Our next stop wasn’t an archaeological site, however: it was a living community of Manipuris (a people from Northeastern India) who’d migrated to Myanmar over a thousand years ago – “since time immemorial”, Dr Tin said, but later clarified it was 739 AD.
Dr Tin: Since they do not intermarry with other races, they can rigorously maintain their identity. One day, about three years ago, one Mongoloid [ie. East Asian-featured] lady from Manipuri University visited me. And her lonely mission – because she was alone – was that she wanted to study the Manipuri settlement. 

And when they met together, they talked in Manipuri. I was surprised that this Manipuri lady spoke Manipuri. And they said, “We are Mongoloid, not Aryan.” And to our astonishment, she discovered that these people are speaking archaic Manipuri, the old language.

Since that time, Manipuri University has come and gone. They have visited here many times. They are studying this group: how the culture changes in languages, in religions. For example, there are snake temples. These people still believe in snake cults. Although they convert to Buddhism, they are still sticking to this.
It seemed like the whole of Mitei Village came out to meet us. They served us soft drinks and cakes and stood by as the headman patiently answered our questions.
Adriaan: Is your food different?

Headman: We eat only fish.

Brett: Is there a connection between the community here and the community in Manipur?

Headman: Formerly there was no connection, but now the university has come.

YS: What jobs did you traditionally perform?

Headman: Our ancestors were very good astrologers because they were advisors to the kings. But after British colonization, the king was no longer here. We still practice astrology or traditional medicine.

 KS: How do you teach your children the history of your community?

Headman: We have no written alphabet, so we have to teach orally.
Later on he seemed to contradict these words by showing us a written document that had been passed down through the generations, describing the history of the seven clans of Manipuri Burmese. Only two or three people in the village can read it, and they’re trying to teach the kids.

One of the big complaints of this community is that they’ve been misclassified as Shan people (there’s an endless list of recognized Myanmar communities, which makes it particularly weird how certain ethnicities are left out – Anglo-Burmese, Rohingyas, Chinese). However, the culture has hybridized with the Shans: there’s an influence on their dancing, and on their drums (though they play theirs transversely, not vertically as the Shans do).

Mriganka was particularly interested in all this. The state of Assam is next door to Manipur, so he was almost finishing the headman’s sentences, chiming in whenever he recognized a Manipuri term amidst his Burmese speech.

 He was the one who brought up the role of women. Many Manipuri societies are matrilineal, with the women also controlling trade in the market. Not quite the case here: social roles are more modern, with men and women working as business owners, lawyers, teachers, professors (this may be an oppressed minority, but it’s doing pretty well for itself otherwise).
The woman they got to speak to us turned out to be a traditional healer – something she learned from both her mother and father, plus a course on Burmese medicine from the university. At our request, she tried to explain the precepts of her practice - they try to repair the blood, repair the wind, repair the joints.

Confusing stuff. As Meena (an observer) noted to me, we were left with more questions than answers. 

One guy did give us a nice drum performance afterwards, though! I’ll upload the video when we’re back in Singapore, with a decent connection. Kaffe was only disappointed they didn’t play their traditional “violin”. Looked more like a berimbau to me, IMHO.    

 


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