Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Photo of Kanglasha from James Johnstone's album now in Alkaji Archives.

Beating of the Sacred Senbung at Kangla and its Significance

Kangla Fort is in the news once again. This time around it is because of a congregation and oath-taking ceremony initiated by an organization called the Arambai Tengol for the members of this organization and the legislators of the Meitei community of Manipur. A common question asked by some of the observers was “Why Kangla of all the places? The answer lies in the fact that Kangla Fort holds great historical and cultural significance for the people of Manipur. This is not the first time that Kangla came up even in this conflict. I am sharing a few thoughts about that particular day.

At 8 p.m. on May 30, 2023, the sacred Senbung had been beaten from the premises of the historic Kangla Fort which is the main fort of the erstwhile kingdom of Manipur. With the beating of this Senbung, war has formally been declared on the enemy of the land. This Senbung at Kangla is no ordinary drum but it is a battle drum which is beaten only in extreme and dire circumstances when the kingdom is being threatened and needs to go to war. The Meiteis to this day have great faith and belief in the sanctity of The Kangla which is a fort as well as a holy place for the Meiteis and has a lot of historical significance. Legend has it that in ancient times the whole of the valley that we see today was covered with water, and most of the inhabitants were living around the surrounding hills. As time went on, the water started to recede gradually, and it has been said that Kangla was the first portion that became dry. Hence, the name Kangla which means “dry land”. The hill dwellers then came down to inhabit and live in the dry fertile lands of the valley. The Kangla is located in the heart of Imphal City and is a main tourist destination in today’s times. It was the capital of the kingdom of Manipur and the Meitei kings ruled from here.

Two to three days prior, i.e., 27th or 28th May, there has been coordinated attacks at multiple locations on Meitei villages in the periphery almost from all sides from the hill tops. The regular pattern is being followed – shootings and driving out the inhabitants, and burning down of the houses. The heaviest attacks have occurred in the Sugnu-Serou area where most of the houses and places of worship of Meiteis have been vandalized or burnt. This again is unexpected as attacks like these have never happened before.

Performing such a ceremony, the beating of the Senbung, in this present age and time, i.e., the 21st century, may seem a little odd and may also be perceived or regarded as just a symbolic affair for there is no kingdom as such, but to my understanding this has a deeper meaning to it. While the ceremony is being performed the people have been instructed to be in attentive mode and not be at ease. This is for the believers, of course. There is no hard and fast rule. No whip at all for not following the rules. The citizenry is being alerted and made aware of the extreme situation that the land is facing. Actions would have to be taken. If need be, their services would be asked for and they should be prepared for what is required of them. In this sense, the ceremony is sacred for any person who considers the land to be their motherland. This is some kind of a wake-up call. This is the significance of this ceremony.

Every race, community, or tribe have their own legends, myths, beliefs, culture, and traditions. They may appear strange to people from a different community or tribe, but that is not something to be laughed at or is a matter to be ridiculed. Mutual respect, appreciation, and understanding for that is called for. There is always an essence and inner meaning to every ritual followed by any community. It is for nothing that the rituals are performed. We need to find that essence and the appreciation itself will follow.

Before the arrival of Hinduism, the Meiteis had been following Sanamahism or the Sanamahi faith. The Meiteis converted to Hinduism during the early eighteenth century. King Pamheiba made Hinduism the official religion of the kingdom. Even after converting to Hinduism, the Meiteis have never completely abandoned Sanamahism. In today’s time, some Meiteis follow Sanamahism totally, while the rest follow dual religion, Sanamahism as well as Hinduism. Every household still has a Sanamahi temple within the home. There are temples for many Lamlai as well. The Meiteis seem to have found a balance. It has been like this since the time I can recall. This is somewhat similar to the case of the Japanese people following both Shintoism and Buddhism.

With regards to religion, I have never been that stringent. I do believe that there is a God, an almighty, the universe, or whatsoever but never have engrossed myself too much into matters of religion and the politics with regards to religion.

I have visited the Kangla three times, twice in the recent time and one time long ago. The last time I visited the Kangla was in April of this year, some ten days prior to this present crisis with some of my school friends. We hired a solar-powered autorickshaw driven by a smart young girl who also acted as a guide. We did a complete tour of Kangla, and she explained what all was there within the premises. The other visit was with my niece and it was last year. I did not see much then.

The first time I had been to Kangla was in the 1980s when it was home to the Assam Rifles. It is a vague memory but definitely not an imagined one. If I remember correctly, I was in middle school. The husband of one of my cousins who was a young officer in the Assam Regiment was posted with the Assam Rifles on deputation. They had their quarter in one of the small bungalows of colonial times. It was an old structure but it was well maintained, like it is in military homes. It rained the whole time that day. We spent an entire afternoon in their quarter. I do not remember going out to explore. Maybe it was the rain that was stopping us from doing so. What I saw of Kangla that day was only whatever that was there on the way to their quarter. As the Kangla was a military station during those days, no civilians were allowed to enter its premises. Even getting an entry within its premises was a kind of privilege.

The British administration occupied Kangla after the war of 1891. After the British left Manipur in 1947, there was a change of guard and the Indian security forces, the Assam Rifles, took over from there. They formally left Kangla on November 20, 2004. To date, the Kangla Fort remains as a symbol of the resilience of the people of Manipur as a cultural identity and historical continuity.

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