By Nimmi Rajkumari
Imagine a few thousand strong crowd yelling their hearts out to edge on their favorite boat as two boats raced each other down to cross the finishing line first. One is not referring to the traditional boat race between the Cambridge and Oxford team on the river Thames in England or the boat race in the Kerala backwaters during the festive season of Onam nearer home but to the traditional boat race of Manipur known as Hiyang Tannaba or the race of the Hiyangs or the boats and this one happened on the 16th of October 2013 at the Wangkhei Thangapat ,a mile long moat specially dug for boat racing by the royals of yore.
Hiyang Tannaba is a traditional boat race of Manipur dating back to a few centuries and was originally celebrated during the Manipuri Lunar month of Hiyangei Tha or October-November. The race begins with a ritualistic ceremony to Lord Sanamahi or the ruling deity of every Manipuri household, praying for safety and protection.
This one that took place recently was different in that it saw the participation of all the communities of Manipur, irrespective of caste-creed and religion signifying the communal harmony that still prevails in Manipur. Riding astride the bow as the Tengmai Leppa or the Captain was the popular film star of Manipur Kaiku.Dressed in traditional Khamen Chatpa or the Manipuri Dhoti embossed with ancient Manipuri motifs, he drew a massive applause from his supporters as he waded his way to his shed.The blazing afternoon sun nor the prevailing dust could deter the spirit of the onlookers as even more people surged in to witness the spectacle.The excitement almost reached a crescendo as the “hirois” or the paddlers climbed on their respected boats to begin the race.The time was 3.30 in the afternoon
Manipuri ancient folklore dates back the beginning of this race to Manipuri King Luwang Ningthou Punshiba who is said to have crafted the first boat in this ancient land. He had two craftsmen namely Wangmanao Sinmeiba and Nungban Wangmitkhu Khuteiba. Over the time the “hi” or the canoe slowly developed into that of the “hiyang” or the long boat sometimes almost 70 feet in length. It was believed that in the later period during the reign of King Hiyangloi Ningthou, it became a sport and a source of entertainment when after a successful hunt hecalled for a boat race to celebrate his hunting expedition.This was the beginning of a tradition that began hundreds of years ago and is still being practiced in Manipur till today.
The “hiyang” consists of two portions, the “hiru” which is the bow and “hinao” the stern. In the original hiyangs the antlers of the Sangai deer “cervis eldi eldi” was affixed on the bow. Legend has it that the elder brother of King Punshiba namely Pudangkoi Khutkoiba met a tragic end and was believed to have been re-incarnated as a Sangai and it was in a bid to honour him that the king ordered to affix the deer`s antlers thus symbolizing his deceased brother. And on the hinao or the stern was attached a human head depicting a Khuman warrior known as Kwakpa Leitongba or Khuman Kwakpa who was earlier slain in battle by a Meitei Warrior.
With the coming in of Hinduism to Manipur in the 18th century, the Hiyang Tannaba or the traditional boat race fell into oblivion and for over a century from 1709 till 1825 the race was discontinued. The game finally resumed in 1850 during the reign of Maharajah Chandrakriti wherein the Hindu influence was brought forth and fused in the sport.The Sangai antlers got to be replaced with the form of Lord Vishnu ascending the boat thus marking a major cultural shift. Over time the sport also saw a marked shift in its acceptance by the public for whiter to only scions of the royal families rode on the bow and now we have film stars doing the same and also while earlier it was a sport confined only to the Manipuri Meities, majority of whom are Hindus, now we have spectators witnessing across the cultural, racial and religious divide.
In the opinion of this writer, the term ” preservation” of culture is a very narrow term as it indicates a “concept” that will eventually become rare or extinct.
The question arises now as to why the Greek or Roman mythologies are so popular and known worldwide. The answer lies in the fact that these myths and legends have been embedded in books, literature, theatrical plays, dramas, art work, movies, comics, TV serials, video games etc.
Hence there is a need not only to preserve but also to transmit our rich culture and traditions through different mediums and set forth new trends that will assimilate with the global culture.
(P.S The above findings are based on my research gathered from the Uttara Shanglen and interaction with reknowned scholars and historians amongst which Shri Hareshwar Goswami is one.)