Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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There Are Immense Possibilities for Manipuri Textiles and Handicrafts in the Export Market

Manipur is a land famous for rich artistic and aesthetic cultural history and mysticism, where Mother Nature is extra bountiful in her generosity of flora and fauna. Before inclusion in the Indian sub-continent, Manipur was a sovereign nation, ruled by powerful kings with 2000 years  history of achievements which is in par with the 10 Ancient world civilisations – the Mesopotamian civilisation – the first civilisation that emerged in human history, the Indus valley civilisation, the Inca, the Maya, the Aztec, the Norte Chico, the Jiahu, the ancient Roman, the ancient Egyptian and the ancient China, which had silk trade with Manipur up to UAE in olden times. The state was a much civilised, self-sustained land, with customary land laws, script, rites and rituals, oldest religion on earth – Sanamahism, ethnic festivals, ethnic dresses, costumes, jewelleries and handicrafts, each adorned with mythological oral or written stories.

The origin of the textile of Meitei, who inhabit the central Manipur valley is enwrapped in myths, legends and popular beliefs. According to the manuscript LEINUNGLON PUYA, the Supreme goddess Leimarel introduced the art of weaving in the mythological times. The manuscript mentions that Tamitnu, one of the seven primeval celestial ancestors of the Meitei, produced cotton for manufacturing cloth.

According to Meitei belief, the first female dress is the Chinphi phanek (sarong type lower wrapper), the Laiphi, Sathopa Ngathokpa phanek (lower wrapper of Goddess Konthoujam Lairembi), Konthoujam village, Imphal West. The first male dress is the Khwangli Laikhal – a sort of thong with a front hanging, for covering the frontal lower part of male body from the waist. The mythical foundation of dress and costume of the Meitei finds expression in the narrative performance of the maibis (priestess) who enact the entire process of creation of the Universe of Earth and of living beings, of human settlement and their physical possessions, cultivation and plucking of cotton up to weaving of cloth, dedicating to Lainingthou (God), through ritual dance – PAM YANBA – with songs, as a part of the sacred annual UMANGLAI HARAOBA ritualistic festival.

The fact that Meiteis used various cloth types, for different occasions can be found in PUYAs (written manuscript). Legends, folk tales also clearly indicate that various items needed for weaving numbering to hundred namely Khwang-Iyong and Pang-Iyong, Tawot, Tamang etc. were included as dowries when a girl is married. Unmarried girls of a particular locality brought spinning charkha set – Tareng and yarns, and assembled in Ningol-ka (daughters room), in the traditional Meitei House – Meitei Yumjao and spun till late at night, in a sort of competition, for bringing out the best product.

The early traditional clothes made from Kabrang – (a silk variety) and cotton are found at special areas of Ngangkha-lawai and Ningthoukhong, preserved by people, from early period with great care and reverence, from generation to generation, belonging to 11th Century. In addition to weaving different varieties of clothes with cotton and silk yarn, KABRANG –TIL/Mulberry silk worms were also reared to produce silk fibres.

Clothes made of Kabrang (a silk variety), are still preserved in the shrines of Umanglai (Sylvan deity), museums and custodies of individual collections. From writings of Meitei manuscript – NINGTHOU PHI SHABANE (kings royal cloth made), woven clothes with patterns made of Kabrang silk were fairly used in Manipur during the reign of Meidingu Khuyoi Tompok in 2nd century A.D. Male weavers used to come to the weaving house of the Royal Palace if a particular cloth was to be made for the kings and queens.

Such weaving with the yarn dyed, by adopting patterns from the skin of LAIREN HANGKOK (the legendary Ancestral Python), without making any error, the cloth was woven in seven months, the faithful weaver – Khoiyan – carefully measured and cut the cloth with Khoirel –Thang-a sharp knife used for cutting umbilical cord of just born baby. While the girls and women exercised weaving, it was meant for personal use and no textile business was practiced. Though records are available for the prevalence of relationship between Manipur and South East Asian countries from early times, we do not find any development of textile business with other countries. Chinese silk which was the most important item of all trades of Manipur and other countries who passed through the hilly routes was exchanged with European gold so that it could be sold at Afghanistan markets. But though there was no textile business, the Meitei women of Amarpura, Myanmar near the Pagodas introduced patterns known as Achieck or Burmese National cloth, a royal cloth after the Meiteis settled at Myanmar in eighteenth century, assigning Meitei women particularly for the production of silk clothes. Thus when the relation between Manipur and Britain was started in 1763 A.D. The clear mention of giving silk to the East India Company by King Goura-Shai of Manipur shows that  silk was widely produced. And in 1927, Maharani Dhanamanjuri, the queen of Manipur, founded a weaving centre known as Art and Crafts, with Mrs.E.M.Jolly. Maibang and Tindongbi  cloth patterns  are modified and woven and cushion covers, breakfast table napkins, dressing gown, dinner table mats etc. were produced and exported to Europe, Australia and Africa with much demand. In the Manipur home Industry, established 1936, export of textiles were attempted. In 19th Century, Myanmar Meiteis were popular for their silk weaving skills and production of silk. During 2nd World War, a bombing incident in 1942, the Art and Craft weaving centre was closed forever.

According to the cultural history of the Meitei, the Ningkham Samjin items of dress, as seen worn by the male dancer in Khamba Thoibi dance are believed to have been introduced by King Meidingu Khuyoi Tompok. Samjin is elaborately decorated headgear piece with frontal and back hanging of interlaced needlework with tassel ends and the Ningkham is the triangular wrapper around the waist of the dancer, with an appliquéd border in L shape. The design pattern of the Samjin is said to be conceived from the horn and head portion of the mythical serpent god of Meitei – Lord Pakhangda.

During the reign of Khuyoi Tompok, his celestial father Pakhangba visited his consort Laisana, mother of Khuyoi Tompok, in his manifestation as a serpent-god. Khui Tompok, at the instigation of Huitou Khaba Tou-suba, an arch enemy of the Ningthouja royal clan, unknowingly speared Pakhangba to death. When Laisana learnt of the death of her husband, she asked the royal scholars LANGOL KURUMBA and MARING LAHANGMBA to design dress items taking the patterns from the body of the serpent-god. The Samjin was one such dress item. Ningkham Samjin dress items are worn by the male performers as ceremonial costumes during ritualistic festival LAI HARAOBA and other ceremonial occasions as wrappers around the waist covering the back portion.

The traditional patterned KHAMEN CHATPA male loin dress is believed to have been introduced by Khui Tompok. The KHAMEN CHATPA dress item worn by the royalty, noblemen, courtiers and other privileged persons, is a special kind of reward cloth awarded by the monarch to the deserving individuals like victorious generals and eminent scholars etc. The interesting feature of this cloth is the scrolled patterns impressed on white base of the PHEIJOM (Dhoti).There are different designs and colour scheme of this loin cloth according to 7 clans of Meitei – Mangang (Ningthouja), Luwang, Khuman, Moirang, Angom, Khaba Nganba, Sarang Leisangthem (Chenglei).

Manipuri textiles were developed particularly in the medieval period of history. Silk embroidery on base of silk or cotton highlights the essence of the clothing used by the royalty. The fish motif seen in the shirting style used by Meidingu Chingthangkhomba Maharaj in the 18th Century A.D. has suggestions of impressions taken from the textile designs of neighbouring countries like China. The Manipur kings had military and other social connections with kingdoms in Burma, China and Thailand during the medieval times.

Another remarkable textile item of the Meitei is the SHAMEE LANMEE. This is a reward shawl given by the king to outstanding tribal chiefs and warriors who exhibited bravery in battles and great deeds. The floral and animal motifs are embroidered by the hand on the black base. Each motif carries its own meaning and interpretation, some of which relate to oral history of the state. The different ethnic tribes settling on the hill areas of Manipur and Khurkhul, Pheiyeng, Tairenpokpi, Lamlongei  etc. of Lamsang district, Imphal West; at Andro, Kakching, Heirok, Khangabaok  etc. in Imphal West, Thoubal district, Ningthoukhong  and Ngaikhong village, Bishnupur etc., too have an amazing array of textile items. Each tribe has its own peculiar and characteristic dress designs for which either impressions are taken from nature or indigenously developed with choice of colour schemes and ornamentation. Primary colours like red, black, green, blue and yellow, mostly hot colours dominate their dress.

Different items of ordinary and ceremonial uses are adorned by MEITEI men and women according to the difference of social and religious celebration or observation. The PHANEK is the most common loin garment worn by women, with dressing style differing according to marital status. The striped Phanek with motifs of Khoi or circular patterns denominating concepts of fertility decorate the borders of the garment worn by women for ceremonial occasions like birth and marriage rituals. For death and religious rituals, women wore light carrot colour PHANEK without border and white plain cotton Inaphi or chadder. Women in the uplands wear Phanek without the embroidered khoi, Hijamayek or other designs, thus distinguishing them from women in the plains.  Inaphi or chadder like cotton one Wangkhei-phi, originated from talented weaver households of Wangkhei, an  area, near to MANIPUR ROYAL  PALACE and  silk fine chadders known as Engineer-phi, S.O.-phi, Raniphi named after the National Awardee late Ima Rani, silk saris, muga Phanek Inaphi suit are also very popular after the 1990s in and outside the state.

The other important dress for women are  fine, striped border embroidered woollen or  muga phanek and muga inaphi, both in thick and fine thin forms, and unstriped  Moirangphi border suit (temple design-derived from teeth of python-God Pakhangba in Meitei belief and Orissa temple tops by some cultural researchers nowadays) in various colour, pattern and particularly worn during feasts, namely Mangani-Chakouba Bridal feast (5th day bridal feast of the bride by the paternal family) with much celebration like shoe hiding of groom, monetary gift in exchange and special gifts for bride and groom etc. The scheduled caste village of Khurkhul is well-known for production of silk yarn and variety of clothes for male and females. SILK PRODUCTS of Manipur like silk sari, male dhotis, chunnies, stole and shirtings are equally   popular in Manipur and outside of the state too.

In modern day context, marketable Manipuri textiles include the silk products like sari, shirting, as well as Rani-phi, Wangkhei-phi, Leirum-phi, Leirum lengyan, kabrang muga-fi, khudei, khudei-matek, Zero muga  phanek inaphi suits, Russian muga suits, woollen phaneks, mateks, shirtings, shawl, polyester shirtings and phanek, Mapan naiba or Mayek naiba etc., marriage and dance costume POTLOI SET with bridal jewelleries, Radha krishna  dance costume and Khamba Thoibi dance costumes, and home furnishings, made ups and traditional, casual, formal apparels made from Manipuri handloom and powerloom textiles. More market value  is given to these textiles with support from handicraft or hand-made industry namely traditional hand, machine and digital embroidery, safi lanfi and applique, hand block printing, Bandhani, Batik, Kalamkari, 3D painting, embossing, pearl etc. painting.

To supplement on these handicrafts industry also plays a big role in marketing, with multi products of water reed, cane and bamboo items, wood crafts, dolls and toys and stone craft depicting historical and religious characters from Hindu and Meitei mythology which are locally popular and as souvenirs/mementos for tourists, pottery including Nungbi black pottery, knitted woollen shoes, mridanga straps, mambo musical instruments, brass and bell metal items, aluminium/brass/bell metal items, tulsi stem garland, multi-colour woollen yarn garland for temple and dance, ethnic gold and imitation gold plated jewelleries, cocoon jewellery.


Being breathtakingly beautiful and elegant, Manipuri textiles are wanted by people of the country outside Manipur and also very much globally demanded.  Meitei men and women wore the two flat pieces of handloom cloth as upper and lower body coverings, supported by blouse or shirt, with inaphi/chadder, stoles, chunnis or Lenyans. Women usually wore her inaphi or chadder with the right part covering the chest towards the left shoulder and fastened there with a safety pin, if the fabric is slippery or worn as half sari. Such elegant garments can also be worn in different styles by people of different states, like chunni by people of Punjab, Haryana, West Bengal, Delhi, Mumbai or anyone who wears Salwar suits. Likewise, it can be   transformed into a kurta, kurti or a nice shirt. Likewise, the woollen phaneks and shawls can be made into Salwar suits or winter kurta, pajama suits using two pieces. Likewise, western wear blazer, coat, jacket and waistcoat, trousers, long skirt and variety of shirt with different neckline and cut can be made from striped mayek naibi phanek.

Christians, Arabs, Africans etc. wear long robes of white or striped or coloured cloth as traditional dress. So also is Japanese or Chinese to cite a few. Nearer, Meghalaya Khasi use many lengths of cloth for their two-piece traditional dress. Such 3/4 piece dresses can be made from Manipuri textiles. Mexican Ponchos and stylish Crocs can be made from handloom woollen shawls woven by women in plains or in hills. Official dresses can also be made from woollen, zero silk and polyester clothes etc., woven on shuttle loom or power loom. As the yarn used are standard and strong, bedsheets, curtains can be used in making home furnishing like screen or room divider, sofa covers, housecoat, bazaar bags, file covers or floor mat, dining table mat, runner, kitchen glove, thermos flask or tiffin cover, face towels or  any utility item. Likewise, full length chequered khudei of males, lungi or big chequered khudei- matek, striped also in woven by variety of yarn and available in many colours can be made into shirts, curtains, and towels and exported. If the buyer wants a style statement or company logo, it can be printed, woven, embroidered appliquéd and painted. As mentioned above, Manipur has a huge variety of plants/insects all parts of the land which can be transformed into ideas/materials for innovative and useful crafts, new to Manipur, though they are practiced in many countries since many years ago.

Dry flowers in the original colour or dyed/sprayed form are in demand everywhere and in other countries by youths or affluent families or hotels/resorts/tourist lodges or showrooms as they are attractive and give a calming effect to the viewer. Leaves or roots, flowers, branches, buds  shrubs, climbers and trees, found mostly in villages, less inhabited places and hills, can be collected on a monthly basis in bulk, made into nice bunches or as single flowers or in bouquets. Coir mattresses are made from the skin of coconuts in southern states. Likewise, we can train mattress, pillow, and cushion artisans using them. Dried pine leaves, reed leaves and stems, straw, dried grass and dried leaves etc. Bamboo artisans make a variety of home furnishing, crockery, kitchen, gift and memento items along with musical instruments like flute and Pena. Busts made from bamboo root and Nungbi pottery are in hot demand everywhere. Woodcraft home items, statues, bamboo ply furniture industries, wax candle maker artisan etc. must be encouraged.


The upgrading and expansion and development of market outlets within Manipur and other parts of the country and abroad is essential  to continuous creation of supply chains for both textile and handicrafts. Market expansion will benefit the local weavers, artisans, workers, designers and entrepreneurs. It will highlight the potentials of local products in national and international markets. Encouraging Self Help Groups of local artisans and weavers is a must as bulk production is group activity.

The following are suggested as measures for growth of Manipuri textiles and handicrafts.

  1. Setting up of Handloom and Handicraft clusters in all 16 districts and monitoring it properly.
  2. Setting up of Common Facility Centres will help in boosting production of local products while also enhancing preference of tourists coming to the state.
  3. Raw material banks of different crafts, Yarn banks for weaving, Tool and kits banks are needed.
  4. Appropriate infrastructure and non-stop power supply with renewable solar energy.
  5. Advance state-of-the-art equipment, deputation of experienced and successful designers on a monthly basis must be imperative for innovation, diversification and market opening. Otherwise the products will be for local consumption mostly with minimum export.
  6. Opening of multi storied Malls, with escalators, lift system for textiles and handicrafts.
  7. Quality IT HUB for instant global link and surfing.
  8. Adequate financial assistance with Subsidy. Interest and Transport subsidy must be revived for machineries bought on loans and brought products taken out of the state.
  9. Health care centre and Child care centres working for mothers in the CFCs, a good library, Recreation parks with a good Cafe and an Auditorium for Discussions, Exhibitions and  Contests.
  10. Exposure visits inside the country and outside twice a year for artisans, weavers, entrepreneurs and Designers for sharing of knowledge, technology, trade exchange, partnership build up and export and import etc.

Above all,   the unused 1st floors of 3 IMA KEITHELS must be transformed into URBAN HAATs for weavers, artisans, designers and entrepreneurs. Being a business person of the thriving Paona Bazar, I have approached the concerned Mayor of Imphal Municipal Corporation in 2017, for allotment of all the vacant areas as shops, Showrooms and Malls and they have agreed to allot to the eligible organisations approved by the concerned Government of Manipur departments.

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