Whoever’s idea it was to have the props, or kabaak in Manipuri, (two each) removed from inside the open mouths of the two replicas of the mythical beasts, Kangla Sha, built in 2007 modelled on their destroyed ancient originals at the entrance of the Darbar Hall of the sacred Kangla, the seat of power of the old Kingdom of Manipur, has raised a storm. What the Manipur government has been made to do can be looked at as either a tampering of an important relic of Manipur’s ancient history, or else removing the monument from the territory of history and confining it to a socio-religious sphere of a group of people or community. It has worked either way elsewhere too, especially in Myanmar, where some monuments have been left to be history’s universalised heritage, and other monuments still used as functional spaces for practice of a faith. The choice reduces to just these two. In one, Kangla Sha is seen as evidence and relic of a uniquely organised polity that emerged in this region, determined by equally unique historical pressures, therefore of value as a universal human historical heritage. In the other, the monument is seen as a still functional place of worship of a faith, therefore at liberty for the practitioners of the faith to modify and improve they sees suitable and fit. The government’s action leans on the latter. I will discuss a little more on living and static heritages in Myanmar a little later, but for now here is a consideration of what the alterations to the Kangla Sha can come to means in the days ahead. I had completed this article earlier in the week and at that point touched on mostly the tradition of the Lion Dog in SE Asia and East Asia, but now prompted by certain new posts and articles, I have included this closer scrutiny of the history of the Kangla Sha in particular.
If it was by a free, prior and informed consent of the public at large, there should have been no ruffled feathers in the Kangla being converted into a utility space and developed as it pleases modern aesthetic sensibility. Going by this outlook, it could also for instance be also made into a park, which it already is to a great extent, placing the premium not on its heritage and history contents, but on public recreation, just as the part of the Kangla on the eastern bank of the Imphal River has now been converted to the Sanjenthong Government Quarters and the New Checkon residential and commercial area. It is unlikely though this would be what the people of the state would want for the rest of the Kangla. The sad part of the episode is the complete lack of transparency in the entire decision-making process that led to what many now think is an atrocity on the place’s common heritage although there seems to also be a coterie of advisers cheerleading the move, many of whom self-professedly also do not have the patience or inclination to read a 1500 words long newspaper article on the matter much beyond the headlines, but still do not hesitate critiquing it and its contents. It is really a wonder how many books anybody scared of long newspaper articles would be capable of reading.
From posts on social media by people who seemingly were the ones who advised the government to make the change, it is now clear they pushed the opinion that the Kangla Sha did not have these kabaak originally but were introduced later to give the pride these beasts represented, a tortured and restrained look. Even if this were so, can history simply be undone and rewritten? Slavery for instance is outrightly wrong and has been abolished and it must also be prevented from recurring at all cost, but can the fact that slavery was once a dark reality be changed? Rather than attempt to erase a part of history they dislike, even if it were to be presumed somebody did try to subjugate the spirit of the people by introducing the spikes in the mouth of these sacred figures, the way forward would have been to conclusively establish who did this and expose their wrong. That would have been a truer liberation. Given the timeline indicated by a photograph of the Kangla Sha without kabaak which the advisers claim was taken in 1868, the only kings who could have introduced the kabaak after that date are Chandrakriti, Surchandra and Kulachandra, or else, Kulachandra’s step sibling associates, Tikendrajit and Angousana. Of the latter three royals, Tikendrajit was hanged publicly in 1891 by the British while Kulachandra and Angousana were exiled for life to Kalapani (Andaman and Nicobar Island). So in this preposterous theory, which of these royals is responsible for introducing the kabaak before British troops entered the Kangla and destroyed the original statues in 1891?
The evidences forwarded by the advisers also seem so obviously spurious. The supporters’ strongest alibi is a photograph which was claimed to have been clicked by James Johnstone and one Mr. Hoffman in 1868, a year before the great earthquake in 1869.
In this picture of dubious origin, Kangla Sha did not have the kabaak. In a clear departure from academic tradition however, the source from which the photograph was procured is not indicated. Another glaring problem with the claim is, camera became portable and commercially available only after Eastman Kodak introduced their revolutionary Serial 540 in 1888, a full 20 years after this photograph was supposedly clicked by Johnstone. Before this, photo imaging was possible with studio as well as unwieldy field cameras, generally used only by professionals. Was Johnstone one? Johnstone, was the political officer in Manipur during 1877-1886. His birth date is February 9, 1841, so in 1868 when he supposedly clicked the photograph, he would have been a very young officer of 27 years, probably not yet posted to India, not to talk about Manipur. Merely going through the records of Johnstone Higher Secondary School, the iconic school the political officer founded in 1885 a year before his retirement, should offer interesting answers such as whether he arrived in Manipur before 1868. If not here, then there are also deeper archival institutions to search.
As somebody who genuinely was attached to Manipur, Johnstone did have a good collection of photographs of Manipur in his album, and among them are some pictures of the Kangla Sha. His collections are now in the Alkaji Archives, but in all likelihood more prints of many or all of these photographs were also in the collections of other officials and individuals of the time, in particular one of Johnstone’s successors St. Clair Grimwood, as infinite number of photo prints can be made from the same exposed negatives. This being so, these same photographs could today also be in other archives, including the Indian National Archives and the London Archives.
Other than these circumstantial evidences, a closer look at the photograph forwarded by the advisers also indicates it is fake. It is really a surprise that this panel of experts of the government did not spot the signs that this is a cropped and morphed version of one of the photographs from Johnstone’s album now in the Alkaji Archives in which the Kangla Sha clearly had kabaak. The overall scene and ambience of the photographs, as well as the angle of camera they were taken are identical. Even paraphernalia such as a bamboo ladder lying on the ground in front of one of the statues, the twigs scattered on the ground and the leaves on the adjacent tree are the same. Can this happen in any two photographs of the same subject taken at least 20 years apart? In any case, the advisers should have cross-checked to eliminate all possibilities of error of judgement before jumping to conclusions, knowing very well the impact it can have on the future status of these monuments, as well as cause likely embarrassments for the government. They should also have known better that plagiarism is a serious cognizable offence. This casual approach and almost complete lack of research rigour on a matter with weighty implications on the image of a place held sacred is simply bewildering and unforgiveable.
The Kangla Sha, obviously carries the spirit the tradition of the Lion Dog (rough English semantic equivalent of the Chinese Phu or Phoo
Dog), so revered all across South East Asia, Buddhist belt of the Himalayas and indeed Far East Asia spanning across China, the Koreas and Japan. What this mythical beast represents is quite obvious even from its very form and composition, for it is both a lion and a dog, and in the case of the Kangla Sha, it also sports deer antlers. The symbolism is rich, and to take a little poetic license, the lion semblance gives the beast a picture of majesty, ferocity, power and independence. However, this untamed though regale visage is moderated by the dog character, adding to it a sobering rich mix of the senses of domesticity, friendliness, loyalty, vigilance and protection. To this the stag image adds the impression of the beast also being swift, sensitive and in its own unique way, graceful. In its totality, the Lion Dog represents the universal spirit that humans long for on the battlefield of life – the love, protection, security, strength and stability that only the combine of the primal mother and father can guarantee the family.
The Lion Dog’s postures in different cultures range from the dog’s heel position to the triumphal, roaring standing posture. The former is more common in the Far East and in the Himalayan principalities such as Bhutan, Nepal and Sikkim, probably influenced by China and Tibet, but in South East Asia, as also in Manipur, the sacred beast is often in the standing position. In the former, this beast also sports a short snout, and the mouth is generally closed or partly open. This is unlike in the latter where the snout is longer and mouth generally wide open. The Kangla Sha especially has a prominently long snout, probably modelled or else subliminally influenced by the image of local dog breeds. Indeed, it is only in modern times that the place has grown used to short snout dog breeds such as boxer, pug, rottweiler, pit bull etc. In the far east, extremely lovable short snout dogs have always been common. But these are just the differences in artistic imaginations of the different cultures in visualising the protectiveness of the guardian Lion Dog. But the long snout Lion Dog of Manipur would have paused a formidable engineering
challenge given the technology and building material available at the time the idea was first given form, especially also because of the size and the weight of the model. In most other places, except Myanmar and Manipur, the traditional Lion Dog is generally the size of a big dog or a little larger, though there are exceptions, therefore would have presented a different structural engineering challenge.
This being so, the two props each inside the mouth of Kangla Sha were probably meant to provide support from the lower jaw to the upper snout, so as to keep its overall architectural integrity stable and firm. Available photographs and sketches of the original Kangla Sha indicate the lower jaw is short and supported by the chest, therefore the problem posed by gravity would have been only with the long protruding snout, hence the kabaak support. Even in the shorter snout Lion Dogs of other cultures, often the fangs from the upper and
lower jaws touch, serving the purpose of kabaak as well. Obviously, reinforced cement plaster over steel rigged frame would have been unknown then, and probably it was baked mud bricks and limestone paste used for the job. The state’s archaeology department should be able to say more on this authoritatively. But the moot point is, the available engineering standard and how this was used to overcome a challenge is itself an interesting piece of history, and have indeed become a precious part of the state’s heritage today. How can the government ever have thought of erasing this intriguing legacy? This would be akin to someone disowning their parents because they were poor and illiterate, therefore embarrassing for him or her today. How was the government not able realise that strength of character of a society is in its ability to accept and embrace gracefully its past in all its truth, and certainly not by white washing them to suit their present skewed sense of progress and advancement. It must however be said this revisionist trend in historiography is a fad even among a good section of the state’s intelligentsia. This is unfortunate. If our forefathers were farmers, herders or nomads, we should be proud of what they were and not be left with guilt or shame that they were so, and try alternate and confabulated explanations of the past to dodge what are seen as uncomfortable truths. No doubt about it that revisionist trends in history conceptualisation are a sure sign of insecurity of colonised minds in negotiating colonial modernity.
The trouble also is, our society is in the hands of an emerging class of a not so literate nouveau-riche who became wealthy not by enterprise and sweat, but as cronies of power earning their shares of lucre overnight in Manipur’s ongoing collaborative loot of public money and crony capital. Their aspirations and sense of self-fulfilments have also consequently come to be defined by opulence, which consequently is their definition of advancement and progress. Frantz Fanon has an interesting passage on this in The Wretched of The Earth, arguing why youth in the Third World are much more vulnerable to the onslaught of images of affluence and consumerism that advertisers flood everybody through the mass media. Youths in the affluent West, he says, would be more able to put these images in perspective as the reality they live is not far from what are portrayed. Youth in the Third World however can be much more prone to be swept by these illusions, and for this illusory world to come to define their aspirations. A wide rift generally is also the result between aspirations and means, resulting in a peculiar instability, therefore tendencies towards delinquency. The constant need to white wash the past to mould it to present sensibility, as also seen in the alteration made to the two Kangla Sha is symptomatic of this malaise.
Leave aside these hyperboles, but the irony does not end here. Not so long ago, our new Rajya Sabha MP, Leishemba Sanajaoba, opened his speech making accounts in Parliament timidly reading out a few lines about his intent to campaign to make Kangla a world heritage site. It made little or no stir in Parliament and probably was treated as token time awarded to little heard and inarticulate voices, but at home the event was sought to be amplified through the local media with some degree of success. Well, there should be no prizes for guessing that it is the UNESCO which identifies such sites and it takes cognizance of only true heritages, not fabricated or refashioned ones. Our leaders should have also known that about 15 years ago while Prof. Nalini Thakur of the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, was engaged as a consultant in the renovation of the Kangla after the Assam Rifles vacated it, such a campaign had been initiated, but UNESCO had kept Kangla’s case in abeyance as there were already too many modern artifacts and structures within it’s complex. And now, with even Kangla Sha wilfully modified on false presumptions, Kangla’s chance of ever gaining world heritage site status will diminish even more. A little caveat here is necessary. If the government’s advisers were convinced the Kangla Sha replicas needed to undergo some corrective changes in structure to rectify a possible misinterpretation in rebuilding them, as R.K. Nimai pointed out in an article recently, there are certain established international protocols and standards for such modifications of cultural artifacts, if at all they must remain as cultural artifacts in the eyes of the world. Why were these protocols not paid heed to?
But let us not lose heart or think Manipur’s cultural and historical heritages are far short of international standard. Manipur already has a bit of its heritage in the UNESCO’s list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”. In 2013, UNESCO accepted Manipur’s Natsankirtana, which it defines as devotional “ritual singing, dancing and drumming” as a world heritage. Natsankirtana, as we know is very much a living culture, therefore still evolving, unlike static heritages like Kangla or Kangla Sha. What can be surmised from this is, UNESCO allows, and reasonably too, evolutionary changes living cultures undergo, as any living organism would. But making insensitive, dramatic, artificial changes to static monuments would amount to killing (or murdering if you like), the heritage contents in them, leaving them hollow and meaningless from this vantage. Natsankirtana, which includes the Pung Chollom, we also know is a gift from the supremely artistic King Bheigyachandra or Jai Sing or Chingthungkhomba, besides his other choreographic wonder, Raas Lila. This is what great leaders and their legacy have been about. Let the present generation leaders’ legacy be not about defacing and desecrating these. Those interested may take a look at UNESCO’s statement on Natsankirtana READ HERE.
(Note: very interestingly, these numerous aliases for important personalities is a legacy Manipur shares with Myanmar. Thant Myint-U describes this tradition in his country in his latest book “The Hidden History of Burma”).
It is not too late yet. If the government’s advisors are unable to defend their counsel other than using illegally plagiarised photographs, they must swallow their pride and make amends. The two defaced Kangla Sha are replicas, therefore should be no problem being restored to be again the true copies of their originals. The originals were blasted with canons in 1891 by Lt. Col. H. P. John Maxwell who led the Tamu Column of the British forces in the 1891 war and were the first to enter Kangla ahead of the Kohima and Silchar Columns, in what was a terse and brutal customary message of colonisers to colonised people that even the latter’s protector Gods would not be able to stand up against their new masters’ might. As a reminder to those responsible for advising the alteration of Kangla Sha, here is how scandalised the late Imasi M.K. Binodini was about three decades ago when one day she confronted the century old Thangal Temple newly renovated to give it a modern look READ HERE.
There is another observation to be made here. As I mentioned earlier in this essay, not all monuments are restricted to their archival museum legacy values. Many of them continue to be living instittions, still used with definite functionalities, therefore having to meet constant demands for changes to suit changing needs. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in Myanmar, where static monuments and ruins of Buddhist pagodas from the past rub shoulders with pagodas still thronged as places of worship by the faithfuls. These have also seen constant renovations and upgradations. Many hilltop pagodas now have electronic lifts to take devotees up, larger sitting areas, modern lighting, neon illuminated buddhas. In Manipur too, nobody will raise an eyebrow if Govindaji Temple or Manipur Baptist Convention, MBC, and such other living institutions were to undergo upgradations according to their changing needs,
unless proposed changes are felt to be garish. But attempts to renovate, say for instance Willong Khullen’s stone monoliths or Kangla will surely need much wider consultations and consensus of not just local communities, but also national and international bodies such as UNESCO, for these monuments have risen above the immediate and local, and are poised to be heritages of humanity, if not so already.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author