July- September, 1999 , Volume 1  No. 1

The Cultural Heritage of Manipur

Prof. E. Nilakanta Singh

Manipur, synoymous with dance and now with martial arts and sports, has won various epithets. It is called "the flower on lofty heights", "the undiscovered tourists paradise" and even "the Jewel of India" by no less a person than Jawaharlal Nehru. This small state covering an area of 22,327 sq km is situated in the north-eastern most corner of India in between the Nagaland on the north and Mizoram and Myanmar on the south. This state presents a variegated combination of hills and plains. The covering mountain ranges surround the oval shaped valley of 2238 sq. km. Looking like a flat alluvial lake. There are two principal small rivers and natural lakes of which the lake Loktak about 20 km long and 8 km wide with isles on it constitutes the largest fresh water lake in India. In recognition of the lake’s rich bio-diversity and the socio-economic importance, it was designated a wetland of international importance. The floating Keibul Lamjao National Park occupying the Southern part of the lake provides refuge to the highly endangered Sangai or brow antlered deer, the only surviving group in the world. The population of Manipur now comes to 18,37,149, according to 1991 census. We may take it as 2 million at the moment.

Manipur is a land of the Indo-Mongoloids or what is known as the Kiratas. Even though there is considerable affinity in terms of cultural heritage between the valley people, constituting two-thirds of the population and hill people, we have to admit broadly two sections of the population. The Valley Manipuris (having originally 7 clans, now integrated with Meitei community), speaking a language belonging to the Kuki-Chin group of languages, have an unbelievably rich old literature and even an independent script (called Brahmi). They are supposed to have come down from the south-west of China and got themselves scattered throughout South-East Asia under various nomenclatures. The Valley, however, happens to be a melting pot with waves of people from the east and west (including the Brahmins and Muslims) migrating to the Valley, at different historical periods. The hill area of Manipur admits of two major groups viz the Nagas and the Kuki-Chin-Mizo groups. There are, of course, 29 scheduled tribes in Manipur. The Nagas include the Kabuis (now styled as Zeliangrong), the Tangkhuls, the Maos and a few others occupy the north, west and east of the hills. The Kuki-Chin would include Paite, Gangte, Thadou, Hmar, Vaiphei and Zhou. The eminent linguist and scholar, Dr S.K.Chatterjee, while assessing the Indo-Mongoloid contribution to Indian culture, refers to the character of the Kiratas having a sense of great optimism, cheerfulness of temper, sel-reliance and courage and also having a sense of decoration, colours and rhythm, which gets reflected in their textiles and other crafts along with the art of dance. These characterstics apply certainly to the people of the Valley and the hills of Manipur.

The cultural heritage of the valley people known as the Meiteis admits of 2 broad layers – the Pre-Vaishnavite (not exactly pre-Hindu) phase of the early period dominated by Tantric cult (at least from about 10th Century A.D.) and the Vaishnavite phase since 15th Century A.D. The Pre-Vaishnavite period has got Lai-Haraoba Festivals done before more than 300 Sylvan deities, a form of ancestor-cum Sylvan gods and goddesses worship with the Maibas and Maibis (priests and priestesses) as directors and star performers. Thousands of villagers participate with dances, music, games and sports during the festival period of about a week. The Shiva-Devi concept associated with Tantrism also crept in. The Vaishnavite Festivals include, strictly after the Vaishnavite tradition of Bengal School, Holi (the greatest festival lasting 6 days) of Yaosang in March – April, the Ratha Yatra (after the Puri Car Festival), the Jhoolan Yatra, Janmashthami, Radhastami and Durga Puja (patronised by the early kings). There are of course, the Sankirtana – both old (called Bangdesh Pala) and the new (styled as Nata Sankirtana) – a complicated ritualistic exercise of Vaishnava Sadhana, a Maha-Yajna (great sacrifice) into which the original Bengali Kirtana has been enriched and reborn. The internationally well – known Rasleelas (Maharas, Kunja Ras, Vasanta Ras, Nitya Ras and Diba Ras) are also there. There is even dhop and Manoharsai singing of Bengali Kirtana, but modified by the regional complexion. This artistic vision finds expression also in exquisite textiles, colour sense, handicrafts and above all, the Manipuri style of living.

Each tribe of the hills of Manipur has a variety of dances, mostly ceremonial and sometimes recreational. The Luira Festival (lasting about 12 days) of the Tangkhuls is a major festival of seed-sowing, shared also by other Naga tribes. The pageantry of the festival includes beauty contest tug of war, wrestling, Javelin throw and war dance. There are other festivals like Chumpha and Ngai-ni, of the Tangkhuls. The Mao-Nagas have their own distinctive styles of singing and movements and have festivals of a similar nature including the drawing of a tree. The Kabuis have a rich variety of group dances associated with myths and legends, of which special mention may be made of Gaan-Ngai and Choga. Among the Kuki-Chin-Mizo group of people inhabiting the South of Manipur, the Mizos have their beautiful bamboo dance (Chero-Kaan), wherein the women sing, skip and dance over bamboo poles. They have other festivals also. The Hmar community has their Butu-Chonglawa (the seed sowing festival) and the Thadous have their great Kut festival, which is now shared by other groups and has now been raised to the state level.

There are other smaller tribes like Kom, Chiras and Taraos, with their excellent, colorful music and steps, expressive of the joy of life and beauty of human existence. These dances and music of the various hill tribes of Manipur, along with their exquisite textiles color sense and beautiful handicrafts add immensely to the rich cultural heritage of Manipur. The ethical dimension of the culture of the valley Manipuris as evident in their martial arts (sword and spear fights), wrestling, foot-hockey and polo has now been universally recognised. India recently witnessed the remarkable performance of the Manipuri sportspersons both male and female, in the recent National Games held at Imphal, the capital city – wherein they became the champion group.

(Courtesy: AIR Delhi).

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati