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This brief on Manipur was written for The Asia Society's website to provide background information for the 2000 US debut of theater director Ratan Thiyam and his Chorus Repertory Theatre. It was slightly modified for the Manipur Field Trip of 2004.

Manipur is one of the smallest states in India. About the size of New Jersey and bordering on Myanmar, it is perched in the arm of the Himalayas that descends to the Bay of Bengal, dividing South Asia from Southeast Asia. The Manipuris, or Meiteis as they are known to themselves, number about one million and inhabit an elevated valley the size of Rhode Island 3000 feet about sea level in the center of the state. They are largely of Tibeto-Burman origin, as are the tribes that live in the surrounding hills that soar up to about 10,000 feet.


Formerly a kingdom whose oral histories indicate its establishment in the 1st century AD, Manipur was formed by the unification of ten clans. It has been historically the site of trade routes between India and Myanmar. Manipur became a part of the British Empire in 1891 and was the arena of the Battle of Imphal, the largest land battle between the Japanese and the Allied forces during World War 2. Even though Manipur had not been part of any of the great Indian empires, upon the departure of the British, Manipur became a part of India in 1949. Secessionist movements have led to political unrest in the state ever since.


The economy of Manipur is largely based on agriculture and cottage industries, including handicrafts. Though it has little of the vast economic inequities found in the rest of India, it also remains one of the least economically developed states in India - Manipuri society is patriarchal but women occupy a singularly central position rarely matched in Asian countries. Equally important in their contribution to Manipur's agricultural economy as the men, they furthermore control the handicrafts industries and the entire retail trade in the state.


Even though Manipuris are Hindu, the Indian caste system is not the basis of social stratification, one reason being the anti-caste, pro-vernacular brand of Huindusim that took root here. Instead, society is divided between the Meiteis, the Bamons (Brahmins of Indian origin), Pangans (Muslims, also of Indian origin) and lois (social outcasts, some of whom are descended from prisoners of war from Burma and India). Society is organized around neighborhoods, called leikais. All activities, from ear-piercing ceremonies, to festivals and cremations, are organized around the leikai.


The religion of the Manipuris is a blend of ancient shamanistic animism and ancestor-worshipping beliefs and the more recent Vaishnavite sect of Hinduism. Manipur's animism, often called Sanamahi in recent years, is expressed primarily through the communication between shamans and the deities, especially during Lai Haraoba, the most important festival of the Manipuris.


Traditional Manipuri Polo


Manipuri culture is defined by its insularity, which has produced a distinct and cohesive range of cultural expressions that defy usual distinctions between the classical and folk forms. At the same time, it has traditional and modern art forms that encompass the aesthetic pinnacles of high art as well as the popular. Manipuri culture exhibits its history, from strong tribal roots and traditional animism to the more recent conversion to Hinduism.

Manipur is perhaps best known for its dance forms, primarily the form called Manipuri, performed regularly in temples in every leikai. It also has a distinct literature in Manipuri, a language of Tibeto-Burman. Manipur has over 200 theater troupes performing traditional forms, mainly its popular courtyard theater, and over 40 modern theater troupes. It has highly developed musical culture, both traditional and contemporary, and a small film industry, some of whose productions are exhibited internationally.


Manipur is perhaps the most athletic state in India. It is soccer-crazy like most parts of the world, with its own soccer tournaments. Polo was invented here. It has five indigenous martial arts including thang-ta (sword and spear) and sarit saraat (unarmed). But there is also track and field, gymnastics, wrestling, swimming, bodybuilding, bicycling and tennis. It had its first rickshaw marathon and talent show last summer.

It produces a lot of national champions. The top female swimmer in India is Manipuri, even though there are no regular pools in Manipur. Here have been many bodybuilding and gymnastics title winners. Manipuris make up a big portion of the Indian soccer team and always seem to be in all national teams in every sport. At the last National Games, the state won more medals than any other, even though it has a population of a little over a million in a country of one billion.

Manipuris love baseball and currently has 26 teams, organized along neighborhood lines. Manipur is the only state in India that plays baseball and where the game is more popular than cricket, which is the national game in India. It has a no league although there have been occasional tournaments organized along soccer tournament lines.

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.

T.S. Eliot