My memories of Imphal from 1941- Part 5
Dr Mohendra Irengbam
In these wintry days of my life, the fragrant memories of my early life, including those in the college,are utterly beguiling. But I find it really important for us to have testaments to our pristine Sanaleibak and our belonging in it. ‘You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’. So says the English proverb. So I am tempted to paint an untrammelled landscape of how the Meiteis lived, and what their social culture and pastimes were, with coldly detached clinical confidence. What I learnt as I continued to dig over the passing weeks, devouring what more I could find, has taken me back to my native land of Manipur as if I was in a floating dream.
The religious and cultural transformation of Meiteis to Hinduism from their primordial religion of Sanamahismand its influence on Meitei mores,though not entirely, brought some strands of modern civilisation and the Hindu philosophical concept of the cosmos. It nonetheless, as a downside, brought along heaps of miseries. A few religiously supremo Brahmins who formed the Brahma Sabha (Brahmans’ Assembly) with the express collusion of the reigning Maharaja Churachand Singh, brought oppressive measures on the socially marginalised Meiteis with such sadness that weighed upon them like a physical pain. It was a gambit to enrich the coffers of the king and line the pockets of those upper class Brahmins at the expense of the toiling Meitei population.
Suffice to mention only a couple. One was the levy for Chandan-Senkhai (taxation for the privilege of putting Vaishnavite sect mark of Chandon on the forehead) on Meiteis for many years, even before I was born. Another was the introduction of the Mangba-Sengba dictate (declaring someone unhallowed and hallowed again) that, over the years just before the War, became an easy tool to exploit people for money. This began in 1930, after a Sanskrit scholar Brahmin Atombapu Sharma from Sagolband, became a Court (Palace) Pundit. He and Churachand Maharaja were primarily responsible for the wretched system. He was particularly smooth and obsequious when he attempted to re-invent Kirata Meiteis with their ancient customs, demography and geography, as descendants of the Vedic people with their traditions, such as renaming Hiyangthang Lairembi as Durga, and the ancient Meitei ritual of Kwak –Tanba and Kwak-Jatra as the story of the victory of Rama over Ravana (Dewali). The most supercilious of them all was the fobbing of Meiteis with a web of misinformation, such as that, we are the posterity of an imaginary king Babrubahana of Manipur, who was a son of Arjuna of the Mahabharata.
Arjuna was to have met the Meitei princess Chitrangada during his roaming for 12 years in exile, when he unintentionally broke the agreed rules of polyandry of their common wife Draupadi. His theory was given credence by Rabindranath Tagore’s novel Chitrangada that was adapted for a Hindi film. It failed to snowball from one to the other, among the Meiteis. However, many unlettered Meiteis did believe it, singing songs like “Sati Thoibi pokpi, Babrubahan yokpi, imani nahakti, Meitei leima-o…” You are the aristocratic Meitei mother who gave birth to Sati Thoibi and brought up Brabubahan…
I vaguely recall how my father was declared mangba in 1941. He was snitched by a neighbouring Brahmin to Atombapu that, my father patronised a poor Sanskrit-educated Brahmin, Agya Nilamani Sharma, who had been degraded as a ‘konok’ or a low Caste Brahmin by the Brahma Sabha. He used to come to our house on the first Sunday evening of every month, to read Shrimad Bhagavad in Sanskrit and translate it to Manipuri to my father. For the usual religious functions, such as Shani Puja, my father engaged other not-so-educated Brahmins in our Leikai. Shani Puja was the worship of the Hindu God Shani on any Saturday evening. It was to mitigate any hardship that they expected to encounter. It always ended with eating the Prashad (edible offerings to god) of ‘Fola’ that consisted of ‘Chengpak’ (flattened rice) with milk, chopped bananas and other things, which we children loved.
The fees for sengdokpa or reinstating someone back to the Hindu fold was an immense sum for the impecunious mass of Meiteis. They had to find the money somehow as no one could exist as a social outcast for long. This was a foul act, without feelings of common humanity and ordinary kindness.
The most notorious ill-fortune fell on the most stubborn man in Manipur, my father, Irengbam Gulamjat Singh. As ill luck would have it, death occurred to a younger brother of mine, named Leihao who was 2 years and 8 months old, from dysentery. Nobody dared to come and help him with his cremation and other religious functions. My father, who was a man of principle, refused to pay the usual fees of Rs 83, 3 annas and 3 paisas to the Sabha, and Rs 500.0 to Churachand Maharaja.
As my father was an important British employee, the President of Manipur State Durbar (PMSD), Mr McDonald, a young ICS officer at that time, intervened as an intermediary and persuaded my father to have a compromise with the corruptive power of the Mahashaba and the institutional patronage of the king. He was given the ablution by paying the smaller fee to the Brahma Sabha,while Churachand Maharaja waived his fee. This was a time when the price of a standard measure of a standard Sangbai (basket made of thin bamboo slices) of paddy that holds about 30kg was only 4 annas or a quarter of a rupee. All that my father needed for purification was sprinkling a few drops of ‘holy water’, which was pond water with a few leaves of Tulsi plant (Indian balsam), which had been placed in front of the idols of Radha-Krishna in the Govinda Temple of the Palace.
There was no institutional caste system among the Meiteis themselves, but they remained aloof from other ethnic communities, such as the Meitei Pangals, Chingmees, Yaithibies (non-Hindu Meiteis) and the Europeans. It was partly because of Meitei’s ritual purity and hierarchical practice of Hinduism, and partly because these communities ate meat, especially cow’s meat, which was loathsome to them. That was the reason why they called Europeans ‘Mlechch, unclean (Hindi word).
This racial and ethnic profiling was dead serious. If anyone from these communities set a profane foot on a Meitei mangol, the house had to be abandoned. The practice was not entirely Meiteis’ doing.
Some of you who have stayed at or seen the Taj Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur, must be familiar with its history. The Hotel was the Summer Palace of one Maharana of Udaipur in an artificial lake that he called Lake Pichola. He abandoned this pleasure Palace as it became unholy after he once gave sanctuary to a fleeing Muslim Sultan. He abandoned it and built a new palace. This is the present hotel. The ruins of the old Palace still exists nearby. It became well-known after the James Bond film “Octopussy” (1983) was based in there.
Before the War, Chingmees, Pangals and Europeans were not allowed to set foot on a Meitei mangol, let alone enter the house. I was told by my second elder sister, the late Pishak Devi, who was once ill with typhoid fever. The British doctor, Dr Borer, the Civil Surgeon at the Civil Hospital (cf. Parts 12 & 13) came to see her at our home at our father’s request. She had to be brought out laid in her cot, from inside the yumjao to the front edge of our mangol so that the doctor could examine her, sitting in the shumang on a mora (stool made of bamboo). Until the 1930s, a British Civil Surgeon (title) was posted in Imphal. By the time I met one with my father, he was a Bengali called Gangesh Babu, the last Civil Surgeon.
Apart from the Civil Hospital I also remember the Veterinary Hospital by the main road leading to Nongmeibung and just past the Sanjenthong Bridge. The only doctor I recall was my contemporary, Dr Sanjoy from Larikyengbam Leikai, Imphal. I met him in Calcutta when I was leaving for London in 1966. He came to see me off at the Dum Dum Airport in Calcutta.
Just after the War, many tea shops known as hotels, sprang up in and around Imphal town centre. They sold tea and other cooked edibles. You could go in there and relax with your friends, just drinking tea in a little cheap glass. They were all run by Brahmins so that all Meiteis would eat there. There were groups of Meiteis who would not eat food cooked by other Meiteis, while there was a group of Meiteis known as Duhon, who could universally serve water to drink at a formal utsab chaba (celebration feast).
These hotels barred the Pangals, Chingmees and Yaithibis (and Europeans).There is a sweetie sitcom that I can relate. Just after the war, there were 2 or 3 Brahmin women selling different kinds of bora (pakora) and other fried items in the evenings, sitting by the side of the central road near the Maharani Thong. When you wanted to buy something she would put it on a bit of banana leaf. You dropped the money on her palm and she would drop your purchase on your two palms cupped together and facing upwards. One Hill boy who didn’t know the custom took it from her hand. She had to throw away everything. But she understandably, didn’t ask him to pay for the lot.
Gradually liberalism entered the sinews of Meiteis, including the bamons (Manipuri Brahmins), allowing Chingmees to enjoy these hotels, and later, some Meitei Pangals. In this neo-liberalism, the famous Agya Aribam Pishak from Uripok, had a flagship hotel by the Uripok Road, set at the edge of Khwairamband Bazaar. Tea and other snacks were available at affordable prices. The standard price for a small glassful of tea was 4 paisa.
One day, Moirangthem Gojendra, father of Shanti (Rtd IGP), and I brought a Meitei Pangal, Helim Choudhury to this Hotel, after a hockey game at Mapal Kangjeibung. Helim was a very good hockey player. He was one of the Manipur 11 team that played at the Beighton Cup tournament in Calcutta in 1948 and 1949. He was a bit hesitant but Agya Pishak didn’t object, partly because Ta-Gojen and I were his local youngsters. Helim was the first Muslim allowed into a Bamon hotel, and Agya Pishak was the first Bamon hotel owner, who served a Muslim in such a hotel. Little did we know then, one day Helim would succeed the same Gojendra as the General Manager of MST (Manipur State Transport). I remember meeting Helim, when both of us were Guests of Honour at the 8th International Polo Tournament in Imphal in 2014.
Corrigendum: Sorry about my misinformation. Thanks to Col Ranjit. The composer of the music of the song, Hada Samadon Ayangba… was Mangka’s father, Mayanglambam Mangangsana.