Till recently gender inclusivity in Manipur was woven to suit transgender life in an enactment of beauty and subtle strength. Now the silk of affinity is turned to roped and chained prejudices as the community loses touch with its history and distances itself from its affections. While marginalised transgender community is celebrated in culture and history, contemporary challenges are left unattended. There’s solace though, with the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, the Solidarity and Action Against HIV Infection in India (SAATHII) and the All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association (AMANA) coming together in a project, that allows a view of Manipur’s tradition, that lay displaced by today’s uninteresting focus of life. The research, now in book form, done in the first six months of 2020, provides content analysis of the third gender life, which has seen its highs and lows, in Manipur. The research has been compiled by team leader Santa Khurai, who is the secretary of the AMANA, writer, activist and documentary filmmaker, Dr. Rubani Yumkhaibam, who is the research consultant, and Bonita Pebam, research assistant and member of the AMANA.
In an earlier time the third gender were addressed by an honorific name ‘pheida’ and were essential members in the royal administration. The Cheitharol Kumpapa, the royal chronicles, states that the pheidas were associated with the Ningthou Semba, or the selection or appointment of the king, and people were accustomed to the pheidas’ elevated position. ‘Pheida: Gender at the Periphery’, the present research, brings the nupi maanbis wrapped pleasantly together with the pheidas in a cultural casing relevant to a gender inclusive Manipuri society. The tradition of royal sanction for the pheidas, where they were the only ones in the royal household who could visit all the royal quarters without any permission is rooted in history and approved by all the major traditional Meitei written records. This factual grandeur has however failed to register in the present times.
Let’s elaborate more on the role of the pheidas to find a contextual background that links it with nupi maanbis in present day Manipuri society. The pheidas were at their impeccable best at the time of the king’s coronation, carrying out various exclusive duties allotted to them. Also, in their daily work in the royal household the pheidas were responsible for sealing the royal ladies quarters at night and removing the seal in the morning, accompanying the maibas (physicians) when they visited the royal ladies, giving permission to the queen’s lady attendants to enter the queen’s sleep chamber, accompanying the king’s guards when they wanted to be at the king’s phammang (space near the bed), and apart from others allowing relatives of the royal ladies when they wished to meet the queen. They also let the singer, scholars, storytellers and pena (musical instrument) players access the king in the morning and later saw them off also. Pheidas attended judicial duties also in the market place over stolen materials and settled market disputes, and also disputes between royal ladies. They also announced the closing of the keithel (market) at dusk. The royal ladies called them Epa, and all guards of different departments of the Kangla knew them as Eyamma, both terms respectful titles used to address the elderly male members.
While the research seems to have come into the picture after the nupi maanbi intellectuals were concerned how the nupi maanbi community is being marginalised, the research itself has turned out to be a valuable piece of work that takes us back into days when Manipur was actually quite a nice place to live in and had a generous stock of cultural plurality, which included the third gender, as described.
The term nupi maanbi has been current since 2008, and its gender expression is that of the feminine gender. The substantial visibility of nupi maanbis became a reality only around the turn of the century. Before that they were hardly visible in public during day time and used to meet at night at Mapal Kangjeibung, outside Mapal Kangjeibung and Bir Tikendrajit Park, receiving negative reception from the populace when they came out openly, the research reveals quite grimly. The societal view is to reorient nupi maanbis towards heterosexual marriage and because of this the transgender community is sometimes at the receiving end of social and familial violence as their behaviour is not congruent with the sex assigned at birth.
AMANA was legally registered as a society in 2010, and since then has been trying to build a favourable narrative for the nupi maanbis in Manipur through research, advocacy and sensitization. Its initiative has consolidated rights based queer and LGBTIQ issues in collaboration with ETA, SAATHII, etc., in Manipur and northeast India, along with presence at United Nations programs, envisaging an identity for the nupi maanbis, and also defining moments of socio-cultural and political realities in Manipur.
The nupi maanbis are aesthetically, artistically, emotionally, and as this diligent research shows, intellectually eloquent. They have done well to put up research like this one, to keep at least their conscience clear by doing their best to educate others on the matter of gender, and gender as a tool of subjugation. The nupi maanbis are present day pheida incarnate, a timeless gender. Such a concise research on the pheidas and nupi maanbis needs to be applauded for the discussions it invites. This piece of research work by a team of informed activists and researchers is able to clear any misconceptions about the role of nupi maanbis in Manipuri society. As in other parts of the country and the world, the third gender has arrived to stay, in Manipur also, there’s no doubt about it.