Taboo is a forbidden activity, something that is not permitted, something that stands against social approval and is disallowed by norms of behavior. They are complete restrictions or prohibitions in saying or doing something. It is concerned with social and cultural aspects of life. There are thousands of taboos in Manipur, making the people a highly civilized race since time immemorial. It is also for the preservation of culture and traditions.
In this article, we will take a few taboos in Manipur, with special relevance to the Meetei tribes. In Manipur, we have around 34 tribes, each tribe having distinct taboos. We will discuss them in the next articles.
All social and religious activities in our society are not only based upon supernatural beliefs and universal principles. They always follow some ethical code of conduct. They are also regulated by certain social restraint which assumes a kind of socio-religious sanctity. There is no control over the human mind and the actions following it. Therefore, the socio-religion restraints have to be given a religious coating. We are forced to believe that the supernatural force above us always looks after us and that those who break rules are punished by supernatural beings. This system operates in society in the form of a “Taboo”.
There are two aspects of taboos in Manipur – cultural taboo (not to do) and linguistic taboo (not to say). The Meetei aim at the best form of a society wherein the slight defects be removed to the possible extent, by introducing or substituting words which in their composition, include nearly slang-like pronunciation. Taboos are not a curse but a boon to the Meetei society. Without such restrictions and prohibitions, society might be a place of cannibalism, barbaric and insecure. Social orders, peace, and harmony among the people are directly or indirectly related to social taboos. It also shares the foundation of morality, ethics, and character building which are a must for human civilization.
The Meetei tribes have been told by their forefathers what is ought to be done and what is not to be done. Gradually these become taboos. There are also cases where taboos originated out of fear. For instance, intermarriage among the same Yek (clan) is not allowed and this is regarded as taboo. This may have been out of fear of the dominant or powerful king that the marriage alliance might become a threat to its power. Instances were there that the Meetei kings instituted various taboos in Manipur for their own benefit too.
During the reign of Maharaja Churachand Singh no women were permitted to untie the back knot of their hair before him. They were also not allowed to enjoy the shade of an umbrella before him.
The Meetei regard the menstrual period of women as inauspicious. During this period, the woman is regarded as untouchable. Physical intimacy or contact with a man-woman is strictly prohibited. On the fifth day of the period, women need a clean bath with the washing of their heads and thereafter, their normal life starts. Women are also prohibited from eating certain food items, particularly which are bitter and sour in taste. Social contact with a lady during childbirth is a cultural taboo. She is kept in seclusion, aloof from society for 12 days – the period being observed by the entire clan as Yum Mangba, which is considered inauspicious days during which no pujah (worship) of gods can be performed by the members of the family and Sagei (clan), except on the sixth day after birth.
The husband, during the period of his wife’s pregnancy, will not go hunting or may not indulge in any act of violence. He should not share a bed with his wife at the advanced stage of pregnancy too.
After the advent of Hinduism in Manipur society, it is believed that she should not see the Hindu gods and goddesses like Lord Jagathnath or Goddess Kali during pregnancy, for if she feels fear, she might deliver a deformed child. She should also abandon all types of Phaibok (twin) fruits or vegetables. If she eats these foodstuffs, it is believed she will have a twin baby. It is believed that a pregnant woman eating laphoi phaibok (twin bananas) will give birth to a twin baby.
Sharing the same plate for any type of food between the husband and wife is also a cultural taboo. To touch or use Phanek (Sharong) of his wife or women other than his mother is also taboo. If he does, he is regarded as a henpecked husband and an unlucky face to society. He will bring bad omens to society.
People are not allowed to eat food items depending on their clans. Angom clan must not eat Mairen Angouba (white pumpkin), Mangang clan should get rid of Ngaril (a fish that look like an eel). If these are taken, it would cause allergy, immune or loss of teeth, etc.
Yuhar haba (Earthquake) is believed as the mark of punishment by God for indignation toward mankind. During the shaking of the earth, men or women, old or young will utter the word “chak -nga” (Rice-fish) which means that everything except food (rice and fish) may be destroyed, indicating the basic need of man as food.
Potsem Jadoo (Black Art) is one of the black arts practiced in Manipur. It is based mainly on common beliefs. The person who is willing to hurt an enemy makes an effigy out of wax, adds a few more ingredients, and recites mantras (hymns). Someone may adopt a different system. The enemy comes under the spell of black art and is easily controllable. This is done with the help of goblins, ghosts, or spirits. Sometimes, this system is also adopted by maiba (local physician) to treat or cure physical or mental ailments. Hingchabi changba (in which a person is possessed by evil spirits) is also cured by a process of lai khurumba ( a pujah), whereby the maiba tried to please the evil spirits.
The Meetei cannot wholly abandon the age-old belief, which somebody may call even superstition. Even today, by the process of Nong Kouba (invitation of rain), heavy rain can be caused. Nong kouba ceremony is to invite rain and is performed when there is a scarcity of rain or drought occurs. People will sing together loudly a particular hymn in rhythm.
In ancient days, if a man takes an oath by the name of a deity, it cannot be left unfulfilled. Such unfulfilled oaths are regarded as washak namungba (breaking of oaths). Meeteis are very much afraid of the effects which may follow after breaking the oath.
After returning from a long journey, a person has to expose to fire, scattering rice before him. Throwing cut nails freely in the open is prohibited. It should be kept underground, lest the pieces of nails may be taken away by birds. Meetei believed that a bird-like owl might take these nails to the Lord of Death and the person may die.
People would show regret by touching their forehead with their hands after touching the other person who they have accidentally touched with their feet. One must take off shoes before entering the house of another person. While having meals outside the house, some food must be offered on a piece of leave, which is for the demigods around us.
It is customary for every Meetei to catch an eel on the First and Last Saturday of the Lamta month ( Which falls on February-March). We called it Ngaprum Machum lujaba. The eels are put in the bathing bucket and the water is used while bathing. It symbolizes that like the slippery eels, we escape from the jaw of death.
The Meeteis are restricted to cutting bamboo on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Similarly, cutting of hair and nails are also not allowed on the above three days of the week as well as on the particular days a person is born.
At the time of going out for some mission or work, the words “Ei Chatle” (I am going) are not used. Instead, “Ei Chatlukhige” is used. Ei Chatle means left for heavenly abode (death). At the time, when a man sets out from his home for a journey, the pronunciation of the word “Houdong” (cat) is prohibited and considered a bad omen. One should use Yumleima (the lady of the family) instead. Words like Kei (tiger) are taboo at night. Mistakenly if people used it, they feared a tiger coming out from the jungles. Therefore, they used “Ibudhou” (grandfather) to mean tiger during the night.
These are a few examples of taboos in Manipur, especially among the Meetei tribes. Thus, the horizon of human language is broadening day by day on the impact of taboos. In the process of seeking words or phrases to denote the tabooed words, many new words are phrases are invented. Unpleasant slang words are substituted by new and beautiful words. Consequently, a good supply of new words or phrases to the rich literary wealth of our society can be seen today.
(C) Naorem Mohen
The Writer can be reached at Twitter @laimacha