Ancient Civilisations and Contemporary Lives with Reference to Manipur

The greatest advances of civilisation, whether in architecture or painting, in science and literature, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralised government.
- Milton Friedman
Inside the Kangla Fort, Imphal

It is sometimes hard to imagine that civilisations like those of the Mayans and Indus Valley did exist in the distant past. However, the simple fact is that they have been literally razed to the ground—lost forever from this fleeting world. The extinction of such one-time great civilisations also concerns me in another area. What if the Manipuri society were destined with a similar fate? This is not fatalistic because already this society has the perfect recipe for doom as well as all its elements of a failed society. It has been deluged in conflicts and contradictions.

Let’s dig into it a bit further.

A civilisation, if we go by its definition, is an advanced form of living. According to Alexander Crummell, the black American rationalist, ‘Our life, our culture, and our civilisation are but the result of the ceaseless energy of mind and body of all past nations.”

It is complex but despite its ‘progress’ and ‘hardness’, it is prone to extermination with reasons as intricate as its being. Nobody knows about the origin of civilisation except there are only anthropological speculations. We can see four of such collective theories here.

One, the theories of voluntary development are based on the natural growth of humanity. Two, the theories of coercive militarism explain the rise of multifaceted societies and empires. Thirdly, Robert Carniero, an American anthropologist, theorised: ‘In areas of circumscribed agricultural land, population pressure led to warfare that resulted in the evolution of the state’s theory of environmental circumscription.’ He says war disperses people rather than unite them. Lastly, Henri JM Claesson, a Dutch cultural anthropologist, postulates the Complex Interaction Model, which is based on a complex relationship or an alignment between ideology, economy and human society. The last two are quite seminal in the history of the formation of modern state too.

Starting Point

With only these four theories of foreign origin to begin with, it might be biased to write a civilisation off, especially our own, through further assumptions. In fact, we might consider being in a good position, to sustain ourselves if we take into account of our literacy. Experts opine that those societies that have learn writing—the literate societies, in their words—have a better chance of survival than those who do not have it. One of the most unlikely reason but which is indeed the basis of such a prediction is ‘memory’. These societies have longer memories and accurate documentation that play a crucial role in their survival or resistance against extermination.

In this regard, we have a record of using the Meitei Mayek for close to 2,000 years as depicted the clearest in the records of Cheitharol Kumbaba, which mentioned amongst others, the coronation of the first known Manipuri king, Nongda Lairen Pakhangba in 33AD. The erstwhile Asiatic kingdom existed independently all along but in its modern existence it had been knocked down twice: first, when the British spread its tentacles beyond Assam in 1891 and second, when it was forcefully merged into the union of India in 1949.

Now, people from outside the pitiable province consider the search for that narration without the colonial and neo-colonial contamination as anti-national, regional, identity politics and at worst, a secessionist agenda. It is unsurprising though because the Manipuri civilisation is more East Asian than the South’s except in some sporadic religious-cultural matters necessitated by proselytization and the politics of the day. Still we cannot ‘artificialise’ civilisation and use it as a means to meet parochial political ends. It is a reality that the highest form of nationalist propaganda of the union can hardly negate it.

Even if things have changed drastically in the last few decades as the process of Indianisation has been underway in full swing, the narrative of our civilisation will remain as is or as it had been. No argument about it and so now putting it aside for a while, let’s see the extinction of a few great civilisations across the world that once thrived but could not survive. 
From a temple in Cambodia

Down and Out

• As one on the mightiest powers in Southeast Asia, the Khmer Empire used to cover modern Cambodia and it was spread across Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. It had no writing system and all that we know is from archaeological studies.  Foreign invasion, epidemics, agricultural incompetency and internal conflict in the royal families are believed to be reason behind its extinction.

• In school we learnt about the Aztecs, Incas and Mayans but there were also others like the Olmec Civilisation of Mexico in South America. It had a writing system and is attributed to be the inventor of compass. A literate civilisation but it is speculated that environmental disasters and destructive agricultural practices led to its downfall.

• In the Indian subcontinent, the Indus Valley Civilisation was one of the most developed societies in its time. It is also known for its scientific advancement but apparently the development was not sufficient for its existence. Archaeologists cite its annihilation as a result of foreign invasion, climate change and agricultural failure.

• Elsewhere, the Aksumite Empire in Ethiopia was once a force to reckon with. At its height, it covered parts of the modern Eritrea, Ethiopia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. Like in the other civilisations, this empire vanished after foreign invasions, climate change and the onslaught from the rise of Islamic Empire. 

• In Greece, the Mycenaean Civilisation was quite notable. It was these people, the Mycenae, who crushed the mythological Troy. Nobody knows how it disappeared but experts consider that natural calamities plus internal and external aggression had caused its disappearance. 


i. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
ii. A Study of History by Arnold J Toynbee
iii. A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright
iv. Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future in This Century – On Earth and Beyond by Sir Martin Rees
v. The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture by Marvin Harris

The Global and the Local

Recently when North Korea announced that it had successful tested H-bomb, a half of the world was taken aback and the other half called it a bluff. Nevertheless it is an addition to the apprehension of warfare that might destroy the entire humanity. The ‘family’ of such a major crisis also includes, naming a few, artificial intelligence takeover, pandemics, modern weapons, global warming and asteroid attack. Hollywood is also contributing in the madness with its films on environmental disaster, extraterrestrial invasion, cosmic threats, cyborgs, nanotechnology and biotechnology and so on. 

Closer home, however, none of these matters as much as the external factors of violence, ethnic hostilities and institutional breakdown on one hand and the internal factors of our growing insensibility or the normalisation of the abnormal on the other. What could be outrageous in other societies is pretty normal in the region. Murder, crimes, corruption and mindless violence have been the order of the day. We can only hope that a better sense will prevail in the end but such a wish is too whimsical.

A huge gap exists between the personal and the political while hopelessly many of us are inclined on personal wealth accumulation. Besides, the coercive approaches of the authority, despite our loss of confidence in them, the failure of governance and administration and the degradation in every forms of our collective life have only aggravated the situation.


The distance and the more important issues at hand might have devalued the global catastrophe risks around us but we are obviously not an island unto ourselves. A mistake we have never amended is to learn from history. We have as well seen, being a literate society is insufficient.

How do we, instead of focusing on doomsday prophecy, tilt the spotlight to the growth of a civilisation? That sounds quite a beginning. It was unimaginable that the Khmer Empire would leave behind only a few artefacts as proof of its existence. Still we can imagine a better future.        

Image: Pixabay



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