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Illustrated Manuscript of Dakhinpat Satra-Wikimedia commons
The pre-Vaishnava faith system of the Meitei primarily centered around reverence for nature, ancestors, and fertility deities collectively referred to as Umang lais. In this discussion, I simply call as the “Meitei religion,” aligning it with the practices of the Hindu group known as the Meiteis. Nevertheless, the Meitei religion was far from homogeneous, as it incorporated a diverse array of practices, deities, and beliefs amalgamated over numerous centuries due to migrations into the valley and conflicts among different clans.`
The valley hosted seven major clans, referred to as yek or salai : Khaba, Chenglei, Luwang, Khuman, Moirang, Angom, and Ningthouja. These mergers were motivated by various factors such as trade links, gaining access to agricultural resources, and reaping the benefits of economies of scale. Positioned strategically at the confluence of a south-flowing river system and along the Silk Road in the pre-maritime era, Manipur played a pivotal role in facilitating trade. The valley’s river system served as a conduit for the seamless transportation of goods, including pottery and ceramics, from Chairel, the southernmost point in the valley, to the capital, Imphal.
The kings of the period from 1467 to 1697 did not adopt any Vaishnava sampradaya formally. It is only when King Pitambar Charai Rongba ascended to throne 1697 AD. In 1704 AD that a ruler formally embraced a sampradaya for the very first time. This was the first step towards royal patronage of a belief system.
The second stage began with the reign of King Pamheiba also known as Garibniwaz (1709-1748 AD.) meaning “saviour of the poor,” because of his practice of personally distributing paddy to the poor. He is known for his successful military expeditions and for extending the boundaries of Manipur after wars with Burmese kings in 1724, 1737, and 1738. The reign of Garibniwaz reflects a series of transformations between the different sects of Hinduism.
Manipur Valley witnessed the arrival of three distinct Vaishnava schools at different points in time, each leaving a unique imprint on the socio-cultural fabric of the Meitei society, which was then characterized by polytheistic practices. The Nimbarka school was the earliest entrant, but it was the subsequent influx of the Ramanandi and the Chaitanya Gaudiya schools of Vaishnava sampradaya that significantly altered the religious landscape of the Meiteis in Manipur.
The Cheitharol Kumpapa tells us that Ramanandi Vaishnava school was introduced through the medium of Santa Das Gosai, a devotee of Rama who came to Manipur from Sylhet (now located in Bangladesh) around 1720. As noted earlier, the tribal groups brought together by the Ningthouja clan showcased a mosaic of ethnicities, languages, and religious beliefs. In the pursuit of state formation, Garibniwaz strategically emphasized the notion of a preeminent religio-political authority, a theocracy, that his people should recognize and unite under. The decision to align Manipur with a Hindu religious tradition was pragmatic, given that neighboring realms such as Assam, Tripura, and Cachar had already incorporated aspects of Hinduism by the 18th century. Furthermore, considering that Garibniwaz’s primary adversaries during this era were the Burmese Buddhists, the choice to align with a Hindu tradition gained additional rationale.
Bhagyachandra-The Devout King
Following the Burmese invasion of Manipur in 1764 led by King Hsinbyushin (r. 1763–1776), the defeated Bhagyacandra sought refuge in Cachar. During the period between 1764 and 1765, Bhagyachandra underwent initiation into Gaudiya Vaishnava school. As recorded in the Tungkhungia Buranji, the royal chronicle of Assam, King Rajeshwar Singha’s minister Kritichandra Barbarua advised the king to support Bhagyachandra due to the latter’s perceived mythical ancestral ties to Babruvahana, stemming from the union between Arjuna and the Manipuri princess Chitrangada in the Mahabharata. This account suggests that, by this juncture, claims of lineage to central Mahābhārata figures such as Arjuna were already widely known and firmly established. To propagate this newfound faith, the king introduced Bhagvata Purana manuscripts from Assam, popularizing the Bhagvata Purana in Manipur.
Once reinstated as king, Bhagyachandra consolidated his sovereignty, and unified his people under a new religious framework. The pan-Indian appeal of Vaishnava practices and belief system was used by Bhagyachandra to forge political alliances with Assam and establish Manipur as a regional political and cultural powerhouse. King Bhagyachandra made expert use of Vaishnava schools as a potent tool in his quest for political legitimacy.
Garibniwaz and Bhagyachandra, both, played crucial roles in the transformation of religion and politics in Manipur by initiating refashioning of society, practices and culture and thereby transforming Manipur into a Vaishnava kingdom.
We note that the two powerful Manipuri monarchs, Garibniwaz and Bhagyachandra embarked on a mission to reshape their region’s polytheistic landscape as they negotiated this in the face of increased interactions with other Indian states and tensions with Burma. On the one hand, Garibniwaz, in pursuit of bolstering his military might, aligned himself with the Ramanandi Vaishnava tradition, perceiving it as a potent method to achieve his objectives. He rebranded his kingship, presenting himself as both a warrior king and a devout follower of Rama.
In contrast, Bhagyachandra pursued a distinctive approach, aligning himself with the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition. He built his reign on the bedrock of devotion to Krishna and support for polytheistic traditions. Through meticulous curation of a harmonious religious framework, Bhagyachandra significantly redefined Manipur’s monarchy and societal norms for future generations. This twofold patronage adeptly guided socio-cultural changes in Manipur and fostered a seamless fusion of religious and political elements, contributing to enhanced stability and endurance for the state.
Their religious affiliations notwithstanding, both kings contributed to the evolution of cultural performances that Manipur is renowned for today, such as the Manipuri Raas and the Nata Sankirtana.
Both kings constructed sovereignties based on religion and from this position, neither diverged. Gradually a deeper synthesis between the traditional practices and Hinduism came about. This synthesis characterizes the present-day Meitei practices.
With royal patronage many religious texts were translated as well as adapted into local flavour. These religious texts had a profound impact on people as they were not just confined to the courts but also performed and propagated through worship rituals, made available to public through the unique art of Manipuri Raas and Nata Sankirtana. These cultural productions gave rise to an entire tradition that was to flourish for centuries to come. More on this later…
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