The Zeliangrong, one of the natives of Manipur belongs to the Tibeto-Burman family of Mongoloid racial stock. The population of this ethnic group is found mainly in Tamenglong District of Manipur. These people are found scattered also in the valley districts; outside the state, they are found settling in Nagaland in its Paren District, and Kohima District, and in Assam in its Haflong sub-division of Cachar District and Hailakandi District. The present article attempts to trace how and when the Zeliangrong people came down from the Western Hills and settled in the Manipur valley at Heibok Hills.
Heibokching, one of the historical places of Manipur locates on the south of Langthabal capital and Manipur University (MU), the highest learning place of human resource development is about 10 kilometers from Imphal; it falls under Wangoi sub-division of Imphal West District. It has nine faces and is surrounded by Chandranadi River on the east, Manipur University on the north, Nambul River on the west and Naran Konjin on the south. Heibokching is covered with forest which is rich in flora and fauna. Now, the Rongmei, the Meitei and the Meitei Pangal (Muslim) inhabit at the foothills of Heibokching.
The scenery of Heibokching is very beautiful that one has to take a pause at least for its praise. In his novel Madhavi, Dr. Kamal wrote, “Sajikbu Hougatlakpada Heibokching-gi Drishdi Pukning Hunabagi Mashakni. Nongchup Thngbada Nambul Turenna Eichen Khoina Khoina Chelli. Nongpok Thangbada Pat Macha Ama Lei. Pat Asi Matam Leiba Khibikta Luraba Eshingna Changjou Mannana Lei. Tharo, Thambal, Thariktha Khibikki ………………………. Patki Eshing Marik Marikna Englaba, Pat-ta Houba Thamna Amasung Chingkhada Houba Hei-Leina Manam Nungshihllaba Nungshitna Humkhiduna Ching Napom Pumnamakpu Thoidokna Manam Nungshihalli. Chingthaktagi Nganu Thangong Pareng Pareng Chaktage Haina Pairakli.”
The term Langthabal comes from the word Langthakpham. The narrow road that lies between Heibokching and Langthabal capital is locally recognized as Langthakpham. Langthakpham means a place used for catch/trap of human beings by gods. If a person found a Langkom lying across the same road is advised to return home as it is a trap of gods. It is believed that one who crossed over it will die very shortly. This tradition is still in practice: marriage party or procession is forbidden to go through this road in the belief that one of the couple will become widow or widower. The Langthabal area does cover the Heibokching and its surrounding villages such as Khoupum, Chingkha (Namkaolong), Chingthak (Lubanglong), Kunja, Mantrikhong etc.
The present study has adopted purely historical approach. The data is based on primary and secondary materials of published works and also on the traditional wisdoms gathered through interviews with the village elders and intellectuals of the Zeliangrong community.
The 18th century was a landmark epoch in the history of the Zeliangrong people. It was during this period, a large number of Zeliangrong warriors engaged in the famous Burma campaign of Garib Niwaz and also in the war of liberation of Manipur from the Burmese occupation under the able leadership of Bhagyachandra. Consequently, the Zeliangrongs were permitted to settle in the valley at Langol Hills, Chingmeirong, Langthabal (at the present site of SBI, MU campus) and Heibokching and started an era of friendship between the Meitei and Zeliangrong.
Pamheiba also popularly known as Garib Niwaz (1709-1748), the 50th Raja, ascended the throne of Manipur after his father (Charairongba) death, on the day of Wednesday, 23rd day of Thawan (August), 1709 C. E at the age of twenty. All Nagas chiefs were invited at the coronation ceremony. The official and ministers of his administration received the Nagas chiefs, made friendship and intimacy with them. The king did entertain the Nagas chiefs with good feast and wine. Garib Niwaz was often designated as Maharaja because he was the head of seven Pibas of Angom, Khuman, Moirang, Luwang, Khaba-Nganba, Chenglei and Ningthoujas. Following the footsteps of his father Charairongba, Garib Niwaz also did maintain friendly relations with the hills chiefs. He advised his nobles to have friendly relation with hill-chiefs. Some colonial writers mention that Garib Niwaz was a Hillman by birth because of his intimacy with the hill people.
In 1735 C.E, Maharaja Garib Niwaz issued a royal decree according to which village functionaries like Khullakpa, Khunbu, Luplakpa and Lambu were introduced; he replaced the traditional village chief by Khullakpa. In fact, it is a policy to centralize his administration. He did try his best possible means to put in force the new administrative system even in the remote villages of the hills and those who stood against it were punished and invaded. As a part of punishment, he invaded at Rongmei villages of Tokpa (Mukten), Nungnang Taobi (Lungrang), Rangkhong (Rangkhum), Thinglon (Thiulon village in the west bank of Barak) and Charoi Chagotlong (Poulinglong) in 1748 C.E. In his Charoi invasion, a Tamna, an insect of green colour was presented to the king by the village chief as a token of love and respect. By the middle of 18th century, the writ of Manipur kingdom over several Zeliangrong villages like Noney, Rangkhong, Nungtek, Charoi Chagotlong and Haochong was established.
With a view to have good relationship with the Nagas particularly the Zeliangrong, he made a visit at Noney and Noney Khullakpa was privileged to ride an elephant of the king. And on the day of Saturday, 18th day of Langban (September), 1746 C.E, he also gave permission to the three villages of Chingkhoupum and Luwanglon (Ganglon-Khullen and Khunou) to sell their commodities in the market of the state capital. It is suggested that the present Hao Macha Keithel near Majorkhul was the market place of that time. Chingkhoupum was untouched by the king. Now, it is clear from the above historical facts that the then king of Manipur, Garib Niwaz did try his best to keep his supremacy over the small villages inhabiting mainly in the area of Chingkhoupum and Tongjei Maril and at the same time, he also attempted to maintain friendly relations with the Zeliangrongs with the objective of bringing unity to fight against the Burmese locally known as Awa/Ava. In this regard, Gangmumei kamei has rightly stated that Garib Niwaz invited the hill tribes, Tangkhul and Zeliangrong (Kabui) to join the Manipur army in his invasion of Burma. Many of them went up to the Irrawaddy and survived to return home. Garib Niwaz settled the Burma veterans among the Zeliangrong to settle in the Manipur valley, Chingmeirong, Langol Hills and Langthabal and began an era of friendship between the Meiteis and Zeliangrongs. According to ‘Ningthourol Kumpaba,’ an unpublished text, it was in 1735 C.E. that the Kabuis who returned from Burma campaign (Expedition to Myedoo in upper Burma) of King Garib Niwaz were allowed to settle at Langol Hills and Chingmeirong. According to the Meitei Puyas, the Kabui who had rendered help to the Meitei Kings in their war against the Burmese in 1734 C.E were permitted to settle on the Chingmeirong and Langthabal Hills.
It was during the reign of Bhagyachandra also known as Chingthangkhomba from 1759-1762 and 1763-1798; a new chapter of friendship between the two communities was opened despite the religious orthodoxy of the Hindu Meiteis. It is noted that this was the key achievement of the noble king Chingthang Khomba. Chingthang Khomba, this name of the king was popular among the hill people and womenfolk in the valley.
Like his grandfather Garib Niwaz, Bhagyachandra also strictly did follow the policy of appeasement towards the Zeliangrongs; as a result, there was mutual understanding and co-operation with the hills people during his reign. It was during his reign, Alaungpaya of Konbaung dynasty, a powerful king of Burma and his successors like Hsinbyushin invaded Manipur several times and defeated Manipur due to lack of unity among the ruling princes. From 1758 to 1826 C.E within this period of 68 years Manipur was overrun and dominated by the Burmese times without numbers.
In the meantime, Wayenbamcha Khellemba/Khenlei Nungnang Telheiba, maternal uncle of Chingthangkhomba, the chief of Moirang (Khellemba was appointed as chief of Moirang by Gourashyam (Moramba) in the year 1757 C.E) rebelled and seized the throne of Manipur. So, the fugitive king Bhagyachandra took refuge in the land of Zeliangrong and appealed to the Zeliangrong people to help in fighting against the Burmese. Then, he did proceed to Ahom (Tekhao) and exiled there from 1765-1768. Manipur was ruled by Khellemba as puppet king for three years under the protection of Burmese army. In 1768 C.E, Bhagyachandra returned home with the forces of Ahom king Rajeshwar Singh of the Tunkhungia dynasty (1765-1769 C.E). On the way back, at the Merap river there halted for a while and he raised a Naga force consisting of mostly Zeliangrongs and as he proceeded, almost all the people of the country welcomed him as their king that time the Burmese army left Manipur on hearing the arrival of the Ahom forces.
According to Meitei Ningthourol, Bhagyachandra by disguising as Hao (Zeliangrong) who alone came back from Ahom and organized all the Khullakpas of Zeliangrong villages inhabiting near the Tongjei Maril road to help him when he returned with the forces of Ahom to liberate his motherland from the Burmese forces. Later, Khellemba was murdered brutally by the emissaries of Bhagyachandra at the Lousee Lake.
Even today, there are relics left by Bhagyachandra in the Rongmei villages: at Awangkhul (Longchum), there is a stone slab with Hanuman image along with ineligible inscription, Nungnang (Lungrang)- there are stone bounders where he spent his days, and at Khebuching (Puching) – he performed the Khousaba, spear fighting and vowed to liberate his motherland. He left his weapons at Akhui which were presented by the Akhui people to the Maharaja Churachand Singh in the twentieth century. He and many royal princes spent times at Wairangba and Tamenglong village. Construction of Tekhao road which is connected with Ahom (Assam) is an evidence of friendship and co-operation between the Meiteis and Zeliangrong because the said road runs through the Zeliangrong land without any hindrance from the side of the later.
In 1770 C.E, Manipur was invaded by the Burmese under King Hsinbyushin. Chingthangkhomba was again driven out and he fled to Cachar. J. Roy says, no sooner had the Burmese withdrawn than Chingthangkhomba along with the forces of Ahom re-entered Manipur. Under his efficient rule prosperity gradually returned to the country. In absence of Chingthangkhomba, Manipur was ruled by Erengba/Kukilananda Erengba, a scion of the royal family who was set up by the Burmese submitted after feeble resistance at Langathen. R. Brown writes, on hearing the news of coming of Chingthangkhomba along with Ahom forces, Eringba immediately handed over the throne to him without objection. With the instigation of Manshenba, the son of slain chief of Moirang, Khellemba, the Burmese invaded Manipur again in the year 1772 C.E. Bhagyachandra again fled to Ahom through Cachar on the 2nd day of Phairen (February). The Burmese forces left Manipur soon after installing a puppet King called Pukhrambam Binodram whose capital was at Wangkhei. In the year 1775 C.E, Bhagyachandra along with his hill supporters mostly Zeliangrongs marched into Manipur but without a single battle he became king again because Binodram already left Manipur on hearing the news of coming of Bhagyachandra.
In the same year (1775 C.E), Bhagyachandra established his capital at Lamangdong on the day of Saturday, 19th day of Phairen (February). In spite of his religious orthodoxy, the Kabui settlers in the valley were living peacefully without having interference from his administration.
Cheitharol Kumbaba records, a severe flood devastated the valley on the day of Saturday, 12th day of Kalen (May), 1775 C.E. The shrine of Akoijam was collapsed and many houses were flown away up to the Loktak Lake. People took shelter on roof of their houses. A large number of people died and famine followed. According to Meitei Ningthourol, it was during the reign of Binodram, the valley was submerged with water after three days continuous rain (9 -11) that happened on the day of Saturday, 12th day of Kalen(May), 1775 C.E. The whole valley area was looked like a lake. All roads were underwater and People took shelter on the nearby hills.
Since there is no written record, oral tradition of the village is the only source of the past history of the Rongmei villages of Heibokching. “History to the Zeliangrong people is the oral tradition which handed down from one generation to another (father to son).” This flood is still talked about among the elders of Langthabal Khoupum, Langthabal Chingkha (Namkaolong) and Langthabal Chingthak (Lubanglong) villages as oral tradition. The oral tradition tells that due to severe flood of Wangkhei Duidai (Ichao), the villagers of Langthabal Meitei came on the Heibok Hills and took shelter in the Rongmei villages until the flood water drained away from the valley. This flood is locally known as Wangkhei Hagtakki Ichao, because Manipur was under the rule of Binodram of Wangkhei.
According to Cheitharol Kumbaba, the royal chronicle of Manipur, on the day of Wednesday, 17th day of Kalen(May), 1778 C.E, the country went dark. It rained with dust particle. In connection with the gloomy incident, the oral tradition of the village tells that as usual the womenfolk went to collect firewood at the Heibok Hills. While collecting the firewood, suddenly, it went dark, nothing could be seen; seeing this occurrence, they hurriedly ran towards their respective villages.
After the dark event, the Chronicle further states that on the day of Monday, 7th day of Enga (June), 1778 C.E, an image of Sanamahi God was erected and on the same day, Kangjei game (hockey) for the Kabui settlers in the valley was organized. This historical sport event is also mentioned in the oral tradition that the three villages jointly as a team participated in the said Kangjei game organized by the king of Manipur. The said Kangjei game refers to the traditional Meitei Mukna-Kangjei, meaning wrestling-cum-hockey, is an outdoor game. It is popularly known as Khong-Kangjei or Kangjei and played on a field by two teams of seven players each, with curve cane sticks and a small hard ball in the style of Mukna (wrestling). The valley Kabui tribals also enjoyed Mukna-Kangjei in early times. And in the year 1779, C.E he shifted his capital to Langthabal from Lamangdong.
It is now proved that the migrant Rongmei people mostly from Western hills had settled down at the Heibok Hills before the above historical events. According to Gangmumei Kamei, it was during the reign of Bhagyachandra many Zeliangrong people engaged in his war against the Burmese to drive out from the soil of Manipur in 18th century. Many Zeliangrongs who came to know the Maharaja came down to the valley and started such migrant villages of Langthabal and Khoupum in the Heibok Hills. The settlers of Khoupum were mostly migrated from Chingkhoupum in south Tamenglong.
To conclude, the present Rongmei villages, namely Langthabal Khoupum and Langthabal Chingthak (Lubanglong) did come into existence at the Heibok Hills during the reign of Bhagyachandra (1759-1762, 1763-1798) in 18th century on the basis of available historical records, and evidences supplemented by oral traditions of the village. However, the villages were not founded in the same year. Honbung Longmei, and Meikachun Kamson were the first Khullakpas of Langthabal Khoupum and Lubanglong respectively. The total population of Langthabal Khoupum (seven hundred fifty) and Lubanglong (five hundred) is one thousand two hundred and fifty only. One may ask why the population is not large after many centuries of their settlement at the Heibokching. In the past many villagers were killed by epidemic like cholera, small pox etc. as they did not know the use of prophylactic medicine. In addition some left the village in search of livelihood. The Rongmeis were allowed to settle at Heibok Hills; so it is their responsibility to protect the Heibokching. “There is a tribal village, beyond it lies forests.” For the tribals, forest is their life. They love and protect the forests.