Peace Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi -Manipuri Indian?
Aung San Suu Kyi
Date: November 03, 2009 10:32PM
There is an estimated 40,000 people of Meitei origin in Myanmar, according to a Myannmar Indian Embassy official, most of them concentrated around Mandalay, the old seat of power of the erstwhile kingdom of Ava. Of these only about 3, 000 have remained as Meiteis, speaking Manipuri, refusing to intermarry, refusing to give up their Hindu faith, refusing to eat meat, retaining their Hindu names, and all these for nearly 200 years now, since the time in the chapter in Manipur’s history written in letters of blood known as “Chahi Taret Khuntakpa” (Seven Years of Devastation) in which the powerful army of Ava, early in the 19th Century, invaded and occupied Manipur and Assam, brutally suppressing their people. They were probably taken away because they were skilled labour, and the most favoured amongst them were the Bamons, whose horoscope writing and fortune telling skills were prized in the land of Ava. It is not surprising then that the 3,000 still holding their own, and in the process reserving small pockets of lands in the wide sweltering plains of tropical Myanmar to remain as Manipur forever, are Bamons.
The last dynasty that ruled the kingdom of Ava, the Konbaung, shifted capitals four times from Shwebo to Ava to Amarpura and finally to Mandalay, all within 20 km of each other.
The fortuneteller’s privileged position in the Ava kingdom is not far to decipher why. Of the many things that people in Myanmar share with Manipur, and for that matter most of the northeast region, is the belief in spirits, some good and others evil. Even today, despite Buddhism, or Christianity in the case of the hill ethnic communities other than the Burmans, still worship these spirits or “Nat” in Myanmarese. This “Nat”, as we could gather during our short stay in the country is strikingly similarly to what the Meiteis also refer to as “Ipa Nat, Ipu Nat”, (spirit of ancestors). Again, Myanmarese, like much of the Hindu world, believe in the influence of planetary movements and positions on the fortunes of individuals.
We had a difficult time locating the settlement areas of the Meiteis in Mandalay, precisely because they are not known as Meiteis or Manipuris locally. For reasons we did not have the time seek a satisfactory answer, they have come to be referred to as the Paona community. When we did finally arrive at a Paona settlement, we got off our taxi and queried a group of young men in the typical Myanmarese lungi if they know of a Meitei colony nearby. One of them, Brajabasi by name, said to our delightful amazement “Eisu bamon-ni. Si Bamon Leikai-ni.”(I am a Bamon. This is a Bamon colony). He was also visibly excited to see us and promptly took us to elderly Eigya Sayacharan’s homestead.
It was a typical Meitei-Bamon home. The house faced east with a courtyard in front and a tulsi plant in the middle of it. There were other houses adjacent to it, all also facing east. At the southern flank of courtyard is a temple with an extended portico (mandap) that took up two thirds of the courtyard space. Pictures from Hindu myths decorated the inside of the eaves hanging from the ceiling of the portico. A bell tower next to the mandap consisting of two brick pillars between which suspended a heavy bell with a string attached to the ringer extending to the ground, overlooked the entire complex. With a few modifications, it could have residential setup in Imphal’s many Bamon Leikais.
We were invited to enter Eigya Sayacharan’s house. We removed our shoes before we climbed the verandah. One of Eigya’s sons entreated us not to take the trouble in a Manipuri that showed the antiquity of the 200 years that have lapsed since his immediate forefathers lost contact with Manipur.
“Khurum yai,” (footwears allowed) he gestured. We removed our shoes nevertheless, assuming quite correctly it was only the demands of courtesy that made him say so.
The feeling was of entering a time warp and being thrown back 200 years into the past. For 200 years, because of momentous shifts in regional as well as global politics, these Meitei-Bamons remained totally cut off from their original homeland, Manipur. In a phenomenon that would be of immense interest to any researcher into the mystique of identity, this small community put up a strong resistance against all odds to preserve their distinct identity for all of two centuries. It is also interesting that while the Bamons have fought on to remain distinct, the non-Bamon Meiteis dropped the resistance gradually and have come to be merged to the sea of Myanmarese all around. Even the Bamons today maintain official Myanmarese names and their Meitei names are for use within their community only, but they have made the latter a ritualistic compulsion.
One explanation is that Brahimins (Bamons) being not a warrior class, they did not suffer from prosecution or overbearing vigilance under the Ava kings as the non-Bamon Meiteis who were much more warlike. The latter were hence under much greater pressures to conform to the Ava society and culture for their own survival.
The Meitei-Bamon community in Myanmar would have remained much bigger if not for the puritanical manner they have been maintaining the purity of blood line. Anybody who marries outside the community, girl or boy, is excommunicated and outcast. The community has shrunk because of this, but this has kept their identity intact.
“This is essential as otherwise we would have vanish from the face of the earth long ago,” said Eigya Sayacharan.
But this has given rise to certain foreseeable problems. One of these is the growing difficulty young men and women in finding suitable matches for themselves within the community as Meitei custom forbids intermarriage between anybody within seven generations of blood kinship. Hence a lot have chosen to remain single rather than marry outside the community and give up their Meitei identity.
What is it that gave them the strength to put up such a heroic resistance for so long?
“A burning love for Manipur, the home of our ancestors.” Eigya said, in what may be one of the most touching tributes to the Meitei identity and its tremendous survival instinct.
The odds that Eigya Sayacharan’s generation and so too all generations of orthodox, zealous, new convert Hindu Meiteis before him would have faced, is visible even today. Just the example of food habit of the place should be able to give a picture of the magnitude of this disconcertment. Myanmar is a country difficult for vegetarians. A Marwari lady who traveled with us, complained she had to do without a morsel of food for two complete days on our extended return bus journey for she did not find a single vegetarian restaurant on the way.
True to her words, everywhere we stopped to eat, there was not a single eating place which did not have all kinds of cooked, exotic meat displayed prominently at the entrance. These included beef, dog meat, pork, birds and fishes of all shapes and sizes strung up on long thin bamboo spikes. At some place there dried jungle cats and venison available. The difficulty that the Marwari lady went through for two days was what 10 generations of non-conforming, orthodox Meiteis Hindus would have had to live with and overcome.
Surprisingly, not many of the Meiteis in Mandalay we met were clear about how they came to be living in Myanmar. They have an abiding memory of Manipur as their ancestral land of milk and honey, but only very vague recall such events as the Chahi Taret Khundakpa.
On the other hand, how would they? After all, Myanmarese school and college history curriculums give very scant space and attention to this chapter of their history. When we reminded them of our understanding of this period of our common history, all they could say was that such and such teacher also said so.
This is a summary of how Peace Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi deals with the chapter in her primer of Myanmar (Burma by her preference) history, geography and demography, titled “Let’s Visit Burma”:
“In 1635, the Burmese kings moved their capital to Ava. The following century brought a tangle of troubles with the Shans, the Chinese, the Thais, the Mons and the Indian border state of Manipur. A rebellion started in lower Burma in 1740. In 1752 a force of Mons burnt Ava and took the king prisoner. The Toungoo dunasty had come to an end.”
(The event was also the beginning of the Konbaung dynasty. This dynasty brought the third unification of Burma and also was at the helm when the “Chahi Taret Khuntakpa” happened.)
“The first Konbaung kings were strong and warlike. Arakan was brought into the Burmese kingdom. Manipur and Assam on the Indian border became vassal states. There were also many wars with the Thais. But the old pattern of neighbouring kingdoms fighting for supremacy had been altered by the coming of the Europeans….. However, it was in 1824 that the first Anglo-Burmese War broke out, over Manipur and Assam. The Burmese could not hold out against the modern military equipment of the British. As a result of the defeat, Burma had to give up its claims to Manipur and Assam.”
Before leaving the Mandalay Bamon Leikai, the entire executive committee of the Gundija Mandir, the community temple, came out to bid us adieu. They made one request to me to send them a copy of a contemporary Manipuri to English dictionary after I reach Imphal. I promised I would. It is one promise I would not dare not keep.