This could be apocryphal, but an African proverb goes thus: “Until the lions learn to write, the hunters will tell their stories for them”. The saying has been the inspiration behind song lyrics and articles. Quite obviously there are two distinct and profound messages, besides many others. The most obvious ones are interesting. First, history is written by winners. Second, history is written by those who learnt to write. There are layers after layers of how even these two meanings can be interpreted. It is said in Chinese, the word for “civilisation” actually is synonymous with the word for “writing”. This obviously is not a coincidence, for indeed, the dawning of writing would have to be the herald for the start of civilisation.
Writing first and foremost is about making memory accurate and permanent, for memory in itself is problematic as a recorder of the past. In modern times, as experiments after experiments have demonstrated, memory is not such a faithful recorder of past events as it was long made out to be. Psychologists have come to the conclusion that memory is an interactive mechanism, and often what are remembered are what a witness wants to, or desires to remember, therefore constructed and reconstructed many times over. Collective memory can be even a better candidate for these reconstructions. This has often nothing to do with dishonesty. A person can honestly begin to believe in his own grossly inaccurate memory of events in chronological time and space, and this is especially so if the events referred to are hurtful of shameful to the self. And all history, as psychologists now say, is trauma history. Memory, by these accounts work more as metaphors rather than faithful recorders of events. History and memory are therefore related, and each has its own importance, but they are definitely not the same.
There are much more to say of “writing” and “civilisation”, and how the dawn of civilisation certainly would be a necessary condition for the much talked about and contentious notion of “state formation” amongst different peoples, and how the emergence of these sophistications in polity has to be consequent upon the evolution of a surplus economy, therefore the arrival of organised and productive agricultural skills. However, this editorial would not go into these, and instead look into the selective nature of memory, and how this, though often actually contrasting with historical records can come to influence even history and its interpretations.
It is today acknowledged history and memory must depend and benefit from each other. Memory enlivens history but history must restrain memory from straying away too far from records. One of the necessary hungers of historiography in such a partnership hence must be, in Maurice Blanchot’s words, “to keep watch over absent meanings.” This is a very thin line to walk. To always look for absent meaning, but also guard from the tendency to confabulate.
This is true of all traumatised societies, and the Meiteis are not an exception. In fact, currently there is a strong wind of revisionist interpretation of history amongst the Meiteis, often by people of doubtful literacy credentials. Just one contentious example– the arrival of Hinduism in Manipur – will show this. In all probability, the influence of the religion must have dated back much earlier than the adoption of the faith as the state religion under King Pamheiba in the early 18th Century, for the Bishnu temple at Bishnupur is dated to King Kiyamba’s reign in the 15th Century.
Without digressing any further, the moot question to ponder over is, why did King Pamheiba do what he did and looked away from the east to turn to the west for spiritual salvation? It cannot be a simple answer, but the problem is, too many with revisionist and revivalist visions are too eager to forward very linear and reductionist answers. There is hardly anybody who seems interested in considering the psychological complexities that must have marked the era and how this would have influenced politics of the time.
Manipur was at constant war with its much more powerful neighbour, Ava (Burma) at the time. King Pamheiba held his own, and his devastating cavalry raids into Ava have been acknowledged as having contributed to the fall of the Toungoo dynasty. The Konbaung dynasty succeeded, and after the death of King Pamheiba, this new dynasty of 11 kings, starting from its founder Alaungpaya, made Manipur one of its targets for periodic devastating military expeditions. In one of the punitive missions to Manipur in 1758, Alaungpaya himself took part. This was not long after he ascended the Ava throne. It was during this raid that King Bheigyachandra fled to Tekhao (Ahom) Kingdom, where legend has it that he was required to tame a wild elephant to prove his reputation as a king with mystic powers.
To cut the story short, this must have been an era in which the east had become an existential threat to Manipur. And yet, to the horrific stories of these near genocidal raids, including herding unarmed civilians into halls by Konbaung raiders, and torturously choked to death by burning chillies in these halls, as during the Chahi Taret Khuntakpa in the next century, have all been removed from the collective memory of the place by the revisionist hordes. Equally ignored is also the fact that this was the period the Bhakti Movement was spreading eastwards from Bengal, advocating the virtues of non-violence, love and coexistence. Under the circumstance, shouldn’t there be a relook at the nature of the diplomatic needs of the time and with it the temptations King Pamheiba must have had to begin leaning west.
It was Pamheiba’s grandson, King Beigyachandra, took this outlook even further. This king is an acknowledged creative genius and was the person to choreograph the famous Ras Lila and the Nat Sankirtan which has been since 2013 acknowledged as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. His even greater achievement is in marrying Manipur’s and in particular the Meitei’s past and present. Ras Lila and Nat Sankirtan are two evidences of this, and this art form is based on movements from old dance forms but tells of the new faith of Hinduism. This syncretism lives on even today, and Manipur’s Hinduism, like its classical arts, is unique in its own right.
If this was indeed so, should Manipur today also not learn from its own history. As they say, in diplomacy there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. Should we also not shy away from ending old enmities or making new friends, keeping in mind the permanent interest of the state. Indeed, if King Pamheiba had not decided to change the direction of his diplomacy, who knows Manipur might have ended up as a province of Myanmar not India and be in the mess the country is in today.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author