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Sanamahism, the pre-Hindu religion of Manipur

Srinivasan Balakrishnan

Sanamahism, the pre-Hindu religion of Manipur, was revealed to us by Krishna; not the Lord Krishna but our Manipur Guide! A Sanamahism temple at Kangla Fort, the citadel of the erstwhile Manipur Kingdom, meant that Sanamahism had and still has a powerful role to play in Manipur society.

It was our first darshan of a Sanamahism temple, Ibudhou Pakhangbagi Sanglen. The white temple with its own unique architectural style presented a majestic appearance rising from the vast open ground. It seems number seven has some strong bond with Sanamahism. Everything is represented in seven - the first flight of steps is seven; upon reaching the platform another flight of seven steps lead to the altar; the towers (4 small and the big central one) all have seven rings each with horn-like that give a Viking helmet look; again, the flag poles on these towers have seven flags each in red, white, black, yellow, gold, blue and green colours. The flag posts around the temple also have seven rings; on four sides of the structure seven folds cascade downward; these metal festoons resemble decorative stencils.  Everything and anything is revolving around number Seven, I wondered. So, has this anything to do with seven days of the week? I got the answer in a mythological story:

According to the legends, Tengbanba-Mapu (Guru Sidaba), the creator of the Universe, desired to hand over the administration to one of his three sons, the one who was intelligent and talented amongst the three. His sons were called Atiya Sidaba, Sanamahi and Pakhangba. Guru Sidaba commanded that the one who arrived first at the throne after circling the earth seven times would succeed him. Accordingly, the first two sons mounted their horses and took off. But Pakhangba, who was physically weak, could not do so.  The weakling was advised by his mother Leimarel Sidabi to just move around the throne of his father which was as good as circumambulating the earth itself.  Pakhangba circled the throne seven times and ascended the throne of his father. On return, both Atiya Sidaba and Sanamahi got agitated at their mother's partiality. They were pacified by their parents by declaring that Sanamahi would become the Lord of every household in this Universe, a household deity, and that Atiya Sidaba would be united with Guru Sidaba (Lord Tengbanba-Mapu) Himself! Thus Pakhangba became Ibudhou (Lord) Pakhangba and the ruling deity of Manipur, while Sanamahi became the head of deities of every Meitei household. Seven could also indicate the seven salais (clans) of Meitei created by Pakhangba.

The deities inside are Tengbanba-Mapu (Guru Sidaba), the creator of the Universe, and His consort, Leimarel Sidabi. Only the face is visible. While the male deity wears turban and also uniquely designed ear-drops, the female deity wears a cap and a different ear-drops and an elaborate necklace to match. He is covered in whites - dhoti and shawl, and She is covered in the traditional Innaphi & Phanek. They are placed under a wooden canopy with puja items and offerings (cash & kind) spread in front. A mirror is also placed near Her. On His side is placed a pair of wooden sandals. White muslin cloth of finest variety with patterns & designs is draped around the canopy on three sides. The smiling faces of the brass icons radiate with compassion.

Invariably, the image of Ibudhou Pakhangba, the coiled snake that forms a pattern by holding its tail in its mouth, finds a place in the sanctum sanctorum. This image is also found on the terrace in all the four cardinal directions; they are positioned prominently at the centre among the row of interlinked coiled snakes that form the railing.  It is generally believed that Ibudhou Pakhangba resides under Kangla and rules Manipur and the vast expanse of the solar system. The Nungjeng Pukhri (pond) within Kangla complex is believed to be the abode of Lord Pakhangba.

In such a small temple on way back from Moreh to Imphal, only representative images without any statues, all decked up, are seen. Lots of offerings were also found, like wooden sandals for both the deities, mirrors, plenty of costume, hand-held fans, and a number of small wooden elephants and horses.              To this day I rue not buying the image of Sanamahism’s Goddess of Wealth which I misunderstood as a woman shop-keeper.

As we witnessed the enthralling traditional music & dance celebration of Holi (they call it Yaoshang) at the Sanamahism place of worship in Thoubal District, as outsiders we returned enlightened about the uniquely rich pre-Hindu religion of Sanamahism. ….. krishnanbala2004@yahoo.co.in /9840917608 WhatsApp

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