Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Dr Helena Eye Care Centre

A Daughter Recalls the Life and Times of Manipur’s First Doctor

Book Title: And He Opened the Window

Author: Binapani Thokchom

Translated from Manipuri by the Author

In the year 1891, the first day of the Meitei lunar month of Hiyangei/November, on the auspicious day of the Gobardhon Pujah and Thursday, Dr. Gobardhon was born at Ningthoukhong village, 33 kilometres southwest of Imphal. Gobardhon’s father Thokchom Chaonu was well known. His mother’s name was Khambisana. Gobardhon’s parents gave a Hindu name perhaps without knowing the exact meaning ofit. Gobardhon is the name of a small hill which is considered to be at Brindaban, the home of lord Krishna’s childhood. There is a myth that Lord Krishna lifted the hill on his finger to protect villagers and cattle from the wrath of Indra, the king of heaven. Like the Gobardhon hill giving shelter to the villagers and cattle of Brindaban, Dr. Gobardhon saved many people, both in the hills and in the valley area by fighting many diseases and epidemics during his short life span.

Unfortunately, his mother passed away when Gobardhon was at a very tender age. His elder sister Thokchom Leima took up the responsibility of mothering him. She looked after him so carefully that Gobardhon did not feel the absence of his mother at all. His sister Leima was then only ten years old and Gobardhon was three. Thokchom Chaonu – Gobardhon’s father was the Hajari (Pramukh) of the village. Theirs was a middle class family. So the family was able to stock enough household materials such as fire-wood for fuel and paddy in the granary for one full year. Tins of edible oil and red kerosene were also stocked. So their family was one of the reputed and prominent families in the locality. The family was also known as Hajarimayum. Thokchom Chaonu was an active social worker and a leader of the community. He was a well built man with good features and dark skin. He and his family lived in a big thatched house, and it had nine big rooms.

Before the British came, Manipur was an independent kingdom having an area of about 22,000 sq. kms. The Meitei soldiers were very brave and the Meitei kings were very clever. They were able to defeat the rebellious ethnic groups. Hence, the chieftains of the tribal communities, settled in the hills of the province of Manipur, paid tribute to the Meitei king. Once, there was a ferocious battle with the neighbouring state of Awa presently known as Myanmar. As a result of this battle, seven years of devastation followed in the state. However the Awas or the Burmese were ultimately driven out from the soil of Manipur, then the Meitei king captured the throne of a small kingdom. The neighbouring states praised the Meiteis for their courage and accomplishment. The heavy monsoon type of climate keeps the land green throughout the seasons. But the last war for independence of Manipur was to be fought with the mighty British Empire. It was something like a war between the lion and the cat, or a fight between the sea and the river; hence the sovereignty of the province came to an end.

Manipur was in turmoil in the year 1891. After the brave Manipuris were defeated, the Manipuri Crown Prince Bir Tikendrajit and Thangal General were hanged publicly. Gobardhon was a mere child, when all these were happening in the state. The elder citizens trembled under the harsh whiplash of the Phirangies. Many people who were disobedient were lined up on the roadside naked near the crematorium of Bir Tikendrajit at_Hicham Yaicham Pat and beaten up. The womenfolk became furious towards the Phirangies because of the brutality towards the menfolk. Women of Manipur worship two goddesses; one is Panthoibi and the other is Durga. Both the goddesses are known as goddess of war. The womenfolk of Manipur are hardworking, brave and sometimes furious when infuriated. Nevertheless the Manipuri women possess good moral values, and their efficiency is noticed by the neighbouring states.

The British political agent Shakespeare ruled the state after the execution of Crown Prince Bir Tikendrajit and General Thangal. The British official crowned Churachand, the new king of Manipur at the tender age of five. There were two political agents – Boro Sahib and Chhoto Sahib. They ruled in the name of the young king and brought many changes in the state. In order to completely subdue the region, the British rulers or political agents brought forth drastic changes in the administration. The new government imposed many taxes on the poor people of Manipur. They put the people to forced labour and treated them like slaves. No one was pleased their witful ways. Manipuri felt as if the strangers, the British were allowed to run or handle their family matters, and gradually the socio economical aspect grew worse. The hatred within the hearts of the Manipuri people however could never be expressed; it only remained in their inner psyche. On the other hand, the Britishers also constructed bridges and roads, improved communication and introduced western education system. However, English language and white people (Malesha) were taken for and understood as ‘untouchable’ by the people of Manipur. Even learning English was considered as committing a crime, although the people could not announce it openly. It was taken for granted and understood.

“Phirangies are betrayers,

East India Company is a killer.

We hate them,

They eat beef, they are untouchables.

We will not speak English, we shall not learn neither.

Death of a language,

Our beauty is destroyed.

They are untouchable.” (Words from older generation)

The domesticated cow was considered as God’s messenger of peace in Meitei society. So cows were considered sacred, worshipped and offered rice and other green vegetables to them. All these strong beliefs made the Meitei look upon the British as untouchables. Their language, alphabets and figures were untouchables, all the people of Manipur hated them. So the western education was completely rejected by the people of Manipur but on the other hand some well-to-do families educated themselves by learning Sanskrit and Bengali. The British administration, in the name of the young puppet king, launched western education by introducing ten Pathsala (schools) in the state. Nine new Pathsalas were established in 1907-8 on a new footing in rural areas. The ninth Pathsala was established in Ningthoukhong village. There were many debates among the villagers that English education would ruin the culture of Manipur and pollute the mentality of the youngsters. The village elders believed that their children should be taught the skills of agriculture so that there might be an increase in foodgrain production.

Chaonu, being a Hajari of the village, could not take a decision against the king’s order. So a Pathsala was forcibly set up in Ninpthoukhong. Keeping aside all the controversies and debates among the villagers, some of the children along with Gobardhon were enrolled in the Pathsala. As his mother was no more, his elder sister Leima took care of him. She was witty; she wove traditional clothing like khudei-and ngabong as weaving was a customary task of womenfolk at that time. Gobardhon also could not avoid duty given by the custom of the village such as sunsenleng (young boys took turns to take the village cattle to feed at the grazing ground), cutting hay for the cattle, cleaning the cowshed and collecting firewood. However, Gobardhon was a child keen in studies despite these duties. While herding the cattle, he practiced the multiplication tables so as to ‘learn by heart’ and he would repeat all the Sanskrit slokas. Eventually he was able to count the Tangois (the big black burnt leaves falling down to the fields from the hills) of wild fire and not a single went missed.

In these pathsalas, a teacher’s pay was only Rs.3 per month. But they got sufficient paddy from the parents and guardians of the pupils. A new madrasa was also established at Lilong in the same year. This is from the Statistics on education in 1907-8, the year of the transfer of the management of the state. It is very interesting. There were altogether 97 lower primary school teachers. Out of them, 72 were Manipuri Hindus born in the state, 19 were Manipuri Hindus born outside the state, 3 were Manipuri Muslims and 3 were foreigners. 175 candidates appeared in the lower primary examination. 144 passed – 58 in the first Division, 45 in the Second Division and 41 in the Third Division. Mr. W.A. Cosgrave, Vice president of the Darbar, observed with satisfaction, “It is interesting to note that one Manipuri girl and two Nagas who appeared in the lower primary examination were all successful”. From this modest beginning Manipur made great strides, later on.

Gobardhon was very quick at computation. After the month of Poinu (December), When the harvesting was over, the village boys and girls gathered around the fire and enjoyed. They collected hay bundles from paddy fields and lit it, baked potatoes in the fire and ate them. But Gobardhon never joined them. Instead, he would be at the backyard wrapped himself with Ngabong (thick cloth) and studied his books. After studies, he would keep his books outside the house and take bath and change his clothes. Gobardhon was given strict instructions that he must take a bath and get cleaned after touching the English books because English people and English language were regarded as untouchable. He did not mind the daily ritual of bathing with cold water from the pond in the cold western wind of the severe winter. He could not break the rule of the village.

Almost all the Meiteis were converted into Hindus; however there were some groups of Meiteis who remained with the nature religion. The later groups worshipped Lainingthou Sanamahi,Ebudhou Pakhangba and many Umang Lais (forest deities). However, Lainingthou Sanamahi and Ebudhou Pakhangba and aU the Umang Lais (forest deities) were worshipped by even the Meiteis who had converted themselves into Hindus. The importance and belief in ancestral gods seemed to be ardent. Meitei men, women and children knowingly or unknowingly followed these two religions.

Besides Gobardhon, there were some other boys who went to Pathsala and who also faced the same problems like he did. Their books were kept outside the house, inside the folds of a jute sack and could only enter the house after taking bath. Eventually, most of them gave up the tiring ordeal and abandoned the Pathsala. They would rather quit studies than dip themselves in the chilling water every night after doing their homework. Gobardhon was the only one who did not give up. The village elders advised Chaonu to forbid Gobardhon from learning t~e language of Phirangies. But Chaonu could not do so as his child secured top position. Gobardhon went along with his sister Leima for examination on foot to the Johnstone School of Imphal, 33 km away from Ningthoukhong. They carried large loads including rice, dried fish, salt, potatoes etc. on their heads. They stayed in the outhouse of the home of his father’s friend – Sougaijamba, a member of the royal court, at Moirangkhom. Besides studies, Gobardhon cooked and washed clothes. He stood first position for the first time! God had bestowed the little child with a divine gift. He was admitted in Johnstone School. He, again, was rewarded in the middle school examination; so he received a scholarship of Rs.4/- for a stint of four years.

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