Meetei-Mayek is the script which was used to write Meeteilon (Manipuri) till the 18th century. The script nearly became extinct as a result of a mass burning of all books in Meeteilon ordered by Ningthau Pamheiba who ruled Manipur in the 18th century. The main person behind this atrocity was Shantidas Gosain who had come to Manipur to spread Vaishnavism, on whose instigation the king gave the order. The king embraced Vaishnavism, took the name Garibnawaz and made Vaishnavism the state religion. Subsequently, Bengali script was adopted to write the language and is being used till date. Recent research has resurrected this script, and it is now being given its due place.
It is indeed difficult to trace the exact period of the origin of the Meetei Mayek. The burning of vital historical documents or the Puyas of Kangleipak (Manipur) written in Meetei Mayek during the reign of King Pamheiba in the early 18th century, made the effort all the more difficult. The earliest use of Meetei Mayek is dated between 11th and 12th centuries AD. A stone inscription found at Khoibu in Tengnoupal district contains royal edicts of Kiyamba – this was the beginning of Chietharol Kumbaba – the Royal Chronicle of Manipur. According to the very few Puyas that survived, such as, Wakoklon Thilel Salai Singkak, Wakoklol Thilel Salai Amailon, Meetei Mayek comprised of 18 alphabets. Even during the reign of King Pamheiba Meetei-Mayek is the script which was used to write Meeteilon(Manipuri) till the 18th century.
The script nearly became extinct as aresult of a mass burning of all books in Meeteilon ordered by NingthauPamheiba who ruled Manipur in the 18th century. The main personbehind this atrocity was Shantidas Gosain who had come to Manipur tospread Vaishnavism, on whose instigation the king gave the order. Theking embraced Vaishnavism, took the name Garibnawaz and madeVaishnavism the state religion. Subsequently, Bengali script was adoptedto write the language and is being used till date. Recent research hasresurrected this script, and it is now being given its due place.It is indeed difficult to trace the exact period of the origin of the MeeteiMayek. The burning of vital historical documents or the Puyas ofKangleipak (Manipur) written in Meetei Mayek during the reign ofKing Pamheiba in the early 18th century, made the effort all the moredifficult. The earliest use of Meetei Mayek is dated between 11th and12th centuries AD. A stone inscription found at Khoibu in Tengnoupaldistrict contains royal edicts of Kiyamba – this was the beginning ofChietharol Kumbaba – the Royal Chronicle of Manipur.According to the very few Puyas that survived, such as, WakoklonThilel Salai Singkak, Wakoklol Thilel Salai Amailon, Meetei Mayekcomprised of 18 alphabets. Even during the reign of King Pamheiba (1709-1748), all documents were written in these 18 alphabets.

Pamheiba embraced Hinduism in 1717. Few years after this, he ordered the destruction of pre-Hindu places of worship and the burning of all the Puyas of the Kangleichas or the citizens of Kangleipak. After the massive destruction of the pre-Hinduism records of Meetei philosophy, literature and history, the king and his descendents tried taking total control over the cultural, literary and religious affairs of the people. But the official effort of the Konung or the Royal Palace to impose a concoction of Bengali, Devnagri and Gurumukhi script on the people was not welcomed by one and all. Between 1709 to 1941, Bengali script replaced Meetei Mayek and subsequently became the official script of the Konung. During this phase, there were many voices of dissent. The most strident voice of dissent came from a Meetei scholar, Laininghan Naoria Phullo (Naorem Phumdrei). Naoria started the movement to revive Kanglei or Meetei tradition in 1930 from a village called Jaribon, Laishramkhul in Cachar in Assam. He developed a script and named it after him. The Naoria Mayek challenged the script imposed and propagated by the Konung in Kangleipak (Manipur). It had 24 alphabets. The voice of revivalism and the new script soon spread to the entire Kangleipak. An organization called the Meetei Marup was formed in 1947 in Kangleipak to propagate the Naoria Mayek. Serious debates on the script began in 1950. A state level committee called the Mayek Lupteen Committee (MLC) was formed in 1958 to conduct a study.

A sub-committee of the same group concluded that there are only 18 alphabets in the Meetei Mayek. Though the effort of Naoria Phullo was appreciated, another conference on Mayek in 1969 discovered that some of the alphabets of the Naoria Mayek were Bengali and Devnagri. The same conference also found out that not a single ancient Meetei Puya was written in Naoria Mayek. After a thorough study of an original Puya called “Wakoklon Thilel Salai Amailon Pukok” the participating judges recommended that the actual genuine Meetei Mayek had only 18 alphabets. The most significant development in the history of the Meetei Mayek happened in 1976. During the “Writers Conference” in the same year, all the groups working towards the development of Meetei Mayek officially endorsed the 18 alphabets and urged the government of Manipur to popularize the script. The supporters of the Naoria Mayek did not oppose the move. Thus the present Meetei Mayek re-emerged with new vigor.

The nine letters called the Lom Eeyek, which are derivatives of the previous 18 were added so as to incorporate additional phonetic sounds present in Meeteilon as a result of historical changes. On the 19th of January, 1983, the Education Department of the Government of Manipur, prescribed “Meetei Mayek Tamnaba Mapi Lairik” as text book for students of class VI.

About the Script

Interestingly, the letters in Meetei Mayek are named after parts of human body. Meanings of these names are indicated with the letters below. Sounds which the letters denote are indicated within brackets.

Manipuri/Meiteilon: An Introduction

Manipuri (also called Meiteilon, Meiteiron, Meetei and Meithei; Meithei in Linguistic literature) is the official language of the state of Manipur, India. It is the mother tongue i.e. the first language of the ethnic group Meitei (Meetei). However, apart from Hindu Meiteis and the Meiteis following the traditional religion of Sanamahi, Meitei Pangals, i.e., Manipuri Muslims also return Manipuri as their mother tongue. Linguistic affinity Manipuri belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. The Sino-Tibetan family branches out into the Siamese-Chinese and the Tibeto-Burman sub families based on the word order – the Siamese-Chinese has SVO word order while the Tibeto-Burman has SOV pattern, where S stands for Subject, V stands for Verb, and O stands for Object.

A schematic diagram of the Sino-Tibetan language family is given below:

Manipuri falls in the geographically determined group Kamarupan. Kamarupan is further sub grouped into Kuki-Chin-Naga, Abor-Miri-Dafla and Bodo-Garo subgroups. Although it has been generally acknowledged that Manipuri does not readily fit into any of these subgroups (along with Mikir and Mru), the traditional classifications put Manipuri in the Kuki-Chin-Naga subgroup. However, within Kuki-Chin-Naga, Manipuri is classified as a distinct group on its own (Grierson: 1903-28) under the heading Meithei, on the basis of the facts that it was already a major literary language of the Kuki-Chin-Naga group and that it had characteristics that differentiated it from both the Kuki-Chin languages proper as well as the Naga languages. There is still a need of collection of more data from other languages to determine the exact position of Manipuri within Kamarupan.

Although Manipuri native speakers mostly reside in the state of Manipur, there are native speakers in the neighbouring northeastern states of India, notably in Assam, Tripura, Nagaland, and West Bengal. In India, the total number of people who returned Manipuri as their mother tongue numbers 1,270,216 out of which 1, 110, 134 speakers reside in Manipur (census of India, 1991).

There are Manipuri speakers in Bangladesh and Myanmar as well. The Manipuri population was 6000 in Myanmar in 1931 and 92800 in Bangladesh in 1982 as reported in http://www.ethnologue.com/.

Some Issues

Meiteilon has been recognized as the Manipuri language by the Indian Union and has been included in the list of scheduled languages. Manipuri is taught as a subject upto the Post-graduate level (Ph.D.) in Universities of India, apart from being a medium of instruction upto the undergraduate level in Manipur. There is a need to distinguish Manipuri (Meithei/Meitei/Meiteilon) from Bishnupriya — a language spoken in Assam and parts of Bangladesh, which has a dominant Indo-Aryan character, especially since the speakers of this language claim that they are the erstwhile aborigines of Manipur. This claim seems far-fetched since for one reason, none of the neighbouring tribes of the Meitei have a reference to the Bishnupriyas in their folklore, whereas the Tangkhul, and the Kabui, among others, mention the Meitei in their folklore. Moreover, both the Tangkhul and Meitei folklore mention that the Tangkhul and the Meitei are of the same descent.

Moreover, the Bishnupriyas claim their descent from the legendary Mahabharata character Babruvahana, the son of the Pandava Arjuna. It may be worth recalling that the mother of Babruvahana was supposedly a princess of Manipur in the epic. However, there is neither Archaeological nor historical proof that the Manipur of the Mahabharata is the same as the present state of Manipur. Also, the official name of the state became Manipur only after it had been incorporated as part of the British Empire, and the Meitei called their kingdom Meitrabak or Kangleipak before the current name of Manipur came into use. So, the Bishnupriya intelligentsia need to re-check their facts before making such a far-fetched claim of lineage and descent.

It may be worthy of mention that Hinduism was introduced as a state religion only in the reign of Meidingngu Pamheiba (Garibniwaj) in the late eighteenth century, while pre-Hindu Meitei chronicles can be dated back to 33 AD. The advent of Hinduism in Manipur had a considerable influence on the language, in that a lot of Indo-Aryan elements entered the language as borrowings. The Standard dialect, which is based on the Imphal dialect (Grierson 1903) is significantly different from the dialects spoken in Kakching, Andro, Sekmai and the Yaithibi dialect. The latter dialects are comparatively not influenced by Bengali or Sanskrit. The Pangal dialect is another main dialect of Manipuri.

Compiled by:

Radhabinod Aribam Sharma

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