By: Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh

Máana kari khangdana, Máana eingondagi kari hendana; Hekta phujilaga loirê

The Meitei national character, which is exemplified by the above hoity-toity temper, is a page in history that has never been turned.

I write this article with a flicker of nostalgic warmth and because the Meiteis are a failing nation in the failed state of Manipur. The vacillations and chaos of political integration to India is going to change the future order of the Meiteis for ever. This is an article of faith. My heart jolts with self-pity.

I write this in memory of the vanishing tribe of Meiteis for the historical documentation of what they were, like they were never before, indulgent, and they would never be after. The Meiteis are now a crowd, jostling and jockeying in this little human cauldron of Manipur, inhabited by various tribes of which the Meiteis are dominant.

A discussion about Meitei national character at a time when the Meiteis are demoted to “Other Backward Classes” is so fundamental for the intellectuals that it informs the totality of consciousness without any avant-garde philosophy. It is a revival of interest in the old Meitei polity that proved decisive in the devolution of a distinctive national mode.

Endless inter tribal hatreds, distracted by issues both profound and petty, and commenting endlessly on each other’s moral and ethical feelings, Manipur for ever will remain a divided country without a collective will to unite and prosper.

The stake in my writing is the connection and consistency, because truth sticks to what is consistent and I am going to call into questions the existence of other consistencies.

I do not particularly think that I can transmit all the factual knowledge, which can only be transmitted through mastery. As for me, it is a reflection on some of the defining rhythms of Meitei national character.

My thesis, which is far from being an erudite and well-crafted intellectual history, has significant contributions from many well known authors whose names for the sake of
brevity I intend to give a miss. After all, a research is copying from many.

I am not writing a doctoral thesis with computations of significant deviations while judging Meitei national character. The basis for my thesis is empirical analysis ie observation, experience and correlation of regularities.

The concept of a nation having a national character is disputed by some outdated anthropologists and psychologists. I am tempted to disagree. It beggars belief. It has been personally fostered to me from my travels all over India and the world, and meeting people in the half century of my life, that the Meiteis have National character; unthought-of at the present, not unlike the English national character.

From the early part of the 18th century the social and cultural system of the Meiteis became structured differently from that of the other tribes in Manipur. As I am a Meitei conversant with the Meitei thought, the condition of access to knowledge in the present Meitei socio-cultural continuum is profoundly easier for me.

The socio-cultural continuum as it appears is the knowledge, huge and intrinsically political that the Meitei nation is in its death throes after at least 2,000 years of existence. This is not a prissy whinge. It is a lament for the end of Meitei history and the dawn of a new political evolution.

Like the rise of the phoenix from the ashes, my desire is to catch the rising spirit of Meitei national character from the smouldering Meitei nation, through the empirical method of accumulation of knowledge – the knowledge of Meitei ancients.

The Meiteis had a temper, some of them, particularly verbs (eg hekta phujilaga loire). They were the proudest adjectives such as arrogance, with which you can do anything (eg mana eingondagi kari hendana).

The Meitei national character was shaped by different events and values, particularly by the laws administered by their kings in the mediaeval period of Meitei history.

In the 18th century the Meitei kings became complacent with the teachings of the new religion, Gouranga Vaishnavism with one version of the Ramayana. It was a pacifist religion that taught them the cult of chanting, Hare Krishna, Hare Rama and to become drunk with a spiritual purification and eternal ecstasy in the worship of Radha-Madhaba Jugol Lup (the twin statue of Radha and Krishna).

The proof, according to Chaityana Charitamrita Adi-Lila is the real bliss (kevala-ananda) that wraps the soul; the more the holy name is chanted the greater is the bliss. With the rising Hindu influence, the name Meitei leibak (Meitei country) was replaced by Manipur (land of the jewels).

The 19th century was a disaster for the Meiteis, beginning with Chahi taret khundakpa (the Seven years’ devastation), 1819–1826 CE. Only 2,000 Meiteis survived. It was a Burmese revenge for what the Meiteis did to them in the preceding Meitei-Burmese wars.

However, the Meitei trait, linked to self-reliance and self-sufficiency, attached firmly to their national character with a little hearty patriotism, approved as a source of dynamism, soon became the driving force to reclaim the lost honour after 7 years.

Raja Gambhir Singh with some assistance from the East India Company easily chased the Burmese garrisons out of Manipur in 1826 CE. The other noteworthy record was the “Re-demarcation of Manipur’s boundary as Mao” – the boundary between Manipur and the Naga Hills (the present day map) on December 13 1873 CE.

The 20th century witnessed a decline in the national life of the Meiteis as radical as any since the British conquest. The changing society at that time, when the reins of government were held with so loose a hand, created problems for the Meitei character. Meiteis became very laid-back and innocuous. The laissez-faire outlook destroyed the essence of Meitei national character.

Manipur is now multifaith, multicultural, multilinguistic and multiethnic. This is of course a change for the better provided every tribal community is taking part in the running of the state and for the development and peaceful coexistence. But there is a yawning chasm. Some ethnic communities have different ideologies with lightening-rod issues of dissent.

Manipur is a land of rolling hills with their peaks dipping in white cloud, lush and well-watered. Along with much of the Northeast there have been inter-ethnic tensions and Manipur has endured a very long-running insurgency.

Manipur was a kingdom with Meitei kings. In the history of Manipur before the British colonial era (1891-1947 CE), it was not that the Kukis, the Marings, the Tangkhuls, the Kabuis and the Pangals did not fight for the defence of Manipur, but it was the Meiteis who bore the brunt of the fighting. When the Meiteis were defeated at the battle of Khongjom in April 1891 Manipur lost its independence.

My thesis is non-political and does not try to address the ethnic incongruity and the economic mayhem in Manipur. It is a project to identify the characteristics of the Meiteis – a Kirata tribe, now conveniently called the Northeasterners, which has been in existence in Manipur probably from the Stone Age, though has only been recorded for the last 2,000 years in the Cheitharol kumbaba.

In the babble of oral traditions, nobody knew when and from where the Meiteis migrated to Manipur, now in the Northeast of India, in prehistoric times. For the purpose of theoretical argument or for the more solid purpose of remapping the Meitei ancestry, it is tempting to assume that the Meitei migration to Manipur must have been at least as old as that of the
Aryan migration to India 3,000 years ago.

Though the Aryan migration theory to India is now regarded as sea of fiction, the compilation of the Vedas, in the period before 1,500-1,000 BCE, is planted firmly in Indian soil. The Kiratas were mentioned in the Yajurveda and Atharveda. And the Meiteis are Kiratas as their historicity reflects on the Meiteis.

In the vaguely contoured landscape and dim history of the Kiratas, it is now agreed that the Sakti temple at Kamakhya in Guwahati, and the Kalighat temple in south Kolkata, are Hinduised Kirata shrines.

The Jagannath temple at Puri in Orissa was a centre of pilgrimage for thousands of years for the pre-Aryan and pre-Dravidian Kirata tribes of the Austric linguistic family, known as Sabaras.

They were proto-Australoid hunter-gatherers like the present Khasis, Bhils and Kols, who were part of the crowd of migrants from Northeast Africa, now Ethiopia. They developed a characteristic culture with pagan roots of human and natural fertility; procreation, and fulfilment.

The Meitei hunter-gatherer ancients who probably were similar migrants had a native religion of the Sanamahi cult. Though unique for the Meiteis, it is likewise a pagan/Kirata religion with its animism, and shamanism such as Saroi khangba, Thou touba.

Shamanism is based on the belief that the universe is pervaded by invisible spirits that affect the lives of the living. Shamanism requires Shamans who have ‘specialised knowledge’ of the spirits. The word shaman literally means he/she who knows. Shamanism is a big topic in its own right. Some are of the opinion that it originated alongside in Brahminism and Buddhism.

Some believe that the word was derived from the Sanskrit word ‘shramana’; Pali and Prakit ‘shamana’. Others find in it some elements in common with the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tze. Many others still hold the view that Shamanism is some form of Nature-worship.

Finally, it is understood that Shamanistic cult has nothing to do with Buddhism or any other religion. It originated spontaneously among the Mongoloid nations of Asia including the Meiteis. It consists not only in superstitious and shamanistic ceremonies, in certain primitive ways of observing the outer world – nature, but the inner world – the soul itself.

The Meitei national character for centuries has been its strong vitality, which has helped them to overcome many challenges. But the concept of Meitei national character is difficult to explain. Perhaps it is a product of the combination of material and spiritual cultures.

Culture is not a product of civilisation. Meiteis had a good culture but they were not civilised. Or, in the highly civilised England, the low socio-economic group has no culture. The Meiteis owe their culture and their unified Meitei national character to their kings.

The conversion to Hinduism had little effect on the Meitei national character except that they became less vicious in civilisatory terms. But it helped the Meiteis to see themselves as more homogeneous and uniform; less fissured by small cultish clan religions such as Thangjing lai, Thongaren and the like.

Manipur was a scarcely packed ‘rural nation’. When the majority of the Meiteis were coerced to Hinduism, there began an urbanisation of the Meitei society. The King and Kangla became the centre of socio-cultural and political Meitei nation.

Given that the Meiteis were rural peasants, it stands to reason that certain qualities assigned to the Meitei national character would be those best suited to be ruled by a monarch.

Equally important is to find respective answers to how the Meitei society was influenced by monarchical, religious, political, economic and societal debates, with its stress on climate and kingdom, evolving into the 18th century European notion of ‘national character’ of the Meiteis.

That was the beginning of the emergence of ‘collective behaviour’ or national character for the Meiteis, wielded by their kings.

The idea of Meitei national character was, if anything, strengthened by the social changes brought about by conversion to Hinduism. The change in the social structure was socialistic and egalitarian. It recognized few differences in wealth, power, prestige and status. There was no caste system.

Such was the constitution of Meitei civil society that, whilst a few persons were distinguished by riches, by honours, and by knowledge, the body of the Meitei mass shared equal rights and opportunities.

The Meitei nation was a historically evolved stable community of economic life, language, territory and psychological make-up in a community of Meitei culture. It could be said that they had a series of attitudinising aphorisms while their aestheticism and hedonism were both indulged and disdained, characterised by their dogmatic and ancient ceremonial religion of Sanamahi and Umang lais overlapping on the doctrines and rituals of Hinduism.

Given the stringency of their fighting ability and success, self-reliance and self-sufficiency, the Meitei national character undoubtedly wrenched them into a new genetic unit, which eventually mutated by what is called inversion, producing a phenotype of narcissism – a trait past its shelf-life now.

The forces needed in the handling of the central features of Meitei national character are moral and physical courage, and readiness for combat either individually or socially. The most radical version of these is the aggressiveness though the Meitei is a well-balanced person, responsible, dignified, self-possessed and capable of recognizing his own true self- interest, in obedience to the law and co-operation with others.

Moral courage is the tenacity to follow one’s ethics or principles that may result the individual feeling isolated from or accepted by colleagues and even the family. This type of courage is innate to the Meiteis.

Physical courage varies among cultures as well as among individuals. That the Meiteis have indomitable courage cannot be disputed. Courage can be defined as lacking fear in a situation that would normally generate it.

There is a difference between courage and foolhardiness. While the courage is the ability to disregard fear, foolhardiness is foolishly bold. The Meiteis are recipients of both traits.

The ugly side of Meitei national trait is propensities for internecine fighting among ourselves and between the princes themselves. They were inherited from the seven clans.

Had there been no feud between the Meitei king and his maternal uncle Khelei Nongnang – the Moirang king, the seven years’ devastation would not have happened. King Khelei invited the Burmese to invade Manipur, and during that seven years’ period he ruled over Moirang and Meitrabak until Gambhir Singh returned.

In the rise and fall of Meitei national identity, the Palace intrigue and the rebellion of Tikendrajit and his brothers against their step-brother King Surchandra and his brothers (1886-1890) marked a turning point in Meitei ego and the national character.

It is fair to comment that without the inherent Meitei princely patricidal and fratricidal traits, the Meiteis could have kept their superiority complex intact, and Manipur would have remained independent until at least the Indian Independence Day of August 15 1947.

But this is history and is still miming itself among the insurgents. This is Meitei national character. This is what we are.

The writer is base in the UK
Email: [email protected]


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