By: Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
Manipur, many thousands of years ago was a distant cold country near India surrounded by hill ranges. It is in the northern Temperate zone between 23°58′ to 94° 45’E longitudes and between 23° 50′ to 25° 42’N latitudes. This was within the range of the ‘Last Glaciations’.
At the end of the Last Glaciations, 20.000 years ago, when the Meitei groups of ancestors arrived as hunter-gatherers at the surrounding hill ranges of Manipur, it was a cold barren hilly country where the valley was filled with water. They continued to survive as hunter-gatherers until such time when the water in the valley dried up.
Our hunter-gatherer or foraging ancestors obtained most or all food from wild plants and animals. All modern humans were hunter-gatherers until around 10,000 years ago, when they invented agriculture.
The Meitei ancestors, who changed from foraging to ‘settling down’ or “sedantism”, as they moved down to the valley when the water dried up, required a new way of thinking, living and social organisation. They must have changed a lot because of the new culture of sedantism
Genetically, the human evolution generates new species by mechanisms that are part random and part by a long sequence of events (Darwin). From an historical point of view, the most interesting class of evolutionary changes are those that have occurred in response to culture.
Many groups of Meitei ancestors learned to settle down and co-operate in larger groups with people to whom they had no kin relationship, forming the ancestors of ‘Meitei clans’ and subsequently a corporate Meitei nation.
Recent research by an international team of anthropologists, published in ‘Science Today’, on March 11 2011, observe that the foraging bands contain several individuals completely unconnected by kinship or marriage ties; yet they have males with a vested interest in their offspring, sisters and wives. This organisation mitigates the group hostility frequently seen in other apes, leading to a development of a large social network.
We know from our known history (33 CE) that the Meitei ancestors likewise, organised themselves as their genes responded to environmental and cultural changes. The Meitei culture is a major part of the environment of Manipur. Few genes remain constant for a long time.
Old primitive societies like our human ancestors from Africa had some form of religion, a practice which is as old as language. Religion served as an extra cohesive force besides the bonds of kinship to hold societies together.
Archaeologists Joyce Marcus and Kent V. Flannery traced the development of religion over a 7,000 year period from excavations in the Oaxaca valley of Mexico when the hunters and gatherers settled down to a settled egalitarian society.
Once settled to Sedantism and agriculture and on a full stomach with spare food in store, the Meitei ancestors had time to wonder about the workings of the mysteries of how they were born and how they would die.
They began to value the deeds of their ancestors who they believe live up in the sky, and paid homage to them, known as Apokpa khurumba – commonly known as Ancestor Worship.
They also began to develop on their mind, the concept of a creator of life, call it God. The Sanamahi religion was thus born.
The basis of Apokpa Khurumba is that our dead ancestors have a continual and beneficial interest in the affairs of the living posterity. The worship is not a religion in and of itself but a facet of an early religious thinking.
Ofer Bar-Yousef of Harvard University refers to this transition from hunter-gatherer to Sedantism as a major evolution. It brought about the beginning of formal religion in the form of “Ancestor worship”.
The theory has lent firmly to the autochthonous (the first inhabitant) status of the Meitei in Manipur, in view of the deep-rooted nature of their ancestor worship, akin to those prevalent in Africa.
Ancestor worship is also widely prevalent across the globe, differing only in the nature of the worship. It remains an important component of various religious practices.
As the Meitei ancestors descended down to the valley from the hills all around, they began to practice agriculture and animal husbandry, giving them a head start over the neighbouring ethnic groups, perhaps at about the time when the same group of migrants in Eurasia first started agriculture, giving Europeans a head start in economic development and domestication of plants and animals. They cultivated Meitei hui (dog) from the wolves.
Among the Meitei there are a variety of related kinsmen (Yumnak) such as my Irengbam, Haobam, Nameirakpam etc, who conduct separate ‘Apokpa Khurumba’ ie veneration of their ancestors.
At our family home at Uripok, there is a little temple where our ancestors “are housed in the form of some relics”. Every year, most of the Irengbam families gather together at our home in February. We have a feast to pay homage to our ancestors.
We simply venerate our dead ancestors, do not ask for any favours and simply seek their guidance. While alive as of now, Irengbam people give profound respect to our elders. We all give love and respect to the eldest in the clan by bowing to him.
Meitei Apokpa Khurumba, perhaps originated in Africa, outdates any major religion. It predates the Hindu ancestor worship or Pirtu Tarpan. It is prevalent in China, Tropical Africa, Malaysia and Polynesia
The Meitei also practice the Hindu-style ancestor worship known as Pirtu Tarpan. The word “Tarpan” comes from the root word “Trup”- means satisfying others. Offering water to the dead ancestors is called Pitru tarpan. This is performed on the day that followed the date of the Shradha.
The Meitei also perform Hindu-style Tarpan every year in September with a feast.
Apokpa khurumba is not the same as the worship of God where the supplicants ask for some favour that can be granted. Ancestor worship is ancestor veneration, not to ask favour but to do one’s filial duty.
Apokpa khurumba is based on the belief that the human soul survives in an afterlife and that our ancestors continue to exist with their personal identity beyond death. They also believe that the deceased family ancestors possess the ability to influence the fortune of the living.
Every year in the month of November when the leaves fall, each Meitei family will stick a tall bamboo into the ground near the Tulsi plant in the middle of the courtyard known as Mera wayungba. At the top end of the bamboo a pulley is attached and with the help of a thin rope a lit lantern is hoisted at dusk every evening for one month.
This ritual is celebrated with verve and a new sense of devotion by the Meitei. This according to my father was to guide our ancestors in the sky, to our dwelling.
The social or non-religious function of Meitei ancestor veneration is to cultivate kinship values, such as filial piety, family loyalty, and continuity of the family lineage. Besides, this act of veneration does confer some belief that that the departed ancestors have become some kind of deity.
In some Eastern cultures, and in Native American traditions, the goal of ancestor veneration is to ensure the ancestors’ continued well-being and positive disposition towards the living.
In China ancestor worship known as Pinyin seeks to honour the deeds of the deceased. In Korea, it is known as Jerye or Hanja ceremony and is performed periodically. In Vietnam, practically all Vietnamese regardless of religion, have an altar of their ancestors in their home.
In Britain and Ireland, Halloween is observed every year. Their ancestors are supposed to return on this night. Food for them is left outside and lights are left burning all night.
In the United States and Canada, apart from celebrating Halloween, flowers, wreaths, candles and small pebbles are put on the graves all the year round as a way to honour the dead.
Like the Meitei, the Catholic Church in Europe and America often offers prayers for the dead on November 2, known as All Souls’ Day, also called the Day of the Dead. They also observes All Saints’ Day on November 1 every year as feast day to honour all the Saints.
Confucius and the Buddha lived in the same epoch in China and India respectively. Filial piety is a theme preached by both the Buddha and Confucius to strengthen social relations for the betterment of society as a whole.
The teaching of filial piety by Meitei ancestors has integrated very strongly into the social fabric of Meitei society.
I am not a believer in the afterlife or for that matter, that the souls exist after our death, but our ancestors can be a vital force in our lives. What I learned from them is part of who I am today.
The least I can do is to say “Thank you for my existence to my father and grandfather, for who I am and who I will become.
The writer is based in the UK