Book Reviews

Review Published in HINDUSTAN TIMES

An overview of revealing roles


By Manjusri Chaki Sircar
Shakti Series

A curious visitor to Manipur once asked “Why do the women always appear so cheerful here? It seems that they always look so well groomed, adorned with fresh flowers and chandan. Everywhere, in the bazaar, on the street and at home, they always seem to be enjoying themselves.”

These are the women on whom Manjusri Chaki-Sircar has written a scholarly but interesting study.

Manipur Valley is a fertile plain surrounded by mountain ranges. The peak of Kobru rises 800 feet above the valley in the north and slopes down gradually to the large Loktak lake in the south. This is the lake in the south. This is the homeland of the Meiteis, a society unique for the independence of its women in a patrilineal society. This society, as the author details, has survived war, colonial rule and sanskritization to maintain to a large extent, the essentials of its indigenous culture. In this, the sexes perform complementary roles with mutual power and partnership.

The economic role of women is a pivotal part of this society. Agriculture and weaving form the two most important economic activities. While the first is open to both sexes, second is almost entirely handled by women.

Radhagram is a weaving village in the Nambol area. Here the modern fly-shuttle co-exists with the traditional shuttle and bobbins. Wankhai Ningol was married into this village about fifteen years ago and brought a fly-shuttle in her dowry. Her large shawls with their temple motifs brought in new methods of weaving and today she is remembered in the village as a goddess.

The bazaar is completely a woman’s world. Even male customers and porters are rare. The women are all neatly dressed, exchanging flowers and gossip, giggles and songs. These women trade all the year round and contribute half or more of the family income. Hence the Meiteis proverb: “Husband brings firewood, wife brings all other goodies.”

Love and romance form the legend and life of the Meiteis. In the past, young men and women met during ceremonies and games. The old people remember with fondness the Thabal Chombi dance festival of the spring when unmarried girls and bachelors met and danced all night until dawn. On this night, the young people were allowed to hold each others hands, forbidden at other times. In present times, segregation between the sexes does not exist. Interaction is free and Meitei society recognizes several forms of marriage, the most intriguing being the custom of ‘chenba’. This is elopement with rules. Chenba is usually performed on the two auspicious days – Wednesday and Monday. Though socially approved, it requires another ceremony to legitimize the union. Very often this may take a long time. In one case, the couple lived together for ten years and had three children before the girl’s family arranged the ceremony.

Recently, however, social attitude towards chenba is not one of total acceptability, leading to considerable litigation. ‘Thaba’ is another somewhat similar practice and entails abduction for the purposes of marriage. In one violent abduction, the girl was dragged out of a mini bus by a boy and his group at gunpoint. Eventually the police discovered the couple. During interrogation, however, the girl said that she had come of her own will, much to the anger of her family. A few days later, one of her relatives was given Rs.3000 by the boy’s family to arrange the marriage ceremony where the gun-toting abductor was the honoured bridegroom. Five months later the girl came back to her parents who accepted her without comment.

Polygamy, although common in Meitei society, brings along the inevitable feeling of hurt and loss of honour. A Meitei proverb expresses the women’s anger against second wives: “Why should I be a second wife! I do not even want to be grass in the compound where a second wife lives.”

The study devotes a long and detailed chapter to the festival of Lai Harouba (In pleasure of God). This is the prime Meitei ritual, performed annually. It consist of elaborate processions and dance movements centering on the ‘lais’ or goddesses. The Chief performers are ‘maibis’ or priestesses. They are the performers of ritual, delivering oracles and making predictions. These women are usually deviants who do not fit into traditional Meitei society roles. During Lai Harouba, they shake violently, chant loudly and deliver oracles.

“Children of the village are going to be very sick, but they will be cured with the grace of the Lai. There will be a big fight at the temple ground….” Others hold them tight until they calm down. Very often the oracles are broadcast through an amplifier. The core dance ritual consists of the ‘Khut tek mathek’ a dance depicting the sixty four sequences of the human body with specific hand gestures.

The study gives a revealing overview of the unusual role of women in Meitei culture a role too deep-rooted to be forgotten under Brahmanic influence. This role encompasses a strong streak of feminism which makes the women confident and self reliant, yet does not plunge the patrilineal society into a sex war.