Socio-cultural ties among the people of hills and plain

By: Priyadarshni M Gangte 

Introduction:

Lapiere (Sociology, page 68) said, “Culture is the embodiment of customs, tradition, etc. of the learning of a social group over the generation”, and so said, Melville F. Herskovits in his book on Cultural Anthropology (1955: p.3), “Culture is the ways man has devised to cope with his natural setting and his social milieu; and how bodies of custom are learned, retained and handed down from one generation to the next”.

We may examine as to how far are the people of Manipur who can be broadly divided into Meitei, Kuki and Naga, living in the valley and the hills surrounding it are related or otherwise in consideration of their culture, tradition, customs; etc., more particularly so in view of the fact that while the Meiteis living in the valley profess Hinduism, the Kukis and the Nagas living in the hills surrounding the valley embrace Christianity.

Origin and ethnic affinity:

According to Grierson, G.A. (1904: p.6), the Meiteis, Kukis and Nagas are all of Mongoloid stock belonging to the Tibeto-Burman family, and their language is clubbed in the Kuki-Chin group of language which would have been a better appellation had it been given the Meitei-Chin linguistic group. This will enable the whole group divided into two sub-groups, the Meiteis and the various tribes which are known under the names of Kuki and Chin. By this, it only proves that the Meiteis and the Kukis and the Nagas are closely related in terms of language. All the same, the Kachin connection has been proved by the linguistic affinity between the Meitei and the Kachin (Hudson, T C., The Meithei, 1908: p.10).

McCulloch, W, (The Valley of Manipur: 1859 : p.4) stated that in view of striking affinity in the language and culture of the people of Meiteis and the hill tribes of Manipur including their folklore, he was prompted to advance a theory that the Meiteis are descendants of the Kukis and Nagas. Brown, R. (A Statistical Account of Manipur, 1874 : p.28) also subscribed to this view of tribal origin of the Meiteis and speculated that “should it be a correct view that the valley of Manipur was at no very distant period almost covered entirely by water, the origin of the Munniporees from the surrounding hill is the proper and only conclusion to be arrived”.

Similarly, Hudson, T.C. (1908 : page II) was bold enough to say, “Two hundred years ago, in the internal organisation in village, in habits and manners the Meiteis were as the hill people now are. The successive courses of foreign invasions, Shan, Burmese, Hindu and English, each left permanent marks on the civilization of the people so that they have passed finally away from the stage of relatively primitive culture with one of comparative civilization but their ultimate homogeneity with the Nagas and Kukis of the hills is undoubted”.

An important feature is the indispensable Customary Law elements in regard to the parts played by each ‘Salai’ and to ensure participation of several ethnic, and tribal groups in bringing and contributing different kinds of wood available in their ‘regions which were used in the construction of halls in Kangla. Their participation in coronation ceremony was essential. It was customary to collect water from different pools (Naoroibam Indramani : Coronation of Manipuri kings, Sanathong Monthly Journal, 2001, Vol. VIII No.4, pp.15-18) belonging to the seven different ‘Salais’.

Use of different designs and colours on clothes both among the seven Salais of Meiteis and the tribal groups, a practice followed since the reign of Pamheiba, reveal the divergent cultural base. Wearing of Tangkhul customary dress by the King during the coronation ceremony was a demonstrative impact factor for the people to integrate. These are seen as an attempts to depict characteristics of the occasion to project the King as supreme authority of all the people living, both in the Valley and the hills, in expression of solidarity and integration of societies.

To highlight the most important fact about the origin of the Manipuri’s Kukis, the Meiteis and the Nagas is having a common origin. A folk song often sung at the Laiharaoba – a festival of the Meiteis reveals that, whether it be the settlers of the hills or that of the valley, both are of the same stock (W. Damudar Singh : Merger of Manipur with the Dominion of India; The Sangai Express: dt. 27-29, Sept., 2006). The song, ‘Chingda Taba Mahaige, Tamda Taba Mahaige, Wakon Tanoi Noi…‘ when sung in its indigenous and primeval tune significantly expresses inseparable ‘oneness’ and deep relationship that existed between these groups of people.

That the Kingdom of Manipur, a segmentary state, had been in existence since the early Christian era constituted of the people belonging to the hills and the, valley, cannot be denied the indigenous groups of people categorised as the Tami (the people who settled in the valley) and the Chingmi (the people of all groups irrespective of their indigenous ethnic divisions settled in the valley or those who remained in the hills) (Ibid) because of their customary laws and socio-political common terminology found in their respective administrative units is also a fact.

Meitei, Kuki and Naga Ethnonyms:

Jhalajit, R.K. (1964 : p.14: A short history of Manipur) said that whatever be the genesis of its derivation, the ethnonym, Meitei, was historically found to have been applied to the Ningthouja clan-dynasty founded by Nongda Lairen Pakhangba and other groups absorbed by this dynasty politically and integrated into its social structure. The origin of these Meitei tribes is still obscured and complicated due to lack of information regarding their migration before they arrived to Manipur Valley. However, clan genealogies prepared by the Ningthouja royal court shows common origination from a single divine personality. This may be a later interpolation to create a myth of common origin of the Meiteis which was a necessary ingredient of nation building, said Kabui, Gangmumei, (1991 : p.20 : History of Manipur, Vol. I : Pre-Colonial Period).

As a matter of fact, sociologically, the Meiteis have absorbed many foreign elements and completely assimilated into their social milieu. Over and above this strong political and social pressure of assimilation, there is the dynamic and all absorbing Meitei language which turned out to be the backbone of the process of the Meiteisation of indigenous eleme-nts. It is likely that the Meitei as distinct ethnic, linguistic, cultural and social entity was formed in Manipur valley which was a melting pot of culture.

“The Kuki tribes of Manipur are a branch of the great Kuki Chin family of people. They are linguistically related to Meiteis. Ptolemy’s Tiladae is identified with the Kukis by Gerini; and Kukis were included among the Kiratas. Kuki is a generic terminology. Some Kuki tribes migrated in Manipur hills in the pre-historic times along with or after the Meitei advent in Manipur valley. Greater migration occurred in the 18th century onwards due to the great Kuki exodus which affected the demographic landscape of the hills of Manipur and adjoining areas, said, Kabui, G. (Op. Cit. : p.23).

Elwin, Verrier (1960: p.4 : Nagaland, Shillong) said, “The derivation of the word is still obscure”. Gangmumei said “If the Kiratas of the later Vedas, Epics and Puranas were the Indo-Mongoloid tribes of eastern India, the Nagas were definitely among them. But the Nagas of the Sanskrit literature, especially of the Puranas are not the present Nagas under discussion”.

William Robinson (1841 : 380 : A descriptive Account of Assam, Gauhati) said, “The origin of the word Naga is unknown; but it has been supposed to have been derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Nanga’ and applied in derision to the people due to scanty nature of their clothings. Be it as it may, the theory of Naga coming from Sanskrit or Hindustani Nanga cannot be easily discarded. The Meitei historical and literary works refer to the Naga tribes as having been in occupation of the hills of Manipur.

Some aspects of homogeneity :

In confirmation, their close affinity is still in manifestation in many aspects of the life-style of these people but for professing of Hinduism by the Meiteis which seemed to have pushed apart these homogeneous groups of Meiteis, Nagas and Kukis. Yet, it would be interesting if we can highlight some such life-cultures of affinity among them.

(1) Attention to genealogy: McCulloch, M. (1857 : pp. 56-57 : Valley of Manipur) said, “I have before noticed the circumstance of the Koupooees believing themselves to be occupying the sites of villages which once belonged to the southern tribes, and as this belief tallies with the Khongjai (Kuki) idea, …the latter had formerly occupied the position now occupied by the Koupooees (Kabuis)… They pay great attention to the genealogy, and profess to know the names of their Chiefs in succession from their leader out of the bowels of the earth..”

Similarly, he said of the Meiteis that the attention of these tribes to their genealogy is curious and the circumstance of “…the Munniporees preserving in each family a “Mei-hou-rol” or genealogical tree is a coincidence of custom worthy of notice”. Such is an instance of cultural relationship of the people of Manipur without explanation in detail.

(2) Disposal of dead culture: It needs hardly be overemphasized that when a person dies, the corpse is buried. This culture is prevalent till date since time immemorial without change despite the fact that the Nagas and the Kukis have embraced Christianity these days. This burial tradition among the Meiteis was prevalent till the time of Maharajah Garib Niwaz who ordered that the Meiteis should exhume the bodies of their ancestors which they used to bury formerly inside their compounds. It is well known that upto the advent of Hinduism, the dead were buried, and the chronicles mentioned that Khagemba Maharajah enacted a rule to the effect that the dead were to be buried outside the enclosures of the houses. This was altered during the reign of Garib Niwaz. It is said that he exhumed the bones of his ancestors and cremated them on the bank of Engthi (Ningthi) river. Since then, he ordered his subjects to burn their dead. This change took place sometime in the year 1724, said Hudson, T.C. (1908: p. 116-17: The Meitheis).

(3) Sanskritic Origin : In as much as protagonists of Aryan origin of the Meiteis’ claiming descent from Pandavas through Babrubhahana, there are ample Sanskritic backgrounds of the Kukis. Grierson, G.A. (1904 : p.383; Vo/. III, Linguistic Survey of India; Tibeto-Burman Family, P-III) said, “In the Raj Mala, Siva is stated to have fallen in love with a Kuki woman, and the Kukis are me-ntioned in connection with the Tipperah Raja Chachag who flourished about 1512, A.D.”

Similarly, Kabui, G. (Op.cit,: p.23), said, “If the Kiratas of the later Vedas, Epics and Puranas were the Indo-Mongoloid tribes of eastern India, the Nagas were definitely among them.” And so, said William Robinson (op. cit.) that the word Naga had been supposed to have been derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Nanga’ and applied in derision to the people due to scanty nature of their clothings which must on no account be easily marginalized.

(4) Mera Houchongba Festival: Banned by Garib Niwaz on acceptance of Hinduism on ground of purity and impurity or touchable and untouchable between the hills and the plain, Mera Houchongba Festival as a common culture among the people of the hills and the plain is one glaring evidence that had been in existence for centuries together before it was forcibly made to abandon.

On this occasion all the people from the valley and the hills brought together their offerings to the King all varieties of new arrivals of the year’s crops and vegetables including paddy from their fields and made their festivities in the presence of the King and in praise of the Almighty for the abundance of blessings given to them and for a more rich harvests in the years to come.

Unfortunately, with the embracing of Hinduism this was discontinued with a decree from the King. It was revived in recent years mainly with a view to bringing about a closer and better relationship and emotional integration among the people living in the hills and the valley. Yet, all the while, such a rich culture has been in vogue among the hill people which have now been officially declared as general holiday on the day of Kut for the Kukis and Lui-Ngai-Ni for the Nagas.

(5) Affinity in Vocabulary: Being under the Tibeto-Burman family group speaking dialects of the same language, the Meiteis, Nagas and Kukis ought to have certain amount of linguistic affinity which should be manifested in their vocabularies. In this regard it will be relevant to note that

(i) Kuki language is called in Manipur Thadou-Pao. This language does not have ‘L’ for ‘R’. Thus for a word that requires ‘R’ in its spelling it is substituted by either the letter ‘L’ or ‘G’ as the case may be;
(ii) The Nagas do not have a common language unlike the Meiteis and the Kukis. Yet, the most outstanding advancement in developing a common language is the Tangkhul Nagas who adopted the Ukhrul dialect as their common language. So when language affinity is made on comparative study Tangkhul language will be used.
(iii) Higgins, J.e., the then Political Agent, Manipur (1919 : KP Ml3 7/198) said, “Manipuri and Thadou (Kuki) contain certain roots in common but are quite distinct languages and a knowledge of one does not enable a person to make himself understood by persons speaking the other. Assam Government, therefore, grants a separate reward to Officers passing in both”.

Under the circumstances, we may examine as to how far are these people related or otherwise in regard the language also. Some representative vocabularies are shown (Table 1) for the said purpose:
These are few of the original vocabularies that stand the winds of change that were experienced in the languages of Meitei, Kuki and Naga. While that of the Kukis and the Nagas remain more or less unchanged a lot of sanskritization had taken place in the case of Meitei language that had distanced their homogeneity. It is to be seen as to how long the relic remnants of linguistic homogeneity would survive.

Reasons for drawing such conclusion may be attributed to the following facts

  1. tradition of common origin prevalent among the hill tribes that the Meiteis were their descendants;
  2. as established by Grierson that there exists the linguistic affinity between the Meitei, Naga and Kuki-Chin people;
  3. close connection of some Meitei clans that exists with the hill tribes who were in close proximity of their habitat;
  4. striking similarity of the coronation costumes of the royal couple with that of some Naga tribes;
  5. architecture of the coronation halls of the Kangla with the ritual houses of the Chiefs of the Naga tribes.

Tribal origin of the Meitei clans was strongly opposed by some writers in the 19th and 20th centuries mainly on the ground that there was no legend or tradition among the Meiteis to substantiate their common origin with the tribes. Nevertheless, instances are galore that there are migrations of some individual Meitei heroes or families in the hills who absorbed themselves into the societies of tribes in whichever they might choose to be converted into.

Chikim-Meitei Relationship

Of all Tibeto-Burman peoples the Meitei of Manipur were the people linguistically closest to the CHIKIM and they settled together as one group in the Chindwin Valley. Historical materials of the Meiteis have shown the presence of Chikim people in the Chindwin Valley after the beginning of the Christian era. Lehman in his book – The Structure of Chin Society: Urbana, 1963, puts the Chikim’s occupation of the area well into the middle of the first millennium AD, in which period the Meiteis conquered the Andro-Sekmai group of people, who were inhabitants of present day Manipur.

Hudson has maintained that the Meiteis were descendents of surrounding hill tribes (re. Hudson: Gp. Cit; p.9). Their traditions have remained similar and even today they retain many customs of the hill people. He wrote, in 1900 that the organization, religion, habits and manners of the Meitei of two hundred years before were the same as the hill people (Chikim and Naga) of his own era. It is indeed an important observation and demands critical appreciation.

There are legends and traditions, which tell of early relationships between Meitei, Naga, and Chikim – the three ethnosis. A Tangkhul (Naga) tradition says that Naga, Meitei and Chikim descended from a common ancestor who had three sons. These were the progenitors of the tribes. This tradition puts the CHIKIM as the eldest and the Meitei the youngest.

Hudson wrote, “The Tangkhul legend is to the effect that one day a sow, heavy with young, wandered from the village of Hundung and was tracked to the valley by the younger of the two brothers who had migrated from the village of Maikei Tungam, where their parents lived, and had founded the village of Hundung. Oknung, the pig’s stone, where the sow was eventually found, is situated on the banks of the Iril River.

Table I

(a) Anatomique vocabularies:

English Meitei Naga Kuki
Head Kok (Lu) Lu Kui
Neck Ngak Ngong Khanao
Shoulder Leng Leng (Lengban) (Lengkou)
Hair Sam Sam Sam
Eye Mit Mit Mik
Saliva Tin Chil
Nose Na-ton Nak-kui Kha-na
Tongue Lei Lei Lei
Tooth Ya Ha Ha
Hand Khut Khut Khut
Knee Khuk-u Khup-bu
Leg Khong Keng (Phei) Phei
Nail Khu-jil Khut-tin
Chin Kha-dang Kha-Ihang (Kha-tang)
Face Mai Mai Mai
Thigh Phei-gan Phei-pi Kaphei

(b) Numerals:

English Meitei Naga Kuki
One A-ma Khat A-kha
Two A-ni Ni Kha-ni
Three A-hum Thurn Ka-thum
Four Ma-ri Li Ma-ti
Five Ma-nga Nga Pha-nga
Six Ta-ruk Gup (K) Tha-ruk or Ruk
Seven Ta-ret Sagi Si-ni
Eight Ni-pan Get Chi-sat
Nine Ma-pan Koh(k) Chi-ko
Ten . Ta-ra som Tha-ra

(c) Miscellaneous :

English Meitei Naga Kuki
Wood Shing Thing Thing
Song I-sei La La
Dead A-si-ba A-Thi Ka-Thi
Alive A-hing-ba A-Hing Ka-Hing
Go Chat-pa A-Che Ka-Chat
Cry Kap-pa A-Kap Ka-Chap
Name Ming Min Ming
Laugh Nok-pa A-Nui Nga-Nu
Shout Lao-ba A-Ao Kha-Vao
Call Kou-ba A-Kou Ka-Ho

The sow littered there and the young man stayed to look after her; and as he found the country to his liking, he decided to settle there. For a time he kept up friendly relations with his brother in the hills, who made a practice of sending him every year gifts of produce of the hills and in turn received presents of the manufacture of the plains. The younger brother became well-to-do and proud, and abandoned the custom of sending presents to his brother in the hills, who promptly came down and took what he had been in the habit of getting.” (Vumson : Zo History, Aizawl; p.3l)

It is also pertinent to mention that the blood brotherhood as claimed by NSCN(IM) top brass may draw our attention to the Ritual History of Manipur ancestor which claimed that Meiteis originated from a common pool of three kin brothers namely
(1) Tangkhul Saram Pakhangba (origin of Ukhrul and Valley tribes);
(2) Nongda Lairen Pakhangba (where from the lineage of present royal family of Manipur descended);
(3) Chothe Thangmai Pakhangba (where from the Kukis were believed to have descended);
(This was as per authenticated document of Dr. P. Khuman Khomba, Advisor of His Highness, Maharajah of Manipur).

Two dissimilar societies emerged from a homogeneous but complex society on account of the British manipulations who emphasised upon dissimilarities instead of similarities in cultural traditions, language and religious rites and rituals. The policy of divisiveness created a psyche for differences amidst the tribal groups. These two groups were further alienated when Hindu Vaishnavism was accepted in Manipur which gradually developed strong grip over the Meitei society under the royal patronage.

(Dr. N. Vijayalakshmi Brara : Religious Movements and Cultural Synthesis in Manipur : An observation on Manipuri Hinduism – Globalization and the changing scenario of cultural interaction; Manipur Express: A paper presented at the centre for Manipuri Studies, M U, Imphal on 3-4 March, 2003.) Subsequently the King declared Hinduism as State religion during the reign of King Charai-rongba in the 17th Century and converted the Meiteis into a part of the pan- Vaishnava culture. This alienation was further aggravated when the hill people adopted Christianity in the early part of 19th Century. By this time orthodox Hinduism was firmly entrenched in the Meitei society.

With the advent of Christianity the traditional belief system that had provided the hill people with a link, albeit tenuous, with Meitei society ended. The new religion discouraged the hill people from observing their traditional ceremonies and festivals as they were considered by the Christian Missionaries to be ‘Paganistic and primitive’. The rich culture and traditions of the hill people became relics of the past. The role of religion in shaping the present and future of the people were denied thereafter, in one way or the other. Though Christianity did not pose any challenge to the dominant Meitei society, the latter refused to acknowledge the new and alien religion. The ‘new’ ways of life of the Christianized converts among hill people was ignored by the dominant Meitei society, and these societies diverged on different paths ignoring their common traits in their cultural history.

Thus, the two great world religions contributed in no small measures in the causes for ‘drifting away’ of the two groups of blood-fraternity. Politics, subsequently kept them at ‘daggers drawn’ against each other despite their inherent ‘one-ness’, traditionally, culturally and linguistically. Thus, culture, tradition and custom with the passage of time became part and parcel of the Meitei and other communities’ social systems. It is high time to change our minds that we should realize of our being from a common origin.

Our Meitei brethren should always continue to have that accommodative thinking, such as, support extended to the appointments of Yangmasho Shaiza, Mohd. Alimuddin and Rishang Keishing as Chief Ministers of Manipur. Well, as that of Rajya Sabha M.P. seat given to Rishang Keishing. Thus we can maintain the Meiteis, the Nagas and the Kukis have a common origin, they have shared the same territory and had evolved political authority, shared perception through give and take of progressive society, their future stand is not isolated but in togetherness.

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