Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

Buddha now is centre-stage in Myanmar. At Ananda Phaya Pagoda, Bagan, two Nat spirits stand at the door of the chamber Buddha image is kept.

Myanma Nat and the Meitei/Meetei U-Mang-Lai Nat Festival

Manipur and Myanmar not only had the long history of conflict for supremacy in the westernmost border of South-East Asia, that is now extreme north east India(Manipur) and Myanmar (westernmost country of Mainland South East Asia) had many  more interesting areas which we have not known or studied since many years because of lack of cordial relation between India and Myanmar. The policy of “Look East” of the Government at New Delhi and the policy of more openness and friendliness to its neighbours by the present Government at Yangon has greatly widen the opportunity for interacting between the two people who are living in this corner of the world. Earlier the whole of South East Asia and the whole of North East India was known as “the Land of Anthropologists’ Paradise” or “The Living Museum of the World” as there are so many races with their different cultures and traditions living in this vast mountain terrain interrupted by narrow river valleys. But recent studies indicated that there were people in this region more than 50,000 years back and there were proof of “The Age of Wood” between the modern Age and the Neolithic Age in this region. The Wood e.g. bamboo (in Manipuri Wa) is the most important and without which life was impossible as this was used in house building in many ways and fishing, as all kinds of implements were made of it and even used as food items etc. Che (paper) was made of or extracted from bamboo in their rudimentary form. The kang-jei i.e. the stick of displacement, the hockey stick of traditional Manipuri hockey game and the ball were made from its root only. The ball of the game of Polo, which was originated from the traditional Sagol-kang-chei (jei) of Manipur was made of its root only. The accounts in Man-Shu of Nan-chao mentioned about the existence of a “Tea Mountain” i.e. Cha Shan (cha in Manipuri also cha and Ching-shang means mountain range). Wild cha is grown in western Manipur (Tamenglong Mountains) and other neighbouring hills ranges in Assam Northern Burma including Shan State and north-west Thailand and western Loas and extending further north in Yun-nan (China). Cha-nung village is a good example of wild cha (tea),  forested area in the foot hills around Imphal East District bordering Sardar Hills.

Cha-shan, ‘Tea Mountains’ is a term now applied to the hills of Tawngpeng State (Burmese Taungbaing), capital Namhsan, south of the Nam Mao or Shweli River-an area into which the Palaungs have been pushed by the aggressive Kachins (G.H. Luce-1824, page 17).Mr. R.C.Wright, a Ceylon tea-planter, remarks of the Tawng Peng tea- “ It is good Manipuri  jat … It is all one jat, Manipuri, which is the wild tea in Burma(GUBSS Part-I-vol.II George Scott, page-358).

Soya bean (Nung Hawai in Manipuri, nung means stone and hawai means bean) and the rice (paddy unhusked rice in Manipuri Fou, husked rice in Manipuri Cheng and cooked rice in Manipuri chak) are the  originals of this vast region and these are the great contributions to world civilisation. Fermented soy bean, in Manipuri Hawai jara was known since time immemorial to Manipuri is one of the most popular food items to the people of South East Asia and Eastern Asia, is now known all over the world for its food value. The fermented soy bean after drying can be kept for days and months for future use without any lost of food value. Yong_Chack (parkia javanica) a fruit bearing tree is one of the most popular food items among the Manipuris, specially during the winter season. This plant is grown in the mountainous countries of South-East Asia mainland and in java Island of Indonesia. Ngari (in Burmese Ngape) i.e. the fermented paste dried fish is very popular and an inseparable item while preparing most of the curry. The most scientific way of cooking of vegetables without oil is cooking with ngari/ngape. People living in the river valleys in the mountainous countries of South East Asia and North East India use to cook all kinds of vegetables with it since some thousands of year back. The major river system of Manipur Imphal-Iril-Thoubal rivers collectively known as Manipur river system runs southwards through Chin Hills in a narrow strip and again east and north east and later joins with the Chindwin(Ningthi by Meeteis means serenely beauty, clean etc), in Sagaing Division in Myanmar near Kalewa and Chindwin again joins with Irrawaddy now written in Myanma as Ayeyarwady river. These great rivers were the important water ways for transportation and communication since human habitation in this region. The scholars and researchers who are dealing with the early history of human migration of Manipur need greater attention towards these rivers.  Man-Shu of Nan-Chao mentioned Chindwin as Mino Chiang (River) and Imphal River (Manipur River) as Tatsin (S) Brahmans.

Since the coming of spring season the “U-mang Lai Haraoba” festival is celebrated at different localities (Leikais) and villages (khuls or khuns) in the valley of Manipur and Moreh the  border town. With the coming of spring season a new year starts in Manipur among the Meitei/Meetei/Mitai in the month of April. Whether it should be on the 1st day of Sajibu (Shajifu) or 14th April is a different question. In Europe before 1564, prior to the reform of the calendar, 1st April was celebrated as the New Years day, but after the reform they celebrated 1st January as the New Year. In the eastern neighbouring country of Myanmar (Burma) New Year falls on 13th April and celebrated water festival for one week. The Thagya or Thi’ gyan Min is the mythological King of Tawadeintha, the nat country, he is believed to make an earthly sojourn every year and his annual descent to earth marks the beginning of the Burmese New Year.

On festival days a large shed is erected, which serves for the various kinds of plays. Whilst these are going on- there enter the nat-htein, or spirit mediums, all  dressed alike in ornamental bordered waist cloths, broad sleeved jackets, and with shawls thrown  over the shoulders; with shells in the right hand and sprigs of tender leaves of Eugenia in the left. They step forward in a graceful fashion and standing upright, chant the nat-than. Then the music strikes up and the ceremony concludes with the vigorous dancing of the nat-inspired women ( George Scott-1900).

The widespread adoption of Buddism in Myanmar suppressed the ,nat worship, but never replaced it. There are now 37 nats (spirit). The Nat is generic term for any ‘spirit’ or ‘deity’. Deities of Indian origin were easily incorporated into nat-worship. Brahmanical; gods and goddesses were given ‘Burmanised’ names such as Sarasvati becoming ‘Thayethati’, Siva becoming ‘Paramizwa’ and Vishnu becoming ‘Withano’. Indra or Thagya Min in Burmese, was the chief of all nats (Thants Myint-U-2001). During the founding of Burman kingdom at Pagan, there were 19 villages with their 19 chiefs possessing its own nats. According to the Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma translated by Pe Maung Tin and G H Luce over those 19 chiefs was king Thamoddarit who brings those 19 chiefs under one common nat, with an objective to unify the various tribes into a true nation.This event marks the beginning of Burmese kingdom.

In this way Mahagiri Nat Min becomes the common nat of the new Pagan Kingdom and the story goes-in the reign of Tagaung Min, the king who took his capital Tagaung, or old Pagan, as it is frequently called, there lived in that city a blacksmith whose name was Nga Tin Daw, who have a son and a daughter. The son was named Nga Tin Te, and he was celebrated throughout the kingdom as the cleverest blacksmith and the most powerful man of his age. He had great influence in Tagaung and the king was afraid of him and feared that he would raise a rebellion. In order to conciliate the blacksmith married Tin Te’s sister and gave her the title Thiriwunda, but still he remained uneasy in his mind and finally told the queen to summon her brother to the palace, received an appointment. When Tin Te came he was seized by the royal guard, bound to sagabin, a tree which grew in a palace yard, burned to death. The queen begged permission to bid farewell to her brother, went upto the burning pile, threw herself into the flames and perished with him. The fire went out at once, but both brother and sister were dead and all that remained of them was their two heads, which had had not been in any way injured by the flames. The brother and sister become nats and took up their abode in the sanga tree which grew within the palace walls. From this they descended periodically and killed and ate people, particularly those who came near the tree. After this had gone on for some time the king had the tree uprooted and thrown into the Irrawaddy river. The tree floated down with the current as far as Pagan,  where it strainded on the river bank close to one of the city gates. Thenlegyaung or Thilagyaung was then king of Pagan, and to him they showed themselves one night, but not before they had killed and eaten every one who came near the tree. They displayed their human heads and told king Thinlegyuang of the cruelty of the king of Tagaung. He took pity on them and ordered that a suitable temple should be built on Popa Hill to receive the Mahagiri nats and their tree. This was done and the tree was removed to its present position near Popa, where a portion of it said still to exist.

The nats, when they were thus properly housed and treated, gave up active destruction and only attacked who directly offended them. To further propitiate them the king ordered that every year in the month of Noyon (May-June) a great feast should be held in their honour. This festival was regularly kept until the time of Bodaw Paya, who presented two golden heads to the shrine to be kept by the official in charged of the Popa neighbourhood and to be brought out every year for the festival. All the official and people from all the surrounding country gather together and marched in procession, headed by bands of music and dancers. Ministers were also specially deputed from the court of Awa (Ava) or Mandalay to attend the feast with offerings.(George Scot-1900, GUBSS Vol-1, pt-II).

This legend is interesting because it shows the establishment of a spirit on mountain in order to achieve religious and territorial unification and birth of a nation (Krishna Murari-1985). Mt. Popa is regarded to be an extint volcano. Some scholars classified the nats into three categories such as- (i) the worship of nature-spirits inhibiting trees, rivers, and mountain, (ii) ancestral worship, (iii) Deities of Indian origin incorporated in Myanma by giving Myanma names as given above.

In the Historical Geography of Myanma settlement there are two categories of villages e.g. ywa and myo. Ywa is a settlement smaller than myo and was often just collection of houses, perhaps a few dozen. The houses were closely built together near the fields where most of the inhabitants worked. A ywa is not fortified. The houses were constructed in a simple manner by bamboo and thatch. The floor of the houses were raised for protection from flood and snakes. At the edge of the ywa, there would invariably be a small shrine to the village nat.

A myo is a bigger settlement and fortified. There shall be a wall and a moat surrounding the village, having a permanent market called zay. There are Buddhist monasteries which serve not only as religious centres but also as local schools, places of rest for travellers and places of refuse for stray animals. Most of the houses were built by simple materials such as bamboo and thatch but important people like chief of myo (myo ruler), rich traders, and representatives of the king lived in bigger wooden compounds, their doors painted with vermillion, the colour  of minor nobility. An army garrison might be stationed within the walls. A number of local men would be given the right to carry arms and they would function  as military reserve in times of need.

Every Myanmar village having a nat shrine at the edge of the village can be compared with the village settlements in Manipur, who called them as Kathe/ Ka-te. According to Chief of Supo Shan called the Meiteis as Ka-tai/ Ka-thai which means a brocken Tai. He also explains that Tai/Shan or Sam is a great race who had migrated from remote north west towards the whole of South East Asia including Yunnan China, Assam and Manipur in India. He suggested that Cassay can be a corrupted word of Britishers from Ka-Thai and by Burmans as Kathe. Most of the old Meitei/Meetei settlements always have a village shrine called ‘U-Mang-Lai’ in a wooded area at the edge of the village.

In nat festivals nat-gadaw play an important part and they are either female or male. They sing and dance that invite specific nat to possess them. Once possessed they continue to sing and dance while in trance, often performing various feasts that prove a spirit has taken them over. In the same way a Maibi of ‘U-Mang-Lai Haraoba’ is a group of male or female who performed the ritualswith vigorous dances (sometimes in trance). Sajor Nalini Paratte & John Parratt explains about the maibis in trance as- “Laihopurol to Ikouba, the creation song which is used to call up the lais from the waters, gives us a clear insigtht into the processes of maibic possession. This prayer is chanted by the maibi as she sits by the waters with her knee bent in front of her. Her head must be covered with the ends of her shawl. She first experiences the sensation of her hair standing on end, and then her whole body begins to shake violently. She rings her hand bell, and pena (a musical instrument that gives good sound like that of a violin) plays for the first part of the prayer, gradually accelerating in speed”. Amaiba is a male and Maibi or A-Maibi is a female who play the most important role in the U-Mang Lai Haraoba ritual ceremony as explained above.

In a nutshell, Nat worship is the worship of ancestors and the legendry heroes who exert certain influences in the early Burmese society. While we look into the nature of U-Mang Lai worship we can see some similarity with the Myanma nat worship. Most of the nat spirit if we study are some legendry heroes or kings. In the similar manner most of the U-Mang Lai are the kings or chiefs, or mythical heroes etc (U means tree, U-mang means forest, or wooded area and Lai means spirit also denoted God and Goddesses). The philosophical meaning of U-mang Lai-Haraoba, on the other hand is as vast as a great ocean and here the author is picking up only those similar areas with Myanma nat.

Another very interesting coincidence in belief is the ‘Karen’ way of believing, that an eclipse is cause by a dog. They believed that a solar eclipse is caused as the sun is swallowed by a dog who is hotter than fire and so as a lunar eclipse as the moon is swallowed by a dog who is colder than water (Rev. Harry I. Marshall-1922). Manipuri (Meitei/Meetei) also in the ancient days believed that a solar or lunar eclipse was caused due to swallowing of the sun or the moon by a dog called ‘Hui-Karubi’, (Hui means dog, and Karubi means charcoal black).

the same .way there are vary many interesting stories, legendry or traditional, traces of culture similar to each other among the Shans, Kachins (Chingphos or Singphos), Pongs (Northern, North western and Western Shan), Meitei, Karen specially Taungthus and the Chins as the above given tribes or the groups of people migrated in different phases in varying groups to the south east of the Himalayas and the whole of the Indo-China (South-East Asia) peninsula under the common name of the Tai-Mao or Tai-Shans since more than 5000 years back. The Burmese Nat worship is the worship of spirit, in the same way Manipuri (Meitei) U-Mang-Lai Haraoba means spirit hero or ancestral worship. Manipuri Lai is applied to both male and female. But when the lai is to denote a male, then it is termed as Lai-remba and a Lai-rembi for a female spirit. These two terms are used only when one particular Lai (spirit) is to be denoted, otherwise the term Lai is universal in Meitei (Manipuri) society.



1 (Myanma denotes its people, Government, language, culture etc, and Myanmar the country)




  1. Gazetter of Upper Burma & Shan States by George Scott-1900 Part-I, Vol.-I.
  2. Gazetter of Upper Burma & Shan States by George Scott-1900 Part-I, Vol.-II.
  3. Making of Modern Burma – Thant Myint-U 2001
  4. Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma-translated by Pe Maung Tin & GH Luce.
  5. Cultural Heritage of Burma- Krishna Murari-1985
  6. Pre-Pagan Burma- By G.H. Luce 1985
  7. An Account of an Embassy to the Kingdom of Ava by Micheal Symes London-1800.
  8. History of Burma- Maung Htin Aung, Columbia University Press, United States of America
  9. The Karen People of Burma- Rev. Harry Ignatius Marshall, the Ohio State University 1922
  10. The Kachins: Religion and Customs- C. Gilhodes, Mittal Publications New Delhi 1922
  11. The Burmese Empire A Hundread Years Ago- Father Sangermano
  12. Manglemjao Ex-Police: Add these local references: 1) Saroj N Arambam Parratt John Parratt :The Pleasing of The God’s: Meitei Lai Haraoba, New Delhi, 1997.
  13. 2) N.Khelchandra Singh, Padmashree,
  14. Sapan Bheigya,
  15. Rupavan Singh, State Archaeology, Dept. Of Art& Culture, Imphal, 2006.
  16. 3) Dr. Kh.Ratan Kumar: Lai Haraiba of Manipur, 2001, Imphal,
  17. 4) T.C.Hodson:The Meitheis, 1997 (Reprinted) New Delhi,
  18. 5) O.Kumar Singh: Stone Age Archaeology of Manipur,1997, Imphal Manipur.
  19. 6) E.W.Dun: Gazetteer of Manipur, 1886, Reprinted 1992, New Delhi.


(This has been published earlier in an edited volume “Manipur-Myanmar Connections” published by Concept Publishing, New Delhi).

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