Old Imphal town and Meitei Yumjao

Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
Old Imphal Town looked the same as I stepped down from the plane at Tulihal Airport in 1972. Every stratum of the past seemed to be mingling with the present. Imphal town is part of all my family history.
The burst of happiness, the sudden sky-blue clarity of being at ease whenever I arrive in my home town can be hard for someone to understand. I left Imphal for London and arrived there on a damp, chilly and foggy morning of February 10, 1966, for post-graduate studies.
The annual Yaoshang festival in March is a gentle childhood experience with powerful resonance, recalling my boyhood. In 1947, I could be the only one peddling my ‘boys’ Raleigh bicycle’ on Uripok Road all the way to Kangchup hillock. The same Uripok Road in November 2017, had so much traffic that I took 3-4 minutes to cross it. In the midst of this spatial disorientation I went by a car on this road to see my old friend H Dwijasekhar Sharma at Nagamapal. Dwijasekhar is my contemporary, who set the trend for Meitei students to study at Allahabad University. He gave me a book titled ‘Down Memory Lane’ by MK Priyabrata.
Priyabrata needs no introduction. This book is his autobiography with some of his essays and paintings. It is filled with lullabies and memes, stretching from the period long before I was born. It’s edited by Dwijasekhar, who also summarises an engagingly readable Priyobrata.
As a young doctor I knew Priyabrata in connection with his spinning mills. Phenomenal is a sobriquet that stays firmly with him. He was very humble. Once he came to see my father. He took off his shoes, left them at the front gate and walked across the courtyard to talk to my father who was sitting on the veranda. In the ’70s, I called on him with my friends, N Nishikanta and Kh Dhirendra at his residence in the palace complex, to contribute some funds towards erecting a memorial stone slab at Tengol Tampak.
Priyobrata’s book snaps me into high gear to open up my entombed memory of old Imphal town with its trepidations, spiced with wonderment, beginning in 1942. A youthful flashback version of Imphal town. First, a prelude to a corpse-in-waiting.
Viceroy Lansdowne in 1891, thought he would teach Manipuris with a fancy of bravado, a lesson that they wouldn’t forget. So he did. We remember him every year at the Shahid Minar in Imphal. To give a salutary example, Major General H Collett, the commander of Manipur Field Force took no chances of defeat. He sent a large force of 9 guns and 4,900 rifles in three columns: (1) Tamu column with 4 guns and 1,800 rifles; (2) Kohima column with 3 guns 1,200 rifles; and (3) Silchar column with 2 guns and 1,700 rifles.
The war games spanned a couple of months and ended on April 27 1891 at the Battle of Khongjom,
“When news reached the British contingent at Thoubal that the raja had bolted in a north-easterly direction from Manipur with the other Princes, and that resistance was at an end. The Tamu column reached Manipur unopposed about 10 am, and found that the Silchar and Kohima columns had arrived about the same time.”(cf. From Major General H Collett to The Quarter Master general in India. Dated, Manipur Palace, 1st May 1891). The rest is history.
In their empire building the British had a clever way of using native soldiers to fight fellow natives and kill each other for them. In this Anglo-Manipur War, the Tamu column that bore the brunt of fighting Manipuris, consisted mainly, of the 5th Madras Infantry of the 12th Burma regiment, and the 2-4 Gurkhas.
I Remember without a raw quality of surprise, how Meitei kings didn’t know Burma was so big and powerful as they had never been further than Sangain, full of gold-leafed Buddhist temples and pagodas, and the Nazi-style extermination attempt of Manipuris by the Burmese in 1819, when they trampled Manipur for seven years and left it barren after decimating its population to just about 2,500.
I am also plunged into an ocean of absurdity how provocateur Tikendrajit and octogenarian Thangal, two tragic and chivalric figures, made the same error! They were unable to poise between spontaneity and calculation. They underestimated the might of British India. The Anglo-Manipuri war which British historians called a native rebellion, shook the very foundation of Manipur, an independent country, established by Meetei Pakhangba in 33 AD. Pakhangba subdued the other six salais. He then established a powerful Meitei nation of seven salais (Shakespeare 1914).
WWll gave lotus-eating Manipuris a bitter-sweet taste of a foreign war, divided into chaos and the entertaining. The shadow of the war reached Manipur with the arrival of scores of mules to Kangla Fort in 1942, and dug-out bomb shelters by the roadside, and in the garden of every home in Imphal.
Capturing the wonderful weirdness of time, the joy of seeing my father sitting on his thick reed-mat on the left side of mangol (veranda) of our yumjao (big dwelling house) alluded to my existential realities. My father had built the ‘house through time’, 50 years ago. I was intrigued by the art and craft of ancient Meitei builders, who constructed yumjao with vernacular architecture and indigenous engineering skill, and how these houses stood the ravages of time and elements. Only the thatch on the roof needed renewing every few years. Yum is an ancient Meitei word. Imphal is the English pronunciation for yumphal (a close-nit place of many yum). The blue-print for the construction of Yumjao is found in Yumpham (foundation), a manual written in Meitei mayek.
Searching deeper in the memory stores of my brain I remembered how, long years ago, I went to a Primary school made of wattle and daub at Uripok. I found it replaced by Ibotonsana Girls’ High School. I was born at Uripok. The dilapidated Khwairamband Keithel and Ima Keithel needed to win the patronage of Keithel Lairembi (market deity). Uripok road still looked jagged. The Civil Hospital remained as a war relic. Surgical operations were performed in the same theatre that has been in existence before I was born. Tricycle rickshaws pedalled by Pangals were the only sign of pubertal growth spurt of Imphal.
As a reward of my ecstatic pilgrimage l had another seam of recollections of my childhood Imphal. In my school days the only noticeable place in Imphal was the town centre with a few brick and mortar buildings. The original Johnstone High school wedged between Ima keithel and Civil hospital was the highlight. It had tarmac or paved roads with street lighting, being in the British Reserve that encompassed an area from Thangmeiband to Police Lines in Yaiskul, contained in the west by the Naga River, and in the east by the Imphal River.
Old Imphal town consisted of groups of villages, such as Uripok, Sagolband and Yaiskul, wilfully ignored in their development by the British administration. Every family lived in a Yumjao built with bamboo pillars, bamboo strips, bamboo ties, thatched roof, and walls plastered with a mixture of soil and cow dung, on a two-foot high foundation of clay-rich earth. For the well-to-do, it was built with wood pillars and rafters, and without nails. It was open-plan with traditionally dedicated areas for members of the family.
Yumjao had an enclosure called ‘Ingkhol’ – homestead, containing a courtyard with a Tulsi plant at the centre and a small pond in the northeast corner. It always faced east and had a big front wooden door and a window on each side. Other windows might or might not be fitted on both sides of the house. Towards the back end of the house on the northern side was a door called awangthong (north door). All doors and windows were locked with wooden bolts.
In the middle of the house, there was a small fireplace called phunga, where the paddy husks were slowly burned all the year round. A metal tripod stood over it for heating water in a pot. It also warmed the room in winter. At the southern back-end corner of the house was an altar for the Meitei household god, Sanamahi Lainingthou. The kitchen was located at the north-end back corner.
The Ingkhol was fenced with sliced bamboos in the north, south and front except for an entrance gate with two 4-foot tall bamboo uprights with 3 or 4 penetrating holes at the same level, from slimmer bamboo poles to pass through horizontally. The back was bordered by a four-foot tall earth mound on which bamboos were planted.
A bamboo ‘jar’ was hung up on the front end of the southern wall of the mangol, in which thin sliced bamboo sticks (150 x 5 x 2 mm) were kept. One end of each is to be chewed each morning to be used as toothbrush and its body used for scrapping the tongue by the man of the house, before rinsing his mouth with water from a metal jug, left by the woman of the house.
Coming to a depressing headlong rush to the end, it was in November 2010, when my family and I visited Imphal, my hometown was conspicuous by the absences of many a yumjao.
(The writer is based in the UK Email:irengbammsingh@gmail.com Website: www.drimsingh.co.uk)

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