A History of Manipuri Literature

A translation with personal comments of a Meiteilon essay Manipuri Sahityagi Khongchat by Lairenmayum Ibungohal; original text cited from Wareng Akhomba (An Anthology of Prose) published by the Manipuri Sahitya Parishad, 1st ed. 1965 and 2nd ed. 1973; the Manipuri refers to the Meiteilon language of Meitei people, whose majority live in the Imphal valley 

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The Manipuri language is spoken in Manipur, a few other places in India and in Burma and Bangladesh (mentioned herein as Pakistan) by nearly nine to ten lakh people as a mother tongue in these regions. A number of ethnic groups residing in the hills, totalling around thirty, use it as a lingua franca; in fact, it is for the whole province. In the Northeast India, the Manipuri is one of the most common languages, which was once highly developed and now reinvigorated—occupying the third place after Bengali and Assamese. The factor of language development determines how the Manipuri and its literature can be clearly separated into two: the old and the new.  

(Note: In the ending part of the first paragraph, the author mentions that there are then courses in Manipuri till the graduation stage—that was in the Sixties. Nowadays, scholars are pursuing their post-doctoral studies in this language.)

Manipur lies in a peripheral region, the Northeast, in India. Out of the two routes that lead to Kabaw (now in Burma), the province has been one of the major transit points. Many Aryans from the Gangetic plains in mainland India, ever since they started propagating their faith in Southeast Asia, had passed through Manipur en route to Burma and beyond.

(Note: The author mentions that there are enough evidences that illustrate Manipur was well known in India from ancient history. Further, he made a reference to Mahabharata, in which one Sugribana and his monkey-followers in their quest to find Sita in Java in the kingdom of Ravan had to pass this land but not before they were warned about the kingdom encircled by mountains, apparently referring to Manipur and its Keibu Keioiba, a tiger-man in local folklore.)

Hinduism arrived in Manipur circa 17th–18th century and it was adopted as a state religion during the reign of King Pamheiba [aka Garibniwaz, 1690–1751 AD, who had rechristened the kingdom with a Hindu name]. Over the centuries, this alien belief system had corrupted the local minds in such a way we started believing in the theory of the Vedic origins of Manipuri culture and that we were from the Mahabharata when in reality, proselytisation had marred the real historical narratives at such a ridiculous height. In the last eight decades or so, there has been a gradual realisation of the truth. Revivalism is another story.)

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From the earliest chronicle

Geological studies reveal Manipur was once under a vast lake.

(Note: Again, the author mixes history with the myths from Hindu thoughts. Official records indicate the lake dried up gradually, with Kangla in the heart of the valley emerging as the first region of inhabitation and the Loktak was formed in the southwestern part of the valley in antiquity. The consolidation of seven Meitei clans under the Ningthouja, further in 33AD, has been marked as the beginning of Meitei civilisation.)

People with limited knowledge of this language have grouped the Manipuri under the family of Sino-Tibetan and then classified into the Tibeto-Burman class of the Chin-Kuki group. Some scholars are, however, of another opinion.

(Note: With so much inclination towards bogus Aryan narratives, it is no surprise that the author, in this case, refers to a sycophant like Phurailatpam Atombapu, whose pseudo-scholar knowledge were the main reason why until in our preceding generations’ days, many people believed in the Mahabharata story and the closeness of the language to Sanskrit.)

Some people believe there is no Manipuri grammar, but this is entirely false. For instance the grammatical quality and flexibility of the language are visible in its ability to transpose or the existence of active–passive voices and reported speeches, amongst others. (Author’s example: Keina mi chai can be transposed into Keina mi chabani. Or, Chaobana Tomanda lairik ama pi can be rewritten as Chaobana Tomanda lairik ama pibani.)

Besides, there are plenty of words that are quite alien to Vedic and Sanskrit languages. Many languages have evolved from Sanskrit but some of those had undergone drastic changes that it has no connection with the source language at all. For instance, in Dr Suniti Kumar Chatterji’s National Flag, it is mentioned that tsie, which means paper in Sanskrit-Chinese lexicon around 7AD, has now become che (ˈtʃɛ) in Manipuri and in the Sanskritised version, from soi it has become kagat, kakal, kakat, kagaz. More examples are elaborated in Ph Atombapu’s books such as Pakhangba and Manipur Sanatan Dharma. In a nutshell, it is still early to group Manipuri into a category. Discretion is indeed the better part of valour. This does not imply we should make effort to categorise Manipuri in the Sanskrit family but we can search for the fact. Truth be told, those who called themselves an offshoot from Mohenjo-daro like the Dravidians are now disillusioned.

Nowadays, people have realised the existence of the Meitei Mayek alphabets.

(Note: It was completely destroyed along with ancient holy books, scriptures and philosophical treatises when Pamheiba imposed Hinduism in this ancient kingdom and has been revived only recently. But it is no more significant and nobody knows about its origin, though doubtlessly it has been around for quite a long time. If we had used the Meitei Mayek continuously, the author is hopeful, that people would have even believed if we say the contemporary Devanagari letters stemmed from Meitei Mayek.)

Manipuri literature and litany

It is essential to know the political history of Manipur if we want to know about its literature. However the lack of resources have been a great impediment in approaching further, even if it is common knowledge that the ancient records are a window into the world of religion, medicine, moral and ethics, plant studies, history, philosophy, familial records, the chronology of rulers and so on. These are a centrepiece of our historical literature. The MGS, a literary society, has found and identified 245 such books in the recent past. This will hopefully help in making an informed decision and debates as soon as they are examined scientifically. Many of these books, written in archaic Manpuri, are too hard to understand! Some of the titles include Panthoibi Khongul, Numit Kappa, Sanamahi Laihui, etc.

Around 1732 AD, Manipur witnessed a war of righteousness. From Sylhet (in northeastern Bangladesh), a Brahmin pandit named Santidas Adhikari (known locally as Santidas Gosai) arrived in the valley. He was campaigning for the Hindu Ramanandi sect, which the then King Pamheiba consented to his religious conversion and other activities. However, one of the Manipuri scholars, Lourembam Khongnangthaba disagreed and tried to reason that the new religion was no different from others. In those days, there were more people who shared the view with Khongnangthaba than with the king—and consequently the latter got furious and decreed the burning of all the existing Manipuri books (This incident is observed today as the Puya Mei Thaba Numit, or the Burning of the Puya, the ancient scriptures). Further, the local music was banned too. It was considered a sin by a royal order; and if not followed, it is believed that there was a curse: if the dissident dies during the day, s/he will be reincarnated as a crow and during the night, an owl; and if anyone enjoys pena, a native string instrument, s/he will suffer in hell. The curse was so deep and pernicious that even today there are several artistes who refuse to sing in Manipuri. Therefore in the end, most of the books were destroyed—the king fell and Santidas was also murdered. The books which are available today include some which have been hidden, and some rewritten from memory by the scholars.

Letters, lyrics and likening

We can separate the history of Manipuri literature into three eras: one, from ancient history to 1750 AD; two, from 1750 AD to 1900 AD; and three, 1900 AD to the present. As we have seen earlier, the first era was cut short during Pamheiba’s reign and only a few book remains subsequently. Most of these books can be categorised into two parts: first, chronicles and history; and secondly, stories and scriptures. In the first part, some of the notable books include Takhol Ngamba, Samjok Ngamba and Cheitharol Kumbaba. In the second, we have Leithak Leikharon, Numit Kappa, Pudil and Panthoibi Khongul, amongst others. For instance, Cheitharol Kumbaba (or the Royal Chronicle as the name suggests) is a royal account of the erstwhile kingdom and Pudil deals with the study of cosmology.


Panthoibi Khongul is a remarkable literary work. It is a fictional story of Nongpok Ningthou from the eastern mountain and a lady reaper called Panthoibi. Theirs is a case of first love at first sight. However, their physical distance forbids their chance of being together. So, through her parents’ consent, Panthoibi is married to a man named Khaba—but the latter sees in her a demon, so he is reluctant to go near her. Afflicted with Nonpok Ningthou’s love, Panthoibi sings plaintively:

Chekla paikharabada pombi hanjillakpada
Cheklagi kaidongfam khangdabana (Note: kaidongfam is leifam in the essay)
Pombi kangaonare
Saabi inemmacha pammuba
Chingnoong-gi sana loktagi pairak-lo      

The song is elaborated in Ph Atombapu Sharma’s Meitei Dharma Ariba. Let us consider two words from the song: inemmacha and pammuba. Inemmacha literally means mother-in-law’s son, and we cannot find such a similar word in any other Indian literature or language; though there are mentions of the inem’s gender-opposite iku as in ikubokkimacha. The usage of an original word in the song and how it relates between the two characters of the story is so poetic; besides, with the second authentic word, pammuba (literally beloved) that can be translated in several ways, the subtleness of the language is very clear. The song is believed to have its origin in the 1st century CE. It is no surprise how the ancient Manipuri literature can be counted amongst the lit of highest form. One can say with its profundity of the language it is second to none.

Then we have the legendary tales of Khamba Thoibi. It needs no introduction and when Thoibi was in exile, her lamentation was evident when she sang:

Laapkhraba thawaina thamliba
Ahing-gi tandan oiduna
Noongthil-gi cheklabu oiduna
Paibirakloba pammuba

The lyric is similar to Panthoibi’s song but the latter is more significant because Thoibi’s about a lover she could be ‘with’ and Panthoibi’s ‘without’.

(The original sentences are too funny: Ahanbagisina...uccharas oiba helli, maramdi ahanbagi asina uppati bu koubani aduga akonbagi asina patibu koubani. Haibadi ahanbagi asina aatma na param-aatmabu parkiya bhaap ta aaradhan toujabani aduga akonbagina aatma na param-aatmabu swakiy bhaapta koujabani. Ninety percent of the text is Sanskrit and it is out of touch with our contemporary generation who has been lucky enough to find that our old folks had been infatuated with mainland India at the point of being subservient. Also this piece was written around that time when they would break their teeth voluntarily to copy Hindi film star Dev Anand’s style. I’d like to mention that this kind of language was a big turn-off to read Manipuri literature during school and college.)

Some people believe that Khamba Thoibi precedes Lai Haraoba but it is erroneous: because the tales of Khamba Thoibi are believed to have developed from 12th century CE however, Lai Haraoba has been around for more decades and centuries than we can count.  

ERA TWO: FROM 1750 AD TO 1900 AD

During this period people had forgotten Manipuri language almost entirely. In dread of the king’s wrath, they had stopped singing with their own tongue. Nobody wrote in their native language and most of them started feeling inferior as much as they were embarrassed to listen to pena. Even if they heard it, the enjoyment—specifically from the aesthetics of sadness and compassion inherent in that music—had ceased fearing the curse of hell. People who wrote in original Manipuri were ridiculed and other societies started considering the Manipuri race has no root. At the same time, there were more debates on Bengali literature, while the so-called scholars were absorbed in Bengali books and interested only in articulation on this alien language. Gradually the new language entered into the religious and cultural domains. The silver lining was only in the ability to enjoy the Bong lit.

During the reign of King Chandrakirti (1850–1886), a national song was composed:

Taibang panbagi mapu Sri Govinda nangi khuyada
Meitei ningthou eina haijeiye
Leipak pumnamak loinana nangi thouganbu toujabasi
Nangidamakni penbiyu haina khurumjei

(The song started with a hymn to a god, Sri Govinda, and the connotation is that of a piously impotent man.) King Chandrakirti had another song:

Eeta yenguda nongna murti pallene
Kunja mala urok paire
Fige sana nongthang kuple
Mahousagi sakna thawaina kappa sakfamni
Madu makta kokta wahong matu chura thetline

(And this one is a devotional song to Krishna. Apparently the Manipuri kings were die-hard acolytes of this deity, who is famous for his divine womanising power. See below the kings and their number of wives and concubines counted together as wives. Do note that all of them were rulers during the second era of the history of Manipuri literature.)

Devendra [Ruling period - One year! 1850] Bhagyachandra [aka Chingthangkhomba 1764-1798 AD] Chourjit [1806-1812 AD] Marjit [1812-1819 AD] Labanyachandra [NA] Madhuchandra [1801-1806 AD] Bhadra  [1824 AD] Ananta Sai [NA] Nara [1844-1850 AD] Gambhir [aka Chinglen Nongdrenkhomba 1825-1834 AD] Pamheiba [aka Garibniwaj 1709-1754 AD]
During Chandrakirti’s reign there was an apparent interest in Manipuri expressions but people were still apprehensive about the royal decree of using the native tongue. As a result, nothing good came for the language.


During the British imperial rule (1891–1947), we saw the birth of western education in the province. People started learning Manipuri language written in Bengali, yet it was neither widespread nor popular.

In 1914, King Churachand (1891–1941) offered a song as a tribute to Yaoshang (Holi) festival; and the translation from Bengali was done by the author and his partner Maibam Rajnigandh:

Yeng-ngu yeng-ngu ningthiraba gouranga-gi lila!
Basanta gi matamda marup mapaang loinana
Ganga mapaanda lengkhare
Ningthiraba thanin-na nadiyada thokle...

The same year also saw the rebirth of Manipuri drama in the native language. Gradually, around 1918–19, Gouralila was presented in Manipuri at the palace for the first time.

The first poet to write in Manipuri is unanimously identified as Khwairakpam Chaoba (1895–1950).  (Read a translated essay of the bard here: The Poet and the Art of Poetry) Like never before, his works show that there is indeed a strong sense of aesthetics in Manipuri language, though the influence of Bengali on him was quite evident in his work. While Chaoba wrote lyrical poems, Hijam Anganghal (1892–1943) mastered the art of narrative poetry. He demonstrated with fine strokes that the blend of old and new Manipuri languages can produce a dramatic effect from literary perspectives. Arambam Dorendrajit (1907–1944), often compared to Michael Madhusudan Dutt, redefined the quatrain with his epic poems.    

Previously, the Manipuris used to perform only in plays translated from Bengali. The first orginal Manipuri drama, Narsingh, is believed to have staged in 1915. Some of the earliest notable playwrights who penned and published include Sorokkhaibam Lalit, Maibam Ramcharan, Ayekpam Syamsunder, etc. Then, the first novelist is considered to be Dr Lamabam Kamal (1899–1935), whose work, Madhabi, has been critiqued as a first-class piece or so to say, of the most novel sort. If Dr Kamal was still alive we could have been very fortunate, alas not. Further, Hawaibam Nabadwipchandra (1897–1946) translated Michael Madhusudhan Dutta’s Meghanad Badha Kavya in his unique style and showed the amount of flexibility in the Manipuri language. Then, Rajkumar Shitaljit (1913–2008) developed deeper style and techniques in his novels and short stories.

There has been abundant contribution in the Manipuri lit. Also, writers like Ashangbam Minaketan and Rajkumar Surendra are shaping the landscape of local literature. The number of books written by Mutum Jhulon demonstrates the capacity of humanity inherent in us.

(Note: The author also mentions how Ph Atombapu filled the void with translation of Mahabharat and that he showed how Manipur is mentioned in Mahabharata. He is all praised for Ph Atombapu referring that for commitments towards Manipuri lit, the Manipuri Sahitya Parishad conferred the latter with the title of Swiromani Gavesana. However, he missed that Atombapu’s works are filled with fallacies.)

Set to work: The ending part

Those who love Manipuri literature, if they are interested, can do a lot of thing:

•    To rewrite the works in contemporary style as well translate them in other language
•    To construct the grammar of the old Manipuri language
•    To create and produce fool-proof Manipuri grammar books
•    To collect, collate and republish     the unabridged works of those tales like Khamba Thoibi
•    To collect, collate and publish the works mostly existing as oral tales including those of music, folk tales and religious texts
•    To collect, collate and publish the folk tales and scriptures from other ethnic groups
•    To translate the legendary works from across the globe into Manipuri and publish them
•    To translate the legendary works from across the globe and perform them
•    To develop feminist literature with local touch
•    To make a coherent system and manual style of the language

Till today there are two schools of thoughts: one who is inclined to take reference from ancient Manipuri literature and the other who are hell bent on Sanskrit. (Note: This is again an essay written in the Sixties.) Personally, my inclination is to make the best of it taking from both of them. To conclude, it is hopeful that more illustrious writers will emerge in the days to come and the stream of Manipuri literature will run far and wide. 

  • The subheadings have been added in this translation for convenience. 
  • Most of my favourite poets, from Thangjam Ibopishak to Laishram Samarendra, whose works are filled with the ideas of social realism and other related motifs, started publishing their works in the Sixties when this essay was purportedly written.

Related pieces on this blog
Heirang Leirang in the Write Direction
How to Destroy a Civilisation in the Most Civilised Ways
The Poet and the Art of Poetry

Manipuri Literature in History - A series by Thingnam Kishan on



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