The Ultimate Sacrilege
Puya Meithaba, the Infamous Book Burning Incident and Destruction of Indigenous Religion During the Onslaught of Hinduism in 18th Century Manipur
This essay is a translation of a few sections on Puya Meithaba and forced proselytisation from Ningthoukhongjam Khelchandra’s book, Ariba Manipuri Sahityagi Itihaas (A History of Old Manipuri Literature); 1st edition 1969; 4th ed 2011. Sections included here: (1) Meitei Lairik Mei Thaaba (pp 33–34); (2) Santidasna Manipurda Ramandi Dharma Sandokpa (pp 35–36); (3) Umang Laigi Khubham Thugaiba (pp 37–38); (4) Lairik Mei Thaaba (pp 39–43); (5) Mei Thaakhre Hairiba Lairiksing Asi Khongul Muthkhrabra? (pp 44–45)
|An ode to ingellei|
1 Meiteilon Book Burning
In the early 18th century, Meidingu Pamheiba (*1690–1751) was a ruler who redefined Manipuri power and could get rid of interferences from outsiders audaciously. He was known by several other names such as Maharaj Garibniwaz, Khongnaang Mayamba and Gopalsing. In fact, he was an exceptional ruler among all the Manipuri kings. Once he invaded Ava (*Burma), conquered its capital and unfurled the Manipuri flag on the Burmese soil. He was also the king, who etched a spot with his sword, as a mark of victory on the main door of the Kaunghmudaw Pagoda. This is a well-known Burmese temple in Sagaing Region (*Central Burma). Later, when the Ava conspired with the Takhel (*present-day Tripura) and invaded Manipur from two directions, Pamheiba vanquished the enemies without much ado. Such a courageous king, however, has been denounced by the people today for his role in burning some of the ancient Manipuri books.
2 Santidas’s Role in Spreading Ramandi in Manipur
During the reign of Meidingu Pamheiba (1709–1748), a Hindu missionary called Santidas arrived in Manipur. It was 1716. He was from Sylhet in present-day Bangladesh. Santidas was accompanied by Bhagwandas and Narayandas and entered Manipur through Ngaprum Chingjen (*A part of Tongjei Maril or Old Cachar Road in southern Manipur). This preacher stayed at the royal guesthouse when he first arrived in the erstwhile kingdom. When he met Pamheiba, he promised that he will baptise the king.
Before Santidas made his appearance, Pamheiba was under the tutelage of a Hindu Brahmin called Gangadhar and had already adopted the sakhya faith [*Note: But in Hinduism, sakhya is one of the five forms of Bhakti (devotion) in the Vaishnava pantheon; the other four include santa, dasya, vatsalya and madhura]. When Santidas offered to baptise him to become a Hindu, the king replied that he would need to consult his royal advisors. When he did ask the mentors in his court, he got an unambiguous reply:
‘Your Majesty, such an action will destroy our own culture and how are we suppose to adopt others? Tomorrow we might lose everything and keep up with others’ language as ours. Their language will one day become a huge river that drowns us. We stand against it. Please do consider about the consequences of such baptism for the sake of posterity.’
However, even if his subjects resisted the move, Pamheiba opposed them more forcefully. The royal counsellors had nothing but to give in; though they did tell the king that he should do what was best for him and what he believed was the best. Eventually, Santidas proselytised Pamheiba and the Hindu preacher was able to to turn around his finger so well.
Before long, Meidingu Pamheiba asked his brother-in-law, Haobam Akong to organise a mass gathering. The objective was to take a pledge together to make the proselytisation successful. At the gathering, a ritual was conducted formally—with recitation by a Brahmin named Chakrakandari—where Pamheiba vowed that, he, the son of Nungthil Chaibi and King Charairongba (*1697–1709) will worship no other god than Sriramchandra from that day onwards. Chakrakandari was also responsible for the mass conversion of royal servants and a number of Meiteis belonging to the seven clans in 1737.
3 Desecration of Umang Lai
(*Umang Lai – loosely forest gods/goddesses or sylvan deities)
Over a short period, Meidingu Pamheiba was completely under the spell of Santidas, as the latter became his guide not only in religious matters but also in politics. The Manipuri kingdom had a long history of worshipping the sylvan dieties (*and practising animism) but the king issued a decree to destroy all the shrines and sites of Umang Lai and other gods/goddesses. In 1723, several Umang Lai temples were completed razed to the ground. Around the same time, in the Manipuri month of Hiyaangei (*usually falls between November and December in the Gregorian calendar), on a full-moon night, the Brahmins were allowed to enter, mess up indigenous customs and perform rituals at the four native temples of Laiyingthou Nongsaaba, Yimthei Lai, Panthoibi and Sanamahi.
The destruction as well as that of sacred sites are discussed in depth in books and chronicles such as Cheitharol Kumbaba, Miyaat, Manipur Itibrita and Sanamahi Lai Kan. In 1726, in the month of Inga (May–June), all the indigenous idolatries were collected from in and around the kingdom and were buried under a jackfruit tree in the Mongbahanba Umang, rechristened and known as Mahabali today—but not before a Hindu ritual incantation. A month later, on a Monday, seven other sites and idolatries of Panthoibi, Laiyingthou Sanamahi, Soraren, Hoidonpokpi and others were demolished.
Evidences show that Santidas was involved directly in this spree of destruction. According to Miyaat and Manipur Itibrita, once Santidas had informed Pamheiba that they had missed a temple in Heibok; so the master went there. At the Heibok hillock, he was almost killed by Lairemma for his contempt but luckily escaped from his death. When he reached the palace he told Pamheiba that the kingdom was a land of goddess (Devi) and that the king should make a totem in her honour. Till today, it is worshipped at the site of Kamakhya in Hiyangthang. Thousands of people visit the shrine every year adoring it as the site of Goddess Lairemma (aka Hireima).
4 Book Burning
For Santidas, the Pakhangba Paphal (*a symbolic representation of Nongda Lairen Pakhangba, Manipur’s first recorded king who ruled from 33AD) and the books and ancient scriptures known as ‘puya’ written in Meitei Mayek were a heavenly material, a creation of the gods that the mortals should not defile—so he convinced the king to destroy them completely to maintain their divinity for good. Again the king replied that he will consult with his subjects before moving forward.
Lourembam Khongnaangthaaba (*a maichou, one of the seven great Manipuri scholars and a soothsayer) intervened: “Your Majesty, it will be the greatest sin to burn our own books.”
Other courtiers supported Maichou Khongnaangthaaba but the only person Pamheiba supported was Santidas. Soon, the king proclaimed that all the books should be burned in front of the Kangla Uttra (*a coronation hall of Manipuri kings at the Kangla Fort in the heart of Imphal). It was also threatened that anybody found disregarding the order will face dire consequences. So, all the books were piled up and put on fire. Available reports mention 120 known books were burned on that day.
Besides these 120 books, there were several unidentified titles as well. Once during the days of book collection, Khongnaangthaaba had met the king. He advised the king that none of the royal ancestors had committed such a blunder and repeatedly told the king that it would be an ultimate sacrilege and that it will be a great loss for the whole kingdom and its people. Pamheiba replied that he, as the king, had given his words to his guru, Santidas, and he was going to burn the books; to which the soothsayer retorted that the king will be responsible for any kind of consequences and left the palace. (Footnote: According to Cheitharol Kumbaba, the Meiteis used to address their kings as Laiyingthou, with a ‘y’, but it was replaced with Maharaj/Maharaja from the reign of Pamheiba.)
On the fateful day, in front of the Kangla Uttra when Santidas asked the king if the collection of books was complete the latter answered that was all in his kingdom.
According to the preacher’s command (*in 1729; some sources indicate the year was 1732) the books were piled up evenly—six poles were fitted; seven pieces of ritual firewood were laid proportionately; on the top was three rounds of rope; and the four corners of the entire arrangement were flanked by four bamboo posts and roofed by a large piece of cloth. The preacher stood there with a pot of water, a knife and a torch and then led the delegation that comprised the king and several of his subjects. As a part of the ritual, they moved around the heap seven times while Santidas chiselled the four bamboo poles, poured some water over each one of them and set ablaze the books. Soon the flame engulfed the whole arrangement and everything was gone.
Towards the conclusion of the ceremony, Santidas suggested the king should follow the same pattern in cremation. Meanwhile, when the show was finally over, Khongnaangthaaba came to meet the king. When the latter asked the purpose of his visit, the older man replied: ‘If your Majesty disagrees with me, there is no point of me staying here in the royal court. So I must leave now. But before I disappear, as you believe other cultures are superior, I’d like to take the Pakhangba Paphal and worship it in some divine shrine.’
The book burning in the first half of the 18th century will always remain as the most lamentable day for the Meitei race. This incident is still observed today as the Puya Meithaba Numit or ‘the Day of Burning Puya’ (* or as the Black Day just like how the Independence Day of August 15 is observed in the region).
5 Have We Lost All the Books?
Over the years when we searched for these books, we had been coming across some of the copies in the most unlikely places. In far-flung areas of the valley, around the foothills, at mountain tops and inside the attics of a few scholars, some of these books have been saved and stored in the most furtive style. Several books have been discovered outside the erstwhile kingdom as well, mostly from the Meiteis who are settled in, for instance, Tekhao (*Assam), Ava and ‘mayang leibaak’ (mainland India). More books are still in the possession of some individuals in nook and corner of the region though these are strictly forbidden to be seen or touched by anybody but the owner, leave alone reading them. From records it has been found that many of these books are the same titles which Santidas had taken all the risks to burn them.
When Pamheiba announced about the book burning, the kingdom did see a series of protests from the royal counsellors and courtiers with the most vocal resistance coming from Khongnaangthaaba.
Obviously, when the king announced the decree about burning books, many individuals had saved the books, away from the surveillance of the king and his informers. It might even not be a surprise if we are told that the book owners had copied the books inside the Manipuri’s ubiquitous bedding item, the mosquito nets following the announcement of burning the books. Historical records also mentioned that books such as Heibok Chinggoirong and others were once believed to be read only in the most private and confidential space of a reader. In some of the books, it is also mentioned that those who do not obey these principles should be cursed and condemned for a lifetime. Nobody can be trusted and over the years and centuries it became a sort of blasphemy to defy the rules.
It is thus probable that the books that were burnt in front of the Kangla Uttra only comprised those of the royal scholars’ collection, the palace and a few collection from the public. (*Even today, this issue of the number of books and the titles that were set ablaze is a bone of contention between the pro-Hindus and the Meitei revivalists of Manipur.) This is noteworthy because we have also found several books that precede the reign of Pamheiba and that can be classified under Manipuri ancient literature.
* Supplementary text
¬ Manipur/Manipuri has been used synonymously with Kangleipak/Meitei throughout this piece.
¬ In ancient literature the topics of the books ranged from philosophy (Waanguron) to cosmology (Leisem Nongsemlon). Ningthoukhongjam Khelchandra mentions 23 main areas in which the books were based on, and those include, amongst others, literature, politics and administration, arts, history, theology and religion, sociology, astrology, culture and civilisation, warfare, judiciary and so on.
¬ For his pro-Hindu, pro-Indian stand, Ningthoukhongjam Khelchandra (1920–2011) must still be one of the most hated men in Manipur today. He not only wrote the biography of—another equally hated pro-Hindu, pro-Indian—Mr Pandit Raj Atombapu Sharma but once also served as a president of the Atombapu Research Centre.
Related pieces on this blog
A History of Manipuri Literature
A translation with personal comments of a Meiteilon essay Manipuri Sahityagi Khongchat by Lairenmayum Ibungohal
Lit Titbit: A Poster Series on Old Literary Works in Manipuri
A list of notable literary works in Manipuri, or Meeteilon from ancient and medieval periods
A Personal Statement about History