The art and culture of Manipur in North-East India has been strongly influenced by Vaishnavism, which was introduced here in the 18th century. Interestingly, not many know that before the advent of mainstream Hinduism, the local Meitei people of Manipur practised their own religion known as ‘Sanamahism’. While it went into a sharp decline in the 18th century, it is now seeing a great revival, which makes the story of this local Meitei tradition so fascinating.
The Meiteis of Manipur are a group of people who speak ‘Meiteilon’, also known as ‘Manipuri’, which is a Tibeto-Burman language spoken by 53 per cent of Manipur’s population. Due to the lack of historic records, little is known of the early history of the Meiteis, who are said to have migrated from Yunnan province of China and brought their local beliefs with them.
A very important source of the early history of Manipur is a text known as Cheitharol Kumbaba, a royal chronicle of the Kings of Manipur. An oral tradition for centuries, its contents were finally written as recently as the early 19th century. The chronicle is part fact and part fiction. According to this text, in the 1st century CE, Manipur had seven major clans who fought among themselves and in which the Ningthoujas clan triumphed and formed a dynasty that ruled the land. It was during the rule of the first king of this dynasty, Nongda Lairen Pakhangba (r. 33-154 CE) that Sanamahism arose as a system of belief in Manipur.
Very little academic research has been done on Sanamahism and, as a result, very little is known about it. According to some sources, the word ‘Sanamahi’ is a combination of two words - sanna meaning ‘spreading’ and eemahi meaning ‘blood’, from which all living things originate. However, other sources claim it means 'liquid gold'.
Sanamahism is an animistic, ancestor-worshipping religious tradition, with a supreme deity known as ‘Sidaba Mapu’ or ‘Immortal God’. There were also river and lake goddesses, dragons, nymphs and other celestial beings who were worshipped in the Sanamahistic pantheon.
– Among the Sanamahi gods, the dragon god Pakhangba was adopted as the royal emblem of Manipur’s kings and appeared on the flag of the Manipur kingdom.
Another lion-like dragon god Kangla Sha became the basis of naming the seat of the Manipur kings as ‘Kangla’ and their kingdom as ‘Kangleipak’.
The Kangla Fort, the seat of the Manipur kings till 1891, had two enormous statues of ‘Kangla Sha’ at the entrance to the palace. These were meant to be guardians of the kings and the kingdom. There is an interesting story with regard to these two statues.
In 1891, there was tension between the colonial British and the kingdom of Manipur. On 22nd March 1891, five British officers who were part of the negotiating party were executed by Manipuri soldiers below these two Kangla Sha statues. It was a kind of ‘human sacrifice’ made to the deity. As a result of this, the British blew up the two Kangla Sha statues with dynamite after their conquest of Manipur in May 1891. After India’s independence, the two statues were rebuilt in concrete, where they still stand today.
As Sanamahism thrived in Manipur for more than a thousand years since its inception, by late 15th century CE, it witnessed the advent of Vaishnavism whose seeds were sowed not from India but from Myanmar! In 1470 CE, King Kyamba of Manipur (r. 1467-1508) was gifted a small stone image of Lord Vishnu riding on the back of Garuda by the king of Pong (now in Myanmar), as a mark of respect for aiding him in a joint expedition against the latter’s rival. He built a temple for this deity at a place called Bishnupur, around 27 km from Imphal. The temple still stands today, and is under the protection of the Archeological Survey of India.
In the centuries that followed, a large number of Vaishnavite monks and prominent Hindus took refuge in Manipur, fleeing the religious persecution of the Sultans of Bengal. This influx of Hindus continued in the late 17th century CE, when many Vaishnavite saints and followers of prominent saints like Sankaradeva and Narottam Thakur began settling in Manipur, some of them escaping the religious policies of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (r. 1657-1707). A number of Vaishnavite religious establishments began to be built in Manipur.
– It was King Charairongba (r. 1697-1709) who embraced Vaishnavism and was renamed ‘Pitamber’.
He became the first ‘Hindu’ monarch of Manipur. However, he constructed several temples for both Sanamahi and Vaishanvite deities. Among the Vaishanavite temples, the Shree Shree Gopaldeva Mandir Aribam Leikai can still be seen at Brahmapur (Imphal).
It was during the reign of Pitambar’s son Pamheiba (r. 1709-1748) that Hinduism became the official religion of the Manipur kingdom, and Sanamahism declined. Interestingly, the decline of Sanamahism did not occur due to religious persecution and forced conversions, but due to the process of religious assimilation into Hinduism.
King Pamheiba encouraged the local Meitei language to be written in the Bengali script and ordered the Puyas (Sahamahism texts) to be rewritten in the same script. So, Pakhangba, the Sanamahi dragon god, became Shiva and its representation was made to look like the Hindu snake god Ananta. Panthoibi, the Goddess of prosperity and of war, became Durga and so on.
Not just this, Hindu religious texts such as the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, were translated into the Meitei language. Even in everyday nomenclature, names were prefixed or suffixed with ‘Sri’, ‘Srimati’, ‘Singh’ and ‘Devi’ and Kangleipak (as the kingdom was known then) was renamed ‘Manipur’.
King Bhagyachandra (r. 1759-1798) continued to actively fuse Sanamahism elements with Vaishnavite practices. For example, the introduction of Rasa Lila, a religious dance-drama, was based on the traditional the Lai Haraoba dance. Atiya Sidaba, Apanba and Asheeba, responsible for the creation, preservation and destruction of the Universe, were represented as Lord Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. The seven-clan system of the Meities was also merged with the Hindu Gotra system. Sanahamism became almost completely absorbed within Hinduism.
It was not before 1930, when after briefly researching and understanding Meitei philosophy, beliefs and the Sanamahi people who were suffering due to their inclination, the celebrated activist Laininghan Naoriya Phullo (1888-1941) founded the Apokpa Marup: a socio-political group that became the foundation of future movements for reviving Sanamahism. It had political rather than religious undertones, as the idea was to emphasize local identities and a ‘distinct’ identity of the Meitei people. The movement aimed at the revival of Metei traditional culture, customary practices and traditional religious ceremonies relating to Metei society.
The biggest victory of this revival movement was the adoption of the Meitei Mayek script once more. Many Sanamahi temples have also been built in the recent past, symbols representing the seven clans which are said to have formed the basis of Meitei people. One of them can be seen next to the Kangla Fort, bringing the religion full circle.