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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Why colonise the Indian mind almost solely with Delhi-Aryavarta history - a “mainstream” that other Indians are invited to join. Not knowing our “subaltern” histories and cultures makes all of us lesser Indians, strangers within the fold.

Manipur Chronicles as Indian History

Vast tracts of “peripheral” history are missing entirely from textbooks and the public eye. Why?

By B G Verghese

Deccan Herald, 13 February, 2012

Most Indians do not know Indian history. What they are taught is the history of Ayavarta – the Gangetic plain and of those who ruled from Delhi. The histories of all other regions and of our oceanic traditions are incidental footnotes to the grand Delhi-Aryavarta narrative except for conflicts that erupted from Northern invasions.

Medieval Muslim rulers invaded the Deccan. That is noticed. There are references to the Vijayanagar and Bahmanid kingdoms, Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, the Mahrattas, and the rise of Sikh and Dogra power and of Mughal attempts to overrun Assam. The history of Tribal India and its resistance to British and earlier inroads is little known. Subaltern history has in more recent times gained some entry into history texts, but fitfully. Fragmentary “regional” histories are also now available. Are these histories taught even in those regions? Would teaching such histories necessarily spread local and regional chauvinism? Then why colonise the Indian mind almost solely with Delhi-Aryavarta history - a “mainstream” that other Indians are invited to join? Not knowing our “subaltern” histories and cultures makes all of us lesser Indians, strangers within the fold.

Some weeks ago an English translation of the Royal Chronicles of Manipur, “The Cheitharol Kumbaba”, was released in Delhi by the author, Nepram Bihari, a retired Meitei official from Imphal after patient translation from the old Meitei script as a labour of love. This is the unbroken chronicle of 76 Manipur Kings from AD 33 until Maharaja Bodhchandra, who acceded to India in 1949, passed away in 1955.

This makes Manipur one of the oldest kingdoms in India with a rich history and culture, a State that waxed and waned in size, subduing hill tribes like the Thangkuls, often partially conquering or being conquered by Ava (Burma) and receiving and sending embassies from and to Ava, China, Cambodia, Assam, Tripura and elsewhere. Vaishnavite missionaries from Nawadwip in Bengal converted the Meiteis from their ancient Sanamahi faith and Pamheiba, who adopted the name of Garibniwaz (1709-48), became the Kingdom’s first Hindu ruler. Thereafter there were pilgrimages to and visits from Nawadwip and to “the Ganga” for holy baths. Manipuri culture flourished and the Lai Haroba and Ras Lila form the core of Manipuri dancing that constitutes one of the rich classical dance traditions of India to this day. All this was centred on Kangla, the Palace, temple, theatre, library and fortress complex in central Imphal which the British occupied in 1893 and the Indian security forces followed suit, callously, for strategic reasons, until a few years ago. The Kangla is now being restored to its old glory.

The Cheitharol Kumbaba is not a narrative history but a diary of day to day events that tell of the life of the people. It speaks of great events of state and wars, deaths and coronations and of humdrum comings and goings, hunts, elephant keddahs, wildlife encounters (tigers, snakes), picnics (to eat mangoes, lotus-seeds, pineapple), earthquakes, epidemics (cholera and smallpox), famine and food distribution, fires, the construction of dams, canals and bridges, floods and sporting events (ancient Meitei hockey and polo, bicycle polo and boat races and tug-of-war contests).

In 1562, “wax-coated shirts” were introduced as protection from rain. Elephants were given as bride price. Interestingly, in 1592 “a test was conducted as to whether mithuns or buffaloes could produce more meat”. In 1606 in a military advance on Yongoi with a force of Mayangs (Cacharis), “1,000 Muslims including blacksmiths, turners, clarinetists, washermen, mahouts and syce were captured”. In 1615 smoking of tobacco in earthern pipes was introduced. A year later – and this is important –“reading and writing were started”, presumably for lay persons.

In 1698 “a hockey match was played between 10 persons including the King on one side and the other team of 100 persons on the other side. The 10 persons team won…. And an elephant was given as an award”. In 1734 the river was dredged and the King introduced rectangular Sels (coins) called Shemkhai. In 1737 a hunchback was permitted to organise “games of hockey, cloth ball, long jump and “Chengpi (foot race) of disabled persons” in the market. There were “ear-piercing ceremonies” and a certain male “was converted to Sekwai caste for marrying Sekwai girl”. But in 1848 a man was banished “for marrying his son to an unequal match”. Slaves were kept.

Manipur was occupied by Ava in 1819 but was “dispersed” by “one British gentleman” in 1826 and the border demarcated with British assistance. In return, in 1829, “the Sahibs in Sylhet requested the Maharaja to help them to fight with Khahi (Khasi) tribals”. The Maharaja obliged. That same year Maharaja Gambhir Singh amicably settled a Hindu-Muslim dispute in Sylhet as the Ratha Jatra and Muharram fell on the same day. The “Sahibs” had decided that the Moharrum procession would move first. But the Maharaja determined otherwise. “At this the Hindu sepoys of Sylhet praised the Maharaja”. The Maharaja visited a tea plantation in 1855. But in 1859, not only was fish “very dear” but the King’s horse “Konojit” died and “Bhagyajit was appointed in its place”. Then in 1892, the British conquered Manipur which was reduced to a princely State under a British Political Agent.

In 1921, “for the civil war of Galthi (Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement) 50 sepoys were sent”! In 1932 there was a “great mortality of cattle and buffaloes… and horses were used for ploughing…”. Prolonged famine in 1939 brought the Nupi La (women) out on the streets to protest procurement for rice mills and rice exports. They famously confronted the Assam Rifles, shouted Bande Mataram and were dispersed but forced closure of all markets. Their demands were finally met.

There were destructive Japanese air attacks in 1942-43. On 17 August, 1947, Paramountcy lapsed and the British handed the Manipur administration back to the Maharaja who re-entered Kangla some days later to the firing of 18 cannons. Congress satyagrahis were barred from the Palace.

The Maharaja became a constitutional monarch in 1947 under a Manipur constitution which introduced popular rule after assembly elections. The State formally merged with the Dominion of India on September 21, 1949 and its administration was transferred to the Dominion Government on October 15. And thereby hangs a tale.

The Royal Chronicles end here.

Tripura has its ancient Rang Mala and Assam its Ahom Burunjis, which H K Burpujarri has used for his Complete History of Assam. Why have not these treasures been translated and made available to wider audiences and taught in schools? Here surely is rich source material for an interconnected history of the Northeast?

I, protesting, ask our Historians, the Indian Council for Historical Research, the Indian History Congress History, the Education Ministry and National Integration Council why the Cheitharol Kumbaba, a part of my heritage, was kept from me for all these many years? And what of the rest?

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