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History, Development of Manipuri Thought, The Umang Lai's, Tree Cults, Sacred Stones, Vaishnavism in Manipur...

T h e L a i s
Atiya Sidaba, Pakhangba, Sanamahi, Leimaren, The Yamjao Lais, Phungga Lairu, The Apokpa Cult, Thangjing, Marjing, Wangbaren, Koubru....



History and Development of Manipuri Religion

Manipuri civilization, known to foreign historians, including Ptolemy, had its origin in a remote State, governed by a Constitution since the 33th century A.D. which was finally mold into a written form by King Loyyumba in 1100 A.D. The cultural history recorded in not less than 1,000 old Meetei scriptures is a living testimony of the rich heritage embodying Meetei sciences, philosophy, ethics, aesthetics, various arts like arts of prediction, statecraft, diplomacy, conduct of wars, and above all, the universal, casteless Meetei religion...


Manipur was known by different names by different neighbouring people in ancient and medieval times. To quote W. McCulloch, "The country inhabited by the Muneepoorees is by the inhabitants of Cachar it is named Moglei ; by those of Assam Mekhlee and by the Shans or those who inhabit the country east of Ningthee or Khyendwen river it is known as Cassay of which term the Burmese word Kathe is a corruption." The narrative of Symes and the maps of that period give the name "Cassay" to this country. In Rennell's Memoir and maps of India it is mentioned as "Meklee." Other popular names by which it is known are Manipur, Sanaleibaak and Kangleipak.

There are number of folk stories and legends regarding human inhabitation in Manipur valley. There is a living popular tradition in Manipur that it represents the old kingdom mentioned in the Hindu Epic Mahabharata. Some of the Manipuri Scholars like Pandit Atombapu Sharma, W.Yamjao Singh and R.K. Jhaljit Singh hold that the people of Manipur are the descendants of group of people coming from Mithila (Videha) mentioned in Mahabharata. But there is reasonable doubt whether the present Manipur is that of the Mahabharata. Scholars have different opinions as well as views regarding the exact location of the Manipur mentioned in Mahabharata with the present.

The installation of Chaithaba: the incoming and outgoing

Apart from folk stories and legends, there are historical evidences of a stable kingdom with Imphal as its capital under Pakhangba, the first king of Manipur, in the first century. The land was formerly divided into small territories occupied by different clans of peoples, namely Khumal, Moirang, Angom, Luwangs, Ningthoujas, etc. The territories were after the names of the respective clans and they lived side by side in Manipur for centuries until the Ningthouja clan occupied all by degrees.

The people of Manipur comprise both the migrants of East and West who came to Manipur in different periods of history. During the earlier period migrants were in general assimilated and assigned to one or other to the clans, no doubt according to the area in which they settled. There origins were remembered by the terms Nongpok Haram and Nongchup Haram.

Nongpok Haram
(The Mongoloid migrants from the East, mainly the Shans, Kabaws and Pongs, a little of Chinese and Burmese),
Nongchup Haram (The Dravidian and Aryan migrants from the West, mainly the Bishnupriya's, the Brahmins etc.).

The history of Manipur witnesses the process of racial fusion undermining the geographical features. So the mass people of Manipur is a composite one to which the Mongoloids, Dravidians, Aryans, Pongs, Chinese, Siamese, etc, were contributory.

Although common Manipuri thought is identified with Hinduism in form of Vaishnvism which is associated with the School of Sri-Chaytanya, there is a basic philosophy in existence outside Hinduism. The fact is Vaishnavism practiced in Manipur consequently became a peculiarly Manipuri Vaishnvism in form, adopting aspects of olden culture and modified by it.

The ancient Manipuris had their own thought and philosophy, own Gods and Priests, own rites and festivals which preserved a religion rich in mythology and colorful in ritual. The Manipuri religion, i.e., the religion practiced by the Manipuris in the olden days said to be the oldest religion in South-East Asia. Early Manipuris were devotees of Supreme Almighty God "Lainingthou Soralel" following the Laining-Lichat (Footprint) of Godly ancestors. The religious life of the people, even when they have come much under the influence of Hinduism, retains many characteristics inherited from their prehistoric ancestors. The essentials of this religion remain recognizable to the present day.

Nowadays it is clearly found and seen that there are two main types of Manipuris-

(i) Manipuri Vaishnavs: Manipuris adopting Goudiya Vaishnavism but retain characteristics of the old faith and philosophy, worshipping Hindu deities along with the traditional Gods like Sanamahi, Pakhangba and Leimaren.

(ii) Indigenous Manipuris: Manipuris devoted to Supreme Almighty God "Lainingthou" following the Laining-Lichat (Footprint) of Godly forefathers.


The Umang Lai's

The term "Umang Lai" is used generally  to cover all the catagories of manipuri gods, although it has a narrower meaning when it applied specifically with Sacred groves. Etymologically the term Umang Lai means Forest or Wood deity (Umang=forest,Lai=god), but in many cases deities termed Umang Lai's have no connection with trees whatsoever. Umang Lais can be classified broadly into four catagories -

  • Ancestral Gods : Ancestors or Gods that were believed to have had a human existence at past. Examples are Pakhangba, Nompok Panthoibi etc.

  • Gods associated with yek's : Gods associated with particular yek's or Salai. For example, Thangjing is the god of the Moirangs, Okmaren as for the Khumans etc.

  • Domestic Deities : The Yumjai Lai's or clan gods associated with particular clan or family groups(Sagei). Traditionaly there are 445 Sagei's, each of which has its own Lai's. Houshold deities like Sanamahi, Leimaren and Phungga fells into this catagory.

  • Tutelary Deities : Guardian spirit connected with prtocular place or areas. For example, Marjing is the guardian of North-East.     

Tree Cults of Ancient Manipur...

Trees are worshipped or given very high magico-religious value by the Meeteis as an integral part of the Manipuri tradition of nature worship. There are manu references in the Chaitharol Kumbaba which shows that tree reverence was very common during the pre-Hindu periods. Worship of the Tree consist of bowing and sometimes offering of fruits and flowers. The religious significance of plants like tairem is seen during rituals like Lai Haraoba and Yumsengba.

Plants worshipped Plants given magical-religious importance
Ficus religiosa (Peepul) Toona ciliata (Australian Red Cidar)
Ficus bengalensis (Banyan) Dactyloctenum aegypticum (Crowfoot grass)
Hydnocarpus kurjii Blumea balsamifera (Camphor)
Mangifera indica (Mango) Mangifera indica
Ocimum sanctum (Sacred Basil) Ocimum sanctum
Terminalia arjuna Cynodon dactylon (Bermuda or Durva grass)
  Aegle marmalos (Wood apple)
  Xylosoma longifolia
  Oroxylum indicum
  Plectranthus ternifolius

Some plants like mango, wood apple, Bermuda or 'durva' grass, and sacred basil (Ocimum sanctum) are either worshipped or used in religious rituals by the Hindus all over India. It is, therefore, obvious that these plants were included by the Meeteis under the Hindu Vaishnavite influence.

Plants taboo on specific days or periods, or to a particular clan is still preserved by orthodox Manipuris. It is a custom for the Maiba-Maibi (priest and priestess) of Manipur to always ask forgiveness of a tree whenever it is cut for some purpose. Some plant taboos observed are -

  • Bamboo is not harvested on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and on new moon days,

  • Banana not harvested on Saturday,

  • Hatoda Vasica not harvested on Sunday because Sunday is the birthday of this plant,

  • Water dropwort or water parsley not consumed during August-September because violator will have worms in stomach,

  • Luffa cylindrica not consumed by the Ningthouja clan.

Sacred Stones...

There are evidences that acred stones are worshipped by the people in the early days. The cultic significance of stones among the early Meeteis was remarkable. The Moirang cultic hero 'Yaosurakpa' said to be transformed himself into a stone. Two sacred stones are situated at Thangjing where annual Lai-Haraoba is held. A funeral in Kangla also marked by a stone.

In the manuscript called "Shagokshading", there is a list of such sacred stones which have cultic significances. Several of the stones claimed to have supernatural powers whatsoever.

The Meetei Lai's...

The number of deities worshipped by the Manipuri Meeteis, is computed to be three hundred and sixty four in addition to the three members of trinity, i.e, Pakhangba, Sanamahi and Leimaren Sidabi . The supreme god is Atiya Guru Sidaba or Sidaba Mapu. For purpose of the worship the deities can be divided into several groups, viz., Lamlai - gods of countryside; Umanglai -forest deiteis; Imunglai -the tutelary deity of each house and Apokpa -the ancestors of each clan.
For details plz refer to http://manipuri.itgo.com/the_lais.html

The Bishnupriya Manipuris and Their Religious Culture...

The The Bishnupriya Manipuris are Indo-Mongoloid group of people who lived in Manipur long before the advant of Hinduism mixing and intermingling racially and culturally with the Meeteis but were driven out due both to population pressure and racial hatred. Though some of the people later identified with the Meeteis, most of them didin't submitted to the Meeteis to retain a seperate identity and language.

The Bishnupriyas are conservative Vaishnavs and they speak a language which has some similarity with Bengali and Assamese having an Indo-Aryan origin. Thats why some people belive that they are the worshippers of Vishnu (Hindu God) from the grand time. But there are solid evidances that they were much related with the traditional though and faith of Manipur than Hinduism -

  • Apart from Hinduism, the Manipuri Bishnupriyas have their own Gods, Deities, Rites and Rituals with are very identical with the traditional religion of Manipur.

  • The traditional deities are worshipped along with the Hindu deities, sometimes with more admiration and esteem.

  • The relation between the Bishnupriya and Meetei language is well established. The Bishnupriya grammar and syntax is much affected by Meetei and the language has considerabley good number of (5,000 or even more) Meetei words.

  • Whatever the popular thought among the people is, in their old folklore, in the ancient songs, proverbs there is no mention of any Hindu gods. But the most renowned ancient folk songs of Bishnupriya Manipuri refers a lot about Sorelel, Pakhangba and Sanamahi.

Like the Meeteis, Manipuri Bishnupriyas have their own Gods, Deities, Rites and Rituals. Worship of the deities by the help of music and dance to ensure the community welfare is part of their belief.

Among the deities worshipped by the Manipuri Bishnupriyas, the most important one is the Apokpa, the clan god worshipped in every Manipuri Bishnupriya house, as a form of family god, termed as "Goror-Dou" or "Apokpa". Another household deity is "Githanipung", very much identical with Leimaren of Manipuri Meeteis. Soralel or Soraren - regarded as the supreme deity, Lamor Dou - the worshipping of the tutelary deity and Chapal Katkorani/ Latkorani - offering foods for satisfying negative and evil spirits etc. also present in Manipuri Bishnupriya custom.


Development of Manipuri-Vaishnavism and Position of Traditional Religion...

Hinduism in the form of Vaisnavism, penetrated in Manipur in 15th century during the reign of king Kyamba and king Khagemba. After then, at the end of the 17th century and at the advent of the 18th century, great force of the Neo-Vaisnavism came and spread in this land. After the king Charairongba, Vaisnavism was highly developed, in the middle of the 18th century, in the reign of king Garibniwaj alias Pamheiba. In his time, Shantidas Goswami from Sylhet came to Manipur and he initiated the king with his subjects into Ramandi sect. Later on, Manipuris adopted Goudiya Vaisnavism.

Vaishnavism came without any infiltration to the old faith. After Vaishnavism, there was a remarkable development in culture and literature. 

However, a conflict between Manipuri Lais and Hindu Gods was now lo longer felt, as the the religion of Manipur in this period managed to draw effectively from both the original and Hindu traditions, and fuse them into a workable synthesis. The newer faith had not eradicated the ancient Gods, nor had it identified the Lais with Hindu Gods. It had rather preserved those Lai which were seen to be of basic importance in the culture and had placed side by side along with the the lately adopted Krishna, Radha or Chaitanya culture and a host of  other Hindu deities.


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Last Revised: August 04, 2004
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Ashim Singha . All rights reserved.