Illustrated Manuscripts of Manipur

– Part 1-


The precise historical period of the beginning of a written script in Manipur is not known. It is certain though that by 11th and 12th century many books were written on agarbak (bark of Aquilaria agallocha). During the reign of Khagemba (1547-1652 AD), the Meiteis had learnt making paper and begun writing on them.

According to Cheitharol Kumbaba, the royal chronicle of Manipur, many manuscripts were written during his reign in 1616 for learning. It is possible that illustrated manuscripts were in vogue by this time even though we are yet to come across such ancient illustrated manuscripts.

Whatever illustrated manuscripts that are now available are mainly associated with astrology. Perhaps an exception would be Paphal Lambuba as it depicts many forms of the Paphal. Indeed, the ancient manuscripts dealt with a variety of topics such as genealogy, climatology, geography, politics, healing, mineralogy, religious issues, and battle chronicles.

( A Meitei (Manipuri) hero in the traditional dress )

The various manuscripts and the illustrated astrological manuscripts may be divided into two types. One type of manuscripts is those with loose, unbound

single pages. The other one has pages folded from a long sheet of paper. In both cases, one has to read by turning the pages away from the body. There are also single-leaf manuscripts.

Astrological studies began during the reign of Garibaniwaj with the establishment of a royal astrological department. When the Burmese invaded and occupied Manipur during what is known as Chahi Taret Khuntakpa (1819-1826), they deported many skilled Meiteis from Manipur and settled them in Burma (now Myanmar). Among them were many astrologers who were treated with respect, and their descendants are known today as the Pona.

The illustrated manuscripts reflected different aspects of Meitei society. The religious practices of pre-and post-Vaishnavite Meiteis of the 18th century, the process of an ethnic melting pot with streams of immigrants from the east and the west, the changing political scenario and strata in Meitei society were recorded as illustrations by ordinary writers themselves or by scribes and not by expert artists.

Having been copied through generations, the available manuscripts portray the life and manners of early periods without much distortion. These illustrated manuscripts are a part of Manipur’s folk art tradition.

The Paphal Lambuba is a manuscript that contains 364 modes of depicting the Paphal or the mythical python. Other manuscripts also portray the Paphal in different ways. After adoption of Hindu Vaishnavism by the Meiteis in the 18th century, the Paphal was sometimes shown in the likeness of the Hindu god Anant which assumes the form of a multi-headed serpent.

Or, it was adorned with peacock feathers on its head like those on lord Krishna’s.

Preface :

” This work originates from seeing the scattered illustrated manuscripts, which I found in the custody of our local Pundits. Since 1973 I have been working for these manuscripts by collecting from various sources. Some of them are already published in the Book entitled the Manuscript Paintings of Manipur in 1978. Even the second reprint issue is also produced in this year. But unfortunately it could not be printed in colour due to financial constraint. All the paintings consisted in the earlier publication are coloured by freehand.
I have the opportunity to exhibit some illustrated manuscripts in the 2 day seminar organised by Manipur Folklore Society held from 26 to 27 September 1982 at G. M. Hall, Imphal. This exhibition attracts many scholars from different parts of India. Then in 1991, published another book entitled Subika Laisaba (A Manipuri illustrated Manuscript on Astrology).
The present work on illustrated Manuscripts is a bunch of paintings collected from different parts of Meitei inhabited areas like Bangladesh, Myanmar etc. It will incorporate 364 faces of Paphal and other unpublished manuscripts.
I would like to convey my thanks to the Ministry of Culture, Government of India for the financial assistance to the task of publishing it. I hope that without this support it could not have been possible to materialise the things.
I alone am responsible for any remaining errors and infelicities for they are of my own construction. I always welcome suggestions and criticisms for further development in future.”
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