Amid the sound and fury emanating from more than two months of ethnic violence in the state of Manipur and Christian leaders crying foul of churches being burned and destroyed by Meitei mobs, the incidents of Meitei sacred spaces desecrated and claimed by the Kukis in recent past had been forgotten. Whatever be the provocation or circumstances, desecration and destruction of any sacred site having religious importance or churches or temples has to be condemned by one and all.
In the first 36 hours of the ethnic strife which began on May 3, around 249 churches were burnt along with several houses by rampaging mobs in several areas. This is indeed condemnable and not to be condoned. If we recall correctly, utmost restraint was shown by mobs across the valley during the June uprising of 2001 against the ceasefire agreement signed between GOI and NSCN-IM.
Not a single Naga house in the valley was attacked or burned and not even a single hair of the Nagas was touched. Instead, the mob turned against their own representatives and the Centre. Why? That is the question. Why is it happening now in the present clashes? Anger and retaliation is now directed against Kuki villages, houses and even churches. However, it would be wrong to jump to the conclusion that the present violence or retaliation against the Kukis is an attack on Christians or Christianity. One needs to introspect further.
As we said before, not all Meiteis are Hindus. There are many among them who have adopted Christianity and a minority still adhere to the indigenous faith. Yet, one must also realise that the particular brand of Hinduism being followed and practiced here is markedly different from that of mainland India. The ancient culture and value system of the Meiteis are deeply rooted in the Manipuri Vaishnavism which is practised here.
Pluralism is inherent in the Meitei society and it is evident in its culture and religious practices. In every Meitei home, whether a Hindu or otherwise, a sacred space in the south-western corner is reserved for Lainingthou Sanamahi, the reigning household god. As such, every Meitei home is considered a temple. Meiteis still celebrate the Lai Haraoba festival which is associated with the worship of traditional deities (Umang Lais or forest deities) and ancestors, and of creation myth and fertility rites.
Sacred groves are still maintained in the abode of the Umang Lais. It is believed that the gods held the first Lai Haraoba on Mount Koubru. A form of ancestor worship is also practised by the Meiteis during Apokpa Khurumba and Tarpon Katpa, till today. In short, the religious beliefs and traditional rituals of the Meitei race is complex and Meiteis do not take kindly to any kind of affront to this belief system.
The first provocation came in April 2021 when Kukis laid ownership claim to Mt Koubru and blocked all entry points leading to the pilgrimage site and burnt down a temple at Koubru Leikha. Till today, the people of Manipur regard Mt Koubru as one of the most sacred mountains in the state.
Every year, people go on pilgrimages to the Koubru Peak, which is around 2,802 metres high. A special place at the peak is the sacred pond Lai Pukhree, a massive rectangular boulder and the cliff of the Koubru. In short, Mt Koubru is the epicentre of all mythology, tradition and belief of human creation on the Earth in the Meitei world-view.
Trouble began when the state government initiated the process of declaring both Mt Koubru and Mt Thangjing as protected sites under the provisions of the Manipur Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1976. Again in May 2022, Kukis blocked a forest rejuvenation drive at Mt Thangjing initiated by the Forest department along with volunteers, saying that nothing can be done without their permission. This act irked the Meiteis. Yet, they kept quiet. But, passion gave way to patience and it burst open during the present clashes. Then, the Kukis desecrated another sacred site of the Meiteis at Kongba Maru Laiphamlen in Imphal East.
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