The myth of origin of the Meiteis of Manipur: Re-thinking the pre-Vaishnava narratives
Former Research Scholar, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences,
Vaishnavism in Manipur is more than two centuries old. However, there is persistence of many pre-Vaishnava elements in their contemporary religious life, the most evident being the deep reverence and worship of some of their most important traditional deities at every Meitei Hindu household. The paper, therefore, is an attempt to re-explore the pre-Vaishnava narratives of the myth of origin of the Meiteis of Manipur, as it not only explains the origin of all these deities but more importantly justifies the extreme importance given to those deities. In other words, the paper tries to re-visit their myth of origin in order to understand the essence of these deities, who still occupyparticular sacred spaces not only at their houses or in their system of beliefs and practices but also in the hearts of the Meitei Hindus even after more than more centuries of Vaishnava dominance.
Vaishnavism was introduced in Manipur in the 18th century and since then it has been the state religion. The adoption of the new faith during that century had transformed the socio-religious and cultural life of the Meiteis of Manipur. Although the Kings and the immigrant Brahmans attempted hard to implant different strands of Vaishnavism in the then kingdom, the reactions of the learned men or the Maichous, the traditional ritual experts and of course, the common man were against the new faith. From an initial stage of resistance to an eventual stage of acceptance towards the end of the 18thcentury; Vaishnavism had been gradually accepted by the masses and had become the dominant religion in the state.
However, in the entire journey, Vaishnavism could not completely vanquish the traditional religion and various other pre-Vaishnava socio-cultural aspects. Many historians and anthropologists often term religion in Manipur today as the syncretic form of both Vaishnavism and the traditional religion. In fact, some of the most important traditional deities still hold their supreme significance at every Meitei household even today. The persistence of deep faith of the masses on those traditional deities is beautifully reflected in their contemporary religious life. In order to understand the essence of these important traditional deities, the paper attempts to explore the pre-Vaishnava myth of origin of the Meiteis of Manipur as it is not only inextricably linked with the genesis of these deities but also justifies the rationale behind the importance given to those deities. This would facilitate in understanding the significance of these deities even after more than two centuries of Vaishnava dominance amongst the Meiteis of Manipur today.
The Myth of origin: theory of creation:
There are many Meitei Puyas or sacred religious texts, which deal with the theory of creation. Some of theseinclude: Leithak Leikharon, Leishemlol, Wakoklon HilelSalai Amailon Puya, Wakoklon Hilel Thilel Salai Amailon Puya, Sanamahi Laikan, Pakhangba Phambal, Panthoipee Khongkul etc. Moreover, Ningthourol Sheireng (1967) written by eminent Meitei scholar, O. Bhogeshwar which is described as a classic par excellence by N. Sanajaoba (1991: 26), Langlol (1924) edited by Maichou W. Madhav Ram Singh etc. also deal with the theory of creation. The religious texts (Puyas), however, are not unanimous in offering one common version of the myth of origin and sometimes there are discrepancies within a particular text itself, which in turn results in various interpretations of the same subject. Nevertheless, since the myth of origin is imperative, an attempt is made to bring out its essence amidst the discrepancies.
The myth of origin begins with the inception of the Universe itself. It tells us how the desire to create the Universe emerges in the mind of the Supreme ‘Lord of the Universe’, whom they called as TengbanbaMapu. The traditional religion regards the ‘Tengbanba Mapu’ as the source of everything and the soul in every being. He is both the beginning and end of every being. He is the genesis of all manifestations and creations and all these return to him. The Leithak Leikhalon Puya describes him as one who is omnipresent, who embraces all as a boundless envelop, free from the cycles of death and decadence, transcendental of the world yet immanent in everything, the principle of life and emanation of different deities from him is the beginning of creation (Singh, L. B. 1991a: 26). To proceed with the process of creation, various deities are created; one of the most important being, the Lord who is latter known as Sanamahi, to whom Supreme Lord gives the task of creating the Universe. Therefore, Lord Sanamahi is also known as ‘Asiba’ (one who has been given the task of creation). In one of the versions, Lord Sanamahi is projected as the son of the Supreme Lord, TengbanbaMapu and his consort LeimarelSidabi (Supreme divine mother) who had been created by the Supreme Lord himself.
As per this version, along with Lord Sanamahi, the eldest son, who was also known as Atingkok Sidaba; the divine union had two other sons: AtiyaSidaba and Konjil Tingthokpa. The Supreme Lord or Tengbangba Mapuasks Atingkok Sidaba to take down Atiya Sidaba and create the heaven and the earth; thereby calling Atingkokas Asiba as he is the one given the responsibility. Under the instructions of Tengbangba Mapu, Atingkok first created the layers of heavens and the celestial bodies; then began to create earth out of water. However, the youngest son, Konjil Tingthokpa destroyed the creation again and again which made Atingkok very furious. Therefore, the Tengbangba Mapu created a Goddess called Nongthangleima to distract his youngest son from disturbing the creation of the Universe. While the Goddess diverts Konjil Tingthokpa’s attention, Atingkok finished the creation of the earth with the help of four deities who guarded the earth, whom he created by himself. When Tengbanba Mapu inspected the earth created by Atingkok, he found a dry land and decided to begin playing the events of life. As per his instructions, Atingkok began to flatten the earth, the hills, to make it fit for habitation along with nine deities (Laibungthous) and the seven divine girls (lainurahs or nymphs) whom he created from his own body. While flattening the earth, the dry land, Kanglei becomes perfect, and therefore, it was called Kangleipung.
After the creation of elementary contents of the earth one by one, Tengbangba Mapu ordered Atingkok to spread his uncontrollable power. Atingkok, thus, uttered the word ‘HungShet’, exploded himself and immersed into every layer of both heaven and earth. In this way, Atingkok, the eldest son of Tengbangba Mapu,spread everywhere and therefore, came to be known as Sanamahi (Sanna means spread or exist everywhere and boundless; Mahi= his hi meaning his boundless supernatural power). As his power is the greatest and the ultimate, Atingkok came to be known as Mahirel (greatest power).
Tengbanba Mapu then, arranged a test to examine the ability of his sons, ordered them to circulate the universe seven times and declared that the one who would reach first would be crowned as the king. Sanamahi and Atiya Sidabaset off for their journey while Konjil Tingthokpa, the youngest son, circumambulated the throne seven times as his mother advised him that it was similar to the journey set off by his other brothers. Here, the seat of the Supreme Lord or Tengbangba Mapuis compared to the whole universe. The youngest son, thus, became the King and gained the title Pakhangba (pa means father, khangba means he who knows the father). The two sons who went had also come back. Sanamahi became furious on seeing Pakhangba on the throne and thought of destroying the earth that he had himself created. Tengbangba Mapu and Leimarel Sidabi consoled Sanamahi. Tengbangba Mapu declared that Sanamahi would be the King of Gods, the Lord of heaven and earth, king of every household when human inhabitation would begin; he made him realized that Sanamahi was the Supreme Lord himself: “I myself is you, and you are me, there is no greater God than you. Unfold the human beings early in the morning and embrace them early at night. You arrange all the life cycle events. May the one who worship you, achieve me happily. My eldest son, you are my soul”. The Supreme mother or Leimarel Sidabi also promised to stay with him and to take care of him. The Supreme Lord or Tengbangba Mapu asked his youngest son, Pakhangba to be the ruling King in every human epoch and asked his second son, AtiyaSidaba to be with him in heaven.
To begin playing the Taibang Kumhei (festivals of life), Tengbangba Mapu asked Sanamahi to create human beings to start the human inhabitation. Sanamahi created six forms of creatures and the Supreme Lord was the one who put souls in all these creatures making them alive. However, he was not satisfied with these creations and therefore freed them all. He instructed Sanamahi to create humans by looking at his own image. Therefore, Sanamahi made humans similar to the image of the Supreme Lord himself and offered it to the Lord. Tengbangba Mapu was now pleased and put the soul into the human and made him alive. To begin human inhabitation, the Lord freed the human into the earth. And as per the dictum of the Supreme Lord, Pakhangba became the ruler of the land, Sanamahi became the king of every household and Leimarel Sidabi also stayed in every household to take care of her son, Sanamahi. The Supreme Lord and his second son, AtiyaSidaba stayed in the heaven.
In another version, the Lord of the Universe or the Tengbangba Mapu created two primeval beings from his own body as Supreme parents of the whole world to further procreation. From his right, he created SalailelSidaba (Divine Father) and from his left, he created Leimarel Sidabi (Divine Mother). As per this version, Tengbangba Mapu incarnated himself as Lord Sanamahi who was found as a three-day old child lying inside an earthen pot filled with water at the house of the divine couple, Salailel Sidaba and Leimarel Sidabi (Singh, L.B. 1991:29; Singh, M.N. 2015:27-28). As the colour of the child was found like pure gold (SanaAhingba) lying in water (which is in liquid form) inside the earthen pot, he came to be known as Sanamahi (Singh, M.N 2015:28). In other words, this version explains Sanamahi as the adopted son of the divine couple. Interestingly, Lord Pakhangba or the youngest son of Tengbangba Mapu and Leimarel Sidabi in the earlier version is portrayed here as the biological son of SalailelSidaba and Leimarel Sidabi and there is no mention of a third son in this version.
Further, this version explains that Tengbangba Mapu had incarnated himself as Sanamahi in order to help Salailel Sidaba (Divine Father) in creating the different living species of the world. It was Sanamahi or Asiba who lifted the earth, which was believed to be under the water, it was he who also created the nine orders of heaven; and of all his creations, human was the last to come. Singh, L.B (1991a:29) clarifies that Konsen Tulei Henba or Phuhingsana Pibarel, who is described in the Wakoklon Hilel Thilel Salai Amailon Puya as the divine incarnation of Tengbanaba Mapu adopted by Salailel Sidaba and Leimarel Sidabiis none other than the deity described as Asiba in the Leithak Leikhalon Puya, who is later known as Lainingthou Sanamahi.
Another important aspect of the second interpretation is the competition between Sanamahi (the adopted son of the divine couple) and Pakhangba (the biological son of the divine couple)to take over their father’s throne. As there is no existence of a third son, served by AtiyaSidaba in the other interpretation, the competition is between the two sons only. The details of the two versions of the myth of how the elder son went around the universe seven times as per the rule of the competition and how the younger son took a round of the father’s throne which is similar to circling the universe as revealed by the mother are all similar. Here also, the younger one, known as Pakhangba (he who knows his father) became the King and the elder son was appeased by the Supreme parents by making him the presiding deity in every Meitei house. “To pacify Sanamahi and to show that he is equally dear to him like his own son, SalailelSidaba promised to stay and protect Sanamahi in very household. Leimarel Sidabi also decided to be with Sanamahi in every household as a mother to show to the future generations that Sanamahi was far dearer to her than her own son Pakhangba” (Singh, M. N. 2015: 85-86).
The segment of the mythological story regarding the accession to the throne had some interesting parallels with the Puranic lore about Ganesha-Kartikeye conflict (Lokendra, A. 1991: 65). R. K. Jhalajit (1985:48) also supports this view. He states that this part of the myth has a close parallel with the story of Ganesh and Kartikeye in Shiva Purana. Further, he explains that in the competition between Kartikeye and his younger brother Ganesha, the former actually went around the world while Ganesha on the advice of his mother, merely circled the seat of his father and achieved the result of going round the world.
Re-thinking the narratives in relation to their contemporary religious life:
What can be inferred from the above interpretations is that the myth of origin or the theory of creation introduces us to the significant deities of the traditional religion and explains us about their importance. It tells us that the Meiteis believe in a Supreme God, Tengbanba Mapu who is considered as the origin and end of everything. The myth starts from a stage of nothingness and ends in a stage where all the contents of the universe are created, the last and the most important being the humans. By this stage God had made the earth fit for human inhabitation and human evolution was about to take place. In both the versions, the Supreme Lord chooses to stay in an abstract realm like the Khasis’ concept of the Supreme Being, who is an abstract entity but reveals himself through his creations (Nongbri, T. 2011: 200/201). The Supreme Lord of the Meiteis is not directly connected to man but is mediated through his creations.
This segment of the myth answers the reason why Tengbanba Mapu, even though he is the Supreme Lord, is not very popular among the masses. Unlike the other important traditional deities who still occupy their own particular spaces at every Meitei household even today, the Supreme Lord neither demands a space of worship from his devottees nor is he worshipped by them everyday. Literatures on pre-Vaishnava religious life of the Meiteis do not discus much about the daily worship of this Lord by the Meiteis at their households except a few, which are again not free from discrepancies.
Another important element about the myth is that TengbangbaMapu is the one who creates all the important traditional deities, through which he is connected to man. In the second version of the myth, Salailel Sidaba is described as the Divine Father, created by Tengbangba Mapu. Some of the scholars opine that this deity is one of the deities revered in a Meitei house in the pre-Vaishnava religious system (Singh, L.B. 1991a:47). Kangjia Mangang (1993/2009: 91) explains that as per the traditional religion, Salailel Sidaba resides at the MenUrep, the first constructed pillar of a Meitei house, located on the right side of the east-facing house. Although, there is not much work to support his opinion, it is also a fact that this pillar is still revered by the Meitei Hindus as a very important space since it is the one, which has been erected first while constructing a house. Many families also worship this pillar as it is generally believed that everything (goodness and badness) that befalls the family is controlled by it. The erection of the foundation pillar of a house is still regarded as a very important and serious event, which is performed on an auspicious day with rituals conducted by ritual experts. However, today, the pillar is not worshipped as Salailel Sidaba but as Jatra, which means the first. It is possible that the name has been changed due to the consequences of Vaishnava dominance amongst the Meiteis since the location of the space is the same.
In addition to Salailel Sidaba, Tengbangba Mapu also creates the Supreme Mother or Leimarel Sidabi either as his own consort or as the spouse of Salailel Sidaba. Although there is discrepancy in the treatments of the Leimarel Sidabi in the two versions, there is no discrepancy regarding her position as the Supreme Divine Mother. Both the versions of the myth synonymously tell us that Leimarel Sidabi began to stay at every Meitei household to be with her son Sanamahi either because of the responsibility given to her by Tengbangba Mapu or because of her own desire to take care of her adopted son. Whatever may be the reason, the essence of both the versions is that Leimarel Sidabi ultimately resides at every Meitei household to manifest her love and affection for her son Sanamahi and to take care of him.
The contemporary religious life of the Meiteis is a true testimony to this piece of myth. Even after more than two centuries of Vaishnava dominance amongst the Meiteis, Leimarel Sidabi is still deeply revered as the Supreme Mother and is still believed as the most important female deity presided at every Meitei house. There is a sacred space reserved for Leimarel Sidabi, usually just beside the abode of Lord Sanamahi at the southwestern corner of every Meitei Hindu house. The space, which is usually observed today, as being reserved for the Goddess is not similar to the one generally described in the literatures on early Meitei society or pre-Vaishnava religious life. These literatures (Singh, L.B. 1991, Laishram Reena 2009 etc.) often described the sacred space of the Goddess near the northern wall of the Meitei houseand not near the abode of Sanamahi at the southwestern corner of the house. Whether the change of the sacred space of Leimarel Sidabi is due to consequences of Vaishnavism or simply a change brought about by changing time where the houses are no longer spacious as before, is not clear, but the latter possibility seems plausible. What remains unchanged is the traditional use of an earthen pot filled with water to symbolize the Goddess.
Today, in the designated space, the Goddess is still represented by an earthen pot filled with water. The pot is locally known as Eshaipu and it has a lid on top of it. The pot is supported by a coiled piece of cloth and it is kept on a wooden seat. The pot is beautifully wrapped with female garments and accessories symbolizing the gender of the deity. While S.N. Parrat (2013:26) explains that the earthen pot filled with water, symbolizing the Goddess signifies the importance of water, which is one of the most essential domestic elements; Reena Laishram (ibid) interprets that the water contained in the pot is a symbol of life.
While this style of representing the Goddess is commonly observed amongst the Meiteis, there are also families who prefer to keep the sacred space empty and use nothing to symbolize the Goddess. Nonetheless, this very space is deeply revered as the abode of the Goddess and is compulsorily worshipped like the other families. The reason behind this way of keeping the space empty is often answered to maintain cleanliness of that space. Since the Meiteis have the tradition of changing the attires of the Goddess only once a year, they feel that the attires become dusty and dirty and therefore make the space not properly clean. These families believe that if they keep the space empty they could clean the entire space better. They also think that since there are various strict rules to maintain the earthen pot such as refilling the water only on particulars days and the fear of the water drying up, which is again considered as a bad sign, they find it better to keep the space empty. With or without things to represent the Goddess, the particular space is reserved for Leimarel Sidabi at every Meitei house and is worshipped daily by members of every house. Apart from worshipping it daily, the Goddess is also worshipped as the main female deity during Cheiraoba or the New Year’s Day celebrations, which is one of the biggest festivals of the Meiteis.
Apart from the Supreme Mother, the other deity who holds an interesting position is that of Lord Pakhangba. The different versions of the myth unanimously tell us that Lord Pakhangba was the one who became the ruler of the kingdom. He is portrayed as the one who took over the throne, the one with political power. Since he is associated with the ruling power at the public domain, he became associated more with the Kings and the ruling clans. In fact, every important king who ruled in the erstwhile kingdom in every time-period or the Chaks is believed to be an incarnation of Lord Pakhangba. As Pakhangyoirel Tompokpa in Hayi Chak; as Tangjalilha Pakhangba in Haya Chak; as Sendrenglolang in Khunung Chak; as Nongda Lairen Pakhangba in Langba or Konna Chak (Sairem, N.2002/2015:9). The last incarnation was the first historical King of Manipur who ascended the throne in 33 A.D at Kangla, the ancient capital of Manipur. The portrayal of Lord Pakhangba in the myth justifies the reason why Lord Pakhangba is also not very popular at the private domain. Unlike Leimarel Sidabi, he is not worshipped at every Meitei household. Instead, he is often treated as a God of the Royal familyor the Kings (Singh, E. Nilakanta, 1991:253) as the Meiteis have a tradition of equating their great Kings as an incarnation of their Lord Pakhangba. Therefore, Lord Pakhangba is associated more with administration and hence, more popular at the public domain.
It is important to note here that in the Meitei philosophy, Lord Pakhangba and Lord Sanamahi are seen as two aspects of the Supreme Lord of the Universe, Tengbangba Mapu. The Leithak Leikhalon Puya describes Sanamahi as the inner essence in all beings while Pakhangba as the manifest aspect of the Supreme Lord , that is, Sanamahi is the inner essence while Pakhangba is the externalization of that inner essence (Singh, L.B 1991a:54-56). Further Sanamahi is believed to be the Sun while Pakhangba as the Moon, which also signifies that the latter can only shine with the rays of the former; Sanamahi is the soul while Pakhangba is the body, the former is eternal while the latter is not (Sairem, N. 2002/2015:12).
Most interestingly, the myth tells us that of all the manifestations of Tengbanba Mapu, the most important is Lord Sanamahi. In both the versions of the myth, he is unanimously portrayed as the hero, either as the eldest son of Tengbangba Mapu or as the adopted son of SalailelSidaba. In other words, whether Lord Sanamhi is created by the divine union of Tengbangba Mapu and his divine consort or as the adopted son of Salailel Sidaba and LeimarelSidabi, he is the one who has been given the most important task of creating the universe and its contents, including humans. Again, in both the versions, he is described as the incarnation of the TengbanbaMapu himself, the most important of all and was blessed to become the presiding deity of every Meitei house or the Lord of private domain. He has been declared by Tengbangba Mapu as himself and it is through worshipping him that the Supreme Lord could be achieved by man.
The myth, thus justifies the immense importance given to Lord Sanamahi as the most important Meitei deity, which is reflected even in contemporary times. His significance is logically added by his being the most important object of worship in every Meitei household. This is probably the reason why Lord Sanamahi began to be conceived as the most important deity of the traditional religion, therefore the most important manifestation of the Supreme Lord, and the Lord of every house. Till today, the Meitei Hindus worship this deity at the southwestern corner of their houses. This particular space is believed to be the abode of the deity and no changes have been made in preserving this sacred abode unlike the case of Leimarel Sidabi. This designated space at every Meitei house has been reserved for their most important deity since time immemorial. Neither the forces of Vaishnavism in the 18th century nor the modern forces where people have smaller spaces at their homes, could not have been able to interfere or dislocate the sacred space. This in itself shows the deep reverence of the Meiteis on their Lord Sanamahi. He is still believed to be the one who keeps human beings alive, and guides them in the right direction.
Today, in the abode of the Lord, a wooden seat is kept usually facing the north, which is covered by a canopy. Either directly on the seat or inside a bamboo basket, the Lord is represented by a set of male attires. Interestingly, on the left side of the attires, another set of female attires is also kept, which is believed to be the symbols of his wife, Santhong Apanbi. The two sets of attires are then wrapped by another thin cloth. The keeping of the two sets of attires symbolize that Lord Sanamahi stays with his wife. However, the wife of the Lord is not mentioned in the myth, neither is she known to the devotees in an important manner. Mostly people do not even know her existence and the rationale behind her unpopularity is not known. The sacred space is popularly known as the abode of Sanamahi and not as the collective abode of the two. Although the above style of representing Lord Sanamahi is very common, those houses who prefer to keep their sacred space of Leimarel Sidabi empty also usually keep the sacred space of the Lord in a similar manner because of the same reason of maintaining cleanliness. Nevertheless, the southwestern corner of every house is worshipped as the most sacred space at every house as it is believed as the abode of their most important deity, Lord Sanamahi. Apart from worshipping the Lord daily at every house compulsorily, he is also worshipped as the main deity along with Leimarel Sidabi during the New Year’s Day celebrations amongst the Meitei Hindus. It is also interesting to note that it is the name of Lord Sanamahi, whose name has been employed in contemporary times to denote the traditional religion.
Further, despite giving utmost significance to Sanamahi as the creator, what has been cleverly manifested in the myth is the infinite power of the Tengbangba Mapu above everything. He is the only one who has the power to put soul into every being that Sanamahi created. In other words, the Supreme Lord is the sole power, who can make a being comes alive. Lord Sanamahi only creates the body, while the Supreme Lord infuses it with life.
The myth of origin of the Meiteis, therefore, justifies the importance given to their traditional deities. It carefully conceptualizes the roles and positions of all these deities of their pre-Vaishnava belief system. The narratives of the myth explain to us how the universe with all its contents was created, and place wisely the role played by each of these deities. What is interesting is that in the entire exercise, the narratives also manifest how each one of them holds a unique position in their belief system. Lord Pakhangba is portrayed as the King, the political power, the administrator, who is associated with the public domain while Leimarel Sidabi, Salailel Sidaba and Lord Sanamahi are being portrayed as the deities of the household at the private domain. Of all these deities, Lord Sanamahi is placed in the narratives as their most important deity. The myth also rationalizes that what makes Lord Sanamahi the most significant God of the Meiteis is because he is an incarnate of the Supreme Lord himself, or that he serves as the medium to reach the Supreme Lord. This justification very cleverly shows that it is Tengbangba Mapu, who is above everything. Although he stays in an abstract realm, he is connected to the human society through his creations, the most important being Lord Sanamahi. Re-exploring the myth and its characters has, therefore helped in understanding the essence of the significance attached to these pre-Vaishnava deities who are very much an integral part of the contemporary religious life of the Meitei Hindus.
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Received on 18.10.2018 Modified on 10.11.2018
Accepted on 29.11.2018 ©AandV Publications All right reserved