Image and Narrative points contributed by Koshyelsaang Khaling, Manipur
IMP Research Intern : Vaskar Mech, Tezpur, Assam
Wearing a Metei (Manipuri) turban called Khamenchep meant for royal ministers, and wrapped in a deep red embroidered shawl is this portrait of my grandfather, Konai Lam Senapati, taken during the 1940s.
My grandfather was born around 1892, in a village / community tribe called Khoibu, and grew up to become a traditional healer, a black magician – in other words he was a Shaman. And so he would travel around the terrain, healing, and solving people’s health and personal problems. The reputation of a healer depended upon how many spirits they controlled. These spirits would do the shaman’s bidding, like heal people, or ward off famines.
On one such general visit to Imphal (Princely state Manipur’s capital), during the 1930s, he was informed that the queen of Manipur was quite sick, and the King – Maharaja Churachand’s staff were looking for a healer. My grandfather was roped in, only to find himself cornered into a conundrum : if his Queen healed, the Maharaja would reward my grandfather; if she did not, he would be beheaded.
My grandfather did the best he could, channeling all his knowledge, chanting healing incantations and performing rituals and ceremonies. And a few days later, when he was done, he returned home, probably with both hope and fear. Weeks later, when the royal soldiers came looking for him, everyone was terrified. But fortunately for my grandfather, it turned out that the Queen had healed and the Maharaja was ready to bestow on his promise. His family and the village folk were overjoyed.
In Imphal, the Maharaja gave my grandfather two choices of reward – my grandfather could either have acres of land in the capital Imphal – for him and his community (Khoibu), or he could have the position of a royal minister – the Senapati (Senapati in princely Manipur was not the position of an Army General, but rather an administrative post. The ruling Meiteis were quite influenced by Hinduism and Bengali culture, and the term Senapati was erroneously used.)
My grandfather chose the first option – ownership of land for himself and his community, and returned back to his village to tell everyone the great news. Shockingly, the village elders refused and even went as far as to mock him for a stupid decision. Tribal people from the hills were ill-suited for a life in the plains, and that too in Imphal. So my grandfather instead accepted the second option – to become a royal minister. And that is how he became Konai Lam Senapati (Lam means land) – the administrative head of the Eastern lands of the Kingdom. When he returned home from Imphal after becoming Lam Senapati, it was on a royal palanquin with a procession, as the king had ordered. Along the way, gold and silver coins were flung out in celebration. My grandfather became a well established shaman, reputed to control hundreds of spirits. He would be found seated under the royal umbrella discussing important matters with Khoibu village elders and head priest. He would walk around with an extraordinary book of spells, mantras, incantations, and rituals, written in a script used only for ritualistic practices, and not for education or administration.
Interestingly, the land offer by the king somehow remained on the table and was eventually given to two tribes – mine, the Khoibu and another known as Maring. We came to be known as Checkon Maringlane.
Many tribal villages in Manipur, including ours, had retained their Independence from the main kingdom, but in exchange for tributes and free labour for the Maharaja. The men sent from villages to work as part of the agreement were often subjected to strenuous work- like hauling heavy teak wood from Burma to build racing boats for the King (a long Manipuri tradition of boat racing, called Hiyang Tannaba ) and many died of sickness and poor working conditions. So one of the things my grandfather decided to do for his community, as a Lam Senapati, was to have our village released of any obligation to the Maharaja.
The situation had to be dealt with tact and intelligence, and so my grandfather declared the village to be a sacred site known as Khoibu Nongmaiching. He convinced the King and his ministers that since Khoibu was now a sacred site, the village people were the guardians of the deity and it would displease the deity greatly if her/his men were sent off for strenuous manual labour. The Meitei Manipuri monarchy was Hindu, but like so many tribes around the world, had retained their indigenous beliefs and gods. They would not dare anger the god. And so it was agreed : The men were freed of any labour for the king. The village was happy, and in return, my grandfather requested one basket-full of rice from each household in the village annually, as a tribute for freeing the people from the Maharaja’s labour. Surprisingly, some agreed, but some did not – fearing the imperative to pay his future generations as well. Nonetheless, my grandfather didn’t force anyone to do so.
The story of his own family was that my grandfather had six daughters and one son from his first wife, but when his only son passed away, his wife told him to remarry to have more sons, to continue his lineage. With the second wife, he had three sons and one daughter. Unfortunately two of his three sons also passed away, leaving him with only one son. His community shook heads in pity and told him having one son was akin to having a single match stick in the rainstorm. And so with mounting pressure to bear more sons, he married once again, and the third wife bore him two sons and one daughter. I am the second grandson of the second son of his third wife. My grandfather’s lineage lived on with sons and daughters, and he came to be known as the famous Paatei Senapati, or Grandfather Senapati. Professionally he went on to serve under the next and the last King of Manipur, Maharaja Bodhachandra.
Before the 20th century, several attempts were made by Christianity missionaries to establish themselves in Manipur, but were not permitted to even enter the state – our people had followed our own indigenous religion, and prayed to Um- an invisible omnipresent force. No one was going to be allowed to challenge that. Moreover, since the revolt of 1857, the British had learnt their lesson to remain neutral on any religious matters in princely states. But by 1945 the situation had changed and the missionaries doubled down on their efforts to spread the goodness of Christianity. Life and situations had changed for so many that it had our people find enough merit to convert to Christianity. By the 1960s, our entire community had converted to Christianity, including the healers/ black magicians, and yes, including my grandfather, a few years before his death. Like other black magicians, he had to either choose a successor for the spirits he controlled, or liberate them all. Else the spirits would wreck havoc on the descendants of their deceased master. When my grandfather converted, he freed the spirits, and the giant book of rituals was burnt, for it was a dangerous object in uninitiated hands. There were to be no successors to his supernatural legacy.
When Manipur too, became Independent, in 1947, with the British having left on August 14, a day before their official exit from India – Manipur found itself as an independent country and held its first national democratic elections with universal adult franchise in the Indian subcontinent in 1948. My grandfather stood in that election, but lost to unfair means. He then challenged the result and won the electoral case, but by then Manipur was already on its way to a new decision – to become a part of the Indian union. And so he continued to work for the people, establishing the first primary school in the village, and a bus service from Imphal to Heirok hill range- at the foothills of our Khoibu village. Among all our tribes of the region, his eldest son, my uncle, became the first college graduate.
Khoibu, our tribe is a small one – around 2000 people, living across 10-12 villages. But until a couple of hundred years ago, we had many more villages to our tribe. Unfortunately, the Burmese invasions under the Konbaung dynasty of Burma in the 18th century, burnt and pillaged them all. Whatever remained of these villages were destroyed by the Burmese raids of the early 1800s before the Yandaboo treaty of 1826. Two villages, Khoibu and Noinat survived the invasions, but then Noinat got wiped out in a war with a neighbouring Tangkhul village, leaving only us, the singular Khoibu village.
Until 1956, our tribe unlike other tribes, was literally just one village and we were listed as a scheduled tribe in the Indian constitution, but then we got dropped from that list when the government surveyors failed to locate our village, and the Khoibu people were unaware of any such survey to even be able to send their representatives. Now in 2021, on paper, we have merged with the Maring tribe, but we are still trying to gain recognition as a separate tribe, and with some headway.
A few years ago, while browsing an online genealogy forum, my cousin brother chanced upon another photograph of my grandfather. Taken around 1942, it had been uploaded on the forum by a lady who found the photograph in her father in law’s papers – He had served as the KOYLI (King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry) and participated in the Burmese expedition during WWII. We figured that perhaps he met my grandfather while travelling to Burma (now Myanmar) from Indian territory – crossing our ancestral village Khoibu that lay not too far from the present day India Myanmar border. My grandfather’s image and influence lives through his family, and photographs taken by strangers who passed by our land. That we discovered his photographs by chance, and were propelled to tell our story – we imagine, could be his great shamanic influence.
The addition of this Photo-Narrative to the archive has been made possible due to the generous consideration towards Research Internships by Nazar Foundation, New Delhi.
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