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The Transcendental Role Of Women In Manipur History

Dr. M. C. Arunkumar & Irengbam Arun


6. The Imoinu-Khamnu Coaxial

In a sense, the emergence of this new dimension of economic and instrumental role is nothing but an extension of the patriarchal ideal. Quite often an ideal woman is also charged with the task of earning for the upkeep and maintenance of the family and other social functions, as the Manipuri man is constantly away in the service of the king or in war campaigns. The Manipuri kingdom very much portrayed as a regional power in this part of South Asia with its writ and influence extending beyond the Cachar valley in Assam in the west; beyond the Ningthee River of Kabo valley in the east; upto the Dhansiri river in the north; and deep into the Lushai hills in the south.

These war campaigns in far-off places and yet other compulsory service rendered to the king under the Lallup (a conscription) system directly contributed to the development of the economic and instrumental roles in Manipuri women, albeit within the confines of patriarchal norms. We would term such an extended personality of Manipuri womanhood as Khamnu. The legend of Khamnu spells out the character of a young orphan girl who brought up her young brother Khamba, as in the lores of Khamba-Thoibi of the Moirang principality on the south of Loktak lake.

The destitute Khamnu, herself a minor, would earn pittances from odd jobs just to keep the fireplace burning so as to provide a proper upbringing to her brother Khamba. How infant Khamnu and her suckling brother Khamba became orphans and had to toil, face desperation and sustain themselves, with none to look after them, would still earn as much grieving sympathy from a sobbing audience of elders when depicted by an eloquent master story-teller with all his nuances, gestures, catches and other professional anecdotes:

"Ere an ailing Puremba (father of Khamnu and Khamba) died, he sent for his bosom friends, Nongthon Chaoba and Thonglen both courtiers in Moirang king's court, and commended his children to their care. In the presence of the dying Puremba, Nongthon Chaoba hurriedly betrothed his son, Pheiroijamba to Khamnu by way of compliance of the trust reposed by Puremba. And just as Puremba died, his wife who could not bear the bereavement, threw herself in Puremba's pyre. Thence the inordinately brave Thonglen took charge of the two children and brought them over to his house to feed and nurse them under his charge, but the unusually grieving infants cried so much in that alien setting that they could not at all be solaced by Thonglen in his own house. So he let them go to their own paternal house, and just for a change, left them alone. Ultimately, Khamnu adjusted to the orphan lifeways and moved around the village households and regularly husked paddy or went afishing in Loktak for a living, while lactating mothers would breastfeed Khamba." 7

From the standpoint of Manipuri womanhood, Khamnu, an infant herself, would thus embody the self-sustaining and the counterpart model of the Manipuri womanhood who fed and nurtured her young brother Khamba into a legendary icon. She would work in the rich households of Moirang or else sell firewood in the market for the upkeep of the home. Ultimately Khamba, with his legendary valour and sportsmanship, won the hand of the daughter of the most powerful regent prince of Moirang.

While maintaining the standards set by Imoinu, the Manipuri women would also bring herself to play instrumental roles in production and exchange. If the husband is away on a war campaign during monsoon, she had to herself cultivate the field and do all the hard jobs normally earmarked for males. Otherwise they would normally share the same workload with men in agricultural activities, but the marketing part of the produce would be handled exclusively by women. The entire management of the internal distribution and retail market network would remain in the hands of the women, as still seen today. Thus, a typical Manipuri woman would strike a fine balance between the two modelsand act accordingly in various social situations. The patri-oriented norms and values vis--vis womanhood are shaped around this Imoinu-Khamnu complex.

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