Myth making and imagining a Brahmanical Manipur since 18th century CE

It is absolutely not farfetched to argue that Manipur was imagined in the 18th century, some 250 years ago. I must, however, caution myself here lest my arguments are misconstrued as denying the existence of state/states or communities with distinct social, political or cultural identities in the region which is called Manipur today, one of the many provinces of Indian ‘state….nation’. The states in this region were referred to by many names.

In 1799 CE, Francis Buchanan wrote an article about the languages and people surrounding the Burmese empire, and he wrote in the article of a rebellious people who inhabited the region between Sylhet in Bengal and Ava. He wrote that the people inhabiting in the valley called themselves as ‘Moitay’, and those in the hills by many names. However, he argued the region was known by many names. The Burmese called it Kathee/Cussay, the Britishers in Bengal called it Meckley and the Brahmins of the region called it Munnypura. The existence of many names often confused the Europeans so much that Rennel who prepared the first map of Hindoostan and beyond laid down two Kingdoms, Cussay and Meckley in the first draft of his map. He was also considering including Munnypura as the third kingdom between Hindoostan and Burma. The two treaties signed with the East India Company in 1762 and 1763 CE also referred to the region as Meckley, and the king as Meckley Raja. Moreover, revisionist historiography has also come up with many names such as Kangleipak and Meitei-leibak etc.

These various names represent competing political and cultural visions for the region. We should also not forget here that parts of the Manipur state are claimed by other political movements today. By mid 18th century CE, a particular political and cultural vision was promoted aggressively in the region aided by the royal court at the expense of the others. Munnypura or Manipur, a brahmanical imagination of the region began to be identified with the region by the beginning of the 19th century. This was achieved through a careful and meticulous myth-making by the Brahmans who are locally referred to as ‘Bamons’ or Manipuri Bamons. It is also important to point out that we should not treat Manipuri Brahmins as a single monolithic category. Brahmins migrated to the court of Manipur in different waves and many of them were imposters and fortune seekers who travelled in disguise of Brahmins. Moreover, they belonged to different sects and denominations and were often exiled to Kubo, Ava and Arakan for political and religious dissents in the court. Many of them actively took part in the making of a Brahmanical Manipur through myth-making. Vaishnavism received royal patronage only in 1704 CE, when Raja Charairongba embraced and consecrated idols of Hindu gods and subsequently built a temple dedicated to Vishnu in the year 1707 CE. Such traditions were followed by Raja Garibniwaj who transferred the responsibility of taking care of the shrines and lais/deities from the amaibas/amaibis (priest/priestess) to the Bamons in 1723 CE and subsequently demolishing of many pre-Vaishnavite shrines. The succeeding kings also followed the policy of popularizing Vaishnavism in the region. Myth-making was done in many ways, but this article will engage with one dominant form of myth-making by writing texts called Bijoy Panchalis.

It is important to remember that Bijoy Panchali texts are commissioned and composed within the court, and written by Bamon pundits.

The region is often associated with orality and oral traditions, and it is shocking to many in the academia when it is pointed out to them that the region developed a written literary culture between 14th and 15th century CE. It is definitely not to say that oral traditions are less important, and in fact oral traditions continued to remain the foremost form of knowledge transmission in the region. Texts which are locally known as Puyas were written mostly within the confines of the royal court. Likewise, Bijoy Panchalis were also commissioned and written in the royal court. However many do not consider it as a Puya depending on how one defines a Puya. If we are referring to all the written texts as puya, it is definitely a puya since it was commissioned and composed in the court by the Pundits/Maichous. However many scholars refrained from using the word Puya for Bijoy Panchali, because in their understanding Puyas are associated with pre-Hindu or non-Hindu traditions and they find Bijoy Panchali lacking such attributes. Manihar Singh and Jayanti Thokchom consider Bijoy Panchali as state chronicle which emerged with the adoption of Vaishnavism by the court in the 18th century and J.B. Bhattacharjee calls it a Bengali chronicle of Manipur. However, it did became the state chronicle and did not replace Cheitharon Kumpapa as the court chronicle. Bijoy Panchali comprises of five parts/volumes written over 150 years between 1782 CE and 1954 CE. There are many manuscripts of these texts; in Bengali in Bangla Lipi and in Manipuri in Bangla Lipi. Then there are translations in Manipuri in Bangla lipi by L. Mangi Singh and L. Mani Singh and by Anganghal Singh in Manipuri language in Bangla lipi which cannot be traced.

Unlike Cheitharon Kumpapa, each of the five volumes of Bijoy Panchali deals with the genealogy and heroic deeds of various kings of Manipur who embraced Vaishnavism. The five volumes are: volume 1- Garibaniwaj Charit; Volume 2- Bhagyachandra Charit; Volume 3- Gambhir singh and Nar Singh Charit; Volume 4- Chandrakirti Charit and Volume 5- Surchandra, Kulachandra and Tikendrajit Charit. The commissions of Bijoy Panchalis are recorded in Cheitharon Kumpapa. It is recorded, ‘On 15th of the month of Langban (Aug/Sept), Ibungshi Mantri, Lairikyenba Kirtichandra and Tulsi Narayan, the hanjaba (an official) completed the composition of Bijoy Panchali of King Garibniwaz’. The first volume, Garibniwaj Charit, was initially written in 1782 CE in Manipuri language in Bangla lipi, later rewritten in Bengali in 1872 CE. This text follows the birth and career of Maharaja Garibniwaz (1709-1748), his matrimonial alliances, his religious pursuits such as pilgrimages and endowments to temples and his military exploits in Burma, Cachar and Tripura. The second volume, Bhagyachandra Charit was written much later, composed by one Gunendra in the year 1932 CE. This volume deals with Raja Bhagyachandra(1763-1798), and it deals with his birth, his wars with the Burmese, his exile to Cachar and Ahom capital, and his religious pursuits such as the construction of the Govindaji temple in Kangla, introduction and composition of Raj Lila and Rajeshori Pala, consecration of Sri Govindaji idol and finally his pilgrimage/retirement in Navadip in Bengal. Similarly the third volume, Gambhir Singh and Nara Singh Charit was compiled in 1935 by the same person Gunendra, which recounts the reign of Raja Gambhir Singh (1825-34) and Raja Nara Singh (1844-50), their birth, wars against the Burmese and introduction of Rath Yatra festival (Kang Chingba) and Jalakeli Pala. The fourth and the fifth volume was composed by L. Mangi Singh at the order of Maharaja Bodhachandra in the year 1954, which deals with the reign of Raja Chandrakirti, Surchandra, Kulachandra and Tikendrajit.

It is important to remember that Bijoy Panchali texts are commissioned and composed within the court, and written by Bamon pundits. New narratives were introduced through these texts, such as a Brahamanical narrative of the creation/origin of the kingdom whose name Manipur appears in these texts prominently and a new genealogy of the kings of Manipur also emerged in these texts. In Bhagyachandra Charit, it is mentioned that the kingdom was created by lord Shiva in the last Satya yuga. Lord Mahadeva, according to these texts was in search of a place for the divine dance with his consort and they found a place which was flooded. They could only see the tip of Nongmaiching hill, the abode of many traditional deities. Mahadeva stood on this hill and dug a hole with his trisul, a trident and drained the water. Thus the valley came into existence and a dance was performed in which all the gods participated. According to the narratives in the texts, the dance performed was the first Lai Haraoba. The gods gifted the region with many jewels to the region. Ananta, the snake god also apparently took out his precious gem from his head and granted it to the land, and hence it became covered with jewels. The text claims that from that day onwards the region came to be known as Manipur, or land of jewels.

These texts also traced the genealogy of the kings of Manipur to Babrubahana, the son of one of the Pandava brothers Arjun and a Manipuri princess Chitrangada. The text narrates how Babrubahana and his queen Urmila failed to conceive an heir to the throne. They prayed to the sun god for a child, which was granted to them in the form an egg which was rejected by queen Urmila. The sun god asked Yamraja to keep the egg till the beginning of the Kali Yug. When Kali Yug began, Goddess Laxmi descended to Manipur with the egg so that the child hatched from the egg will become the king. The egg was received by the chief of Angom clan, Pureiromba. When the egg hatched, the boy Jabishtha or Pakhangba was born along with 5 snakes named Sarang-Leishangthem, Luwang, Moirang, Khuman and Khaba. The text further says that another snake emerged from the navel of Pakhangba, and it was named Ningthoucha, and then all the snakes turned into men, and along with Pureirongba became the ancestors of the seven salais/clans which today constitute the Meetei society. Eventually, Pakhnagba of the Ningthoucha clan became the first king of Manipur. Similarly, many myths were created by these texts. These texts aggressively sanskritised the names of the kings, the rivers, the mountains and villages and older traditions and deities were identified with Vaishnavism.

Bijoy Panchalis played a crucial role in creating these myths, which were used by the elites to legitimize their stations and privileges in society.  

By the beginning of the 20th century, these myths were accepted as unquestionable truth by the elites. The ruling elites considered themselves as Kshatriyas, sons of Arjun and as Aryans. Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India and Hodson’s The Meitheis published in 1908 CE created quite a scandal in the royal court after they classified Manipuri as a Tibeto Burman language and not an Aryan. This started a historical debate, perhaps the first one in the region, on the question of origin of Manipur. Pukhrambam Parijat wrote Manipur Purabrita in 1917, under the patronage of Maharaja Churachand Singh as a response to Hodson’s work and reiterated the Aryan and Hindu origin of the kingdom and its people. As a result of the efforts of the Nikhil (Hindu) Manipuri Mahasabha, a Historical Research committee was formed, and investigations of materials on the history of Manipur were started. Under the guidance of the Mahasabha, Shri Mutum Jhulon studied Bijoy Panchali, which carried the ethos of the Meitei elites. John Pratt argues that the first generation of the indigenous writers (local scholars) 1 in Manipur generally pursued an agenda which saw Manipur as a part of the Sanskritic Indian traditions and that Manipuri had an Aryan origin. Similarly, Phurailatpam Atombabu Sharma, a Brahmin scholar was a pioneering proponent of such views. In 1940, he wrote Manipur Itihas, where attempts were made to show that Meiteis were Aryans, and Manipur was identified with Manipurna from the Mahabharata epic. The genealogy of the ruling Ningthouchas were also linked to Brababohan, the son from the marriage of Hindu demi-god Arjun with Chitrangada, the princess of Manipurna. Atombabu’s work was indeed very popular during his times, and influenced many younger historians. Such arguments are also shared by Indian nationalist historians such as R. C. Majumdar and Suniti Kumar Chatterji who claimed these regions for the Indian nation.

However such works and arguments have been widely discredited by generations of historians and political commentators. It began in a movement during the 1930s and 40s which sought not only to reform the corrupt and exploitative Brahmananical Hinduism under the Brahma Sabha, but to reject the Brahmanical religion altogether. They rejected the efforts of Atombabu and others to bring the Meiteis within the Aryan Hindu tradition, and strongly rejected the Aryan origin of the Meiteis. Naoria Phulo, Takhellambam Bokul and others played significant roles during these movements. Naorio Phulo wrote and published as many as 22 books on different subjects on Meitei philosophy and religion, and was directly responding to the works of Atombabu Sharma and Mutum Jhulon Singh. In 1934, he published a work, Meeitei Houbham Wari, which describes the origin of the Meiteis or Manipuris with a plea to acknowledge their real identity. Similarly, in 1940, he wrote and published another work, ‘Eigi Wareng’, which criticized the misinterpretations and corruptions followed specially by Manipuris and suggested ways to realize their correct history, religion and identity.

Bijoy Panchalis played a crucial role in creating these myths, which were used by the elites to legitimize their stations and privileges in society. Today even devoted Hindus in the state do not subscribe to such outlandish claims. No sensible historian, amateur or professional, worth their salt will dare to claim these myths as historical facts. However, the recent speech in Hindi by the Chief Minister of Manipur on 28th March at Madhavpur fair held at Porbandar, Gujarat claiming Manipur and the entire Northeast region as a part of the Brahmanical cosmological universe dragged out from obscurity and obsoleteness, an old debate which have been dumped in the darkest abyss by generations of historians so that it does not find light again. The Indian state has not been very successful in nationalizing this recalcitrant region and its population, and successive governments have used different strategies to bring the region under their firm control. With successive electoral gains in the region, the ruling party has been emboldened to go ahead their master plan of submerging the entire country under one national identity. The Madhavpur Mela, organized by Ministry of culture in Gujarat to celebrate another mythical claim that Lord Krishna married an Arunachali princess, is a grand and a very expensive affair to bring the region and its population under the hegemonic Hindu nation. What is even more disappointing is the fact that local elected leaders who are supposed to defend the local interests in a federal system are dancing to the enchanting tunes of their masters in New Delhi.

Select references 

Bhattacharjee, J. B., ‘Bijoy Panchali’: A Bengali Chronicle of Manipur, 1990, Proceedings of the Northeast India History Associations,pp.43-46

Buchanan, Francis, “A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire.” Asiatic Researches 5 (1799): 219-240.

Charney, Michael W., ‘Literary Culture on Burma-Manipur Frontier in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’, The Medieval Journal, 14 (2). Pp 159-181, 2011

Chatterji, Suniti Kumar, Kirata Jana Kriti, Asiatic Society, 1951

Hodson, T. C., The Meitheis, published in 1908

Karam Manimohan, Hijam Irabot Singh and Political Movements in Manipur, B.R. Publishing Corporation, 1989

Pratt, John, Wounded Lands: Politics and Identity in Modern Manipur, Mittal Publications, 2005

Pratt, Saroj Nalini, 2005, The Cheitharon Kumpapa: The Court Chronicle of the Kings of Manipur, Vol 1, London: Routledge

Singh, L. Mangi and L. Mani Singh trans, 1967, Bijoy Panchali, Imphal: Mahabharat Press

Thokchom Jayanti, March 2015, ‘Religious Interaction in Manipur in the 18th and 19th centuries: A Study of the Bijoy Panchali’, Presidency Historical Review, 1(1), pp 82-93

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Deepak Naorem Written by:

Deepak Naorem is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Delhi

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