Where Do We Need to Go From Here?



A Fieldwork Account by Karen Parker

Today on the ELAR blog, Karen Parker is sharing some deep insight on her field trip to Manipur state, Northeast India last year. Karen is an ELDP grantee working with speakers of Amailon. 

To put it simply, this project was fulfilling and enriching on a personal level, beyond my wildest dreams. Having previously worked with several tribal people in North East India, such as the Tikhak, Yongkuk and Longchang among the Tangsa people, and the Nocte, Tutsa and Laju people along the Burmese border area, I had already experienced many amazing interactions and learned a great deal in terms of cultural and linguistic knowledge. On a personal level, however, this project has eclipsed all the work I have done previously, and has taken me to realms of thought and experience in terms of philosophy and spirituality that I never could have imagined.

When I arrived last December, I was welcomed by Santa and her non-biological family, the Nupi Maanbi, the indigenous transgender community, who I already knew well on a social level from our ‘hanging out’ on previous trips that I had made in the name of friendship. We had already for some time established a strong sisterly friendship as trans women, and that in itself was an enriching part of my previous visits to India.

However, during this trip, I was privileged to meet and get to know the Nupa Amaibi, indigenous gender non-conforming shamanic priestesses of Manipur. The nature of my work meant with them entailed witnessing magical rituals of various kinds, and gaining some understanding of the mystical practices and animist beliefs of the traditional indigenous belief system called Sanamahi.

Whilst in many other parts of the sub-Himalayan plains and especially the Indo-Burmese border area, it is the case that the influences of Buddhism, and more recently, Christianity and Hinduism have eroded or subsumed many pre-colonial indigenous traditions, in Manipur, the ancient animist practices of Sanamahi are still practiced by a small population of devotees.

During my time with the Nupa Amaibi, while learning about their magical beliefs and practices, and about their complex traditions of dance and song, I was thrust into a dimension beyond that of the local pageants, dances, beauty parlours and bars, which were familiar during previous visits, where Santa and I had previously enjoyed each other’s company. The word ‘awesome’ in English has lost much of its potency through overuse. However, in describing the experience I had during fieldwork on this project, nothing less than the original sense of the word is appropriate: by the time I got to meet and get to know the Nupa Amaibi priestesses, I was indeed filled with awe. I gained an insight into human experience beyond my own culture, which had parallels with my own experiences as a transgender woman, yet which were also emotionally, intellectually and even spiritually nothing less than other worldly.

The lengths Santa went for me to collect and analyse the data for the project were astounding. She herself, at the age of 12, had experienced the ‘calling’ which results in a tiny number of transgender women in Manipur becoming Nupa Amaibi shamans, and which entails gender transformation. In her case, she had a different social calling, which eventually led her to become one of India’s leading LGBTI activists. That was how we originally met, as I had heard of her activism, and we became friends with similar interests regarding causing positive social change. However, as I eventually found, fate had it that my best friend in India also had grown up with high priestess Ima Bobby Amaibi, the most respected Nupa Amaibi in Manipur.

An aspect of the fieldwork trip that was very beautiful for me personally was the deepening of my friendship with Santa. During the fieldwork project, I lived with Santa in her small tin shed for five months. We, ate, drank, talked and slept side by side, and I was welcomed by her biological family as a sister and a daughter. She taught me some basic Manipuri and on some non-fieldwork days I accompanied her to meetings with doctors, lawyers, police, and other official representatives in her work as an activist for the organization she founded, AMANA (All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association). She invited me to participate in many of these meetings and I gained an incredible insight into the social issues facing transgender people in India.

When the day came to meet Bobby, I was nervous. I’m an active member of the LGBTI community in my own country; I’d met kahtoei in Thailand, I’d certainly done my share of partying with fabulous queens in western clubs, and I’d known other trans people generally since I was a teenager, but I had never met a transgender shaman. Additionally, I knew Ima Bobby had never met a Western trans person, although she had heard of me through Santa.

On the morning that I did finally meet her, I sat with Santa in the sun in the courtyard of Bobby’s temple, as we saw her small figure, swathed in a white robe, emerge from the house. I was moved by her humbleness and openness. She called her disciple Meiphak to make me tea, and gave me a sweet biscuit. She was a reserved and very thoughtful person, always pausing to think before she spoke. She also had a contagious smile, and a glimmer of excitement in her eyes. She didn’t speak any English and I was wholly dependent on Santa at that first meeting.

It was very hard to tell at first how I was being received. Santa explained the project to her and she nodded and took some moments to think. She asked me (via Santa’s translation) about myself and my life. I told her about where I had come from, and she was astounded that I had come from the other side of the world to learn about the Nupa Amaibi. ‘She could have gone anywhere’ said Bobby, ‘but she came here’. At the next meeting, we talked again and she said ‘I will do everything I can to help you’. We became more relaxed with each other very quickly, and on subsequent visits she introduced me to other priestesses such as Naba and Sarat, who also participated in some of the recordings which are now deposited in Elar, the endangered languages archive.

Ima Bobby organized a permanent arrangement from our first meeting, and from then on, Dilip, one of her disciples, would pick me up from Santa’s home on his motorcycle, take me to the temple, and then whisk me back when the work was done. When the day came for the recording of the Laihou Jagoi, ‘Awakening of the Gods’, a ritual involving dance and song, which I consider the centrepiece of the collection, I arrived to find Ima Bobby had called other priestesses from the border area, and also traditional musicians, who performed especially for the recording. She had also pre-organized a gargantuan feast and after the recording I estimate around 100 people came to the temple.

She invited me into the inner sanctum of her temple, a place which few are permitted to enter. There she kept a framed picture of her spiritual mother or guru, Ima Tammu. Another priestess, Naba, taught me some basic khutek ‘hand dancing’, and some other dance moves. Ima Bobby taught me about the Sanamahi religion, told me the creation story, and the story of her own life.

It would have been impossible, I realize now, looking back, to have done this project without Santa and Bobby. Sadly however, Bobby passed away, only a couple of weeks after I made the last recording. In that recording (provisionally titled Bobby invoking Panthoibi in a trance state, without surek), and which I have not yet even attempted to annotate due to its complexity, Bobby goes into a trance state and invokes the goddess Panthoibi into her body. The recording is so emotionally charged that it actually goes beyond linguistic fieldwork.

I was invited as guest of honour to Ima Bobby’s funeral rites, and her sister cried in my arms. We cried together, because I had grown to love her, and had an insight into the special, gentle soul she was. Devotees of Sanamahi who respect the Nupa Amabi came from all over Manipur to pay their last respects. When her sister took me aside, she told me that Bobby had loved me and that it meant a lot to her what I was doing with this project. I swore then, as I had before to Bobby herself, that I would now share with the world the songs dances and rituals Bobby had shared with me.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that this project changed my life. Now that the project is completed, I have no idea what to do next, as for me, on a personal level, nothing could possibly go beyond this work.

By Karen Parker