One fine morning, about a hundred men and women from 20 different Kabui villages in Manipur turned up at Shri Shri Govindajee Temple with gifts and offerings. They were welcomed by officials of the Govindajee Temple Board and as they sang in their own language they sought the blessings of Govindajee. It was for the first time that a tribal community was allowed to pray and sing at the sanctum-sanctorum of Manipuri Gaudiya Vaishnavism. As the event was live-streamed on Facebook and YouTube, many could not believe their eyes. After being caught in the time-warp of a strict religious regime for more than three centuries, the Meitei Hindus came in for a rude awakening that morning. We still have to hear from the orthodox Vaishnav Sampraday.
Among the younger generation, the event was widely welcomed and some even commented that it was a step towards shedding the historical baggage of ‘Mangba-Sengba’ prevalent in those days of Hindu orthodoxy. This was indeed a sore point in history, which was repeatedly flagged by the Naga rebels and tribal leaders to score points in the anti-Meitei narrative. In fact, even among the Meiteis not to talk of tribals, many did not know that many Meitei commoners or rebels also became the victims of ‘Mangba-Sengba’ during the height of Hindu orthodoxy.
As the Maharaja was given a free run of the valley population by the British imperialists while they concentrated among the hill areas, the Maharaja along with the Brahma Sabha ran amok and hundreds of Meiteis were brought into the scheme of ‘Mangba-Sengba’, excommunicated and exiled for defying the ‘state’ religion. Mention may be made of Thanga and Kakching among places where the ex-communicated Meiteis were exiled.
In the erstwhile Moirang kingdom, even Princess Thoibi was exiled for defying her father.
Coming back to the point, except for a few orthodox Vaishnav families, most Meiteis have shed the ‘Mangba-Sengba’ culture long time ago. The existence of ‘Ngai’ culture between Meitei and tribal families speaks for itself. Besides inter-marriage, many in the majority community and tribals mixed around and ate together freely without any inhibition, and as such that hated culture exists only in memory. Yet, a symbolic start has to be made for which state patronage is needed.
It has been widely agreed that the King has no religion. He may follow a particular religion of his own, but in a state with diverse faiths the King or the ruler should not be seen encouraging a religion of his choice. The present Rajya Sabha MP Maharaj Leishemba Sanajaoba follows the indigenous faith, but he respects all other religions. There was a phase, when Sanajaoba’s father Maharaj Okendrajit reverted to indigenous faith and refused to take the ‘Prasad’ of Govindajee temple which was traditionally offered to the King. Now, Maharaja Sanajaoba is seen regularly frequenting the Govindajee temple and taking the ‘Prasad’ as well.
Likewise, the present Chief Minister N Biren was once an avid follower of the indigenous faith. But, his responsibilities as a Chief Minister required him to be above religion. As a Chief Minister, he is also the Chairman of the Shri Shri Govindajee Temple Board. Being a BJP Chief Minister, he might have his compulsions. Yet, he must realise that the particular brand of Hinduism being followed and practiced here is much too different from that of Bengal or North India.
The ancient culture and value system of the Meiteis are deeply rooted in the Hindu Vaishnavism which is practised here. Pluralism is inherent in the Meitei society and it is evident in its culture and religious practices. Every Hindu family including the Brahmins maintains a special place for Lainingthou Sanamahi in its designated corner and worship it daily. The Kabui community among the tribals, except for those who had converted into Christianity, maintains the Sanamahi corner in every home. Lastly, we hope the Chief Minister continues his journey to unwind the cultural maze that this present generation has inherited.