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From Mandalay to Manipur


Impressions from a speech by a Burmese Manipuri who was recently in Imphal as a part of the special contingent for the annual Sangai and Imphal Literature festivals in the valley

Image: A Kathe/Cassay (Meitei/Manipuri to the Burmese) horseman  from the Wikipedia page on the military history of Myanmar. The page features not only one, but two such Meitei horsemen.


It was a typical December afternoon two weeks ago. You can get away with a light jacket but not so in the evening when the mercury plummets to around 3–4 degrees from 20 or so.

I had been looking forward to the annual Imphal Literature Festival, which was scheduled from 4–7 December 2015 and was organised by the Manipuri literary group, Sathoulup. I consider myself lucky to get a chance to attend such a literary fest—on that day it was the opening ceremony—during my yearly winter vacation at home. Such an opportunity, I love to believe, somehow make up for the all the festivities that I miss while I am away.    

The Imphal Literature Festival commenced with short speeches by representative s from the Manipuri literary communities in Bangladesh and Burma. They shared about the living condition of the Manipuris, read the Meiteis in general, and explained briefly about the state of literature in their respective countries. I heard that delegates from the Indian provinces of Assam and Tripura also took part in the fest.

It was a totally new experience to hear the term ‘mainland Manipur’ from the two representatives and I was more influenced by the Burmese delegate. He has a Hindu Manipuri name, K Sundergopal, but his real name is a hard-to-pronounce Uthui Suiye. He is quite upset that under the Burmese military junta, little has been done to safeguard the art and culture of the minorities including that of Burmese Manipuris, while the state has been imposing the Buddhism, a faith which is quite a contradiction to the ethos of the military. Naturally many Manipuris have started embracing the religion. On the bright side, however, he views that a couple of developments such as the ‘democratic’ election that was held last November and the formulation of the Act East Policy will bring about some long overdue transformation.

On migration of the Manipuris to Burma, Mr Suiye lectured that it had occurred in three primary stages.

First, it was the ‘cross-kingdom’ and consensual movement throughout history. He emphasized on those resettlement during the reign of Meidingu Pamheiba (1690–1751). [Note: In the Toungoo Dynasty (1510–1752), Manipuri or Meiteilon was a major language in the then Burma.]

Second, a large number of prisoners of war were taken away to Burma around the 17th and 18th centuries.

[Note: In those days, it was the height of the Konbaung Dynasty (1752–1885), the second largest and the last to rule Burma. Invasion from one side of the Ningthi (Chindwin) to the other was an order of the day.]

We also had the infamous Chahi Taret Khuntaakpa or the Seven Years’ Devastation (1819–1826) when Manipur was completely destroyed and the natives were taken away to Burma as war captives in the most atrocious ways.

[Note: Chahi Taret Khuntaakpa occurred during the reign of Bagyidaw (1784–1846), who ordered his trusted aide, General Bundela, to invade the Manipur kingdom after Meidingu Gambhir aka King Chinglen Nongdrenkhomba’s refusal to attend Bagyidaw’s coronation ceremony. Bagyidaw aka Sagaing Min was the seventh king in the Konbaung Dynasty. His reign also saw the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1824.]

Third, mass migration occurred in modern history when Burma was a part of British India.  

Mr Suiye spoke in an accented Manipuri and he consciously knew it. He also expressed concerns that there are few learning centres for Manipuri language and those of art and culture and the likes. As such it has been quite an effort to preserve the tradition and culture of the Manipuris. Besides, the military junta is a hard taskmaster when it comes to cultural matters; alternatively, the only religion they care about is Buddhism at the cost of other faiths and beliefs.

Incidentally, Mr Suiye was also a member of the Manipuri Burmese team, which arrived in the valley to attend the Sangai Festival, which is held from 21–30 November annually in the Imphal valley. An umbrella group of several valley-based civil society organisations had also received the team with a formal gathering prior to the Imphal Literature Festival. One common discontent of the members is their inability to come to Manipur regularly for diverse reasons ranging from political to transportation problems. Yet they were visibly pleased when they talked about the Sangai Festival and Imphal Literature Festival that had offered a grand opportunity to visit their motherland, which most of the time has been a mere non-physical collection of mere imagination, nostalgia and desperation.

For Imphalites, we have a fragmented sense of home as the fight for the right to self-determination rages on.

Now, despite the long and arduous processes of paper work and inspection on both sides of the border, the cultural, literary and other festivals have opened the doors for them to Manipur for all the good reasons. This has been as well quite a ‘warm’ experience in December with or without a jacket!

PS: Read the seven-part series on Manipuris in Myanmar written by Mutua Bahadur on epao.net.


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