Introduction to Manipuri Culture




by: Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh, B Sc, MBBS, MD, MRCGP (London)

The Nehru Centre   8 South Audley Street  Mayfair  London W1

6.30 pm   July 6 2012.

Slide 1  

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Irengbam Mohendra Singh. It’s a mouthful. The first part is ethnic Manipuri; the other two parts are Hindu. I mention this because there is a new Manipuri culture.

The last two new generations have dropped the surname Singh for men and Devi for women as they do not suit their oriental looks.

The young people feel quite insecure with these surnames. Because of their looks they are foreigners to mainland Indians and the Hindu surnames are a source of mockery. They have gone back to their indigenous surnames, such as Mohendra Irengbam, for my name.

I am very grateful to Tara Douglas for asking me to give a short introduction to the culture of Manipur. This will give some exposure to Manipuris and their culture.

I am a Manipuri Meitei who is not classified as a tribal but an ethnic minority. For centuries, the Meiteis were known as Manipuris. For the purpose of this talk I will use Manipuri instead of Meitei.

Slide 2.

Map of Manipur in the Northeast. I come from Manipur in the Northeast of India. It shares 217 miles boundary with Burma. It is 60 miles from the Burmese border over the hills.

Apart from Manipur there are 7 other sister states: Nagaland, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Sikkim, Tripura and Mizoram. These 8 states form the Northeast of India.

That is, India has North Indians, South Indians and Northeast Indians.

The Northeast is inhabited by 39 million oriental-looking people like me. They all speak Tibetoburman languages except the Khasis of Meghalaya who speak Austroasiatic language and the Meiteis who speak a language of their own, not yet classified, with their own alphabet – the Meitei Mayek.

The Northeast is connected by the narrow 18 miles-wide Siliguri corridor in the north of West Bengal. When the Chinese Liberation Army invaded India in 1962, they came down by the Nathu La pass in Skkim and stopped just above the town of Tezpur in Assam.

We nearly became Chinese citizens. On one evening of November 1962, panic-stricken Nehru in Delhi thought the fall of the plains of Assam was imminent, as the Indian Army’s 4 Corp began preparations to pull out of Tezpur, and almost said goodbye to us in a national broadcast.


Slide 3

This is the political map of Manipur. There are 6 districts. In the Imphal plain district, live the majority Meiteis (60%). In these surrounding 5 districts live the tribal people (40%). There are 36 tribal communities.

A tribal is called Adivasi in the Indian Constitution (Article 336) and Tara’s Adivasi Arts Trust is for their benefit. Adi-vasi in Hindi means earliest inhabitants or indigenous people.

Manipur was an independent country for the past 2,000 years except for an interlude of British occupation for 56 years after 1891, while India was for over 200 years. Manipur was loosely administered by the British and was not fully integrated into India. After Indian Independence in 1947, Manipur was merged into India in 1949.

Manipur has a population of 2.7 millions. Its name was Meitei leibak (Land of the Meiteis) before it changed to Manipur (Land of the gems) in the early part of the 18th century when the Manipuris were converted to Hinduism. The common language is Manipuri – one of the 22 recognised languages of India. It is a very advanced language, at par with any major languages of India like the Bengali.

Slide 4.   

Praise words of Manipur. Manipur has been lovingly described by a few prominent people. Pundit Nehru called it “the jewel of India”. It is hardly a jewel at all, never mind the jewel of India. It is hell on earth.

Slide 5.  

Description of Imphal by Lt. Gen. Geoffrey Evans from the book “Imphal”. Imphal is the capital of Manipur. During the Second World War II the Japanese came as far as Imphal through the jungles of Burma. After 3 months’ serious fighting they were defeated by the Allied Army and whoever survived, returned home, but not before they left 80,000 Japanese dead. 17,000 Allied soldiers also died – mostly from General Slim’s 14th Indian Army.

Before I talk about the Manipuri culture I will show you a few slides of 3 generations of Manipuris – how they look and dress.

Slides 6,7,8,9 and 10:  

old man, and middle-aged man in dhoti and kurta, young man in suit and tie, young woman in traditional phanek without a blouse but gold necklaces, modern girl and ultra-modern girl.

The culture of Manipur is sadly, the culture of the Meiteis, in the way the British culture is the culture of the English. There are 36 majestic cultures of the different tribes of Manipur. Their cultures have for long been dominated by the majority Meiteis, but not anymore.

The Manipuri culture is a blend of the indigenous Meitei culture based on the Sanamahi laining (Sanamahi worship) and the Indian culture, based on the Hindu religion. There is now a vigorous revival of the old culture of the Meiteis with the phased-out introduction of the Meitei alphabet in schools.

Slide 11.  

A photo of a traditional socio-cultural community lunch in Hindu style. Initial dishes on the banana leaves will be followed by rounds of other hot dishes by Brahmin cooks. Manipuris are very clean people. They will not cook or eat lunch without a bath. They do not eat meat but fish, though the custom is changing.

Manipuri men had a peculiar culture in that they believed they were brave though nobody ever said so. There is however some truth in it. In 1891, the British invaded Manipur from 3 sides: north, east and west. The Manipuris made their Last Stand against the British column from the east.  400 Manipuris stood against 18,000 British, Indian and Gorkha soldiers armed with superior weapons, until almost every one of them was killed or wounded.

Slide 12.  Photo of Gen. Himalay in the Indian Army and slide 13, photo of a random Manipuri woman pilot. Because of their fighting tradition there are many officers in the
Indian Army. Currently, there is 1 Major General, 2 Brigadiers and many Colonels. Two of
my nephews are colonels.


Slide 14.  

Naked women demonstration. Manipuri women are tougher than men. They often lead men in political agitations. In 2004, 40 women demonstrated stark naked at the gate
of an Indian Army cantonment, because of a brutal rape and killing of a 32 year-old woman called Manorama by Indian Security Forces.

Slide 15.

Sharmila Chanu. Currently, one 40-year old woman, Sharmila has been fasting for 12 years. She has been fasting to repeal a nasty law called the Armed Forces Special Power Act, which empowers the Indian soldiers to enter a Manipuri house without a warrant, search and shoot to kill any suspected insurgent and no questions asked thereafter.

Slide 16.

Martial Arts girls’ sword salute at the monuments of 12 martyrs who were shot by the police on June 18 2001 uprising, while demonstrating to keep the integrity of Manipur intact. Manipuris are well-known for their martial arts.

Slide 17.  

Ancient Manipuri polo players (c.1870). Manipuris believe that Manipur is the origin of polo as is played now. It became well-known after the British adopted the game and played first at Silchar, Assam in British India and eventually to the rest of the world. Because of their riding skills Manipuri cavalry was feared, especially as they could hurl a deadly dart to th% enemy while galloping at speed.

Slide  18    

Annual boat race, which is celebrated with verve and pomp.

Slide 19.

Female boxers – Sarita Devi & Mary Kom. Manipuris love sports. Imphal is the sports capital of India. They play many indigenous games as well other world sports. These 2 girls are 5 times world boxing champions. Mary Kom (a tribal) is the only Indian woman boxer representing India in the coming 2012 London World Olympics. Quite a few Manipuris represent India as well.

Slide 20.   

Lai Haraoba dance. The Manipuris are very artistic. This is a slide of a pre-Hindu dance, performing the evolution of the cosmos and the origin of man.

Slide 21.  

Ras Lila dance. A post-Hindu dance (one of the 6 classical dances of India) based on the romance of Krishna with Radha.

Before I finish, I will show you 3 slides of three major tribal peoples in Manipur in their beautiful traditional costumes. It is very nice to watch their live shows.
Slide 22 – Tangkhul Naga Dance. Slide 23 – Kabui Naga Dance. Slide 24 – Kuki tribal Dance

THANK YOU for Listening


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here