Introduction – Manipur
Manipur is the land of rich valleys surrounded by beautiful hills and lakes, a land of gentle people full of laughter and joy. Many legends tell us the origin of Manipur. One of the legends is that Krishna requested Shiva to keep a watch while he danced the Ras with Radha and Gopis. Parvati on seeing Shiva protecting a particular spot was curious to see what Shiva was protecting. On her insistence, Shiva permitted her to see the Ras. She was so enamored by Krishna’s dance that she decided to perform the Ras with Shiva. Shiva searched for a place high and low for a beautiful and a secluded place for dancing the Ras with Parvati. He saw Manipur surrounded by mountains, its beautiful valleys covered by a sheet of water. With his trident, he stuck the mountain ranges making a path for the water to flow out. The valley of Manipur emerged and Shiva and Parvati danced on it.
Manipur means the ‘land of gems’. This north-eastern state was described as the land of gold or ‘Suvarnabhu’. Manipur was a princely state under the British rule in 1891. A democratic form of government with Maharaja as the executive head was established in 1947, under the manipur Constitution act. This ruling family gave them a long peaceful era in which they developed their arts and crafts undisturbed. The territory became a full-fledged state with the integration on 21st January 1972. The state, was a single district territory with 10 sub- divisions, was recognized in 1969. The state now consists of six districts with district Head Quarters at Imphal, Ukhrul, Tamenlong, Senapati, Chandel and Churachandpur.
The oblong picturesque valley of Manipur spreading over an area of 22,356 km. is an isolated hill grit state. The climate of Manipur is healthy and salubrious. The rainfall varies from about 149cm. in the valley to about 380cm. In the western hills. The cultivable area in the valley is full of clay and silts and thus proves that the whole valley area was once a lake and was gradually silted up by the streams and rivers from the hills. The hilly regions are largely composed of pretartiary slates and shales having lateritic soils in low hills and brown forest type in the higher regions. Due to geographical isolation and inaccessibility, Manipur remained almost unaffected by political vicissitudes in the subcontinent. However, this did not affect the flow of Indian culture into this land.
The natural vegetation occupies an area of nearly 67% of the total geographical area of the state. It is blessed with amazing varieties of fauna and flora. Depending on the altitude of the hill ranges, the forest ranges from tropical to sub-alpine. The wet forests, the temperate forests and the pine forests occur between 900-2700 m above sea level and they together sustain s host of rare and endemic plant and animal life. In Manipur natural habitat growing in soil or on trees and shrubs, spreading their beauty and colour, stunning the eye that is not used to seeing them in such profusion. There are 500 varieties of orchids, which grow in Manipur of which 472 have been identified.
The Hooklock Gibbon, the Slow Loris, the clouded Leopard, the spotted Linshang, Tragopan, four different types of Hornbill, etc. forms only a part of the rich natural heritage of Manipur. However, the most unique is the ‘Sangai- the dancing deer’. The floating mass of vegetation on the Loktak Lake sustains small herds of this endemic deer.
Manipur is a place where different waves of races and culture met through the ages, which ultimately mingled together. The territory is divided into two distinct zones- the valley and the surrounding hill areas. The main population of the people is of Manipuries known as Meities. They claim their descent from Parkhangba who ruled Manipur and had the power of changing his shape into a serpent with a straight tail. The 29 tribes inhabiting Manipur hills may broadly be divided into Nagas and Kuki. It is not possible to make a clear –cut classification of the Naga group from the Kukis- the important Naga groups are Tangkhul, Kubuis and Mao. The Zemeis, the Liangmei, the Maram, the Thangal, the Maring, the Anal, the Moyon are also included under the Naga group.
The Meities popularly known as Manipuris are a separate group having their own identity. The name Meitei has been derived from the word ‘me’-man and ‘thei’-separate. The history of the Meitei society, their customs, traditions, religious beliefs, art, culture and rich literature are laid down in their old manuscripts like ‘Leithak Leikharol’. The Meitei speak Manipuri language, which is in Kuki chin group. They are divided into seven endogamous groups locally known as ‘Salai’. The general characteristics of the Meiteis are of Mongoloid type small eyes, fair complexion, rudimentary beards etc. generally they are thin built with well-developed limbs. The men among them do not exceed 5’7” in height and women on an average about 4” shorter than their counterparts.
The society is patrilineal though the women bear the major yoke of labour. Women share the responsibilities of earning and are not confined only to household duties. The household is a true social unit ant the head of the family has to perform certain religious duties. Their families consist of man, his wife and unmarried children. They practice both types of marriage by engagement and elopement. In the engagement, type the father of the boy provides the expenses. After the marriage, the boy with his wife settles in the village in a separate house. The youngest son, however remains in the father’s house and inherits the house. All the sons share the rest of the property. They may marry from any place not necessarily within the village but stick to gotra-exogamy.
The violation of gotra-exogamy is not favoured and is almost a taboo. Though monogamy is the usual rule, there being more women than men, the practice of polygamy is also not uncommon. By nature, they are lovers of flowers with which they bedeck themselves beautifully. Their dresses are simple but tasteful. The woman wears coloured long stripped skirt, blouse and white chaddar gracefully and the man uses white dhoti and chaddar and in ceremonial occasions a pagri.
The people of Manipur have inherent love of performing art with lyrical beauty and rhythm. Their rich culture and tradition are also reflected in their handloom, tasteful clothes and in finer workmanship of handicrafts. Weaving among them is a traditional art of women and finds an easy market. They are deeply sensitive and their unique pattern of life with inherent love of arts is reflected in their dance and music. Their dances, whether folk or classical or modern, are devotional in nature.
Agriculture is the main stay of the people. About 88% of the total working population in the hills and about 60% of the working population in the valley depend entirely on the agriculture and allied pursuits like animal husbandry, fisheries and forestry.
This is possible because the deposit of alluvial clay from rivers enriches the soil of the valley, and the large number of hill streams ensures irrigation. The staple food is rice and the minor agricultural produces are tobacco, sugarcane, mustard, etc.
The weaving industry is well developed and each household owns a loom with the women busy in the creation of typically unique native designs. The handloom industry is the largest cottage industry in Manipur, with the finished items often been exported.
The Manipuris rarely perform any festival which is not accompanied by dance, music and song. Their Lai Haraoba festival is very interesting dance drama led by priests (Maibas) and priestesses (Maibis), depicting the creation of life. It is celebrated during March-April for about 10-15 days before the village temples of gods and goddesses and the entire village participates in it. This festival of merry making of gods and goddesses is an example of the pre-vaishnavite culture among them. The tandava and Lasya aspect of the dance in the Lai Haraoba festival is presented in the Khamba (incarnation of Lord Shiva), Thoibi (incarnation of Parvati) dance with picturesque dresses having restrained and delicate movements.
Holi is one of the most important festivals of the Manipuris and is performed on the Vasant Purnima day associated with the birth of Lord Chaitanya of Bengal. During the holi, festival young and all come out accompanied by the groups of musicians and go in procession to the temples, with sprinkling of coloured water to each other. During this, festival boys and girls participate in the Thabal Chouba dance (jumping in the moonlight).
Collective devotional singing (Sankirtana Cholom) with cymbals in hand, having series of body movements, accompanied by mridanga (drum) is another very popular musical festival popular all over manipur.
Pung Cholom or kartal Cholom is a part of sankirtana cholom and is a group performance of males. The drummers clad in dhoti, turbans start this dance with soft and graceful body movements with the rythums of drums and cymbals, and as they gradually gather the momentum, they perform exciting feats along with their drums.
“The Rasa Lila, the epitome of Manipuri classical dance is woven through the celestial and eternal love of Radha and Krishna as has been described in the hind scriptures and reveals the sublime and transcendental love of Krishna and Radha and Gopis devotion to the Lord”. This seasonal dance-drama, and in strict classical dance style, is performed in the enclosure of the temple during vasant Purnima, Sarat Purnima and Kartika Purnima. The dance movements of the participants are graceful and highly stylized. The exquisite richness of the costumes of the dancers adds to the beauty of the dance.
The most important places which are worth seeing is the Govindajee temple, a Vaishnavite temple, adjoining the royal palace of the former rulers of Manipur. The other places whish are worth seeing are the war cemetery, Khwairamband Bazar, Shaheed Minar, Manipur state museum, Manipur zoological park, Langthabal, Khonghampat Ochidarium.
The largest fresh water lake of northeast India is located in Manipur. It is called the Loktak Lake and Sendra Island. On the western fringe of the loktak, lake is Phubala. The only floating National park in the world is the Keibul Lamjao National park on the Loktak Lake. This is the last natural habitat of Sangai the dancing deer of Manipur.