How Muslims came to be in Manipur

How Muslims came to be in Manipur
By: Farooque Ahmed

The following are accounts from the Cheitharol Kumbaba, the royal chronicle of the former kingdom of Manipur. This is during the reign of king Khagemba (1597-1652) who had two brothers as Princes- Sanongba his elder brother and Chingsomba. These princes were part of the durbar that met regularly. Sanongba had a daughter named Latasana Ibemma who was renowned for her beauty and there was a garden named after her in the sprawling royal compound.

King Khagemba wanted her to be given in marriage to a prince of his choice but Sanongba did not accede to it who wanted to marry her to his own favourite, a noble. But Khagemba was in a position to over-rule Sanongba?s decision, the former being the king. That deeply disturbed Sanongba who did not like that idea that apparently aroused a grudge against the king. It was at that period of the year 1604 AD when the royally patronized Hiyang Tannaba occurred for which Khagemba borrowed a boat from Sanongba for Chingsomba as the latter did not have one of his own. That boat was noted of to be leaking in the race that could have been involved in a collision. The king was trying to repair or mend the boat when Sanongba knew of it. The king after the event returned the boat to Sanongba who refused to take it and curtly replied to the king ?Bring that man who took the boat from me. I will see to it and that I will kill him?, to which the king replied ?Kill me, if you wish because that person borrowed it on my order?. That left Sanongba dumbfounded, terse and grudging against the king as the two were already in bad blood over the question of the marriage of Princess Latasana. Sanongba grasped that moment for his own personal vendetta and further demanded that ?that boat be returned to him as it was? that ruled out any repair, mending or compensation with a new one or money for the purchase or making a new boat as the king fervently persuaded his brother Sanongba to accept any of his suggestions and to settle the ?ugly matter? that turned out to be so. Sanongba was still adamant to the point of recalcitrance that infuriated the king. So the enraged king decided to expel Sanongba from the kingdom saying ?I don?t need to see your face anymore?. So the ?disappointed? Sanongba decided to flee to Cachar who was accompanied by his daughter, the noble whom he wanted to be his son-in -law and dowager queen mother Luwang Changambi.

Khagemba immediately sent words to the Cachari king named Pratafil (1603-1610) to deny shelter to them. Sanongba and his followers reached the court of Pratafil who responded to their request for asylum positively after intensive and persuasive plea and Pratafil replied ?My job is to protect you and you must follow the rules of the land to which they readily complied?, and they stayed in a field under a tent that was not far from the Cachari palace.

It was where Sanongba married her daughter to the noble and it was where they met some Muslims who were living as some renegade group. They lived in the caves who were wandering around for food. One day when they were preparing food, smoke billowed from cooking in the night that attracted the curiosity and attention of Sanongba who first sent his son-in-law to find out who those people were actually. At first the Muslims dispersed and disappeared that left Sanongba?s man in no sight of them. Next time Sanongba and his man went in person and indeed met those Muslims. In the first incursion to Manipur by Sanongba to overthrow his loathed and reviled man, Khagemba to capture the throne for himself, he was accompanied and assisted by the Cacharis who had no Muslim members till then. These rag-tag mercenary granted by Pratafil marched into Manipur in 1604 AD leaving behind the two ladies- the princess and the queen mother in Cachar. Upon reaching Manipur border, Sanongba?s men encountered some Manipuris who gave stiff resistance to the intruders some of whom were killed by the Manipuris. That made them retreat back to Cachar. Sanongba was unruffled by the defeat but he was disappointed that made him all the more determined to come back for a fight. And he swore to himself ?I will fight him (Khagemba) out till my last breath and I will surely bring him to the knees?. Then he started organizing his men more meticulously and methodical arrangements. This time Sanongba sought the assistance of one Muslim leader, Praseng and the group included many persons from the Muslim community from Cachar inhabitants and Sylhet that was under the Bengal Subah. Sylhet that was near Habibganj as part of Bengal Subah with Taraf was its main township was administered by Nawab Naziri who was also approached by Sanongba for the help. Naziri after much deliberation acceded to it and even sent his cousin Muhammad Sani as the Muslim leader in Sanongba?s coalition. And the Cacharis were led by Pratafil?s general Yakharek and brother Bhimbal. Sanongba fixed a date for this invasion and this time he asked his son-in-law to stay back suspecting that his daughter could be widowed but the in-law refused to stay back who swore ? I will get those detested men?. Finally the appointed day came and they started their incursion into Manipur. They swept aside obstacles on the way and moved in threatening speed towards inner Manipur- the valley. Sanongba?s men succeeded as to gain a foothold in the territory of Manipur and prepared further for a long haul. There they made tents and lived there for a while but an alert Manipuri saw their movement towards Imphal who promptly reported the matter to the Manipur palace. Khagemba brought the matter to the durbar and quickly organized his nobles and troops asking them to make trenches around the zone from where Sanongba?s men could be further marching towards the capital. Even then they reached the interior territory of Manipur and started fighting with Khagemba?s soldiers.

Sanongba?s men fought bravely against the huge Manipuri soldier. Khagemba realized of the gravity of the unfolding scenario that compelled the king to increase the number of the soldiers in his side. He ordered ?capture them alive and bring them to me? but the Manipuri side could not capture Sanongba at all even though they succeeded in rounding up many Cacharis. Cheitharol Kumbaba, the royal Chronicle notes of the event that took place in the fall of 1606 AD that hade a sprinkling of Muslims who were actually peasants as ?a joint Cachari-Muslim invasion?.

This time Sanongba?s coalition proved formidable that was engaged in a pitch battle at Lammangdong (Bishnupur) that turned out to be a protracted fight claiming the lives of many combatants on both sides. The Manipuri side was led by Chingsomba and general Nongsamei of Lairikyengbam whose astute craftiness saved the day and Sanongba?s men were surrounded and captured including himself who were brought to Manipur. In that battle, the Muslims were noted to be valiant and unpromising that caught the imagination of king Khagemba who then decided to settle the Muslims in Manipur by giving Meitei women in marriage instead of letting them go. Khagemba sought the service of these Muslims for the welfare of Manipur. Thus the Muslim settlement is noted to have started on 17th of Inga month (Meitei calendar that is in June of 1606 Christ era). Muhammad Sani was appointed as the first Imam for the Muslim community in the Manipuri kingdom. Their population later swelled by later incoming Muslims. After more than 200 years, there was a devastating scene in Manipur because of a particularly savage Ava (Burmese) invasion that lasted seven years (1819-26) because of which many Meiteis and Muslims fled to Cachar, then as far to Sylhet, Comilla which are now in Bangladesh) and parts of Assam and Tripura that depleted the population size of Manipur to a considerable extent. These regions of Tripura, Assam and Bangladesh have still considerable number of Meiteis and Manipuri speaking Muslim populations.

R. Brown, F. R. C. S. F., the then British Political Agent of Manipur wrote in his book ?Statistical Account of the Native State of Manipur and the Hill Territory Under Its Rule? (1873)that there is still considerable population of Muslims, descendents of settlers from Bengal for the most part; they number about 900 families or 4,500 people. They chiefly reside to the east of the capital. And the Manipuris say that from great antiquity Muslims have formed part of the population of the valley, as well as Hindus. They have the reputation of being an honest community and perform lallup as Manipuris, he noted.

Date: 10 August 2002
Place: New Delhi

* The author is a former Senior Researcher in the Jawaharlal Nehru University (Centre for political Studies), New Delhi.

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