The New Faces of Manipuri Language During Renaissance and Afterwards

by Thoithoi O’Cottage

Writing anything with authenticity about Manipur touching its past is a tough task as even its recent past is lost in the dark depths of history as the art of proper documentation in Manipur is a modern phenomenon. The clearest thing in the history of Manipur is the gnashing teeth of scarcity of evidence and authentic documents and hence my findings out of the process of inadequate research are bound to remain tentative and incomplete.

Located between N 23°83 and N 25°68 latitudes and E 93°03 and E 94°78 longitudes with the total landmass of 22,327, and with an altitude of 790 meters above at MSL, Manipur is archaeologically evidenced to have been trodden indelibly by Pleistocene men dating back to 40,000 BCE, much earlier than the famous Neanderthal Culture of 35,000 BCE excavated in Germany. This antique land serving as the southeastern tail of the mighty Himalayan system, providing home for the beautiful diversity of 37 ethno-linguistic, Indo-mongoloid communities, is a miniature India with respect to its ethno-linguistic diversity.

2.2.1 Language Family and Script
The diverse linguistic communities in this ‘little paradise for a philologist’ process the business of their life among themselves through the linguistic nervous system of their lingua franca Manipuri, the tongue of the major community Meiteis.
Manipuri language is a member of the Tibeto-Burman family, whose closest syntactic sibling is Kachin with SOV structure,

Fig. 1. Tibeto-Burman, sub-branch of Sino-Tibetan group of language [Omitted]

and is spoken by 2,338,684 people, according to census 2001, inside Manipur and by a considerably great population of the Meiteis who in different phases of the history of the state migrated beyond the boundaries of their native land to parts of Assam, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Pakistan. The language has been recognized in 1992 by the Indian Union by including it in the list of the eighth schedule languages in its constitution.
Manipur, giving life to her children since Paleolithic ages, has its long history, though not systematic in the modern sense of the word, which ran orally from mouth to mouth for several centuries but got scripted in the form of the Cheitharol Kumbaba, the royal chronicle rather late only about the second half of the fifteenth century CE during the reign of King Kiyamba (1467-1508). The emphasis is not on history but on the age-old existence of Manipuri, the spoken form of which preceded it written counterpart in its own script by several centuries. Before the brains of the ancestors of the present Manipuri speakers evolved into neurologically efficient generations, physiologically more efficient enough to produce a subtle, systematic sound system, language as we call it, to communicate among themselves, they must have taken recourse to other simpler, primitive means of communication such as gestures, marking, sketching which generally led to cave painting; but such primary markers of early civilization have not so far been excavated in this archaeologically much demanding land of hills and mountains which pose a greatly costly challenge before any significant discovery.
The question how old the Meitei orthography is has still to be answered as the last word, but as numismatic studies has so far done to unearth the mystery, it is considerably old and is found to have been inscribed for the first time on the bell-metal coins of King Wura Konthouba who reigned during CE 568 and 658 (?), which were regarded as the first coins issued by Manipuri kings, proving the prevalence of the script at the time.
In spite of differences in scholastic opinions about the evolution of the Meitei script and the influence of Brahmi and Devanagari scripts upon it, most of the Manipuri historians are of the opinion that though the script might have been prevalent during the reign of King Wura Konthouba, influenced greatly by Indo-Aryan languages like Bengali and Sanskrit through the ages, Meitei orthography became more or less full-fledged with newly co-opted letters to comply with the imported sounds during the reign of King Kiyamba ( 1467-1508) when the writing of the Cheitharol Kumbaba commenced.

2.2.2 Language and Literature
2.2.3 Early Period (?-1729)
The terms Hindu and pre-Hindu, in the context of Manipuri culture, are misleading as there are differences of opinions among scholars about the advent of Hinduism in Manipur though the writer of the paper subscribes to Dr. S. K. Chatterjee’s view that ‘it is quite likely that Kuki Chin or Meitei people of Manipur were [some text omitted] within the fold of Hindudom by 500 CE at least, although tradition would take it much earlier.’ But it would be convenient to say that the early period of Manipuri literature extended up to the seventeenth century when Hinduism vastly became a way of life of the Meiteis and writing in anonymity came to an end.
Though the language of the present time is beyond the capturing capacity of any technology, for the study of a language of the past, we have helplessly to turn mainly to what is found recorded by means of any technology available to the time in question.
Though Meitei script is found to have been prevalent, so far as we know, during the sixth century CE, and there are hymns and ritual songs like Khencho which were sung during this time, it is a difficult task to fix the time when writing of books began for the first time in Manipur as all the hymns or works produced till the close of the seventeenth century were anonymous and they bore no date of inditing.
Works belonging to this period are ritual songs and hymns which in Ch. Manihar’s word ‘ushered in the dawn of early Manipuri poetry’. They were, more than one thousand in number, written definitely archaic Manipuri words with no loan Bengali or Sanskrit vocabulary. Ougri, Khencho, Anoirol, Numit Kappa etc. belong to this period.
The content of the works produced during this period laid the foundation of the indigenous religion of the Manipuris in which the indigenous trinity of Atiya Guru Sidaba (Sky god), Sanamahi (Sun god) and Pakhangba (Snake god) are worshipped.

2.2.4 Bengali Influence: Socio-Cultural Transition (1729-1891)
Everything whether animate or inanimate, if once encompassed by space and time, cannot be immune from influence being one of the factors that cause change, the changeless law of nature which makes evolution possible. The process of change does not usually move in uniform velocity; it is characterized by jerks and thrusts backward and forward. The evolution of Manipuri language and literature is no exception; it seems that a blow of both the extremes of life and death did not befall any other Indian languages as it befell Manipuri because of its unique spacio-temporal setting. The alpha male that reigned supreme for the first time in human history was religion which meant everything to the people of ancient and mediaeval ages and Vaishnavism took this role in case of Manipur during this age.
The first and greatest factor of changes in Manipuri language was the influence of Hinduism flowing in through the window of Bengal. Hindu religion which has been trickling in since quite an early date about fifth century CE during the reign of King Naophangba (428-?CE) finding a fertile soil in Manipur during the reign of King Kiyamba from whose time on Brahmins from various areas like Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Bengal, Gujarat and Orissa started literally to pour in, got a sure, permanent foothold when King Pamheiba (1709-1748) who came later to be known as Garib Niwaj was initiated with Vaishnavite rites into Nimandism, a sect of Hinduism by Shantidas Goswami in 1717 and instigated by this preceptor the king consigned more than 120 Meitei scriptures, puyas as they term it, to fire in 1729. With this abrupt conversion Vaishnavism became the state religion of Manipur and the people were practically coerced into following it with persecution in case of noncompliance.
Language is a living thing. It is a continuous psychosomatic response of man to the living world around him and as stimuli is always followed in its wake by a corresponding response, language reflects whatever changes undergoing in whatever fibers of the society. Thus as every language is exposed to the forces which are gradually but constantly shaping the society, Manipuri the language of the Meiteis, was imbued with the hues that colored the life of the Meiteis through the ages. Thus after the incineration of the puyas, at the instance of the king insisted by his preceptors the nibs of the khorjeis – indigenous Meitei pens, began to divagate about leaving hardly effaceable prints of Bengali script under royal patronage while the abandoned Meitei script, though some Meitei pundits refused to give it up, went underground and the people though found the new way of life ushered in by the new faith, became in course of time, used to it and their vocal chords made for Meiteilon (Manipuri) almost vibrated for Bengali filling Manipuri air with strange Bangla sounds while Bengali and Sanskrit became the language of the elite group, creating in Prof. E. Nilakanta’s word ‘a dark age for the vernacular language of the Manipuris.’
Under the fertile soil of royal patronage, Vaishnavite culture flourished during this period with the Manipuris having before them plenty of Hindu texts like the Mahabharata of Kshiramdas and the Ramayana of Krittibas translated and transcreated by Manipuri scholars versed in Bengali and Sanskrit. Angom Gopi in Garib Niwaz’s court composed his 7-volume Manipuri Ramayana based on the Ramayana of Krittibas and transcreated an episode entitled Parikshit based on the Mahabharata of Gangadas Sen. Another work dealing with the episode of Virat Parba of the Mahabharata which is ascribed to Prince Nabananda also appeared on the scene. Labango Singh Konthoujamba a great Meitei scholar during the reign of Rajarshi Bhagyachandra composed another book, Ram Nongaba dealing with the later section of Uttara Kanda which ends with an invocation to Rama, Narada, praying to them for the prosperity of the Manipuri King Bhagyachandra. Another Vaishnavite work by Longjam Prasuram, Langoi Sagol Thaba, which was based on Ashwamedha Parba of the Mahabharata dealing with Arjuna-Chitrangada episode, also appeared on the scene to accelerate the process of acculturation for the Meiteis making them feel to be the offspring of Arjuna. Another Manipuri work on the Gita and a translation of the Bengali work Jamejaya Sarpa Yajna made appearance during this period. Yumkhaiba Chandra composed Astakala Leela and and Mathura Viraha. There also remained a few manuscripts in Manipuri orthography like Vishnu Purana, Lakshmi Charit, Bhakta Charit etc. Besides these translation and transcreative works, there were also creative works which were products of inspiration given by Hindu myths. Mention may be made of Henjunaha-Lairoulembi, Phisha Thangwai Pakhangba – Shunulembi which were reminiscent of the story of Savitri of the Mahabharata.
With the official recognition of Assamese-Bengali script, and the consequent growth of Bengali as the only medium of communication with literature with the consequent influx of Bengali words of daily speech in profuse amount while Manipuri script with the Meitei pundits practically went underground, the eighteenth and nineteenth century Manipur witnessed the scene of a great socio-cultural upheaval with its language, culture and religion got increasingly dominated by the influx of destabilizing forces from Bengal which would be in turn overturned again in 1891 when the British regime began for another transition; but two centuries was long enough to imbue the people indelibly that at the close of the nineteenth century the people had already reached to point of no return and the new belief and the way of life dictated by it was no more strange to them than the air they breathed in.

While the term renaissance itself is more confusing than is thought to be as it involves more or less multi-dimensional, particularly socio-political, changes which all the cultures of the world do not go together through in a rhythm for the fact that renaissance of one culture differs greatly from the rest, it is still more confusing in the context of Manipur as in this case there were currents and counter currents struggling with one another of dominance.
As cultures more often interact with one another, the understanding of a culture, despite its distinctiveness, sometimes calls for the understanding of the cultural traits of another community. Thus Manipuri renaissance cannot be examined in isolation from Indian renaissance as a whole and the understanding of the latter in turn necessitates a fair sensibility of European Renaissance.
European renaissance has certain features which are not applicable to Indian renaissance. In Sri Aurobindo’s words ‘European renaissance was not so much a reawakening as an overturn and reversal, a seizing of Christianized, Teutonised, feudalized Europe by the old Gracio-Latin Spirit and for with all the complex and momentous results which came from it’. Indian renaissane on the contrary is like a moon, a spirit of national reawakening to find self-expression after a long period of eclipsing British rule. Prof. E. Nilakanta Singh examined the two types of renaissance finding that the European renaissance as found expression in the fifteenth century Italy represented a new era marked by civilization when for the first time an age in the history of civilization discovered itself as an age. It was a discovery of classical antiquity along with correlating discovery of themselves, a burst of achievements in scholarships, literature and painting along with an arrival spirit. It represented a rebirth of ideals and birth of the sense of humanism, freedom of thinking in a free atmosphere. But renaissance in India was not great life force with the country in bondage, the gust of renaissance wind from the far Europe fragmented a little and was confined mostly to the elites and it never crossed the crowns of green mountains to reach Manipur. Indian renaissance was not a massive awakening born of self-respect but was a sort of oriental reaction to European superiority. When the European counterpart was marked by a complete break from the immediate past Indian renaissance preserved continuity while accepting the free activity of intellect and ferment of modern ideas and struggling for a new nation formation, it reacted profoundly to the align influence. While European renaissance was governed by a spirit of intellectuality, Indian renaissance was marked by predominantly by a return to the spiritual tradition and a spirit of transcendence.

The lost of Manipuri sovereignty to the British in the Anglo-Manipuri war of 1891 and the birth of Manipuri classical poets and writers like Lamabam Kamal, Hijam Anganghal, Khwairakpam Chaoba in the 1890s sowed the seed of Manipuri renaissance when the progress was accelerated by the establishment of formal education in the early part of the twentieth century following the attempts to introduce formal education starting for the first time in Manipur in 1872 at the suggestion of Major General W.F. Nuthall. The most distinctive feature of the period is a shift of emphasis from Bengali to English and the vernacular language, Manipuri with the partial application of Macauly’s Minute of 1835. The following tables show the particulars of schools established in Manipur during this time imparting education both in English and vernacular language:

[Table omitted]

While education began to gain momentum, the other social values began to break down. Hinduism as the people adopted in spite of the Vaishnavite sense of liberation from caste and creed, high and low degenerated into the foul perpetrator of the terror of untouchability upon the masses with Maharaj Churachand Singh driving the torture machine and the people reeling under which began to hate the system. The mere declaration made by the king that a man was untouchable could throw his family into unending misery as all

[Tables omitted]
people for fear of royal persecution boycotted the family. Dead bodies of such families had to wait until the bodies began to decompose while the calloused British rule remained indifferent maintaining the noble ‘no interference policy’ about such social practices. Indeed, the people were reeling in Prof. E. Nilakanta’s words, ‘under the double oppression of feudal system and the British’.
Meanwhile Christian Missionaries who had already started their propagation activities were now doing their best in the hills by establishing schools infusing the spirit of Christianity into the tribes through their education. At the same time the leaders of the Vaishnavite faith, having understood the socio-cultural and political nuances of the juncture, were by now geared up to launch a fresh but more powerful treatment, suppressing much of the old heritage. All this while the door to the incredibly rich literary tradition of the land preserved in thousands of manuscripts by the Meitei scholars was closed to the people.
These miseries led to a renaissance which found expression in socio-economic reforms followed by freedom struggle linked with that of India, in scholarship, literature, painting and other artistic expression in Manipuri language. At the same time learned Meiteis from Assam and Myanmar started a pan-Manipuri movement that brought the awakening of the middle class Manipuris in Manipur and it gradually spread and saturated the people at all social strata.
In the field of socio-economic and political reforms, under the much committed leadership of Hijam Irabot, the Nikhil Hindu Manipuri Mahasabha, established in 1934 with the King as its president was in 1938 with a firm political stand renamed as Nikhil Manipuri Mahasabha with its denouncement by the king, which again in 1946 became the State Congress when the king declared and banned it as a terrorist organisation. The second women’s war came in 1939. Swadeshi movement and non-cooperation movement were also launched and now Manipur experienced in Prof. E. Nilakanta’s works ‘the dignity and horror of freedom struggle with mass movements’.
The freedom struggle was a common experience which Manipur and the sub-continent ware having at the same time against the same oppression machine, the British. Their common purpose against a common enemy brought them unconsciously, sentimentally together and thus the people of Manipur began to struggle for freedom singing Bande Mataram with the tricolor waving in their hands. Thus Indian spirituality had gradually been integrated with the aesthetic temperament of this Indo-Mongoloid group and thus this new integration found its supreme expression in songs and dances in this valley with royal patronage. The Sanskrit scholar Pundit Atombapu Sharma was the product of this period of integration and he made a persistent effort to integrate the old tradition and culture of the Meiteis with the Vaishnavism by publishing more than 100 books both in Manipuri and Sanskrit and by now when the world came to recognize the rich songs and dances of the land like the Rasa Leela the people began to feel proud of being a Hindu. But there came a voice of dissent, a revivalist spirit in the 1930s in Cashar led by Naoriya Phulo who started Apokpa Marup with its accent on the indigenous Meitei religion. They called for the revival of Meitei orthography and the young minds awakened at this far cry of wake-up call turned to respond in the positive, starting a ‘protestant movement’. This was another current of the renaissance. It was at this juncture that Manipur was merged with India. Their protest and cry against the merger, demanding for separation was lost in the laughter of Indian independence and thus the current diverted into the form of extremist movement which is still rocking ‘the paradise of lofty height’.
The literary renaissance of the early twentieth century was marked by the struggle of the English-educated and Bengali-educated Manipuris who had seen much of the rich fields of English and Bengali literature, for the revival of their language and literature in their own script with which they had almost lost their link. Capt. Dun wrote ‘Manipuris possess a written character of their own [text omitted]. This character is very ancient; only a few can write it.’ Incredible number of classical poets and writers sprang up in the front at this juncture giving a new fresh life to Manipur literature. Some of them were Khwairakpam Chaoba, Hijam Anganghal, Lamabam Kamal, Hawaibam Nabadwipchandra, Hijam Irabot, Arambam Dorendrajit, R.K. Shitaljit, Ashangbam Minaketan, G.C. Tongbra. Calling for a revival Kabi Khwairakpam Chaoba sang:

Those who are ignorant say
Our language is poor
But Meitei poets will come.

Inspired by Bengali poets and writers like Rabindranath Tagore, Bankimchandra, Saratchandra and English poets like William Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott, the works of these revival poets and writers took a modern shape, a complete break from their ancestral literary forms.
This revival period witnessed for the first time in the history of Manipur the appearance of journals in the vernacular language like Meitei Leima (1917), Jagaran (1920) Meitei Chanu (1922 in manuscript), Yakeiron (1930), Bhagyabati Patrika, Jyoti, Lalit Manjurika, Sahitya Ichel one after another.
With these changes Manipur tottered along while the wind of still other changes was whispering in through the interstices of its green branches and leaves.

The joining ends of two consecutive ages always overlap one another but the overlapping between Manipuri renaissance and modernism is a very steadily elongated process of a considerably long time. The explosion of technological advancements in far off developed worlds blew the wind of modernism in Manipur before its ground was well prepared and thus it sat upon the very shoulder of renaissance.

If renaissance means revival of or a return, a thrust-back to the lost self, Manipuri renaissance is still on progress though modernization has already set in. The Second World War, in spite of its horror, brought with it, in an unprecedented way, a totally new sensibility of a new age in Manipur. Amid the horror of the war with mass deaths and miseries, the Manipuris saw with their own eyes for the first time in their history the sophisticated modern technologies at work that stripped the old belief of them and now at the heat of the war religion began to wither gradually and in course of time the spirit of science and technology came for a replacement of it.
While the merger of Manipur into the Indian Union in 1949 set some armed separatist youths into dark motion, Manipur was gradually drawn out from its ‘identity in isolation to identity in integration’ with the world around and along it way to modernization, on August 15, 1963 the AIR, Imphal, almost 36 years after the installation of two privately owned transmitters in Bombay and Calcutta in 1927 which was taken in 1936 by the Government of India, was installed and with this the wonder with which the people of the land looked at the radio ser in the hands of the Allied Force soldiers evaporated and on November 19, 1979, a TV transmission station sprang up in the form of DDK, Imphal (twenty years after Pratima Puri read out the first telecast programme in India on 15 September 1959) though the facility was confined for such a long time only within the 1km radius in the heart of the capital town of Imphal that in 1984, the people of Kakching traveled the distance of about 45 km to Imphal to pay tribute to Mrs Indira Gandhi while her final rites were telecast live on television.
Though these developments gave an unprecedented growth boost to the literally emaciated Manipuri language, Manipuri society was riddled with whatever problems a growing society could be infected with – social, cultural, political, economic. From the womb of such a society came up poets like Thangjam Ibopishak [text omitted] besides already matured poets and writers like E. Nilakanta Singh, Pacha Meitei, GC Tongbra, and the National Sahitya Akademy gave Manipuri due recognition in 1971 by including it as one of twenty-two national languages of India and in course of time the Govt. of India recognized it in 1992 by including it in the eighth schedule languages of its constitution.

3.2.2 Globalization
While the process of modernization was actively undergoing and the ground for a newer era was not prepared, the wave of developed worlds reached this valley within mountains and all the cultures of the world flew in through cable TVs, telephone cables, newspapers, modern education for globalization and this process was accelerated by the advent of internet, a wonder contribution of the present age, which entered Manipur about 1998.

3.3 Challenges Before Manipuri Language and Literature.
The present age is both a threat to and hope for Manipuri language both from inside and outside. When all of the cultures, languages of the world are flowing in like floodwaters free of cost through http://www.coms the small literature, culture, language of a small community like the Meiteis face a great challenge, a test for survival and such a community has to be able to adapt to new environment with the endless array of cultures, languages and literatures from all over the world physically and electronically—all in the mere click of the mouse. It is possible for no community to remain isolated out of this ‘third wave’ of globalization, too powerful, heavy for any community to snatch itself out of its infallible clutch. However if they are able to maintain adaptation, it is rather a chance for exposure, a chance to be recognized. What John Maynard Smith said about organisms holds good in and is applicable to the case of culture also and thus no language or culture can live in vacuum. Like a living organism they are constantly exchanging substances with the environment of other languages and cultures at large. Thus life of a community is an active equilibrium which can be maintained only if the environment suits the language or culture of the particular community, which is then said to be adapted to that environment.
The internal threat bears the form political or human rights. To be factual, Manipur is torn into pieces out of which the pro-separatist mouths speak emptying their big belly while the other section of the people feel being forced to keep silent in an atmosphere where opponents become criminals to such a great extent that it is questionable –”Is what you write what you thought to write?” Silence is the loudest answer. Thus the present Manipuri writers need an atmosphere where their growing minds would not be stifled but encouraged to flourish, an atmosphere where truth prevails. And thus it is high-time the Government of India made new language policies to save the languages of small communities and the National Sahitya Akademy needs an immediate amendment of its constitution for regional languages and their literatures have overgrown the old shoes and shirts. While India has been a democratic republic more than fifty years the Sahitya Akademy has so far been definitely an elitist which is proved by the fact that the literary organizations given recognition by and affiliation to it are all based in cities. There are seven literary organizations in Manipur which are affiliated to Sahitya Akademy and they are all literary organizations based in Imphal though the Sahitya Seva Samiti, Kakching is the fourth oldest literary organization in the whole of Manipur.

The present century is a century of integration when the small communities, their cultures and languages are experiencing the throes of changing from their identity in isolation to identity in integration. And there is the need for our understanding of one another and the fact that this earth is the home of many races many cultures, many languages and no culture is complete and perfect and hence there is always the necessity of cultural exchange among cultures. Now it is the time we should celebrate this beautiful diversity and sing together with John Lennon in one voice:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

Toffler, Alvin. The Third Wave. 1980. New York: Bantam, 1981
Elangbam Nilakanta Singh. Fragments Of Manipuri Culture. Omson Publications, New Delhi, 1993
Smith, John Maynard. The Theory Of Evolution. Cambridge University Press, 1997
Sri Aurobindo. The Renaissance in India. 1920
N. Khelchandra Singh. Ariba Manipuri Sahityagi Itihas, 1969
Dr. S.K. Chatterjee. Kirata-Jana-Kirti, Revised Edition, 1974
M.T. Laiba. The Geography Of Manipur. Public Book Store Imphal, Revised and enlarged edition, 1992
S.N. Pandey. Ed. Sources of the History Of Manipur, MU. 1985
S. Radhakrishnan. Prefatory Remarks. The concept of Man: A Study in Comparative Philosophy. Ed. S. Radhakrishnan and P.T. Raju. HarperCollins Publishers India. Fourth Impression, 2002.


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