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Project Profile: Amailon: the ritual language of the Nupa Maibi

Today on the ELAR blog, Karen Parker discusses her project documenting the Amailon  variety of Meitei, a liturgical genre spoken by the Maibi (also spelled Amaibi). This language is spoken by gender-diverse shamanic priestesses of the Sanamahi tradition in Manipur state, Northeast India. Karen is a 2016 ELDP grantee from La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

  1. Can you give us some background on the language ecology in the area you are researching?

The so-called ‘Tibeto-Burman area’ of North East India, which lies between Tibet and Myanmar (inclusive) is one of the most linguistically diverse geographical areas in the world. In Manipur, Meitei is the language of the dominant indigenous people as well as the lingua franca. A large number of smaller tribal communities such as the Tangkhul, Anal, Paite, Chote, Hrangkhol, Zeme and many others also reside in the area. Among these smaller tribal communities, there are also multiple dialects within most linguistic varieties.

Since at least the 18th century, the influence of both Anglo and Hindi culture has had a significant impact on Manipur’s languages and culture. The modern name ‘Manipur’ itself, formerly a kingdom called Kangleipak, is a reflection of this impact.

Over several centuries, several waves of colonization and military invasion have occurred in Manipur. Vaishnavism, one of the major traditions within Hinduism, came to Manipur in the 18th century. One of the most significant cultural impacts of Vaishnavism was the destruction of texts written in Meitei Mayek, the ancient script which was the precursor to modern Manipuri. The official script was then changed to Bengali under the rule of King Meidingu Pamheiba, who converted to Vaishnavism around the year 1710.

Between 1824 and 1826, the British became active in the affairs of Manipur, following the war between the British and the Burmese, which was known as the ‘First Anglo-Burmese war’.

Following that war, the British gained control of much of North East India, including Assam and the Cachar Hills area, both of which are adjacent to Manipur. The Manipur king of that period, Chinglen Nondrenkhomba, requested help from the British in staving off invading Burmese forces.

Manipur became a protectorate of the British in 1824, and was given the quasi-autonomous status of a ‘princely state’. In 1947, the British handed over Manipur, along with the other parts of North East India it had occupied, to the newly independent Indian state.

In more recent times, Manipur was declared a ‘disturbed area’ on account if insurgency, and today there is a significant military presence especially in the border area. The palace itself in central Imphal, once the centre of Manipuri culture, was for a time occupied by the military.

All these historical events have had a significant impact on the health and vitality of indigenous languages and culture. The linguistic ecology of Manipur could be described as ‘vulnerable to rupture’.

In recent times there has been a resurgence of interest in reviving the ancient script Meitei Mayek, which is now a mandatory school subject. However, the influence of Hindi, Bengali and English on the geographical area continues to be profound.

The lexicon of modern Manipuri contains a large amount of Hindi words, and several cultural practices such as wedding ceremonies, as well as mainstream Sanamahi practices, have absorbed Hindi elements.

A scene from Laihou Jagoi, ‘Awakening of the Gods’, a ritual central to the Nupa Maibi. On the right, Naba Maibi can be seen twirling in her ritual garment.
  1. What is your research question and why did you choose it?

The main research questions being explored in this project are: ‘How does the Amailon language as spoken by the Nupa Amaibi fit into the wider picture of Meitei?’, ‘How can language documentation be a positive strategy in this specific cultural context?’ and finally, ‘What are the spiritual beliefs and cultural practices of the Nupa Amaibi?’

  1. Why did you want to work with this community?     

The language under study for this project, Amailon, is a liturgical genre of the Sanamahi tradition, the indigenous religion of the Meitei people. It is only spoken in ritual and other performative cultural contexts, and therefor, no ‘everyday’ form of the language exists.

I chose to work with these speakers both for personal reasons and for reasons pertaining to concerns about language endangerment. The speakers of Amailon in the Nupa Amaibi community are thought to number no more than a dozen. As a transgender woman, the opportunity to work with this gender diverse community in order to preserve their orally transmitted ritual and cultural texts was a rare privilege, and also a huge responsibility which I wanted to take on. Already having strong ties with the Nupi Maanbi, the lay indigenous transgender community, I wanted to take the opportunity to work with the Nupa Amaibi, when that opportunity arose serendipitously. My aim is to make a solid contribution not only to Linguistics, using language documentation methods, but to the rich cultural heritage carried for centuries by the indigenous gender diverse community of Manipur.

Another scene from Laihou Jagoi, ‘Awakening of the Gods’. On the right the traditional musician Jalendro plays the Pena, traditional Manipuri instrument.
  1. What’s been your highlight of the project so far and why?

The highlight of the project has been the friendship that grew between myself and the priestesses, and the deepening of my existing friendships with the transgender women of North East India in general. If I was to name a single highlight, difficult as that is to differentiate among the many I experienced, it would be the priestesses teaching khutek ‘hand dancing’ moves.

  1. What’s been a challenge in this project and why?

There were several technical challenges, most of which were overcome, however the main challenge was both emotional and technical, in the passing of high priestess Ima Bobby Amaibi, my main consultant, which sadly occurred during the field trip. The loss of this iconic figure was felt all across the community, and by myself as she had welcomed me into her life as a friend and as a sister. The technical challenge which came from this tragic occurrence was the incredible difficulty in translating the more arcane ritual texts, many of which contain double meanings and which are packed with metaphorical language. This challenge was eventually overcome as best as possible with the help of my other consultants, however the cultural and linguistic knowledge that passed along with Ima Bobby is invaluable and irreplaceable.

Another scene from Laihou Jagoi, ‘Awakening of the Gods’.
  1. If you could start the project again would you do anything differently?

If I could start the project again, the main change I would make if I restarted the project from scratch is that I would have somehow found a way to remain in Manipur an additional 6 months. However, the project, being a small grant, was only able to support 5 months in the field. The reason for this desired change is that the complexity of eliciting these texts and translating an archaic form known to so very few requires a very extensive amount of time, even if one is working every day in the field. I worked 6 out of 7 days per week in the field on average, with two small one week breaks over five months, and this was exhausting to the point that I carried physical and other issues back with me from the field following my return. More time is the only major change I would make; everything else about the project was done as effectively as possible in the context of the field situation.

  1. What still needs to be done?

So much more needs to be done! The language of Amailon as spoken by the Nupa Amaibi could very likely disappear within a decade, and if no further work is done, only the recordings collected for this project and the memories of some remaining practitioners will remain as evidence the language and associated cultural knowledge of its gender diverse practitioners ever existed. My plan is to undertake a large-scale documentation of Amailon within a post-doctoral project over three years. That would make a significant difference to the amount of knowledge preserved about this culture and its speakers, and may have some positive effects on the vitality of the language.

  1. What is the current level of documentation?

There is scant documentation of even modern Manipuri, the only substantial work being A Grammar of Meithei (1997) by Shobhana Chelliah. Regarding the variety of Amailon spoken by the Nupa Amaibi, nothing at all, as far as I am aware, has been written apart from within this project.

  1. How does this project relate to other topics in the linguistic field?

I sometimes lament that many linguists (I am especially talking about those known to me, who are working in the Tibeto-Burman area) are concerned with structural elements of grammar and phonology at the expense of learning about sociolinguistics. I have even known some grammar writers to explicitly express deride sociolinguistics as ‘peripheral’. I find this both pretentious and ignorant. The majority of grammars omit any extensive account of the speakers themselves, and where one does exist, it is usually a few token pages about areal linguistics or dialectology after the introduction, followed by 600 pages of pure phonology, morphology and syntax. I would argue that languages are not about grammar and phonology; in fact, they are about people.

I’d like to quote Ludwig Wittgenstein here: “One thinks one is tracing the outline of the thing’s nature, over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it”

(Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations para 114)

  1. Does this project relate to other community initiatives? If so, please elaborate.

Firstly, this project relates to the preservation of indigenous cultural practices within a post-colonial setting. This is a state-wide issue which has many facets and in which many Meitei people are involved, in areas ranging from language, the arts, trade and commerce, political self-determination and legal rights of tribal peoples of Manipur.

Second, this project relates to the ongoing struggles faced by transgender and gender-diverse people in Manipur. The Nupa Amaibi themselves, as a gender-diverse community, are not only important because they represent a unique part of the indigenous Sanamahi tradition, but in addition, like all indigenous transgender and gender-diverse people in Manipur, they experience high degrees of discrimination and are at high risk of violence in modern India. Issues of transphobia mean that for these individuals, simple being themselves is a dangerous act. Organizations like AMANA (All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association) engage in activism on behalf of all transgender and gender-diverse individuals in Manipur, and the Nupa Amaibi are an integral part of that community.

A scene from the complex hand-dance ‘Phisaba Jagoi, in which a narrative about the process of growing, reaping and weaving the materials for textile production are conveyed by hand gestures.

Thank you, Karen! To learn more about Karen’s work and Amailon, visit her deposit page on the ELAR online catalogue.

Blog post by Karen Parker