MEET THE MAIBIS, MANIPUR’S MYSTICAL MEDIUMS.
Ima Dhoni, a woman in her early 60s, sits cross-legged on a plantain leaf, her head and body enclosed within the folds of a white cloth. She sits at the foot of a little temple in Singjamei Maisnam Leikai, a small Meitei-dominated locality in Imphal, in the northeastern state of Manipur. In front of her, on the temple’s raised wooden platform, are two golden-faced deities – representing a male and female supreme being – that smile benignly, seemingly pleased at the brass platters of rice, fresh fruit, seasonal vegetables and local sweets vying for space at their feet. Smoke quivers from the rows of incense sticks and candles burning on the temple steps.
The deities are the patron gods of this neighbourhood. The concrete temple itself was built with monetary contributions from surrounding households. Though the Meitei people, the majority community in the state, were converted to Hinduism about four centuries ago, temples like this one, dedicated to gods from the pantheon of the original Meitei religious tradition watching over either a locality or even individual families, are common sights across the state.
In the mid-morning sun, Ima Dhoni, surrounded by about 40 devotees, starts to ring a small brass bell, slowly at first then gaining tempo as she sings an invocation to these patron gods to bestow on her the divine language – an archaic, pure form of Manipuri – so that she can convey the gods’ messages to those gathered.
In Meitei belief, the tradition of the maibis is closely linked to the creation of the world. In the creation myth, when the god Sanamahi, as instructed by his father, the supreme god Atiya Guru Sidaba, started creating the world and human beings, his younger brother Pakhangba destroyed everything as soon as he made it. Sanamahi created the goddess Nongthangleima who beguiled Pakhangba with her charm and dances, thus allowing Sanamahi to build the world. Nongthangleima is regarded as the first maibi.
Today, this community of about 1 000 maibis across the state continues to play a significant role in Meitei society and religion, and serves people from different social echelons. Their oracles are regarded as sacrosanct, whether they are addressed to an individual or to the state as a whole, and often predictions about the state of affairs for the year ahead – whether it’ll be peaceful, filled with turmoil, or whether calamities will befall political leaders – are part of their oracles. It is believed for instance that the annual oracles of a maibi worshipping the patron deities around the Manipur State Assembly area during the last few years foretold the death of many sitting MLAs of the previous state government. While the veracity of such oracles actually taking place cannot be wholly confirmed, it is a fact that seven sitting MLAs died in the last government term – three of them in 2011.
Apart from being religious counsellors and providing oracles, maibis, with their knowledge of the functions of various herbs and vegetation found in Manipur – which they learn from more experienced maibis, although some claim to have discovered plant uses through a divine power – also act as healers and midwives. Maibis are also carriers of the oral lore and myths of the Meitei community through their dances and songs.
“During the Lai Haraoba ritualistic festival, the maibi performs various dances – some like the loiching jagoiand khuttek mathek dances detailing the creation of the world and the human body,” Ima Boramani explains. Other dances deliver blessings, such as the mikon thakonba, which she says “is performed for the well-being of the community.”
Ima Boramani who is 95 years old is the Maibi Asuppi, the head maibi and about 400 maibis are presently registered under her at the Sanakonung Maibi Loishang, a maibi institution housed in a hut-like structure at the Royal Palace of Manipur’s titular king. Around an equal number are also listed under two other institutions, the Uttara Shanglen and the Kangla Temple Board. It is however difficult to know the exact number of maibis in the state, as these lists often overlap, and many younger maibis in their initial awakening stages do not come out to register themselves and perform their religious duties. The ages of those registered range greatly, from the maibis as young as in their early 20s to those in their 90s.
Ima Dhoni was born during the first bombing of Imphal during the Second World War. A frank, welcoming and soft-spoken woman, she still recalls her first experience with the supernatural at the age of ten. One evening, she was sweeping the courtyard of her home, when she suddenly saw a beautiful woman floating mid-air in the sky. Overcome by the vision, she stopped and sat down to stare at the woman. “The vision vanished when my elder sister came back from the river after fetching water and for days I was very angry with her, childishly crying to her to return me my goddess,” she says. After that, she says she had many more such “visions,” sometimes of this mysterious woman, and sometimes of snakes – the symbol of the god Pakhangba. Often the trances would leave her in a convulsionary fit, gasping for breath.
Frightened that their young daughter’s frequent trances and visions were a sign that she was losing her mind, her parents chained her feet to a wooden stake driven into the earth floor of their house and she was kept locked up in a room. Her father and his friends took turns guarding her day and night. One night however she found herself with inexplicable strength and she was able to break the chains and, as her father and his friends were fast asleep, she escaped and ran all the way to her Ima Guru, many miles from her house.
“I had never seen or heard of this maibi, I was hardly twelve years old then. But that night it was as if someone walking in front of me was guiding me to her; she was my chosen Ima Guru, the maibi who had been destined to be my teacher and mentor,” Ima Dhoni recalls. After the episode, her father let her learn the trade and ways of the maibis – it is now her profession and calling in life.
The life of a maibi is a difficult one. In most cases, when the initial signs of a maibi begin in a girl, the family consult a maiba – a powerful male shaman who, unlike maibis, acquires his knowledge from mystical texts and not through divine inclination – to “suppress” the awakening. At this point in time the woman’s education and social life become heavily curtailed because of her erratic behaviour which is similar to madness as she speaks gibberish and suffers from bouts of fits and trances.
Because of this behaviour, the awakened woman in the nascent stages of becoming a maibi is often stigmatised. Her family will keep her hidden from public view out of the fear that if her awakening becomes known then no one will marry her. Even though they’re revered, there are superstitions linked to maibis, for instance, one is that the husband of a maibi will not live long. The family’s fear is fuelled by the fact thatmaibis consider themselves married to the gods, and although many of them get married, or become awakened after marriage and having children, the call to serve their gods often supersedes their roles as wives and mothers. While some of them may continue to live with their husbands and children, many often leave them to live at the Sanakonung Maibi Loishang or at a temple.
Chongtham Budhi, a social anthropologist formerly with Manipur University describes the contradictions in how maibis are perceived in the wider community as stemming from their achieving a “sort of celestial position in the Meitei society as they mediate between the heavenly and terrestrial worlds.” The resultant transcendental mode of thinking of the maibis, he says, means they don’t abide by accepted social norms, especially when it comes to what is commonly seen as the ideals of womanhood.
“To the common observer this creates confusion in their perception of the role and status of the maibi,” Budhi says.
When they finally start leading the life of a maibi, their Ima Gurus perform a number of rituals and initiation rites, after which they are said to be able to gain control over their trances and convulsions. They are also instructed in the various lores of the pantheon, the dances and conduct of the rituals, and they start wearing white, distinguishing them from other Manipuri women who normally wear brightly coloured clothing.
According to Ima Boramani, a maibi has to observe various restrictions to her diet and family life. She is forbidden to eat certain varieties of aquatic fauna including prawns and various eel species, vegetables and herbs that are believed to be incarnations of the god Pakhangba in Meitei mythology. Doing so is believed to temporarily sever the link with the gods and the severance will take its toll on her – either making her ill and shortening her lifespan or causing her to become so mentally unstable that she ends up insane.
While cooking there are certain types of wood and reeds that she cannot use for firewood, as legends say that the gods fear these trees. She must prepare her own food and ensure that she lights the fire for cooking at either three or seven strokes of the flint, though now matchsticks are used. If she’s married, on the 1st, 11th and 21st days of the month on the Meitei lunar calendar she must not have sex. At night, she also sleeps on the right side of the bed, which in Manipuri society is normally the husband’s side.
Ima Boramani herself became a maibi at the age of 18. “I was already married with a child when the symptoms came. I refused to eat for months. Sometimes in the night I would hear the voice of gods asking me to come out and dance and in a trance-like state I would go out and dance. I spoke a different language during these bouts, so my husband told me. Those days I saw humans as monsters and the gods as my companions,” she says.
An ongoing study at the Department of Clinical Psychology, Regional Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) in Imphal into the personality of maibis, with specific focus on their mental health conditions, found striking similarities between the maibi phenomenon and Western scientific explanations of schizophrenia and dissociative disorders, especially the trance and possession syndrome.
Assistant Professor Lourembam Roshan who has been conducting the study, adds however that the behaviour of maibis cannot be equated to the above explanations in toto. “There are many things still unknown and unexplained by science in the maibi phenomenon. More studies such as on the maibis’ capability to control their oracle giving and the genetic factor also need to be studied to fully understand it,” he says, explaining that many maibis speak about having some other maibi in their ancestry.
Still, even though so much about the maibis’ gifts remain a mystery, in the largely spiritual and religious Meitei culture, these women who are seen as a direct link to the gods are venerated, and their predictions are respected, almost fearfully so.
Under the morning sun, women, mostly elderly, and some men sit in small groups at a respectful distance behind Ima Dhoni, their ears cocked to hear if they can decipher the archaic language she utters in a trance. The older women, more familiar with this ancient form of Manipuri, can understand much of what she says, and translate for the younger people sitting beside them.
“O daughter, hailing from northern side of where I sit, I have received the flowers and fruits you have gifted and liked them. I hear your query on whether flowers will bloom in your garden. I see how your husband comes home and speaks harshly to you for this reason. Separate the evil spirits from your household and I will gift you sons and daughters …” she chants, her oracles for different people pouring out one after the other, while her upper body shakes rhythmically in a circular manner.
Over half an hour, Ima Dhoni’s oracles address people in the audience, ranging from a young girl wanting to pass an exam looming on the horizon, to an older woman worried about frequent quarrels in her household, to a young man who is warned about future competition at work. She gives clues as to whom the oracles relate to, providing indicators pertaining to age, sex, where they live, their order among their siblings. And with each message she offers guidance as to what offering – such as a tri-coloured flag, three types of flowers, a fish, a hen or candles – should be given to the patron gods as a remedial or preventative oblation for such problems.
Ima Dhoni however maintains that she has no recollection of the messages which have such a profound impact on her listeners. “When we invoke the gods, the god enters our consciousness and what emerges is the laibou – the divine word. It is like speaking in our sleep. I am not me anymore, and my thoughts and mind just vanish … as if someone, some voice or some presence, decides what to say and utters it,” she says.
“I only come to my senses when the other maibi attending sprinkles water with tairen (Cedrela Toona /Indian mahogany) leaves on my head.”
She ends her prophesying by speaking about the calamities that will befall the state in 2012. “This year, there will be epidemic of rashes in children,” she says. “Also lots of wind and thunderstorms will come.”
Byline: Thingnam A. Samom