerful. In the feudal political system, the power of the state was parcellized among groups of the feudal hierarchy; it was weakened and paralyzed by the privileges of the aristocracy.
        To the Marxists, feudalism is a pre-capitalist mode of production making it essentially an economic system with social and political ramifications. Feudalism is essentially a European system. But it has been found that institutions similar to it exist among the non-European societies. These are often isolated phenomenon in different frameworks or without inter relationship with the original feudal system. Such fragments of feudal institutions in these countries have been described as feudal tendencies peculiar to that particular country.                                   
        To Marc Bloch, European feudalism consisted of “A subject peasantry, a widespread use of service tenements instead of salary (fief), supremacy of the class of specialized warriors, ties of obedience and protection which bind man to man, within the warrior class, assume the distinctive called vassalage; fragmentation of the authority- leading inevitably to the disorder; and in the midst of all this, the survival of other forms of association, family and state, of which the latter during the second feudal age was to acquire renewed strength such then seem to be the fundamental features of European feudalism” (Feudal Society, p 446).

Feudalism in India
        It is well known that forms of feudalism existed in non European countries, the ancient Egypt, in Aztec society, Japan and Turkish empire. We proceed to analyze the feudalism in India. There is a volume of literature on the historiography of Indian feudalism mostly contributed by the Marxist historians. These are concerned with the exposition of the feudal system in the Medieval India, comparing the Indian feudalism with the European system, and outright rejection of the existence of feudalism in India. The main area of enquiry is the question whether there was feudalism in Indian history culminating in what is known as the Feudalism debate. An overview of the debate is presented by V.K. Thakur in his Historiography of Indian Feudalism towards a Model of Early Medieval Indian Economy (1989).
        Among the earlier historians who made investigations on the subject mention can be made of D.D. Kosambi who devoted to the existence of feudalism in Indian history. In his Introduction to the study of Indian History (1956), he propounded the concept of feudalism from above and feudalism from below and a comparison of Indian and European system. It was, however, R.S. Sharma, a well known historian of ancient India who made a full scale study of the subject in his Indian Feudalism (1965). This publication created a flutter of interest in feudalism among historians. B.N.S. Yadava in his Society and Culture in Northern India in the 12
th century (1973) made further analysis of Indian feudalism in the middle ages.
        However, there are scholars who strongly feel that feudalism did not exist in India. One of them is Irfan Habib, a doyen of medieval Indian historians who outrightly said that according to Karl Marx feudalism did not exist in the pre-colonial India; he also contributed several theoretical analyses on feudalism as a whole. Harbans Mukhia strongly questioned the existence of feudalism in medieval India in his lecture “Was there feudalism in Indian History?”, which was his Presidential address in Indian History Congress in 1979. Harbans Mukhia’s lecture was discussed world wide. It evoked positive responses from the Marxist intellectual world. This lecture and other papers were published in the form of a book edited by Harbans Mukhia himself entitled The Feudalism Debate (1999).
        Coming back to the Indian feudalism, I refer to Kosambi’s concept of feudalism from above and feudalism from below. According to Kosambi, feudalism from above means a  state wherein an emperor or a powerful king levied tributes on the subordinates who still in their own rights did what they liked within their own territories as long as they paid the paramount ruler. These subordinate rulers might even be tribal chiefs who once ruled the land by direct administration without the intermediary of a class which was in effect a land owning strata. This category of feudalism from above was found in the formation of most of the Indian states and kingdoms.
        Feudalism from below means the next stage where a class of land owners developed, within the village, between the state and peasantry. This class was subject to military service and hence claim a direct relationship with the state power. Taxes were collected by small intermediaries who passed on a fraction to the feudal lords or the monarch.
        Kosambi found some similar characteristics both in European and Indian feudalism like the low level of technology in which the instrument of production are simple and generally inexpensive, the act of production is largely individual in character. The division of labour is at a very primitive level of development. The production of immediate need of a household or a village community and not for a wider market existed in both systems. Political decentralization was common to both India and Europe. For example, according to Maurayan theory all land belongs to the king. And the tribal concept of land as a territory but not as a property was held in common by the tribe. This concept existed in both the systems. The holding of land by lords on some kind of service tenure found among the Rajputs whose chief profession was military service and the early Muslim states was found in European system also. R.S. Sharma describes the period between 4
th to 13th centuries as feudal period in Indian History. He traces the origin of feudalism in the ancient Indian practice of making land grants to the Brahmins. The result of land grants was the emergence of a class of land lords, living on the produce of the peasants. This was a feudal formation.

R.S. Sharma on the features of Indian Feudalism
        R.S. Sharma in his article, Features of Feudalism in Perspective in Social and Economic History in early India (1983: 1995) describes the features of the Feudal system in early India. The new socio-economic formation was by a sharp differentiation between the peasants and lands and can be regarded as Feudal. Sharma noted four main features of the Indian feudalism.
        “First, in a feudal society, there is a basic class of landlords who claim and collect rents from the peasants on the ground that they are the owners of the land. This class was created in India as a result of the land charters” like the European fiefs.
        Second, the feudal society is primarily based on a class of subject peasantry (like their European counterpart) who is in actual occupation of the land but are compelled to pay rents in cash, kind or labour to the landlords. This situation developed in the country as a consequence of land grants and partly through the power of the local officers”.
        “Third, the rents and labour services are collected by the landlords who claim the rents and services from the peasants on the basis of land charters granted to them by the monarch. Force is also used by the landlords for collecting the rents etc”.
        “Fourth, a feudal socio-economic formation originates and grows in a predominantly agricultural economy in which local needs are satisfied locally; and there is little scope for the market. In such a situation, salaries are not paid in cash but in kind. And all kinds of services such as religious, military, political and administrative etc. are remunerated through the grants of plots of land”.
        Sharma concludes, “As a result of continuous land grants, the four features of feudalism in Gupta time became prominent in the period. Socially, this development was accompanied by the proliferation of caste arranged in terms of hierarchy and impurity”.
        “Thus, the fiscal, military, administrative and religious services were linked to the land grants. The feudal formation created a sharp distinction between the landlords and the peasants, and reinforced the privileges of the princes and clergy by giving them considerable control over the factors of production including land”. Sharma, of course, admitted that there were differences between the Indian and European feudalism. India did not have well defined class of feudal barons. In India, small scale peasants plots were not tied to the large scale landlords' farms; there was no regular supply of labour-service by the peasants. There was no system of serfdom in India. There was no manorial system.

Harbans Mukhia on Indian Feudalism:

Harbans Mukhia, as noted above raised a number of objections to the exposition of Indian Feudalism. He noted that there were not adequate sources of information on the subject. There was not well organized vassalage regulating the Feudal relations. There was no slavery, no serfdom and no subject-peasantry. After all, feudalism was not a universal mode of production applicable anywhere. Mukhia was of the opinion that if there was no feudalism in India, he was not in favour of Marx’s Asiatic Mode of production either.

The debate continues, R.S. Sharma in an article entitled How feudal was Indian Feudalism in the Feudalism Debate edited by Harbans Mukhia tries to answer the points raised by him. R.S. Sharma admitted that there was variation in the forms of feudalism. And feudalism was not the monopoly of the western Europe. He sticks to his original position on Indian feudalism. He says, “But in spite of the variations, the basic factor, namely the presence of a controlling class of landlords and a subject peasantry, remained the same”. He argues that "serfdom should not be considered to be identical with feudalism”. Regarding the subject peasantry, he reiterates that “subjection is a characteristic of early medieval Indian social structure”. R.S. Sharma makes the following concluding observation.

“Feudalism in India, therefore, was characterized by a class of landlords and by a class of subject peasantry, the two living in a predominantly agrarian economy marked by the decline of trade and urbanism and by a drastic cut in metal currency. The superior state got its taxes collected and authority recognized by creating interim power block or even states”.

While the debate between the protagonists and opponents on Indian feudalism is not likely to come soon to an end, the fact of the feudal tendencies in Indian state cannot be ignored.

Feudalism in Manipur?

The analysis of the Indian feudalism, of course, makes one feel an apprehension whether Manipur variant of feudalism, if any, or feudal tendencies existed in pre-colonial Manipur. In this attempt, we will examine the nature of the Meitei monarchy, the Lallup system which was both a military and revenue service rendered to the monarch, the land tenure and the social classes of the pre-colonial Manipur. There were several indigenous sources of information on the political and administrative system of the kingdom of Manipur which was restored to her independence after the Treaty of Yandabo (1826). Manipur was completely devastated during the Burmese conquest (1819-1826). The liberator of Manipur was king Gambhir Singh (1825-1834) who restored the deserted Manipur to its former glory. Five kings of Manipur, Gambhir Singh, Nara Singh, Chandrakirti Singh, Surchandra Singh and Kulla Chandra Singh ruled in Manipur before the British conquest in 1891. The feudal system of Manipur was reconstructed from the sources of history in form of chronicles, historical texts and administrative manuals, supplemented by British official accounts.

Meitei Monarchy

The kingdom of Manipur was a monarchy. The monarch was regarded as the political, social and religious head of the Meitei state. He was given the title of Meidingu (lord of the Meiteis). In the ancient times, the Meitei monarchy was weak as it had to struggle with other clan principalities. But after the completion of the establishment of the hegemony over other clan principalities the monarchy had become powerful and claimed supremacy over other clan principalities. It become  highly centralized in the administration. The king was at the top of hierarchy. His court was constituted of the nobility which consisted of royal princes and his favourite officials; another category was the feudatory clan chieftains who accepted his suzerainty and occupied hereditary offices. The king was also assisted by two categories of noble men, one called Ningthoupongba tara (ten regional chieftains) and the second was the Phamdous. The first category was regarded as a sort of ministers. The second category of nobles, the Phamdous, were selected by the monarch to represent thirty two divisions of the kingdom, two members each from every division. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the king and the central government had become more powerful. The king appointed ministers and officials arbitrarily. The nobility was entrusted with several functions, military, civil and judicial works of the state. The apparatus of administration manned by the nobility became very elaborate.

The Meitei state was organized through the Lallup service system. There was a well developed revenue system. The army organization had become powerful through the Lallup. Manipur was a poor country with a small population. The economy was based on barter and salaries were paid in kind mostly paddy. The people could not pay taxes to the king but they paid their labour either as a soldier or a development worker. The king gave protection and security for which the people rendered their services. Apart from the existence of a hierarchy of nobility, priestly class, warrior, peasantry and slavery there is no marked characteristics in the administration to call the Meitei state as a feudal monarchy. Some of the characteristics of the Meitei state appear to be feudal.

The most important institution with feudal tendencies in the Meitei state was the Lallup system. It was based on the assumption that it was the duty of every male between seventeen to sixty years to place his services at the disposal of the king without the payment of any remuneration for ten days out of forty days. It was an acknowledgement of the king’s protection of the country and people. According to tradition it was started by King Pakhangba in the first century A.D. and was abolished by the British in 1892. The Lallup service was rendered by all the ethnic groups of Manipur, the Meiteis, the Brahmins and the Muslims known as the Meitei Pangal. In 1735, King Garibniwaz imposed the Lallup on the hill tribes, who were not favourably inclined towards this service.

Lallup System

Lallup was originally a military organization indicated by its name. Lallup means war organization (lal means war, lup means organization). Gradually Lallup had extended from military service to non military, developmental works. It was also a revenue service as the people did not pay taxes in cash but in kind in form of paddy. The officials of the state who were engaged in administration were not paid salaries but in form of food grains. The military service rendered by the Lallup constituted the militia of the Meitei state. The Meitei army before the establishment of the standing army known as the Manipur Levy by King Gambhir Singh in 1824 was constituted of the warriors under the Lallup. The Meiteis were a martial race, a nation at arms. A subject of the Meitei monarchy was essentially a peasant and a warrior who was conversant with martial arts and use of weaponry. He was an infantry man using sword, spear and shields owned by himself. He was a cavalry man having his own horse and equipments consisting of sword, spear, and sling known as arambai. He maintained the horse himself. He was also a boat soldier. The cavalry was well known arm of the army in fighting against neighbouring countries particularly Burmese and Tripuris. It reminds us of the military service rendered by knights of Europe to their suzerain and the king. European knights rendered forty days service in a year to his monarch while the Meitei peasant rendered labour service and military service for eighty days in a year (ten days out of forty days). The peasant subjects worked during the time of peace, in the royal fields or was engaged in developmental works particularly building roads, bridges, houses for the royal household, carpentry and industrial vocations. The Lallup service was like the corvee of the European system, under which, the European peasant or the serf rendered three days of work for himself and the remaining days for his lord. We find a little similarity between the Lallup system of the Meiteis and feudal services of Europe.

The Lallup system was the mainstay of the Meitei state system. It was the personal loyalty of the subjects expressed in form of service rendered to the state. The basis of the Lallup service was personal relation between the subjects and the monarch. The Lallup had interconnection with every departments of the government. It was administered through the four administrative divisions known as Panas. They were Ahallup, Naharup, Khabam and Laipham. The Pana system was of unknown origin. During the reign of King Loyamba reference to the Panas was made in his royal edict known as Loyamba Shilyen. The four Panas survived even in the modern times.

In the nineteenth century since the rule of King Gambhir Singh Lallup system was put under pressure with the monetization of the economy. Several categories of people were exempted by the king from the Lallup dues and obligations. The Lallup service could be substituted by payment of money. European observers describe it as force labour. James Johnstone observes “this system known by the name Lallup is often miscalled forced labour…it executed the great public works for the benefit of the state. The system was a good one and when not carried to excess, pressed heavily on nobody. It exceptionally adapted to a poor state sparsely populated. In such a state under ordinary circumstances where the amount of revenue is small and the rate of wages often comparatively high, it is next to impossible to carry on much needed public works by payment. On the other hand, every man in India who lives by cultivation, has much spare time on his hands, and the Lallup system very profitably utilizes this and for the benefit of the community at large. I never heard of it being complained as hardship”.

The personal basis of the Lallup service indicated the feudal relationship of personal bond between the king and nobles, nobles, warriors and the peasantry.

Land Tenure System

The land tenure system of the Meitei state was fully developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The British political agents, officers and ethnographers have left behind adequate reports regarding land tenure system of pre-colonial Manipur. I would like to refer to the reports of W. McCulloch (1859), Robert Brown (1874), E.W. Dun (1886) and T.C. Hodson (1908). A definitive short account of land revenue system prepared by A.A. Howell, an assistant political officer in Manipur (1891) is a reliable document on revenue system of the pre British period of Manipur history.

The whole land system was based on the assumption that all the land belonged to the king. He was the absolute proprietor of land and natural resources in the kingdom. The king could dispose it of in the way he liked. This concept of the king as the owner and protector of the country, land and natural resources was also prevalent in the state system of Southeast Asia. The king as the greatest land owner endowed with arbitrary power on its utilization was a feudal element in any state system. The revenue department of the state headed by a noble functionary supervised the working of the land tenure. The authority of the state or the kingdom was strengthened by the concept of ownership of the land vested in the king. The present day legal theory that land belongs to the state in Manipur is a legacy of this concept. The land tenure or the ownership of the land could be classified into four categories.

          (i)  The king and his immediate members of the royal household were the biggest land owners.

         (ii)   Officers of the state were given lands by the king for their services in lieu of salaries. The favourites of the king were also granted rent free lands.

        (iii)   Semi servile peasants tilled the land on payment of rent

      (iv)   The landless slaves tilled the land on payment of rent to the state

According to a report made by a British officer the land utilization was based on privileges given by the king. One third of the land was given by the king to his nobles and officers who paid the rent in kind. This category of land was known as Phamlou. Second one third of the land was given by the king to his royal relatives, the Brahmins, the soldiers (sepoys) and other favourites. The remaining one third was leased to the peasants. Slaves were also given tenure to cultivate either royal lands or nobles land on payment of high rent. It was estimated that there were about 1200- 1500 slaves employed in the pre British period.

Land Grants

The king gave grants of land to officers and nobles for distinguished services, to the Brahmins and temples for their maintenance and king’s reward for his favourites. The land grants were categorized as follows.

          1.   Manalou:

                Rewards of paddy fields were given in recognition of a person’s contribution to the king or the state and such lands were known as manalou (mana= reward, lou= paddy field). The tenure was for lifetime of the grantee. The manalou holders constituted a major social class that strengthen or weaken the ruling group in the state.

          2.   Brahminlou (Brahmin land):

                This category of land grant was given to the Brahmin at the time of performance of the sacred thread ceremony (lugun). This was also popularly known as lugunlou (land of the sacred thread). A Brahmin received a pari (hectare) of land from the king as a customary gift.

          3.   Temple land:

                This kind of land grant was known as lailou (land for the deities). The lands were granted for the maintenance of Hindu temples and Umanglais (village deities) for their maintenance. The temple of God Govindaji, which was the temple of the royal family, was granted hundred paris of land and this land were cultivated by the slaves. The land granted to the Umanglais was looked after by the community.

          4.   Sanalou (royal lands):

                Members of the royal family were also granted lands. This was known as sanalou. In 1891, the queen of Manipur possessed 600 hectares of land. The members of the royal family were biggest land owners in the kingdom.

          5.   Pangallou:

                The persons of distinguished service in war were granted such lands. Pangallou holders were normally the favourites of the king. In 1891, it was reported that there were only two hundred persons holding the Pangallou.

Lands as Salary

The officials and the soldiers were given lands in lieu of salary. Phamlou was the term used for the land held in connection with some office. This land was the salary given to the holders of the office. The revenue payable was one pot of paddy (two baskets of paddy) per pari. The members of the armed forces known as the sepoys (siphai) in the nineteenth century were given the siphailou for their military services. The following was the rate of salaries payable in land.

A Menjor received one pari of land for each company he commanded in a regiment known as Tuli, a Poila got 6 paris, a Subedar, 4 paris, a Jemadar, 3 paris, a Kut, 2.5 paris, a Havildar, 2 paris, a Amaldar, 1 pari, Kotendar, 1.5 paris, a Sepoy, 1.25 paris

The sepoys were not entitled to any pension but after his death two sangams of land were given to his sons.

Lands for the Community

The community lands included community forests surrounding the village, the grazing grounds and play fields.

The above description shows that the land tenure in Manipur was highly stratified almost on the lines of feudal classes. However, the zamindari system did not emerge. A rapid analysis of three institutions of the Meitei state, the Monarchy, the Lallup and land tenure would show some feudal tendency but it was not a clear cut feudal system.

The Structure of the Meitei State

The structure of the state covers the nature of the monarchy, the bureaucratic set up of the government, administration of justice, revenue and military services. The structure shows that monarchy was the form of the Meitei state system. The concept of the Meitei kingship had a mythical origin. It was based on the myth or legend of the contest between the two divine sons of the Divine Lord of the Universe, Atiya Guru Shidaba (Immortal Lord of the sky) for the throne of their divine father. The two brothers were Sanamahi and Pakhangba. In the contest, the younger Pakhangba outwitted his more capable elder brother, Sanamahi due to the machination of their mother Goddess Leimaren. There ensued a fight between the two brothers. The divine father settled the dispute. Sanamahi would be worshipped in every household and Pakhangba was made the king and a royal deity of the human world. Pakhangba took residence at Kangla, a holy place of the Meitei religion, culture and seat of power.

Kangla was regarded in the mystical Meitei world as the navel of the earth and the centre of the universe. The concept of the royal palace and capital as the centre of the world existed in the Burmese state also. Kangla was the core of the Meitei state. Historically, the royal chronicle, Cheitharol Kumbaba, records that the first historical king who was the founder of the Ningthouja dynasty (33 A.D. to 1891 or 1949) ruled at Kangla was Nongda Lairen Pakhangba. Every ruler of Manipur claimed descent from Pakhangba though the chronicles ascribed to him divinity, he was a human being. Later rulers believe that the king of Ningthouja dynasty was an incarnate of the god Pakhangba who presided over the Kangla. Pakhangba was given the title of Meidingu (the Lord of the Meitei). He was also descended as the lord of the seven clans of the Meitei (Mayum Taret Ki Piba, lord of the seven houses or clans).

Unless a king performed the coronation ceremony (Phambal Kaba) he was not recognized as the king. There are historical treatises on the coronation ceremonies. We may refer to the two texts: Pakhangba Phambal and Naothingkhong Phambal Kaba. Rituals, coronation costumes and the process of the ceremony are described.

The Ningthouja King combined in himself the position of social head, political and religious head and commander in-chief. In the ancient period, the king was not that powerful. In the 17th and 18th centuries, King Khagemba (1597 – 1652) and the Garibniwaz (1709 – 48) claimed the divine status. It was indicated by two assertions. Khagemba assumed the title of Lainingthou (Godly King). Garibniwaz was declared to be an incarnate of Hindu God, Lord Vishnu. Divinity of the Meitei King, as god, an incarnate of Lord Pakhangba and Lord Visnu was asserted in later period. A prince belonging to the line of Nongdalairen Pakhangba, while performing the coronation ceremony at the Kangla could become the King (Ningthou or Ningthourel) with the political support from the clan chiefs and divine sanction of Lord Pakhangba. Whoever occupied the Kangla would be the ruler.

The kings of Manipur assumed the title of “Maharaja” after their conversion into Hinduism. The title of “Raja” was of an inferior rank and was given by the British in 1891. Every king was given a regnal title (Phambal Minghul) at the performance of a mock coronation battle known as Phambal lal. Sometimes a king was named after a victory over the enemy like Khagemba (conqueror of the Chinese) or Kyamba (conqueror of the Shan principality known as Kyang). The kings were given, after conversion to Hinduism two titles, a Meitei title and a Sanskrit name. Pakhangba was also named Yavishta, Garibniwaz was known as Pamheiba and Gopal Singh.

The Royal Court

Theoretically, the king was the head of the state; he was the source of all power, a fountain of justice and the head of the army. Sometimes he acted as a chief priest of the country during the performance of state rituals. He was the source of all honour and rewards. However, the king’s power was greatly limited by the customs and traditions of the Meiteis known as Chatlam Lutin which was a sort of common law. These customary laws were interpreted and administered by the nobles who constituted the court of the king. The king was the pivot of the administration, all departments circling around him. N. Ibobi Singh observes, “He was not an autocrat”. T.C. Hodson agreed “the centre of the state was the Raja. He himself took no direct part in the administration except on formal occasion when he presided over the Durbar (court)”.

The king was assisted in the running of the government by the officers of the court who were appointed by him. There were two unique institutions or the organs of the court which were vital in the process of decision making and in the implementation of the decision by the government. The first one was called Ningthou Pongba Tara (ten regional chieftans) and the other was called the Phamdous. A writer describes the Ningthou Pongba Tara as a council of ministers, while another scholar called the institution of the sixty four Phamdous as an assembly of the kingdom. The Ningthou Pongba Tara is referred to in the myth of Numit Kappa (shooting of the sun) which gives a narrative of slave rebellion against two brother kings. (According to the myth a Khaba rebel shot the king who went into hiding leaving behind anarchy in the land. No king and no kingdom. Through the intervention of ten regional gods, a compromise was made; the king was recalled to the throne, the rebel was made a noble and the ten gods or chiefs were enjoined to assist the king in the administration in the Meitei country). The myth refers to the ten gods (Nongpok, Chingkhei, Wangpurel, Khana Chaoba, Thangjing, Sampurel, Loyarakpa, Koubru and Marjing) who were the precursors of the ten noble chiefs.

The historical Ningthou Pongba Tara were the regional chiefs who became the nobles in the court of Meitei kings. Their names were the following. Pukhranba, Nongthonba, Hiyangloi Hanjaba, Chongkhanba Hanjaba, Imingloi Hanjaba, Imangloi Hanjaba, Khwailakpa, Yaiskullakpa, Naikhulakpa, Phamtakcha. There were changes made in the list of posts in the reign of different kings. The standard names of the post which existed as late as 1907 were Nongthonbam, Pukhranba, Wangkheilatpa, Yaiskullatpa, Khurailatpa, two Shanglenlatpas and two Shangkhulatpas. We do not know how they were designated before the rule of Garibaniwaz during whose time the designation of mantri (ministers) was adopted. The chronicles and inscription testify to this. Therefore the Ningthou Pongba Tara were the traditional posts in the court having equivalence to Sanskrit Mantri and English minister. In the nineteenth century, there were the posts of the ministers designated as Mantri. The word, Patra mantris are used in the chronicles.

Phamdous: A Council or Assembly of the Nobles?

The Phamdous were the nobles who were appointed by the king to be the members of his court. The role of a Phamdou was general and all embracing. The royal chronicle refers to the post of Phamdou. They were the most influential group in the process of decision making in the Meitei state. There were sixty four Phamdou. They were appointed to represent thirty two divisions covering 172 villages according to Khunthok Nipan Lamyanba, a historical text quoted by N. Ibobi Singh. The king appointed a permanent person generally a knowledgeable commoner to represent one division. Another assistant was also appointed to assist him. There were two Phamdou from each of the thirty two divisions making them to sixty four Phamdou.

The functions of Phamdou were more or less consultative. They were a strong lobby in the court as they acted in group. In most cases they raised objection to arbitrary action of the king. In the later years the king started appointing their relatives or favourites as Phamdou. We do not have adequate sources of information on the working of institution of Phamdou. A learned scholar Nandalal Sharma argued that it was an assembly of the representatives of people in the royal courts. How far was the Phamdou a democratic representative? We do not know. But the stray references to their function indicates a similarity to the Anglo-Saxon institution of the Witan, the assembly of the nobles in feudal England. It is not sure whether they should be regarded as the council or assembly of the representatives of the people. True, the Phamdous were representatives of the thirty two divisions in the valley section of Manipur. The royal chronicle records several anecdotes in which the Phamdou were involved. There were instances of corruption of the royal judicial officers. In order to deal with critical situations Phamdous were entrusted by the kings to solve the problem.

Government Departments

The government of the Manipur kingdom aimed at the protection of the life and property of the subjects of the kingdom, defence of the territory and collection of revenues in cash and kind to finance the government. Therefore the number of functional departments was few in the early period, but they grew in number with the expansion of the state activities, and increase in the population due to immigration and conquest and the need to maintain a military establishment and foreign relation.

The core departments were the war department (lalmi loishang), finance (revenue) department, home (police and jail) department (dolai paba loishang) and awapurel (department of foreign affairs). The welfare departments included pandit loishang (department of astrologer and pandits), konung loishang (royal household), Govindaji temple, haomacha loishang (department of Naga affairs), urungba (department of forest), lourungshang (department of revenue), pangal loishang (Muslim affairs), ametpa and maiba loishang (medical department), sinnaiba loishang (department of works), singsaroi (department of builders etc.). There were sixteen departments in the 19th century.

          1.   War Department

                The war department was called lalmi loishang. The army consisted of infantry, cavalry, boat, elephant corps (shamutongba), transport (pothang). The war weapons of the infantry were home made, sword, spear, shield, sling (arambai). Other sophisticated weapons like guns were manufactured in the royal workshops. The army was organized on the Lallup system. It was a militia constituted of the peasant soldiers who rendered the fuedal service to the king. The Lallup based militia (lalmi) was replaced by a standing army, organized on British line by Gambhir Singh onwards.

          2.   Police Department

                Though the general law and order were maintained by the king through the different officials, a separate department of police was established during the reign of Khagemba. They were known as the Dollai Paba. Their functions were to catch stray cattle, capture slaves, punish convict prisoners and to go on errands of the officials. During the reign of Chandrakirti Singh the post of the Kotowal was established to deal with police and jail affairs.

          3.   Finance Department

                It was most important of all the departments. The finance department worked under the supervision of Nongthonba, a minister in-charge of financial affairs. He was assisted by a number of officials known as shellungba. The department consisted of land settlement and land records and collection of revenues and kinds. The department of lourungshang was the head of the land settlement. He also looked after the collection of revenues under the Lallup system, salt taxes, hard tax, fisheries and minting of currency.

          4.   Department of Foreign Affairs

                It was called awapurel, a department created during the reign of Chandrakirti Singh to look after the Burmese affairs and boundary disputes.

          5.   Pandit Loishang

                It was the department of pandits and maichous, which was first used during the reign of Charairongba. The functions of the pandit loishang were to look after the traditional educational system, to record the royal chronicles, to engrave important events on stones and copper plates and to act as a guardian of the social customs of the Meiteis. The office of the Leirikyengbam (scribes) was attached to the pandit loishang. They wrote down the order of the kings and drafted the answer to the foreign letters. The scholars of the pandit loishang acted as guide, teacher and friend of the villagers.

          6.   Sinnaiba Loishang

                The sinnaiba loishang was the department of works which had 18 sections which had control over activities like painting (ayekpa), turnering (phundrei), blacksmithy (thangja hanba), brass making (konsang), tailoring (phurit saba), tannery (nandeiba), boat making (hishaba), mosquito nets (Kabo phurit saba), drum making etc.

Payment to the Government Employees

No fixed remuneration or salary was paid. Since Lallup was the basis of the administration they were not given salaries in cash but only lands by the state. The peasants in turn gave revenue in form of paddy. The grades of remuneration were elaborately fixed.

Administrative Divisions

In the early period, there was no clear cut administrative division. The area represented by a Phamdou consisted of specific names of villages under a supervisor, was not based on any geographical or territorial demarcation. Traditionally the kingdom had four territorial divisions: Ahallup, Naharup, Laipham and Khabam, believed to have been established during the reign of King Pakhangba. Loiyamba established six divisions known as Lup according to the royal chronicle. The Loiyamba Shilyen edited by Kh. Chandrashekhar and translated by N. Sanajaoba refers to six panas adding two more, Hitakphanba and Potshangba. The names of the divisions were different: Lup and Pana, but the function might be similar. During the zenith of Manipur’s power, we have a fully developed Pana system.

Pana became an important aspect of administration affecting the social and cultural life. Lallup was organized on the Pana basis. Somebody described it a district or a county of England. All the departments, all services, military, revenue collection, religious affairs, sports and cultural activities were organized on the Pana system. Of the six panas importance was given to the panas of Ahallup and Khabam. The new panas of Hitakphanba and Potshangba were given less importance. Many tribal villages and Loi villages were not covered by pana system. Taxes and tributes were given by them direct to the king. The village continued to be an important unit of administration. The village had several leikais which were organized into Keirup and Shinglup.

Administration of Justice

In the ancient times, justice was administered by the king himself from whom emanated the judicial power. The king was the fountain head of justice. Later on several courts were established to deal with several categories of cases.

Non-religious matters, civil and criminal cases were dealt by the chief court, Cheirap, and lower courts, Waiyen Kati and Kuchu.

The religious cases were dealt with by the Pandit Loishang and Brahma Sabha.

Women affairs were dealt with by the women’s court known as the Paja.

The military cases were handled by the military court known as the Top garod.

The Cheirap Court

The Cheirap was the highest court of the land. It dealt with both civil and criminal cases. It was both an original court and court of appeal. The court consisted of fifty three members including twenty four ex-officio members. The court was presided over by the Angom Ningthou who was originally the chief of Angom clan occupying a feudatory position in the Ningthouja court since the time of Pakhangba. The important members were (1) Angom Ningthou, (2) Yuvraj (the heir apparent), (3) 4 ministers namely, Wangkheilakpa, Khurailakpa, Yaiskullakpa and Khwairakpa, (4) Chiefs of Panas, Laiphamlakpa, Ahallup Lakpa, Khabam Lakpa, Naharup Lakpa, (5) Ministers like Pukhranba, Nongthonba, (6) Clan chiefs like Luwang Ningthou (chief of Luwang clan), Moirang Ningthou (chief of Moirang), (7) Shanglenpuba, Shanguba and dewans of four panas.

Wayen Kati

Wayen Kati was a grade of rural court located in the villages.

Pandit Loishang and Brahma Sabha

The religious and customary cases were settled by the Pandit Loishang which had knowledgeable scholars to settle such matters. They belonged to the seven clans. The Brahma Sabha consisting of the Brahmin scholars dealt with the cases connected with Hindu rites, rituals and customs of the followers of Hinduism. These two institutions continue even now. The British did not interfere in the working of these offices. Brahma Sabha became oppressive during the colonial period.

Women Court

Paja (Pacha) was the court dealing with women affairs. The chronicle says that Queen Laisna, wife of King Khagemba was the first judge of this women court. It dealt with family disputes and adultery. The head of the court was called Paja Hanba.

The Military Court

Top Garod was the military court. The Senapati was the chief of the Top Garod which consisted of commanders of the army regiments. It decided on the military cases. Appeal could be made to the Cheirap court.

The Social Classes

The Meitei society was not a stratified society during the pre Hindu days. It was a caste less and the class less society. With the growth of the administrative hierarchy, the holders of the administrative posts emerged as a class; the members of the royalty, the nobles, civil and military officials, the soldiers and the peasants. After Sanskritization, the Hindu Meiteis were declared as Kshatriya caste. The immigrant Brahmins speaking the Manipuri language and marrying Meitei women formed themselves into a caste outside the Meitei society.

The descendents of former kings and princes, were named the Raj Kumars who formed a class of the Meitei society. They were the privileged social class. The outcastes of the Meitei society due to their social and religious crimes formed the low caste of the Hindu society. The hill tribes and the Muslim were outside the Meitei society. But many of them took up state employment. In the nineteenth century, the Hindu Kshatriya caste who became the officials of the state was integrated into a feudal class. The king and the feudal nobles ruled the kingdom with the help of the Brahmins.

Brahmins controlled the Brahma Sabha. They played important role in the administration and religious life of the kingdom. Slavery was also in existence for many centuries. The Slavery system was mild. The practice of manumission was also in existence.

The royalty and nobility gave importance to feudal etiquettes Ranks of the nobility were indicated by the privileges to ride a palanquin, wear certain turban, cloths and dresses by male or female members. Sartorial system of the bureaucracy was a highly articulated dress code. Over and above this, there were personal bonds between the king, queens and the princes with nobility. Social classes came out of the state officialdom. Everybody tried to hold some office big or small. The office was acquired through feudal favouritism rooted in royal power. Corruption and inefficiency were also rampant in the declining feudal state. Feudal values, feudal mannerism, religious and social orthodoxy, and feudal favouritism were the features of the feudal state and society in Manipur.

With this brief enquiry into the existence, or otherwise of the feudal elements in the structure of the Meitei state in the pre-colonial period of history of Manipur, it is clear that feudalism in the European form did not exist in Manipur. However, the feudal elements and feudal nuances were found in the structure of the polity and the societal relationship during the nineteenth century.


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(This lecture was read at the seminar organized by the Indian Institute of Advanced Study at Shimla on 11
th November, 2010. The author can be reached at email: gangmumeikamei@yahoo.co.in )


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