Manipur Society and Culture

The colorful kaleidoscope of Manipur society and culture has been a topic that aroused the inquisitiveness in the minds of erudite scholars and researchers all across the world. The social values of cultural legacy of the northeast Indian state are reflected in the lifestyle of the inhabitants.Manipur society does not follow the social stratification of the traditional Indian society. They follow a system of social classification where the society is divided between the Meities, the Bamons or the Brahmins, the Pangans or the Muslims and the lower caste Lois. Manipur or 'the land of jewels' as it is rightly called is also described by Lord Irwin as the "Switzerland of India". Manipur boasts of incredibly beautiful landscape that has been generously decorated with undulating hills, the emerald green valleys, thick forests,clear blue lakes, the stunning flora and fauna and the other natural beauty that lies in the people of Manipur, together make it the most beautiful land that has to be explored once in a life time. Exploring Manipur and knowing more about their culture can be a very interesting activity in Manipur. You may be required to have a map that can help you to roam freely in the hills and valleys and know different ethnic groups that live on the hills.

The culture of Manipur has also been part of the Indian culture as a whole. Manipur has an own identity of itself which can be seen in their art and culture that they present to the world proudly. The love of art and the culture of the people here is inherent among the people of Manipur and one will not be able to find a girl of a boy who does not know the famous Manipuri dance or the traditional folk art and songs. Their rich culture and the centuries old tradition can also be depicted in their handloom woven clothes and the handicrafts that they make till date. The people of Manipur easily project their culture in the various dances and music. Music and dance are an integral part of the tribal life of the people here.

The culture of Manipur is as exotic and ancient as the state itself. It is a perfect colorful mixture of the rich customs, the traditional cuisines, the music that is the main essence of Manipuri culture; the strict and vibrant customs, the world famous dance forms and the rich history together make the most enchanting culture of the Manipuris. The fun element among the people of Manipur can be reflected in the various festivals that they observe like the Kut festival, Rath Yatra, NIngol Chakuba festival, Yaoshang festival, and many more. The festivals help to liven up the people of their daily chores and help them relax with their music and dance. Especially, the dance that is called the Thabal Chongba, performed by both men and women is a typical dance form found here. The other two famous dances are the Pena Ishei and the Lai Haroaba Ishei.

The costumes of Manipuri women are called as Innaphi, that is wrapped like a shawl and the Phanek is the skirt. The man wears the dhoti and white Pagri or the turban. He also wears a jacket. They are made with different materials. The staple food of the Manipuri people is fish and rice along with vegetables. However, there are different tribes that have their own cuisines and are very distinct from one another.

Tribes of Manipur

Manipur is home of several tribal communities who live together in mutual harmony. The Meities and Tangkhuls are the principal tribes that reside in the hilly state. The people are simple, warm and hospitable and believe in egalitarian social practices. The people are industrious and diligent but also love adventure and also like to participate in a variety of sports. In fact, Manipur has carved out a niche for itself and emerged as a forerunner in the world of polo. A unique feature of Manipur society is the position of women. Women are held in high esteem in the society. The senior citizens are also given due respect.The picturesque state of Manipur is inhabited by a wondrous montage of several tribes that include the Meiteis, the Tangkhuls, the Kukis, the Anals and the Monsangs.

The Meiteis, one of the most eminent ethnic groups of Manipur hail from the Manipur Valley and are an industrious lot. The men are robust and have a strong, sinewy physique. The tough build and slightly corpulent frame enable these tribal men to endure tremendous strain, physical hardships and fight against unfavorable climatic conditions. The Mongol features and the jet black hair are distinctive characteristics of the Meitei men. The men have coarse hair but refrain from growing beards or moustaches.The Meitei women, however, are extraordinarily beautiful. Their faces are rather striking with sharp and angular bones and slightly Mongoloid features. The flat and stub noses and the full lips are distinct features that characterize the Metei woman. Their complexion is usually slightly tanned and whitish. Some women also have an ebony colored skin and long luxuriant black hair that cascades down their backs and presents a fine spectacle. Some of the young maidens also sport a short stylish bob with a cut fringe across their forehead. The matronly women, however, prefer to keep their hair hanging down their back with a prominent center parting.

The Meiteis also have their archetypal costume that reflects their cultural heritage. The clothes are rather ceremony specific and depict the aesthetic taste of the people. The women love to embellish their garments and look their best and are adorned in chunky and elaborate jewelry.Manipur is famed for being the abode of a wonderful montage of tribes that include the Meiteis, the Tangkhuls and the Kukis to name a few. The Tangkhul tribals originate from Nagaland and inhabit a large portion of the state of Manipur and the Ukhrul District. Locally known as Hao, these tribesmen are very industrious and have a penchant for enhancing their education and knowledge.The Tangkhul tribesmen are mostly polyglots who converse in a variety of dialects. However, the most popular language happens to be the Tangkhul dialect. In fact, the linguistic diversity of the Tangkhuls is reflected by the fact that the residents of each and every Tangkhul tribal village and bucolic hamlet speak a different dialect. Although these mediums of speech and communication do have some semblance, some of their distinct traits make it difficult and almost unintelligible for a person hailing from the northern provinces of the Tangkhul tribal belt to decipher the speech of his southern counterpart.

The Tangkhul dialect is very similar to the dialect in vogue with the villagers hailing from the Langdang and Shirui villages. The Tangkhul community records an exemplary literacy rate. The children are proficient in English as well as the Roman script. The people mainly depend on agriculture for their economic subsistence. Besides agriculture, they also run poultry farms and rear livestock to earn their livelihood. The Tangkhul tribes, one of the principal ethnic groups of Manipur, provide a wonderful insight into the quintessential tribal legacy of northeast India.

Manipuri Dance

The Manipuri Dance and the colorful and finely woven handicrafts reflect the creativity and the cultural extravaganzas of the Manipur society. Another intrinsic feature of Manipur society and culture is reflected in the assorted cultural potpourri of Manipur fairs and festivals. The popular fairs include:
  • Ningol Chakouba - Representing the unique cultural heritage and traditional ancestry of Manipur, Ningol Chakouba is celebrated by married women to revive their childhood memories with their family of origin. A great occasion of family reunion, Ningol Chakouba is celebrated with much enthusiasm and joy in the parent's house of married women. The family of origin of the married women prepares mouth watering delicacies to welcome their daughters and her children on the special occasion of Ningol Chakouba. One of the prominent festivals of Manipur, Ningol Chakouba is usually celebrated in accordance with the regional calendar of the local inhabitants of the state. Ningol Chakouba falls on the month of Hiyangei, i.e. November, on the second new moon day.

    Reflecting the importance of daughters in the lives of their parents, the festival of Ningol Chakouba offers the married girls with an occasion to renew their ties with their family and childhood friends. During the recent years, the Muslims of Manipur have also started observing the festival of Ningol Chakouba with added enthusiasm and zeal. The festival of Ningol Chakouba portrays the selfless love of the parents towards their daughters. A wonderful occasion to visit the house of the parents, the married women of Manipur eagerly waits for the festival to meet their family members. The parents on the other hand elaborately prepare for the special event of Ningol Chakouba and extend a warm welcome to their daughters and grand children.
  • Cackouba
  • Yaoshang
The classical dance form of Manipuri is the main dance of Manipur. The best part about the dance of Manipur is that besides the Manipuri Dance, it has retained the ancient and folk forms of dances. The dance of Manipur essentially has religious inclination and it reveals the story of spiritual experiences and salvation. Since its inception, the dance of Manipur was only performed in the temple premises and it was only in the 20th Century that the performances of Manipuri dances began on stage. A precursor to the Manipuri dance, the Lai Haroba is a ritualistic dance of Manipur which depicts the story of creation. Although Lai Haroba is not as popular as the Manipuri dance, it is still practiced and is a living tradition.

The dance of Manipur mainly revolves around the life of Krishna. Sankirtana and the Raas Leela are two main components of this form of dance. A major feature of the dance of Manipur is its colorful dresses. The girls are draped in vibrant and beautifully embroidered stiff skirts, blouse and a translucent veil. Some of the other dances of Manipur are:
  • The Khamba Thoibi dance of Manipur is a duet of a male and a female which is dedicated to the sylvan deity.
  • Performed during the festival of Lai- Haraoba, the Maibi Dance is a way of recreating life as in the past. Lai-Haroba is a festival of Manipur when the traditional deities of the region are worshiped. Celebrated in the month of May, the Lai-Haroba festival is initiated by worshiping one's ancestors and local deities like Umang Thai. The Lai-Haroba festival in Manipur celebrates the process of creation and is a time to rejoice with songs and dances. The basis of the Lai-Haroba festival can be found in the age old legends of Manipur. As the legend says, Guru Sidaba was great lord who resided in a dark vacuum. One day the dark room of Guru Sidaba was illuminated by the different colors of a rainbow and it was this bright light that motivated him to create the world. Thus Atiya Guru Sidaba was sent down to earth along with a creature and was entrusted with the task of creating a cohesive wiry network in which the human life was to get entangled and integrated.

    However, soon Atiya Guru approached Guru Sidaba with the plea of further solidifying the framework. Sidaba Guru went on to provide him with nine men and seven women and some dirt from his naval. Atiya Guru thus initiated his work but was interrupted by Harba. Thus the Goddess of lightning was sent to rescue Atiya Guru who now enslaved Harba. Finally, Atiya Guru succeeded in hardening and defining the framework which now became suitable for human life. It is this process that the Lai-Haroba festival celebrates and is a very pious occasion for the Manipuri people.
  • Nupa Pala also known as the Cymbal dance is a special kind of dance. This dance is usually performed by a group of men with cymbals.
  • Ras Lila depicts the love affair of Lord Krishna and Radha. This dance of Manipur is usually performed in an enclosure in the temple.
  • Pung Cholom is actually performed to mark the invocation of the Sankirtana and Ras Lila. It is classical form of dance of Manipur.

Manipur Religion

Manipur has a rich culture and tradition that is thousands of years old. They have their own distinct language, culture and religion that can date back to the 10th century. The religion of Manipur is recognized as the oldest one that is an organized religion in the whole of south-east Asia. There are around 40 ethnic groups in Manipur, with various languages and cultural practices. Yet we can find predominantly around three religions that are flourishing in Manipur. They are Hinduism, Maibaism and Christianity. There are other religions as well like the Islam and Buddhism. In ancient Manipur, the inhabitants also followed Animalism, which included animal sacrifice and worshiped those who were the strongest spirit. But with the Hindu rule, Chorai Rongba, Hinduism became popular, leaving behind only the weak traces of Animism. Garib NIwaj brought out various cults of Hinduism in Manipur, while the British were responsible for bringing Christianity here.

During the ancient time, the Nagas worshiped stones, which they call the LaiPham and offer rice, flowers, leave and tobacco to the stone. The other tribe called the Maram Nagas worshiped Rain deity and the Quireng Nagas are said to have worshipped the Kampinu deity. The Dumpapoee deity is worshipped by the Kabuis. Therefore, you can see diverse religion and several deities that are being worshipped in Manipur.

Manipur, like most other parts of India, is very tolerant towards all religions and therefore Ramjan ID is celebrated by the Manipuri people with much grandeur. The Manipuri Muslims are known as Meitei Pangal and Ramjan ID is their most import important festival. Auspicious for the Muslims all over the world, Ramjan ID is observed very strictly by the Manipuri Muslims. Since the time of Prophet Mohammad, Ramjan ID is celebrated on the ninth day of the Hijri Year. At the end of the holy month of Ramdan, the Muslims of Manipur celebrate Ramjan ID. During the entire month of Ramdan the Muslims of the region practice self denial and refrain from any food and drink from dawn to sunset. After the end of the Ramdan month, with the appearance of the new moon, the fast is broken and is celebrated as Ramjan ID. Ii is an important day of celebration for the Muslims. They go to the Mosque to pray, greet each other and feast on delicious foods. The Muslims of Manipur, like the Muslims of the entire world, celebrate the pious festival of Ramjan ID.

Maibaism in Manipur is a very unique religious system. Very close to Purohitism of the Hindu religion, Maibaism is actually a hierarchy of priesthood. The Maibas are the traditional priests of the Manipuri society. Although it is considered as a fold of Hinduism, Maibaism is related to the old Manipuri religion. The Maibas are the male priests while their female counterparts are called Maibis. These priests are categorized into two types. One class of the priests performs rituals and other religious practices. The second type of Maibas is orthodox physicians and is known as Vaids.

The Maibas have their own distinct dress code. The Maibis wear white Phaneks with waist wrappers, white full sleeve blouses and shawls called Innaphis. The Maibas wear white dhotis, sashes wrapped around waist with jackets. They also wear turbans that are again white in color.The priests in Manipur have to undergo many restrictions and practices. They are not allowed to take touched food or eat in a house where a new born baby is residing. A married Maibi is supposed to sleep on her husband's left side only. The Manaipuri or Meitei temple rituals are incomplete without the Maibas. Their rituals are believed to be the weapons of protection against the evil spirits. In remote areas where doctors and hospitals are not readily available, the Maiba Vaids are very much sought after. These traditional physicians are equipped with natural medicines and are highly respected by the tribes.

Hinduism in Manipur has witnessed three different stages. The people of the land used to practice Animism before the introduction of Hinduism in the region. Although Hinduism reached later in this part of the world due to geographical barriers, the religion has gradually emerged as one of the most popular religions in Manipur. The first stage of Hinduism in Manipur was witnessed during the reign of King Charai Rongba who ruled during the 15th century. A royal guru, Guru Aribom, was adopted by the king who preached and taught Hinduism to his subjects.

The second phase was during Garib Niwaj's rule in the 18th century. During his rule different sects and cults of Hinduism like Vaishnavism and Ramanadi emerged in Manipur. His Guru Gopal Das propelled him to adopt Vaishnavism. The king popularized the Bhagwat in the region. During his rule a Hindu preacher called Santi Das introduced and spread the Ramanandi cult in Manipur. After the death of Garib, his successors Jai Singh accepted and promoted the Chaitnaya School of Vaishnavism. Today Hinduism is among the leading religions in Manipur and is followed by a large number of people. The Manipuri Hindus follow the Vaishnavism sect and do not eat meat. However, they eat fish and wear Tilak on their foreheads. They strongly believe in the holy books of Hindus like Gita, Mahabharata and Ramayana. They observe festivals like Rathyatra, Diwali, Durga Puja, Ras Lila and other Hindu Festivals.

Christianity in Manipur has emerged as one of the main religions of Manipur. The Europeans, especially the British missionaries, were highly responsible behind the popularity of Christianity in Manipur. They went to the less visited hilly areas of the state and helped them to receive modern education and improved lifestyle. As a result of their overall growth, they developed a complete faith on the religion. The missionaries imparted education in English as well as in the local languages. The holy Bible was published in languages such as Thado, Lusahi, Meitei, Tankhul etc. Today the Christians of the state who are mostly tribals celebrate Christmas with great fervor. They are very fluent in English but use their own dialects as the written medium. With their closeness to the western world they are very fond of western music. Not only in Manipur, Christianity is very popular among the tribal population of other northern states also.

Sanamahi is another religion followed by many people in Manipur. Sanamahi are worshipped in all the houses of Meiteis and other communities in Manipur and several other states and Myanmar. There are almost 5 lakh people in Manipur who follow Sanamahi religion. It is also recognized by the state government. Various religions have contributed to the culture and tradition of Manipur and have provided diversity to the culture and tradition of Manipur.

Music and Music Instruments

The Indian state of Manipur is culturally very rich and their rich heritage is best reflected in the music of Manipur. The love songs and the folk music of Manipur can tantalize ones senses. Music of Manipur includes different types of songs, including religious, classical, love, folk songs etc. The most popular kinds of music in Manipur include:

  • Gaur Padas- This is a kind of devotional music of Manipur which is sung to upheld the greatness of Chitanya Mahaprabhu, a religious preacher.

  • Manohar Sai- Named after Manor Sai, this music of Manipur is sung along with the music of Ramkartal, or cymbals and Khol or drums.

  • Lai Haraoba ishei- Full of erotic mysticism, this music of Manipur is based on dual meanings where there real meaning is camouflaged by innocent words. The tune and the rhythm is the main asset of this music of Manipur.

  • Thoubal Chongba- This song is sung with the Thoubal chongba dance and has a religious theme.

  • Pena ishei- The Pena, a musical instrument in Manipur, is an integral part of the music in Manipur. The Pena ishei is a kind of song that is sung is accompaniment of the Pena.

  • Khullong ishei- This music of Manipur is sung mostly by the Meities while they are working in the fields. This music of Manipur usually has love as its theme and the singer can uses words at his will and adjusts it to the tune.

  • Nat- This is a classical form of music in Manipur and is usually sung during ceremonies. The Nat songs have specified ragas for specific occasions

    Some of the other popular kinds of music in Manipur are:
    • Dhob
    • Napi Pala
    Manipur is the land of music and dance and there are certain musical instruments of Manipur that are used specifically for their local songs and dances. There are different kinds of songs in Manipur, all of which are accompanied by some kind of musical instrument. There are a number of musical instruments of Manipur, which include:
    • Pung
    • Kartal and Manzilla
    • Harmonium
    • Bansuri or flute
    • Esraj
    • Pena
    • Jhal, a large cymbal
    • Shankh or conch
    All of these musical instruments of Manipur are used widely during any cultural, religious or social function in the state. Pena is one of the special musical instruments of Manipur. This instrument is made with a slender bamboo rod and a round dry shell of gourd of coconut. A circular opening is made on the shell of the gourd and then the opening is covered with hide covering. A string of a horse tail is fastened from the bamboo rod to the opening. A curved iron rod is attached with another string to give a bow like appearance. In order to play the Pena one needs to rub the strings on the bamboo with the string attached to the iron rod.

    Besides, this special musical instrument of Manipur, the other instruments like the kartal, harmonium, flute and esraj are common Indian musical instruments.

    Festivals and Customs

    Visitors should take a glimpse of their festivals and culture when they visit Manipur. It is better to be equipped with a map to know more about the festivals and the people of Manipur.

    Manipur people love to celebrate their festivals and traditions in a grand way. The people are vibrant here and love to spend the whole year with festivities and mirth. They have a festival every month that symbolize their religion, culture, tradition and social aspirations. The way of celebrating the festivals is distinct that can be easily noticed when you see the way the festivals are celebrated. The festivals are religiously celebrated with passion and love. There are many festivals celebrated in Manipur like the Yaoshang festival, which is the most significant festival of Manipur. The festival is celebrated on the full moon day of February or March and is considered as the major festival of the state. Yaoshang is celebrated for five days that commences on the full moon day. Thabal Chongba dance is the highlight of the festival and is a folk dance where the boys and girls dance and sing together in a circle.

    Speaking about the customs of Manipur, one have to come across the traditions and practices of various tribes and communities like the Meitie, Naga, Kuki, Kubuis, Mao, Tangkhul, Liangmei, Maram, Thangal. Maring, Zemis, Anal, Moyon and several others. However the major chunk of the population constitutes of the Meities, Nagas and Kukis. The Meities are generally known as the Manipuris and boasts of a great cultural and historical background. The salient feature of Manipuri society is that it is dominated by women.. They shoulder the responsibility to earn and run the family.

    Two types of marriages are practiced as per the Manipuri customs - marriage by elopement and marriage by engagement. In an arranged engagement marriage, the groom's father provides the wedding expenses. Post marriage the newly wed couple lives in a separate house in the same village. All of the father's property is shared by the sons except the ancestral house, which will go to the youngest son only. Marriages outside their Gotras are not allowed. Manipuris are usually monogamous but the practice of polygamy is also very much present in Manipur.The Manipuris, especially the women, love to dress beautifully with colorful clothes and flowers.

    The Cheiraoba festival commences in April and is celebrated in a traditional way. This sacred festival is celebrated as the new year of the Manipur state with much grandeur. Houses are cleaned and decorated to welcome the New Year. The deity is then worshipped, gifts are exchanges and people visit their relatives to offer good wishes. Although the festival is celebrated by Hindus, Muslims too take part in the festival.

    Manipur, in the North Eastern Part of India is the home of the Kabui Nagas and the Gang-Ngai is the most important festival of this tribe. Celebrated in the months of December and January, the Gang- Ngai is a five day long festival. The Gang- Ngai is a festival when the traditional tribe of Kabui Ngas celebrates its culture, tradition and lifestyle.

    The Gang-Ngai Festival in Manipur is celebrated in one particular point of the year. The month of Wakching, which usually falls in the month of December or January of the English calendar, is when the Gang- Ngai festival is celebrated.The festival is initiated with an Omen taking ceremony. The first day of the festival is meant for the honoring of ancestors. This ritual is considered to be very sacred by the Kabui Nagas. The last four days of the Gang- Ngai festival is completely dedicated to fun and celebration. The five days of the festival are marked by feasts, cultural performances and celebration. The Gang-Ngai festival is a part of the identity of the Kabui Nagas as it is through this religion that the Kabui Naga tribe of Manipur gets a chance of asserting their religion.

    r> Manipuri is not only used by a large number of people in the state but also people of the Manipuri origin in other north-eastern states and other states of the country. There are also a large number of people who use the language in the neighboring country - Myanmar. Manipur recipes include some authentic Manipuri traditional cuisine that are simply delicious and are loved by one and all in Manipur. The people of Manipur are great lovers of rice and fish. Their staple diet is rice with fish. Most of the popular recipes in Manipur include either of the two or both.

    While talking of Manipuri recipes, mention of some delicacies is an absolute must. These recipes are loved by all the people in Manipur. These are:
    • Kabok - a traditional recipe of Manipur, in which, rice is fried with all kinds of vegetables into it
    • Carrot Khabi and Channa Kanghou - a delicious dish prepared with carrot and channa
    • Iromba - a miscellaneous mixture of fish, bamboo shoots and vegetables that is fermented and served
    • Yongchaak Singju - a favorite with all the Manipuris
    • Morok Atekpa Metpa - another traditional recipe that is an innovation of the Manipuri people
    • Aloo and Mangan Kanghou - a favorite Manipuri recipe with potato
    • Peanut Brinjal Fry - a culinary in which brinjal is fried with nutritious peanuts
    Along with the traditional dishes, there are some other recipes in Manipur that are equally popular with the food loving people of the state like fish fry and chicken fry with mushroom. The recipes of Manipur are made mouth watering by the use of the traditional Indian spices.Traditionally, Manipuri dining was a grand affair. It was like an elaborate banquet with many lip smacking items on the conventional banana leaf plates. The traditional trend can still be found in most of the Manipuri households.

    Manipur Handicrafts

    The people of Manipur are natureal craftsmen and their skilled hands are the creators of some of the most exquisite handicrafts of Manipur.Handicrafts of Manipur include a wide range of products that are unique to the place. The genuine flair of the artistic people is best manifested in the handicrafts of Manipur. The handicrafts of Manipur are also a major attraction for the tourists who visit this North Eastern Indian State. The most popular Handicrafts of Manipur include:
    • Hand-woven and embroidered textiles
    • Mats made of water reed
    • Manipuri dance doll
    • Shawls and blankets
    • Manipuri bed covers of Moirangfee
    • Cane and bamboo work
    • Wood carving
    Textile Weaving- This art is however mainly practiced by the women of Manipur. This handicraft of Manipur is also known as Laichamphi meaning cotton cloth. The craft was so named because before the second world war the use of woolen yarn was unknown to the Manipuris and they wove there textiles only with cotton yarns.

    Wood Carving- Among the many types of Handicrafts in Manipur, wood carvings are very popular. This art in Manipur developed out of necessity. Due to the lack of good communication system the people of Manipur utilized wood to create different items of need.

    Block Printing- One of the most specific and unique Handicrafts in Manipur is their block prints. The hand block printed towels or the Khamen Chatpa is a sign of honor and is often presented to the village chiefs and warriors. Block printed dresses are also used in the religious ceremonies of the region.

    Kauna Mat or Water Reed Mat- Usually grown in the marshy and wet lands, there are two different kinds of Kaunas found in Manipur. These water reeds are used to make cushions, mats which are unique handicrafts of Manipur.

    Last Updated on 15 March 2013