North East News Agency Home Page Oriental Times Archive
Headlines       Vol. 2 Issue 27-28      Nov. 21 -Dec. 6 , 1999

Traditional textiles of Manipur

-Sandeep Banerjee

EACH sphere of Manipuri life reflects a rare sense of aesthetics, be it bamboo baskets, wood or metal utensils, textiles — woven or embroidered, music, dance, and the many annual rituals, which stud the valley. What is more, each aspect is inter-related, indeed, interwoven with the other. Manipuri textiles, both traditional and modern with their distinctive patterns and colour combinations have won the hearts of the people. The textiles used and the costumes worn on festivals and occasions, as also in daily life are indigenous, carefully spun, woven and embroidered by deft hands and fingers of Manipuri women. The Meitei women who are settled in Myanmar and Bangladesh are popularly known for their skill in this profession. Their products are very much liked by the people of other countries.

The ‘Pam-Yauba’ ritual dance depicts the story. Various items necessary for weaving of clothes numbering hundreds were included as dowries of princesses and daughters of royal families. The unmarried girls of a particular locality bringing their items of wearing like ‘Tarang’ (springwheel) used to assemble in ‘Nongol Ka’ (daughter's room) in one of the houses and performed the work of spinning till late night. This tradition was known as ‘Sinnaipham Kaba’. This practice continues in the Manipuri villages even today. Early traditional textiles of ‘Kabang’ (silk) and cotton belonging to 11th century have been preserved with great care and reverance, ‘Khwang Iyong’ (Coin-loom) had begun to be used before the Christian era. It is a traditional style of weaving method. Clothes for domestic use were made of Khwang Iyong in every household. Since eleventh Century Pang-Iyong (throw-shuttle loom) began to be used. The loom began to be used in Manipur from the beginning of 1900 A.D. Chinese silk was the most important item of all trading articles of Manipur. The Meitei women were assigned particularly for the production of silk clothes. In 1924, E.M. Jolly along with the Queen of Manipur, Maharani Dhanamanjuri, founded a weaving centre known as ‘Arts and Crafts’. At this centre, the already available cloth patterns, were modified and then adopted while weaving. In 1939, main items like bed-sheet, cushion cover, dressing gown, dinner table mat, etc. were produced and exported to Europe, Australia and Africa. After the bombing incident at Imphal during the II World War in 1942, the ‘Arts and Crafts’ was closed forever.

The Meities of Manipur also believed that wearing of shirts sewn from the used ‘Phanek’ (women’s skirt of Meitei mother and grandmother) could ensure victory in hunting and battles. It is believed that wearing of amulets containing within a piece of mother’s ‘Phanek’ would be a good omen. In this way the descendants used to preserve with care and reverance the clothes worn by parents and forefathers. This practice has been continued as a tradition from generation to generation. If someone wished to see these clothes, these could be seen only on specified days. One day before the day on which one wishes to see or worship the clothes, one must visit its owner and offer certain offerings such as banana, ‘Kwa’ (betal nut), ‘Panamana’ (beal leaf), etc. This is known as ‘Lai Baton Jouba’. Those who have come to see the these clothes should not try to touch them since none except the owner can touch these. In some families, it is strictly prohibited to let shadows of the worshippers or onlookers fall on these clothes. Since the 2nd century, the tradition of giving ‘Manaphi’ (Royal cloth) to the nobles and warriors as a reward was started. The rewards included not only clothes but also items made of metal such as bracelet, ‘Tan’ (armlets), necklace, etc. The stitching of torn-out traditional clothes with cloth pieces of different designs of Meitei women and then using these again as different kinds of clothes in certain other events, was also a common practice. ‘Kanap Phanek’ (women’s skirt) had been one of these clothes. Some of these Kanap Phaneks were also used as ‘Innaphi’ (shawls). It was customary to leave a part uncompleted where it can be hardly noticed, while stitching or weaving a clothe. It was a tradition among Meiteis to stitch together different clothes having varieties of patterns and colours so as to make a completed clothe. Not only does this present a kind of colourful clothe, but it also makes stitching of different clothes much easier. A very convenient aspect of using such assembled clothe was possibility of easy removal of an undesirable or torn part of cloth. The open space of cloth was then replaced with a new cloth and it was then used generation after generation. Examples of such costume is the ‘Samjin’ (a headgear used by the kings, nobles and great warriors) and ‘Ningkham’ (a waist band with V shaped protrusion in the rear). Long ago there were seven ‘Salai’ (clans) in Manipur. Each Salai used a different colour for its textile. These seven Salais have now been integrated into one ethnic community. Nonetheless, since different colours and patterns of Phanek worn by women still remain, they can signify different Salais. Varieties of dresses used by the Meitei ethnic groups in Manipur may be broadly classified in the following way. (i) Dresses for ‘Lais’ (deities), (ii) Dresses to be adorned by the monarch at the time of coronation ceremony, (iii) Dresses to be worn during the festivals, (iv) Dresses for dancing, (v) Dresses for mourning, (vi) Dresses for kings and queens, (vii) Dresses for noblemen, (viii) Dresses for different communities, (ix) Daily (commonly used) dresses. Amongst the dresses used at the time of rituals, the main is ‘Chin-phi’ (an embroidered Phanek) and ‘Lai-phi’ (a white cloth with yellow border). Dresses of kings and queen were different from common people. The dresses to be worn by the kings at the time of coronation ceremony were carefully kept separate. Varieties of dresses were worn by the Meitei during different festivals such as ‘Lai Haroba’ and ‘Hiyang Taunaba’ (traditional boat race). Dresses of white colour only were worn by the ‘Maibies’ (priestess). Bracelets and armlets was also worn. Sarong were also worn around the waist. ‘Ningkham Sanjin’ (turban) was worn by the ‘Tengmai Leppa’ (bearer of the boat team) in the boat race. Special Ningkham and Sanjin worn by the kings had ‘Chiron’ (symbols at the top).

The material used for weaving clothes was mainly from cotton and ‘Kabrang’ (mulberry silk). In both the plains and the hills of Manipur cotton was widely grown. Three types of cotton were available: (i) White cotton, (ii) Reddish cotton, (iii) Tree cotton.

The third type was seldom used in weaving, it was used mostly for making pillows. Around 19th century, cotton began to be imported from outside countries. Nonetheless, most of the villagers of Manipur, both in hills and the valley, used the cotton grown by themselves only for weaving clothes. Mulberry silk known as ‘Laima Kabrang’ has been used in Manipur since very early times. It is stated that many centuries before people of mainland India knew about silk industry, silk clothes were widely used in this land.

Since very early times, Meitei women of Manipur valley have been doing the work of dying threads and clothes by using varieties of plant leaves, flowers and basks. In their own home estates women grow plants from which dying colour could be extracted. Besides, such plants are also available in the surrounding hills.

The methods of preparing dye from plants and flowers and also types of plants from which dyes are extracted, are found to be different from one village to other. Besides names of dye were derived from nature, flower petals and colours of the flowers. These dyes were used to colour the cotton and Kabrang silk threads. Types of colour ranged from mild ones to bright ones. Fast chemical dyes were found to be available since 1930 till today. Only undyed threads were imported from outside Manipur and these are dyed by dyers in Manipur and then sold in the market.

Since early times, Meitei women used spinning tools made of bamboo and wood for the purpose of reeling threads from mulberry silk cocoon. The work of reeling is called ‘Khere Chingba’. With the help of the ‘Khwang-Iyong’ loom, different varieties of cloth can be woven and various designs can be created with it.

Not only plain clothes, but also highly stylised designs of animals, insects, and plants with the application of circular hook like motif were woven in loin loom, throw shuttle loom and fly shuttle loom. While making the designs, not less than four colours were used. A type of cloth known as ‘Nahong-phi’ is worn by women during the Haroba festival. The same cloth is used at the time of death of a person in a village — the cloth is folded in such a known as ‘Pheija’ and placed just above the forehead of the dead person.

‘Khamen Chappa’ is a ceremonial dhoti which cannot be worn by any common person. It was presented as an item of reward by the king to brave persons.

The Meitei used large and broad textile designs, so as to make these easily and clearly visible to the public eye. Fish design is found to be widely used in weaving of clothes. The designs of horses and elephants, sun and moon, spears and ‘phantup’ (Meitei traditional type of stool) are used in the highly stylised forms. While ‘Shaphi-Lanphi’ which is made by the Meitei women and worn by the Nagas.

The textiles of Manipur showcases the great heritage of traditional and indigenous garment making in the whole of North-Eastern region of our country. The exquisite garments of this region has now become very popular but still lack in exposure and patronage, if taken with a view that it has the potential to become an established cottage industry and even go further into realms of large scale merchandising. Knowing about the traditional richness and the expertise of the Meities, one will understand that the contribution of this little State in the development of contemporary textile designing is phenomenal.

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