Off-Centre Society

The world according to the Meiteis: Manipur has a little-known but highly evolved manuscript tradition called puya

Fascinating: An illustration from ‘And That is Why’ showing the pied cuckoo with the rhyme in Manipuri   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Manipur has a little-known but highly evolved manuscript tradition called puya. Most of the roughly 40,000 manuscripts or puya are not illustrated, but those that are, come with some extremely beautiful drawings. The myths in the puya might be relatively unknown as written stories, but their oral counterparts are likely to be more familiar, since Manipuri civilisation — with its cultural high notes as embodied in nat sankirtan music, declared part of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage, or Manipuri dance, one of the classical dances of India — is predominantly performative. But manuscripts constitute the core of the patrimony of the essentially non-material civilisation of the Meiteis, who established the feudal kingdom of Manipur.

The court chronicle of the kings of Manipur called Cheitharol Kumbaba dates the kingdom back to the 1st century CE, on the basis of pre-historical early records written from oral traditions. Inscriptions in Meitei Mayek emerge in the 14th century, leading to more contemporaneous record-keeping and treatises on a variety of subjects. The kingdom adopted Vaishnavism in the early 18th century but the myths taken from the puya tradition predate this conversion. They are a part of the pre-Hindu religious practice of the Meiteis, which is largely animistic and centred on ancestor-worship. It continued to co-exist with Vaishnavism and is practised to this day.

Myth and magic

As such, the Manipuri manuscript tradition is very much alive, albeit in reduced circumstances, in ritual and prayer. The royal palace in Manipur still maintains a council of scholars called the Pundit Loisang, charged with writing the court chronicle, among

An illustration from ‘And That is Why’ showing ‘why man is creative and can think’

An illustration from ‘And That is Why’ showing ‘why man is creative and can think’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

other duties. Dissertations on the puya and translations into contemporary Manipuri exist today, but the old manuscripts are held by scholar custodians or archives. They are written mostly on handmade paper — with some on leaf, bamboo and wooden surfaces — in Meitei Mayek, one of a handful of Tibeto-Burman scripts. And they are in the Tibeto-Burman language called Manipuri, or Meiteilon, to use its endonym.

Various genres of illustrated manuscripts such as subika — with individual puya such as subika laisaba, subika khuthin, and subika choudit — and khutlou manuscripts like the khutlou cheithin, are used in fortune-telling, astrology and magic. People still consult them today. They are considered sacred, imbued with talismanic power.

In neighbouring Myanmar, the manuscript tradition was continued by Manipuri scholars called kathe ponna, who became a part of the Burmese courts from the mid-16th century onwards. They were held in high regard for their powers of prognostication and their reading of the stars.

Tribal traditions

There are other manuscripts of record besides the court chronicle, such as the Ningthourol Lambuba, and, interestingly, a history of royal women called the Chada Laihui. Manuscripts like Loiyamba Sinyen are on state administration. The story of the pied cuckoo, a cautionary tale foregrounding the importance of community work and passed down as a nursery rhyme in Manipur, is found in Tutenglon, a treatise on water management.

An illustration from ‘And That is Why’ showing ‘why the spear bamboo grows on Karang island’

An illustration from ‘And That is Why’ showing ‘why the spear bamboo grows on Karang island’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Poireiton Khunthokpa, the manuscript source of a story with Shan origins, is a migration tale with toponymy — the study of place names — while Chinglon Laihui is about topography. Sanamahi Thiren and Pakhangba Yangbi cover religious practices and feature deities. Panthoibi Khonggul is a prominent literary text. Each of the nine Meitei clans called salai, and their constituent lineages called sagei, maintain genealogies, which form the bulk of the manuscripts.

Comparative scholarship on South and Southeast Asian mythology will help us understand the universal archetypes, shared stories and origin tales embedded in Manipuri mythology as well as shed light on the unusual art art of its illustrated manuscripts. What is intriguing is that such a mythology exists at all in such a diminutive culture. Even within it there are stories that feature tribal traditions of Manipur such as that of the Kabui, and stories from minor communities within the Meiteis, such as the Chakpa, Kakching and Moirang, that I include.

The writer is the author of And That Is Why, a retelling of myths from Manipur’s manuscripts and oral traditions, published by Puffin. Artwork by Sapha Yumnam.

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 12:18:02 AM |

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