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The Historical, Archaeological, Religious & Cultural Significance Of 'Kangla': The Ancient Citadel Of Manipur

Pandit N.Khelchandra Singh

Related Notes of Interest while on this topic

3. Significance Of Kangla In The Economic History Of Manipur:

In retrospect even the sacrosanct remains of Kangla can now be definitely reassessed as to have preeminently embodied both the temporal and spiritual epicenter of Manipur. This is besides its acclaimed radiation of culturo-political spectrum. At least this is the inference that can be drawn from the big sense of relief expressed by the general Manipuri public consequent on the actual handing-over on 20th November, 2004 of the occupancy of the currently 237.26-acre sized Kangla premises by the Director-General of Assam Rifles to the State after a lapse of nearly 113 years since 1891, when the Britishers usurped it from the Manipur monarch and since Independence passed it over to the Assam Rifles. This only goes to highlight its immense embodiment on the score of political and religious powers wielded by the Meitei kings on account of which it has so long remained a national heritage for a befitting preservation over the futurity after necessary archaeological restoration. Ever since, the 20th November is commemorated as the Kangla Day every year to instil ancient values of Kangla; to promote articulation and delineation of psychic feeling and flamboyant pride among otherwise edgy Manipuris with a drifting sense of nationhood on account of the unknown past. Nationalism itself as of now may be driven by resentment, while cultural security itself in decline. Whatever is known about it or ancient Manipur is so incomplete, it requires scooping up so that the unknown past becomes known to the "necessitous" man [Christopher Mitchell: Necessitous Man and Conflict Resolution; in John Burton (Ed) (1990), p.153]

On scrutiny, Kangla would still seem so perfectly conceived, designed and implemented as to groove into the entire scheme of ancient royalty's autonomous functioning on the one hand; and its direct dependence for manpower and military strength on people themselves so directly bonded to agriculture as their own source of living on a self-satisfying or economically viable mode, on the other hand. In fact, Kangla's fitment in that power scheme and concomitant social order merits a close call on the modern theory of intelligent design. What is more significant is that the entire nobility and common subjects have been kept fully occupied with their pursuits and off-farm entertainments so that the economic activities thrive and fully recreate their energy for another farm season with scarce opportunity to murmur or dissent, far from revolt.

Yet its logistics, surveillance, geometrical pattern of double moats, symmetrical intricacy, and administrative networking paved the way for an efficient command and control system. Above all, through an information system across the pannas or habitations all over the kingdom, as a rule, it generated the best communication input for optimal outcomes. For instance, if a wild elephant is lurking in the remote corner of the nationhood, relay message (private information) will reach out to Kangla through runners provided by the proactive villagers. The outcome could become uniquely optimal, as even one person does not economise on truth. The incentive-compatible system functioned efficiently and produced the best outcomes,as it depends on three possible sources of information: private, official and secretive (spy rings). And they all functioned efficiently based on a system of competition which enthuses one to outsmart the others in terms of producing the best result. Such an incentive-compatible system works well, as it is a dominant strategy for each of the three agencies to report his private information truthfully, reminiscent of the other modern mechanism design theory.

Among the various legends, Kangla would seek to resurrect, is the competitive legend of Pakhangba becoming the new king to succeed his father Guru Sidaba. On the temporal plane it would show the sacrosanct prominence assigned to competence as a quintessential factor in the very life-process of the earliest Meitei kings _ how, for instance, a prince could have expected to become entitled to the throne and survival thereto, if not preeminence with luck and consistent headlong effort as true in case of Garib Niwaz (see chapter 5A below). Not through birth in the royal lineage alone either as the firstborn, primogeniture or the next issue, but by dint of sheer competence and intellect could one have expected to become king. Its current incarnation will thus be lasting competence possessed by the knowledge-based 'super-achievers' of the present day corporate world in the economic firmament.

Given such competitive structure as the innermost core, it follows that the nature, origin and inherent process of state formation can scarcely offer any scope for any weakling to remain king even if kingship is accidentally bestowed on one. For the resultant king would naturally have to be quite adventurous, brave, adroit and very much alert and above all ever-ready for any kind of competition _ whether in the arena of martial art, combat, war etc. on the one hand; or in the realm of mental sharpness, spiritedness, innovation, creativity and excellence on the other. Then only could he wield admiration in terms of personal skill and valor of his infantry or cavalry? It was but natural that the other princes after losing their chance to succeed would remain keen to somehow keep their claims alive by taking refuge in other principalities.

On the one hand, the kingship would thus be much more thorny and open to grave risk of losing the king's own life, if not the kingdom itself through intrigues from within _ that is from these very claimants _ as much as from without. Under such adaptative and highly intriguing circumstances, Kangla provided the integral organic core _ an institutional continuity _ of the very process transforming the cultural mitosis. And it is thus not at all surprising how this enchanting halo of Kangla would streak through as ossified hard core institution, wherefrom the kings not only had to survive as decorative institution but also to thrive, rule and afford to remain even away sometimes for long periods on war campaigns in neighbouring principalities either hunting down claimants; annexing territories; or for tributes, including war booties.

Turning to the process of ancient state formation with Kangla as the epicenter, it seems proper to underscore the rational and scientific approach of the initial kings including Pakhangba who apparently on magico-mythical grounds built up the edifice, since sustained through the centuries and millennia. How the very concept of the home of a tribal chief could have metamorphosed onto a well-fortified citadel complete with all the facilities for mooring all the paraphernalia of the institutions of the state?

Because of the constant threat of attack from without, the Kangla had to be well-protected, and fortified. Naturally Kangla held a preeminent position and the successive kings have effected improvisations in its defence paraphernalia after observing the defence matrices of other citadels and fortresses in upper Burma to the east or Ahom kings in the west. Such a cultural process has thus to be imagined by anyone trying to appreciate the heritage of Kangla from its layout as given in the appended map. In particular it represents the epicenter of various aspects of the monarchical State emanating all-round impulses in the political, cultural, religious, art-forms, sports and other pastimes _ all superimposed one upon the other.

The other lesson to be learnt by the Meitei domain would be the supreme need to know the qualities of one's father, but for which his chance of succession is to be ruled out. Herein lies its innermost or hardcore message on the religious plane _ the crux of the cult of ancestor worship (Pa=Father + khangba= knowing). Thus only that descendent who knows his father can rightfully succeed him on the throne. This is the innermost message, which when interpreted by scholars or precisely by the cult-preachers, would form the quintessence of the cult of ancestor worship. It is difficult to imagine how over time this would develop into a full-fledged cult and is still found engrained as an annual feature where the eldest survivor of a clan would lead the male progenies in worshipping the preceding ancestors.

Kangla's commanding location on the (erstwhile eastern) bank of Imphal river (prior to the security-based shifting of Imphal river course itself from the west, to the east, of Kangla) right at the heart of the Manipur valley, itself again strategically situated in the major prehistoric international silk route (much frequented at least prior to advent of pre-modern international maritime route connecting East and West), must have provided security and suitable stopping place for travellers, preachers and itinerant traders. Naturally available to them were food, water, shelter, storage and market places for barter exchange etc.

As a consequence of these travel and trade developments, the Kangla-centered Manipur polity perhaps became significantly well-defined, regular and prosperous in those days of yore (last few centuries before, and after, birth of Christ), contributing to the desire of indigenes to themselves follow suit and develop trade with hospitable areas beyond Manipur frontier both towards the east and west. Admittedly the unique influence of regular trade and travel _ although limited to winter months - must have brought about significant exposure to Manipur's social, cultural political and economic organization.

Notwithstanding the Manipur hill terrain making journey difficult even in winter, regular connection with both East and West brought inevitable interaction between prehistoric indigenes of Manipur and foreign merchants, religious leaders and itinerant travellers coming eastward from as far as the Middle East or westward from Yunan etc. in China and elsewhere. The initial era of trade contact was one of adaptation and learning _ an 'apprenticeship' when clan rulers of Manipur were curious about both Indian and other foreign cultural traditions, and were in the habit of looking to foreign sources for their own benefit.

It was perhaps a slow process of cultural synthesis from continuous exposure, if at all, and certainly not an imposition of Hinduism. Kangla had also seen through a discernibly synthesizing role on, what may be termed, the process of state development in Manipur valley. For instance, Kangla must have seen through the transformation of a petty chief's hut into a palace; an earth embankment into a fortress wall with the help of the Chinese masons; a normal watercourse into moats; diverting the Imphal river course from the west to the east of Kangla for security; the tribal spirit house into a temple; the local spirit stone into a powerful lingua; a tribe's village into the center of king's rule over villages of other tribes as these chiefdoms become integrated into a state.

Unlike the psyche of the neighbouring chieftains not so much realizing the ground reality of a stable agrarian-based society, those early Kangla-based rulers sooner than later have appreciated the necessity of developing an agrarian base to have a stable society and to warrant concentration of manpower on lands under the direct authority of the ruler _ a rudimentary form of conscription or forced labour for road-making and noncombatant purposes, including service in the royal households. Above all, this rendered to the king a regular source of income either as tributes or tax.

Needless to add that local statecraft was characterized by personal achievement. But the very secular accomplishment of Kangla rulers transcending through the entire Christian era in the permanent capital fort of Manipur would signify the stability of statecraftsmanship of the clan occupying Kangla and of the sociopolitical institution epitomized by it. Next, the further fact that succession had been generally by inheritance rather than by usurption also denotes a settled system of overlordship occupying Kangla.

Above all, the superior spiritual status of the overlord goes to further reinforce the bonds between the leader and his followers. Upto a point successive rulers had adopted the connotations of Pakhangba as their 'reign names' upon ascension to the Kangla-throne apparently with an intent to project the indigenous supernatural power. Should the norms of one's own society restrict one's ambition as possibly true in case of the then rulers, one would be forced to rise beyond the indigenous system to assume a higher order personal status _ an identity closely associated with the Indian model of divine kingship.

This spiritual role of a ruler requires elucidation in the light of the Kangla hegemony. One important role of a leader would certainly be to support his followers' hope for a superior death status. This was considered as 'gift' to those rendering unstinted and secular services and therefore close to the chief. The overlord projected himself as a spiritual influence over his supporters' lives and hopes for salvation. Thus the fragile clan polity has perhaps been reinforced by selectively mobilizing superior spiritual prowess.

Looking back upon the old chronicles and other ancient historical sources, Kangla or the crater at the volcanic mount by the same name has been the sacred place and the repository of all supernatural powers, which were dispensed by Manipur kings to benefit their subjects. Hence the crater upon which the royal throne would be placed used to symbolize the ruler's authority. From this crater/royal throne, as from the monarch himself, came the domain's prosperity _ reminiscent of king Vikramaditya's historic-mystic throne. This contact with the supernatural enhanced Manipur king's superior status and further legitimized the submission of adjacent populations to the Manipur king.

Could each of those seven prominent clans be deemed 'states' in the modern sense? Or should they be viewed as tribal societies producing from time to time some chiefs capable of mobilizing sufficient military power, family networks of relatives and their allies, and marriage alliances to other chief's groups to impose their hegemony over neighbouring chiefs? Such overlordship could not be viewed as unified kingdoms with continuous dynastic lines. A kingdom thus could not have been more than a territorial measurement of those allied to, and acknowledging, a leader's authority.

The Kangla-based ruler most probably became a cultural broker, the principal beneficiary of profits directly derived from the commercial route. The rewards included ceremonial regalia, heads, textiles, and other items useful to a chief attempting to stress his superiority over other similar indigenous rulers. Unlike other chiefs, the Kangla overlord had a vested interest in the continuation and expansion of the Kangla hegemony and a networking of institutions and systems. A certain degree of economic transformation would naturally follow regular criss-crossing by itinerant preachers, traders through Manipur valley.

Earlier in a less complicated tribal existence, the social unit would have been maintained by a marked degree of reciprocity, in terms of a sharing process among family, community and religious groups. External threats, aggression and external tribute-payment system must have had their share of transforming the indigenous economy and imposing exchange system. Such entrepreneurial advances brought social imbalances resulting in transformation of the economy through induction of some semblance of redistributive exchange. Redistribution herein is defined as allocation of rewards and facilities by a chief for the purpose of integrating the society.

Compared to the other unexposed areas of Manipur hills, one can argue that the level of economic integration in the then Manipur valley must have been of a higher order. Since the Pakhangba-associated myth around Kangla has been referred to by other travellers as also by successive kings on the basis of their genealogies, it suggests a level of cultural integration much beyond the tribal level. This is amply confirmed by the written accounts of Cheithaba or royal chronicles and also by the system of having Court astrologers _ suggestive again of a Sanskritization, if not, an Indianization influence.

More as a means of bridging gaps and providing problem-solving innovations once again later Manipur kings, particularly those looking westward towards Hindu kings of Assam and beyond, would seem to develop a fond desire to adopt ancient Indian statecraft, because of their dislike of Buddhism, which was the state religion of their enemies in the immediate neighbouring principalities towards the east beyond Manipur. To that extent, these rulers could be said to have begun to bridge the gap between tribal politics and the Indianized statecraftsmanship, mainly to develop the 'Kangla classical state' to its fullest.

Kangla can further be said to have embodied a kind of cultural bridge between the various clans then coexisting with the Ningthouja clan, which took over Kangla. A cultural axis must have so connected the different cultural realms _ which therefore established beyond any trace of doubt that _ the Kangla-based kingdom should have a solid claim to becoming the first 'State' in the then wilderness, sandwiched by three great cultures of Vedic South Asia; the East Asian culture of Confucian/Taoist China; and the Sanskritised Southeast Asian culture. It may be added that Southeast Asian culture was then in the making just like that of Manipur through cultural exchange over the caravan land route prior to invention of wind-power for maritime navigation.

Apparently therefore Kangla's embodiment as a syncretic higher order cultural base need be highlighted _ the kind of role sought to synthesize preexisting indigenous cultural and ethnic diversity with external ideology. Admirably enough, one can also discern yet another higher-order economic center around Kangla power center (to be distinguished from the Kangla cult or supernatural power). Such distinction lies in its dual economic base supportive of not only the existing order; but of a more sophisticated level of political integration than perhaps ever attempted previously. Such definition of integration need focus on a continuous manpower base, as depicted in the myth and the administrative apparatus hitherto devised, with a view to subjugating both those reluctant valley and hill chiefs to the authority of the current ruler and his successors.

Thus, the continuance, if not perpetuation, of the 'royal family' would be preeminently warranted by these integrating factors having both powerful centrifugal and centripetal forces. Archaeological evidences and authentic reportings of foreign historians have further affirmed that Kangla's political hegemony in association with varying degrees of commercial contact and tributes exacted from neighbouring kings beyond Manipur is evidence of a continuity associated with a higher level of political integration. Discernibly enough, the land-based nobility proved sufficient to bring about a stabilization effect to the political order. On the economic dimension also not only all categories of land, but also all water-bodies (lakes and the river-system) became fully utilized and accounted for, particularly for regular boat-navigation throughout the valley and for engendering all kinds of economic activities.

While on the river-system in the valley, it is relevant to cite that there is a difference of 114 feet between the altitudes of the ground-level at Kangla and Sugnu, the extreme southern point in the valley and this would call for some kind of water management particularly for the northern reaches of the valley. According to O.Kumar Singh (personal interaction) the Sugnu Nungthong Lonba (or closing the Sugnu water-gate) is an age-old practice resorted to by the Kangla-based kings for the sake of preserving a minimum water level not only for optimal navigability of the Manipur valley river-system but for a minimum ground water level for self-sufficient-oriented pisciculture, farming and other agronomic practices all through the year. For instance, right from Chairel, the traditional pottery center of Manipur near Sugnu, traditional boats laden with earthen wares would be brought along upto the wharf near the traditional Maharani Hunchback Bridge built by the Chinese at the central market place opposite Kangla. And this practice has been going on till the 1940's in living memories of octogenarians.

According to the ancient philosophy, the land of Manipur can be identified with the structure of the body of the Supreme Being in the Meitei religion, in which the Nungthong at Sugnu as a landmark represents the 'urinal and anal aperture', with the three major rivers, Imphal, Iril, and Nambol forming the three nerve centers. The Koubru hill, being the head, Khonghampat lake the heart and the Kangla itself preoccupies very significantly the 'navel center' of the Taibangpan Mapu Sidaba. Reminiscent of the vital forces and the 'placenta cult' of ancestors and other rituals of Egypt and elsewhere, it signifies that the Meiteis used to regard navel as the source of all energy, and that divinity is manifest in life itself.

The Loktak lake is the reproductive organ or the pelvic zone, with the Langol hill as the right hand and the Thangjing hill the right leg. The Nongmaijing hill depicts the left hand, while Wangbren hill the left leg. Meant to arouse the organic idea of the sacred body, the entire scheme has been so conceptualized as to provide a sacrosanct character to the economic necessity of Manipur polity. Even the polity or state itself is represented as a biological state with Kangla depicted as the 'Khoi' or navel, the supreme source of all energy. Yet another way of looking upon the body as a facilitating father or conceiving the sky, the earth and the entire cosmos as if in balance would indicate that reflective thinking came into Meitei life. That the very life exists in the body, hence the after-life would impinge on them and then somehow it occurred to them that soul is transferred to another. It is difficult to pinpoint when such reflective thinking came into Meitei life, but the farmers' experience of a cycle (season-change, nature of sunshine, rainfall, bird behaviour etc.) must have helped identify the right time to plough, plant, harvest etc.

It may be added that the Manipur valley ecology used to be fortuitously endowed with such regular precipitation (pre-monsoon, main monsoon and late monsoon) throughout the year so much so that there was hardly any other need for major water management programmes like irrigation, other than the traditional Sugnu Nungthong Lonba. A system of boulders with a few movable boulders _ to be rolled over across the stream in Manipur river would regulate the net outflow onto the Chindwin valley _ the counterpart at least in operational terms of the present day Ithai Barrage of the Loktak hydel scheme.

And this ingenious device would represent just a part of the then administrative system with Kangla as the regulatory nerve-center of the network. Given the very fertile Manipur valley there was perhaps no need for any major irrigation bund integrated to a network of water canals, as then became necessary in Funan and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Or else with such sharp sense of Sugnu-related hydraulics _ even in the rudimentary form _ as observed in the Kangla-centered Manipur kingdom, it can now be safely inferred that they had certainly gone in for water canals connected with the rivers so that an efficient river transport system could be conserved almost throughout the year. For instance, Lamjao-khong canal has been effected to drain from Pumlen-pat towards Imphal river in the southern part of the valley. Likewise, yet other canals like Dhaballo-khong, Nongmai-khong etc. have also been dug to connect Ikop-pat, Khoidum-pat and Kharung-pat. The Kangla-associated marketplace did serve all the conceivable purposes of a marketing outlet in that era.

According to available accounts, the king would send out emissaries haomachas to collect a share of the merchandise daily from each women-vendor squatting in the marketplace. The fact that the women-vendors kept on parting with the demand of the king would show that the manner and extent of collection were well within the paying capacity of these very vendors. All such collections would go towards the upkeep of the palace, which serve the purpose of a tax. Much later on when this usage perhaps outlived its purpose, some people deemed it as some kind of extortion. But the practice lasted till the beginning of the British period when some Political Agents tried to abolish such daily collection by substituting an arbitrage.

Significantly enough, British official accounts cite their own spectacle of these market vendors themselves striding early in the morning to the main village centers to collect farm products and fish, only to rush back with their headloads of merchandise in the afternoon to the Kangla marketplace for disposal. Even during the British period the practice continued, and some old-timers would rejoice relating their own experience of having seen such retailers hurrying back right from Waithou lake with fresh-catches of the famous Waithou Ngaton fishes for sale in the main Kangla marketplace or at the subsidiary outlets at Singjamei, Kwakeithel, Lamlong etc. Apart from the Britishers' surmise at the sight of these female vendors ferrying merchandise for sale in Kangla marketplace etc., the upshot is how economically empowered these female venders used to be. That proactive gender tradition still prevails in a much greater degree, extent and variety of merchandise now across the hills onto Cachar, Moreh and Gauhati. Put succinctly, gender-based social actions have so long been institutionalised in the public and private spheres. Females here grew more as "economic man" and less as "necessitous man", while males were conscripted for fighting. Add to this the rich experiences of male pedlars hitchhiking long distances across the hills towards the east and west now spilling over as merchant-traders. That is the transcendental heritage of Kangla tradition on the economic plane.


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