By Iboyaima Laithangbam
Imphal : Umang Lai, the sylvan god of Manipur, is also present in Myanmar. And that’s because several centuries ago many Manipuris were taken as prisoners of war by the Burmese. Since then, there’s a little Manipur in Myanmar which is still thriving.
Yes, the Manipuris here are away from their roots. It’s also true that they often wonder whether they are Manipuri first or Myanmarese. In fact, with the passage of time several Manipuri people in Myanmar have embraced Buddhism. But even then, Manipur and its culture remain relevant in their lives.
Manipuri community leader in Yangon K. Sunder Gopal Sharma said: “The number of Manipuris here has decreased in the recent years. There are hardly 10,000 of them in Myanmar. Several of them have embraced Buddhism, and many Manipuri girls have married local Myanmarese men.” Many Manipuri women in Myanmar are nearing 40 but they did not find suitable men of Manipuri origin whom they can marry, he said.
There are further hurdles. The policy of the Myanmar government in all these years did not encourage young Manipuris here to learn their own language. They cannot fluently speak in their mother tongue and it is worrying the elders in the community.
However, most of the Manipuri people in Myanmar still follow Vaishnavism — their original religion. They perform Manipuri songs and dances to keep their traditions alive, even though there are not many teachers to guide them.
The connection between the Manipuris in Myanmar and the land of their forefathers got rekindled in recent years after Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh visited the neighbouring nation in 2013.
The chief minister urged the Manipuris in Myanmar to preserve their culture and live as Manipuris. His interaction with the Manipuri community has had an impact: there’s a serious endeavour today to revive the Manipuri culture in Myanmar.
But it’s not just in Myanmar that Manipuris have been living across the centuries. Manipuris are present in the states of Assam and Tripura as well. They had even lived in Bangladesh capital Dhaka which was then a centre of learning.
According to a legend, a Manipuri king had married off his daughter to a prince in Assam. The king then ordered several Manipuris to relocate to Assam so that the princess didn’t feel lonely. Since then Assam has been a hub of Manipuri diaspora. In fact, there’s a vibrant Manipuri Basti in the heart Guwahati city.
Manipuris living here earnestly follow their age-old customs. Every Manipuri home comprises a courtyard where women pray before a Tulsi plant in true Vaishnava spirit. Girls perform Manipuri songs and dances at religious gatherings. Wearing traditional sarongs, they celebrate important occasions in perfect style and pomp.
Literary meets are organised regularly here where best of creative entries are awarded. Journals and other publications are part of these literary meets that see participation of writers from Manipur and other parts of the world.
Every November, the Ningol Chakouba is organised when the married daughters are invited for a sumptuous feast. It’s a tradition that hasn’t died down and remains insulated from extraneous influences.
As the story goes, when aliens invaded Manipur they were welcomed by smiling Manipuri women who served food and drinks to the invaders. Little did the invaders know that the food and drinks were laced with sleep-inducing drugs. By the time they woke up, their hands and legs had been tied, and Manipuri men were around. The invaders were vanquished.
It is this inherent ability to beat the odds and turn the tide that has kept the Manipuri population in foreign shores connected to their heritage despite the distance. No doubt that the Manipuri diaspora had to adapt to the changing times. But even then, they have been able to keep the torch burning.
Today, there’s a slice of Manipur in every nook and corner of the world — from the UK, the US to Japan and Russia. Search a bit and you’d find that Lai Haraoba, the Manipuri festival to please the deity, is celebrated in all these countries.
And when ‘pena’, the traditional instrument, is played at these venues, it touches the hearts of youngsters of Manipuri descent, reminding them of the land of their forefathers so far away. As they try to visualise the pristine villages in distant Manipur, the benign sylvan god Umang Lai smiles. He’s then pleased indeed.