It is with dismay that Manipur’s identity crisis continues to haunt even to this day. This crisis exists at every level, but for the moment I will concentrate on how this scourge has still not left the Meitei community, and how it surfaces at practically every major community ritualistic celebration. Most recently we have seen this in the observance of Cheiraoba, the Meitei new year, and this was marked by two dates. It is known that the Meiteis turned Hindu only in the early 18th Century when their king, Pamheiba, who later adopted the name Garibaniwaz, came under the influence of missionaries of the Hindu Bhakti movement from Sylhet and decided to make Vaishnavism the state religion. The problem is, the Meiteis at the time already had a very strong national identity, with very well established administrative, economic, cultural, social and religious institutions, therefore bringing them in line with the new social and cultural order of the new way of life would have had to be traumatic, and we know it for certain from history, it did. The burning of the ancient books, puyas (1729) of the Meiteis not long after Pamheiba’s change of faith, the abolishment of the old Sanamahi religion, the replacement of the indigenous script (Mayek) by the Bengali script etc., are just some of the evidences of the turmoil at this turn of fortune. The problem would not have been so intractable had it not been for this memory of the old and passionate national identity, just as in the case of so many other smaller communities in the state who had much less problem turning to another religion – Christianity, in the early 20th Century.
In fact, the new order’s effort to erase all memories of the past continued even after three centuries had elapsed. Among the most pronounced evidences of this is the fact that Kongjom Day, which commemorates the final battle in which the Manipur kingdom was defeated by the British in 1891, till as late as the 1980s was a banned commemoration, kept alive in underground observations by revivalist and nationalist groups such as the Pan Manipur Youth League, the precursor of today’s Lamyanba Pakhang and Macha Leima. This is despite the fact that by 1891, Manipur was already very much Vaishnavite. At the subconscious level, the linkages between memories of the old nationalism and the religious revivalism was never seen as totally severed. Today, Khongjom Day is an official function celebrated with solemnity, participated not just by the government but also the constitutional head of state – the Governor. Whether this is a matter of co-option or reconciliation is a matter of opinion.
Lunar and Solar Calendars
The two Cheiraoba days, one following the lunar calendar and the other the solar calendar amongst the Meiteis is a legacy of this 300 year old friction. The lunar calendar is obviously the original as in the case of a majority of traditional agrarian communities throughout the world. The cyclic changes in the appearance of the moon – its waxing and waning phases, the regularity of full moon, moonless night (thasi), new moon etc., are visible to everyone everywhere in the world, hence it is small wonder that identical lunar calendars evolved amongst numerous indigenous communities. In fact, traditional celebration of the onset of Spring in India too is dominated by the lunar calendar date and not the solar one. In the Meitei lunar calendar Spring coincides with Sajibu month therefore the first day of Sajibu is treated as the beginning of a new year (Chei-raoba or Chahi [year] raoba/laoba [shout] or Year Announcement). On the solar calendar, the date is somewhat fixed on April 14, but can also be on April 13, or 15 because of the slight variation in the duration of the earth’s orbit time around the sun measured in terms of days (or rotations of the earth around its own axis). On the lunar calendar, the shift in the Cheiraoba date varies each year by as much as two weeks and this is because the earth’s revolution around the sun is measured in terms of the moon’s orbit around the earth and this tallies must less accurately. If in the solar calendar the discrepancy is adjusted by introducing a leap years every four years, in the lunar calendar, this is done by introducing the notion of void days (tatnaba numit) which is there every one or two months.
The scale for calibrating solar calendar requires a much higher degree of understanding of astronomy and coordinate geometry. From school geography we know the earth revolves around the sun in about 365 days and the earth also rotates around its own axis in about 24 hours. The moon also orbits around the earth in a little less than 28 days (one new moon to another new moon). The earth’s rotational axis is tilted at about 24.5 degrees relative to the plane of its revolution around the sun, although there is a slight wobble and the axis tilt can shift between 22.1 and 24.5, but a full wobble is completed every 26,000 years therefore insignificant for our present consideration. This tilt is what causes earth’s seasonal variations. If this tilt were not to be, earth would have had only one season. It is also because of this tilt that we see the gradual change in position of the sun’s path from winter to summer.
Sciences as Myth Buster
From this vantage, my contention has always been, there ought not to be any emotive association of the celebration of a new year with religious identity. If an appreciation of science can serve the purpose of conflict resolution, we can begin with this. Let us appreciate the poetry of the celebration of the onset of Spring, a season when the vegetative world begins to sprout new shoots after a long winter hibernation, heralding the start of another cycle of life, a phenomenon of utmost significance especially for all agrarian societies, whose destinies were once determined entirely by the fecundity of their annual crops. It should be a time to reflect on the wonder and bounties of life. It should also be a time for nostalgia of the agrarian past and be grateful we are what we are today because of such a past.
Cheiraoba also bring back the identity discussion again. No doubt about it that identity is important, but what exactly is the constituent of identity has been a subject of an eternal debate. There is a mystical quality about it, and some have used the onion analogy to conceptualise it. We do know what an onion is, but when we try to see what is at its core and start peeling it off layer by layer, you are left with nothing in the end.
But a more interesting analogy comes from a discussion flagged off by ancient Greek philosophers, Plato and before him, Heraclitus, but also picked up by later philosophers like Plutarch and still later by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. This paradox is that of the Ship of Theseus.
This mythology is about Theseus who sailed to the island of Crete to kill the monster Minotaur. The elated Greeks preserved the ship Theseus sailed but every year they also sailed in the ship to Crete as part of the celebration of the slaying of Minotaur. Every year, wear and tear made it necessary for some parts of the ship had to be replaced. The intriguing question posed by these philosophers was, as the ship was being rebuilt with new parts, at what point should the ship be considered to have ceased being the Ship of Theseus? What if at a point no original part of the ship remained, would te ship still be seen to possess its original identity?
Plutarch brought up a new challenge. What if all the original parts discarded progressively happened to be preserved, and out of them a new ship identical to the original was rebuilt? Which of the two ships, the one rebuilt with new parts and still in use, or the one rebuilt from the old discarded original part, be considered to the Ship of Theseus? The inferences are unambiguous. Identity is indeed mystical. Tangible material constituents are important but certainly not everything. Far from being fixed, it is also very much a fluid mental construct. It is very much the consequence of how someone or a community accommodates and overcomes new challenges thrown up by life. It is a continuity from the past, but not completely a legacy of the past. It is the sum total of what we are at any given point, and in it are the community’s past, present and outlooks for the future.
Identity in the end is a notion which needs to be refreshed and rebuilt periodically. If somebody has had a heart transplant, he may not be in the same health as before the transplant, but would he have lost his identity. If somebody adopts a child from another community, would that child not be entitled to the identity of the community his foster parents belong. Ernest Renan said in his famous essay “What is a Nation” that a nation is a daily plebiscite. Would somebody who has migrated away from is birthplace lose his identity? What about somebody who has migrated into the community and adopted the ways of the host community? We might borrow from this wisdom to say identity is equally a daily plebiscite. We should also remember that Manipur, especially the valley, has always been a melting pot of identities to become one in the course of a few generations. The names of many leikais and surnames of the Meiteis for instance suggest where they might have come from before becoming indigenised in the state. Ancient text such as Soraren Macha Khunkumba indicate the same. In all probability, a genome study would also confirm the truth behind these indications.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author