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The Meitei people, or Manipuri people, are an ethnic group native to the state of Manipur in northeastern India. The Meitei primarily settled in the Imphal Valley region in modern-day Manipur, although a sizable population have settled in Assam, Tripura, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram; with notable presence in the neighbouring countries of Myanmar and Bangladesh. The Meitei ethnic group represents about 53% of Manipur's population.
Endonyms and exonyms
The Meitei are known by a number of endonyms, Meitei, Meetei, Meithei (Meitei), and as well as by numerous exonyms, such as Manipuri, Cassay-Shan, and Kathe (Burmese). The term Manipuri is widely used, but problematic because of its ambiguous scope: next to being a synonym for Meitei/Meetei, it can also refer in a wider sense to the native ethnic groups (i.e. excluding recent immgrants) of Manipur.
The etymological origins of the word "Meitei" are contested; the term may have descended from the word Mitei, which means "modeled in God's image." Another etymological origin of "Meitei" is that it comes from two different Meitei words: mei meaning "fire", and tei meaning "touch" or "paint." Combining the two words gives a philosophical meaning of "purified by fire": after death, Meitei burn the deceased body hoping the soul gets purified and goes to Koubru the place which Meitei believe human originated.
The origins of the Meitei people are not conclusively known. What is known is that their settlement on a fertile plain and valley regions of the Imphal River and the tributaries of the Manipur River enabled the Meitei to develop sophisticated wet rice cultivation systems, which supported a denser population and drove the development of a more complex political and social system than in adjacent hill areas.
According to the royal chronicle, Cheitharol Kumbaba, the Manipuri valley was ruled by 9 different clans or tribes, which later merged into seven. Before the reign of King Nongta Lairen Pakhangba (1st century), some ethnic groups of people were lived in the Valley. They were the Mangangs, the Chakpas, the Khabas and the Chengleis (See also Kinship system). Between the 1st and 10th centuries, the tribes consolidated under a feudal system over time, owing to the military prowess of the Mangang or Ningthouja tribe. During this process, neighboring hill tribes were also absorbed into the seven clans through migration, a process that continued well into the 1800s.
The Meiteis are East Asian, but they also have some Indo-European admixture. Sir James Johnstone, who was the political agent in Manipur, writes: "The Manipuris themselves are a fine stalwart race descended from an Indo-Chinese stock, with some mixture of Aryan blood, derived from the successive waves of Aryan migration that have passed through the valley in pre-historic days". Jhalajit Singh believes Indo-Aryans came to Manipur and married local women in the first centuries of the common era (CE). Scholars and writers, such as E. Dun (1992), Hodson (1908, 2), and M. Bhattarcharya (1963, 183) also support the tradition that the Meiteis were originally East Asian, a close kin with the tribal people in the hills, and later intermarried with Indo-European people.
The people from the East came to Manipur in different periods of history. They were Shans, a little of the Chinese and the Burmese. There were some immigrants from the Upper Burma in the reign of Nongta Lailen Pakhangba (1st century), Naoting Khong (7th century) and King Khunmomba (13th century) and they became Meiteis. In the reigns of Ningthou-Khomba, Kyamba and Ming Yamba, some of fresh immigrants also became Meiteis. But after reign of King Khangemba (1597–1652) there was little immigration from the East.
With the Meitei kingdom's expansion eastward (beyond the Chindwin River by the 1400s) came increased interaction and conflict with the Tai-speaking Shans and Burmans. The Meitei conquest of the Kabaw valley accelerated the establishment of social and trade relationships between the Burmans and the Meitei, including matrimonial alliances between the royal houses. The Meitei however, remained a staunch constant threat to security, with constant raids and battles fought close to the Burmese royal capitals.
The Burmese Toungoo dynasty was endangered by frequent invasions under Garib Niwaz. However, the Burmese underwent a military renaissance in the latter half of the 1700s, with the rise of Alaungpaya's Konbaung dynasty, which ended this persistent pattern of Meitei raids, through devastating defensive military campaigns waged on the Meitei kingdom, which led to the demise of the Meitei monarchy; Burmese interference in Manipur came to an end with the First Anglo-Burmese War, in which the Burmese ceded complete control of Manipur to the British.
In 1891, the British Indian Empire suppressed a rebellion in Manipur and incorporated it as part of British Raj as a princely state. Before the British departed India, Manipur acceded to India on 11 August 1947, becoming part of the Dominion of India. On 21 September 1949, Manipur signed a merger agreement, ostensibly under coercion, after which the princely rule was abolished and Manipur was incorporated as a Union Territory of India. Since 1980, armed conflict against India by separatist rebel groups started, that combines elements of a national liberation war as well as an ethnic conflict.
The Meitei people speak Meiteilon (also known as Manipuri), a Tibeto-Burman language. Meiteilon is one of the officially recognized languages of India, and was included in the Eighth Schedule to the Constitution of India in 1992.
Historically, Meitei was written in an indigenous Meitei Mayek script; the script was replaced by an alphabet based on the Bengali-Assamese script in the early 18th century. The Meitei Mayek script has seen a revival in recent decades, and is now seen in street signs, newspapers, literature, and legislative proceeding records.
In Assam Manipuri language is taught at the primary level, and at the graduate level in Gauhati University; though it is not one of the associate languages in the state. In Bangladesh Manipuri is not language and the Manipuri people are educated in Bengali rather than in their native Manipuri.
Some of the most notable Meitei historical literary works, written by court scholars, include:
- Cheitharol Kumbaba, the royal chronicle of Meitei kings
- Wakoklon Heelel Thilel Salai Amailon Pukok Puya, the oldest extant Meitei manuscript, first written in 1400 CE and rediscovered in 1971
- Puya (Meitei texts), preserved manuscripts (lit. meaning "accepted by anchestors")
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Meiteis reckon kinship through both affinal and consanguineal relationships. The Meitei word for "kin" is mari mata and the relationship mari-mata thoknaba literally means "to have relationship". Schematically, there are two types of kinship: luhonglaga thok naba mari (affinal relation) and ee-gi mari leinaba (consanguineal relation).
Meitei kinship is classified at three levels: by clan or kin (yek-salai), by lineage (sagei) and by family (imung manung). Under each of the 7 Meitei clans exists many sageis.
The kinship terms in Meitei are unilineal, patrilineal and patrilocal. Meitei kinship terms are classificatory with an exception of some descriptive terms. There are only four descriptive kin terms in Meiteilon
- ima 'mother'
- ipa 'father'
- iku/ikubok 'father-in-law'
- inem/inembok 'mother-in-law'
Meitei clans in pre-historic period
Some ethnic groups of people were lived in Kangleipak, now known as Manipur, before the accession of King Nongta Lairen Pakhangba (1 st century). They were the Mangangs, the Chakpas, the Khabas and the Chengleis etc. These ethnic groups had well defined separate regions in the valley and surrounding hills. Mangangs Ningthou Punsiba, Ngasapa, Sakappa, Wankakpa, Kaksuba, Ton Konpa, Pitingkoi, Lampicha, Tali and Konphucha were the chiefs of Mangangs. The chiefs names are mentioned in various manuscripts of Manipur . A group of people lived in Manipur before Christ which can be known from the tale of God Koriphaba where two families were mentioned i.e. Haorakchams and Konthaojams .They were belonged to the Chengleis. Nongtam Shangba, Pakhang Yoirenba, Ningthou Langba and Maliya Pambalcha (who introduced Palcha kumching) etc. were chiefs of the Chengleis. In the period of Naophongba (428–518 AD), the Chengleis were known as Sarang leisangthems. According to Royal Chronicle, King Naophongba had two sons viz Sameirong and Thamalong. Sameirong ascended the Manipur Valley. Thamalong descendants were called Ningthouja clan which was introduced during the reign of King Sameirong. later on, Mangangs and Ningthouja came to be known as Ningthouja clan. According to a meitei manuscript, the chiefs who lived in the Nongmaijing hills and in the middle portion of Irin river were addressed by the word 'Angom'. The Angoms are one of the clans of Meiteis who are found during the reign of Pakhangba. The Luwangs and the Khumans were descendents of Poirenton who occupied south east of Imphal valley before the accession of King Pakhangba. Later, they were expelled from there by King Pakhangba and their domain ceased. So, they were concentrated on Koubru Hills. As per historical records Pakhangba was Brother's in law of Poireiton as Pakhangba's Queen was Poirenton's sister. Poirenton and his horde belonged to Mongolian race. The Chakpas can be considered as Moirangs. Chakpas were known as Keke Moirang in earlier times. The Mangangs, the Khabas and the Chengleis were closely allied people inhabiting in the Manipur were the first race and another race, called Nganbas, a clan of Meiteis were assimilated with Khabas and came to be known as Kha Nganbas. Nganbas can be considered as the Shans of Upper Burma. Later on, all these seven clans were United and known as Meiteis. Besides, Ningthouja clan, other remaining clans had their own kingships though they were known as the nobles of the Meiteis. The royal Chronicle says that no one knows when and how the first seven ancient Kings of each clan died and vanished. They were considered as Gods and their children were considered as human beings.
Most of the rich culture of Manipur can be credited to the Meiteis. Since ancient times the valley region of Manipur was trading crossroads between India and Myanmar and gradually the valley portion of Manipur became the melting pot of Indo-Burman culture. The famous Manipuri dance form had its roots from the Lai Haraoba dance form.
They are also known for their contribution to art, literature and cinema. M.K. Binodini Devi, Khwairakpam Chaoba Singh, Ratan Thiyam, Aribam Syam Sharma, Rajkumar Shitaljit Singh, Elangbam Nilakanta Singh, Heisnam Kanhailal and Sabitri Heisnam are some of the prominent personalities in the field.
The Meitei people are very fond of horse riding.
The Manipuri martial art Thang-ta is a combative sport which had its origin from the Meitei knights during the kings rule. It involves various fighting techniques with swords and spears.
Theatre and cinema
The first Manipuri film, Matamgi Manipur, was released on 9 April 1972. Paokhum Ama (1983) is the first full-length colour feature film (according to the Academy's definition of a feature film) of Manipur and was directed by Aribam Syam Sharma. Lammei (2002) is the first Manipuri Video film to have a commercial screening at a theatre. As the production of video films gained momentum, the Manipur film industry got expanded and around 40–50 films are made each year.
Religion and festivals
According to the 2011 census, Meiteis follow only two religions, with overwhelming majority of Meiteis practicing variants of Hinduism. Around 14% of Meiteis traditionally believe in Sanamahi religion named after god Sanamahi. Meiteis follow both Hindu as well as Sanamahi religious traditions and rituals. For example, they worship Sanamahi in the south-west corners of their homes. The various types of festivals that are the most significant, and are celebrated with great joy by meiteis are Rasalila, Janmastami, Holi, Lai Haraoba, Cheiraoba, Yaosang, Jagannath Rath Yatra, Holi, Diwali, Ram Navami etc.
Rice, vegetables, fish and meat are staple food of the Meiteis. Rice is by a one or several sides. The vegetables are either made as stews (Kangsoi) with less oil used in sauteing, or stir fried directly in oil and many spices to make an oily spicy side dish (Kanghou). Roasted dried fish or fried fresh fish is usually added in most of the stews and curry to impart special taste. The vegetables, herbs and fruits consumed in the region are more similar to those in Southeast/East/Central Asian, Siberian, Polynesian and Micronesian cuisines such as Myanmar, Thailand, etc. E.g. treebean (youngchaak), galangal (loklei), culantro (awa phadigom), lime basil (mayangton), fishwort (toningkhok) and many others, which are not cultivated in northern India. One of the most important ingredients in Meitei cooking is Ngari (fermented fish). Roasted ngari is used in the singju (a kind of salad), morok metpa (chilli chutney), iromba (boiled and mashed veggies with chillies). A variety of fermented bamboo shoots (soibum) as well as fresh bamboo shoots, and fermented soya beans (hawaijaar) also form an important of Meitei cuisine. All meals are served with some fresh aromatic herbs on the side. A typical every day Meitei meal will have rice, vegetable or fish curry, a piquant side dish (either morok metpa or iromba accompanied with herbs), a champhut (a sweet vegetable, e.g., carrot, pumpkin or cucumber slices just steamed or boiled with a little sugar), and a Kanghou. Meitei occasionally or weekly eat meat like Yen (chicken), Nganu thongba (duck meat), and Oak thongba (pork) to celebrate birthday or when a guest arrived at their home.Some meiteis even eat many red meats like San thongba(beef), Hameng thongba, and Hui thongba(dog meat) to parties with their colleagues on occasions like New Year celebration, birthday party, and wedding ceremonies.
Meitei women wear Phanek which is a kind of Sarong but has a unique style. They are either horizontal stripe pattern which is called Phanek mayeknaibi or single block colour. The ends are decorated with high embroidery. It is usually accompanied by a blouse and a matching enaphi which is like a Dupatta but usually transparent.
The Meitei are mainly agriculturists in which rice is a staple crop. However, they also grow mangoes, lemons, pineapples, oranges, guavas, and other fruits. Fishing is also common among the Meitei that can either be a profession or a hobby. Women tend to dominate the local markets as sellers of food items, textiles, and traditional clothing.
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Traditional Meitei sports are still in existence, with some even spreading throughout the world.
Some sports are worth mentioned as follows:
- Sagol Kangjei: It is the earliest form of modern-day Polo which traces its origin to Manipur. According to Guinness World Records (1992), " Polo can be traced to origins in Manipur state, India, C. 3100 CE when it was played as 'Sagol Kangjei'".
- Mukna Kang-jei: It is a form of Meitei Wrestling. It is considered to be the most masculine form of sports.
- Khong kangjei: It is a form of Meitei Hockey.
- Kang Sanaba
- Mukna Kangjei
- Oolaobi (Woo-Laobi)
- Arambai Hunba
They introduced polo to the west when the British came to Manipur valley during the kings rule. It is locally called Sagol Kangjei. It is believed that the game was played by the Gods of Meiteis as a practice of warfare.
Mukna a unique form of wrestling popular amongst the Meiteis.
Yubi lakpi is a traditional full contact game played by Meiteis using a coconut, which has some notable similarities to rugby. Yubi lakpi literally means "coconut snatching". The coconut is greased to make it slippery. There are rules of the game, as with all Manipur sports. It is played on the lush green turf. Each side has 7 players in a field with about 45x18 meters in area. The goal post is 4.5x3 meters box in the central portion of the goal line. The coconut serves the purpose of a ball and is offered to the king, the chief guest or the judges before the game begins. The aim is to run while carrying the greased coconut and physically cross over the goal line, while the other team tackles and blocks any such attempt as well as tries to grab the coconut and score on its own.
Heeyang Tanaba (Hi Yangba Tanaba) is a traditional boat rowing race and festivity of the Panas.
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- Angom Gopi – Manipuri writer, 18th century poet
- A. Boby Singh – professional bodybuilder, 12 times Mr. India title winner
- Bodhchandra Singh – last Maharaja of Manipur State.
- Ngangom Dingko Singh - Professional boxer.
- Hijam Irabot - Freedom Fighter, activist, politician.
- Heisnam Kanhailal- Theatre art personality.
- Irom Chanu Sharmila - Human rights activists
- K. Himalay Singh – former Lieutenant General in Indian army.
- Nameirakpam Kunjarani Devi - decorated sportswoman in weightlifting.
- Major Laishram Jyotin Singh – recipient of Ashok Chakra, India's highest peacetime military decoration.
- M. Koireng Singh – 1st Chief Minister of Manipur.
- N. Biren Singh – current Chief Minister of Manipur.
- Raj Kumar Jaichandra Singh – former Chief Minister, Union Minister of Sports and Youth affairs.
- Ratan Thiyam - playwright and theatre director.
- Thounaojam Chaoba Singh – former Union Minister of State, Culture, Youth Affairs and Sports.
- Tikendrajit Singh – revolutionary, freedom fighter, Commander of Manipur State Force.
Myanmar is home to a sizable community of Meiteis, who are called Kathe in Burmese. Unlike other Hindu communities in Myanmar, the Meitei resemble other Burmese ethnic groups in terms of physical appearance, which has accelerated their assimilation and integration into Burmese society. In the early 1950s, Burmese Meiteis numbered approximately 40,000, with a third of them residing in Mandalay. Current estimates are approximately 25,000. Meiteis have resettled throughout the country, including in villages near Myitkyina to the north, Homalin, Kalewa, Pyay, in the center of the country, and Yangon to the south. They continue to practice Hinduism in Myanmar.
As a result of wars between Meitei kingdom and the Konbaung dynasty between the 17th and 18th centuries, many Meiteis were resettled in the Burmese kingdom. Some Meitei settlements in modern-day Myanmar originate from the 1758–1759 war, and from the Burmese occupation of Manipur from 1819 to 1826. Alaungpaya, during the former campaign, resettled Meiteis in Sagaing and Amarapura. The Meitei people's horsemanship skills were employed in the Burmese royal army, where they formed the elite Cassay cavalry (ကသည်းမြင်းတပ်) and artillery regiments (ကသည်းအမြောက်တပ်) which were employed during the Burmese–Siamese wars. The Burmese court also retained a retinue of Meitei Brahmins called Bamons, also called Kathe Ponna (ကသည်းပုဏ္ဏား) to advise and conduct court rituals.
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