This was a typical question asked by one student of mass communication to the visiting Fulbright scholar from Hawaii University, Prof. Bryce Grey Beemer, who was at the Manipur University for an interactive talk on the theme “Manipuris in Myanmar” organized by Centre for Manipur Studies, Manipur University, under the supervision of Prof. Amar Yumnam, dean, School of Social Sciences, Manipur University, today at the Senate Hall of Manipur University, Canchipur.
In his lecture, Prof. Beemer highlighted the socio-economic and cultural aspects of the Manipuris in Myanmar who can be divided broadly as Ponna (Brahmans) and Kathe (Burmanized Non-Brahmans).
He said that these Manipuris have been living in Myanmar since the 18th century, most probably during the time of Anglo-Burmese War which helped in the restoration of the Kingdom of Manipur.
They have assimilated the Manipuri culture with that of the Myanmarese culture. However, they have retained certain basic characteristics of Manipuri culture like that of Lai Haraoba (the festival of local deities) and worshipping of deities resembling the “Goddess Panthoibi” in Sanamahi faith, Prof. Beemer noted.
He stated that the Kathes may be divided into three groups, namely Kathe Buddhists, Kathe Hindus and Kathe Muslims. All the Kathes are known to have distinct characteristics of their own and they are experts in silk weaving, pony training, cavalry, medicine and astrology.
The socio-economic condition of the Brahmans and Kathes are somewhat good as compared to other communities of Myanmar. They are earning their livelihood through various skill works which gives them a distinguishing feature. In ancient days, the Manipuris were made to prepare the royal costumes of Burma, Beemer observed.
Regarding the cultural aspects of the Kathes, he said that they have been following the Nat worship similar to that of Umang Lai Haraoba in Manipuri culture. The Kitani or Spinster Nat of the Kathes somewhat resembles the Goddess Panthoibi of Sanamahi faith. Besides the Kitani Nat, the Kathes also have Bataputi Nat and Teinkhin Nat as similar to the incarnations of Panthoibi, he said.
Significantly, the local deities of Manipuri culture have been converted into the Nats by the Kathes. The “Mywelan” spirit of the Kathes also seems to be derived from “Moirang” which is a historical site of Manipur. The Kathes still use some diasporic objects from Manipur as a token of love and memory during social events, Prof. Beemer noted.
He further observed that Sanamahi faith has greater influence on the Kathes than the Hinduism and the Kathe descendants are still using some 100 Manipuri words.
Lastly, Prof. Beemer found out in his research that the Manipuris in Myanmar know their place of origin as Manipur but they have doubts if they were Manipuris.
In this regard, one lady Dawkyi said, “I am Kathey, but I don’t know if am Manipuri”, and another woman Daw la Tin said, “I don’t know what I am, but I’m not Hindu”.
Despite of all social assimilations and cultural influences, the Manipuris in Myanmar are still trying hard to preserve some of the rich cultural heritage of Manipur, Beemer asserted.
Prof. Beemer would carry out further research into the cultural aspects of the Manipuris in Myanmar, especially their cultural proximity to the Sanamahi faith.