Unique handwritten tradition records the Meitei civilization of Manipur

An unrecognized Manipuri manuscript tradition dating back to AD 100 deals with subjects as varied as astrology and magic to administration and topography.

Manipur has a little known but highly evolved manuscript tradition called puya. Most of the approximately 40,000 manuscripts or puya are not illustrated, but those which are are accompanied by very beautiful drawings. Myths in the puya may be relatively unknown as written stories, but their oral equivalents are probably more familiar, since the Manipuri civilization – with its high cultural notes as embodied in nat sankirtan the music, declared part of the intangible cultural heritage of UNESCO, or the Manipuri dance, one of the classical dances of India – is mainly performative. But the manuscripts constitute the core of the heritage of the essentially immaterial civilization of the Meiteis, who founded the feudal kingdom of Manipur.

The chronicle of the court of the kings of Manipur called Cheitharol Kumbaba traces the kingdom back to the 1st century AD, based on the earliest prehistoric documents written from oral traditions. Inscriptions to Meitei Mayek emerge in the 14th century, leading to more contemporary record keeping and treatises on a variety of subjects. The kingdom adopted Vaishnavism in the early 18th century, but myths from the puya tradition predates this conversion. They are part of the pre-Hindu religious practice of the Meiteis, which is largely animist and centered on ancestor worship. It continued to coexist with Vaishnavism and is practiced to this day.

Myth and magic

As such, the Manipuri manuscript tradition is very much alive, albeit in reduced circumstances, in ritual and prayer. The Royal Palace of Manipur still maintains a council of scholars called the Pundit Loisang, responsible for writing the chronicle of the court, among

An illustration of 'And this is why' showing 'why man is creative and can think'

An illustration from “And this is why” showing “why man is creative and can think” | Photo credit: special arrangement

other duties. essays on puya and translations into contemporary Manipuri exist today, but ancient manuscripts are held by scholar-keepers or archives. They are written mostly on handmade paper – with some on leaf, bamboo, and wood surfaces – in Meitei Mayek, one of the few Tibetan-Burmese scripts. And they are in the Tibetan-Burmese language called Manipuri, or Meiteilon, to use its endonym.

Different kinds of illustrated manuscripts such as subika – with an individual puya such as subika laisaba, subika khuthine, and subika choudit – and khutlou manuscripts like the khutlou cheithin, are used in divination, astrology and magic. People still consult them today. They are considered sacred, imbued with a talismanic power.

In neighboring Myanmar, the manuscript tradition was continued by Manipuri scholars called kathe ponna, which was part of Burmese courts from the mid-16th century. They were held in high regard for their prognostic powers and star reading.

Tribal traditions

There are other archival manuscripts besides the court chronicle, such as the Ningthourol Lambuba, and, interestingly, a history of royal women called the Chada Laihui. Manuscripts like Loiyamba Sinyen come under state administration. The story of the cuckoo claw, a cautionary tale highlighting the importance of community work and passed down like a nursery rhyme in Manipur, can be found in Tutenglon, a treatise on water management.

An illustration from 'And this is why' showing 'why bamboo spear grows on Karang Island'

An illustration from ‘And This Is Why’ Showing ‘Why Bamboo Grows On Karang Island’ | Photo credit: special arrangement

Poireton Khunthokpa, the handwritten source for a story of Shan origin, is a migration account with toponymy – the study of place names – while Chinglon laihui concerns topography. Sanamahi Thiren and Pakhangba Yangbi cover religious practices and feature deities. Panthoibi Khonggul is an important literary text. Each of the nine Meitei clans called salai, and their constituent lines called sagei, keep genealogies, which form the bulk of manuscripts.

Comparative studies of South and Southeast Asian mythology will help us understand the universal archetypes, shared histories and origin narratives embedded in the mythology of Manipur, as well as shed light on the unusual artistic art from his illustrated manuscripts. What is intriguing is that such a mythology exists in such a small culture. Even inside, there are stories that feature tribal traditions from Manipur such as that of the Kabui, and stories of minor communities within the Meiteis, such as the Chakpa, Kakching, and Moirang, which I include.

The writer is the author of And that’s why, an account of the myths of the manuscripts and oral traditions of Manipur, published by Puffin. Work of Sapha Yumnam.

About Cody E. Vaughn

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