Meitei-Pangals - Tracing The Lesser-Known History Of Manipuri Muslims

Meitei-Pangals - Tracing The Lesser-Known History Of Manipuri Muslims

[This article was first published on Deepika Chhetri’s blog and has been republished here with permission from the author.]

In an age where Wikipedia, if not the internet in its entirety, is our fountain of information, search for ‘Pangals’ or ‘Manipuri Muslims’ and you will be disappointed by the lack of insights available as you briskly read through many of the links. Many of you reading this, clicked on the link because you had no clue or knowledge beforehand that Manipuri Muslims even existed.

The story of their current presence is a living example of cross-cultural ethnicity with an even richer history that is an antithesis to communalism, as is our current state of affairs.

According to Wikipedia, Pangals are the descendants of Aurangzeb’s brother – Shah Suja, who fled his death from the self-proclaimed Mughal King and upon reaching Manipur, it is said that, he was given refuge by the then King of the region.

I decided to ask around to hear the locally remembered versions of history, so the journey began from a beautiful mosque about which I had gone to enquire.

I did not know who Manipuri Muslims were either honestly, not until a month ago. I had moved to this small town in South Assam from Delhi. The new place and the new people excited me (enough) to capture whatever I saw, happily trotting my way to unknown roads and shops.

And on just another ordinary day, I saw two women passing by, wearing the very familiar Manipuri traditional dress; yet this was a different rendition. And it all slowly came to me as a flashback in a dramatic advertisement sort of a way, in stereotypes. And I went home and Googled away. The vagueness of the information led me to do what I did. Hear the oral history that people carry with them, consciously or unconsciously.

Coincidentally, this beautiful Masjid I often saw on my way to the city and always wanted to visit happened to be in a Manipuri Muslim area, called Alipur.

In full view, the architecture is a beautiful off whitish (now, because of non-maintenance) mosque with a clear Mughal influence, standing tall and proud although stooping a little because of the weight of the years gone by without having anybody to take care.

On reaching, I went straight to the first house, right beside where the Tempo dropped me. I asked a young girl if she could show me around the mosque. I saw an excited smile, a flickering light in her eyes on seeing the worldly women in me who moved about freely, while she was herself limited to the house. She hesitantly called her brother, who was walking back home on seeing a random person interacting with his family - such propriety!

So I promptly began hammering him with questions regarding the Masjid’s history, who had built it and how old it was. I could read the confusion in his face. Attempting to remember, then finally giving up in five minutes he told me he doesn’t know much about it nor would any of his age.

Half disappointed I asked if anyone would know, to which he said, “kisi ko zyada pata nahi hoga but ek old uncle hai, unko poochenge to pata hoga (nobody knows too much, but there is one old uncle who you can ask, he would know).”

So I met Kazi Uncle at his abode and after our good conversation on the same he pressed for tea and packed me toffee and dry fruits which he excitedly announced his younger son had got from Dubai.

I asked about the Masjid first. According to him and a history professor who I went on to speak to later, confirmed that the masjid was built by a common man after Independence. The workers were specially brought from what is now Dhaka to complete the project.

A common man’s history

Like a curious child, I moved on from one conversation after another to ask him what he knows about his history, the shared history of Manipuri Muslims. He smiled at my excitement and interest in who they were. I stormed at him with what I had read online, along with what I wrote on top earlier about Shah Suja.

However, in written and shared memory, the history of Manipuri Muslims predates the era of Aurangzeb.

During the 1600’s, after the death of the King, his elder son, Khagemba was throned. Over what is said to be a petty argument between the brothers, the King’s younger brother, Sanongba fled to Cachhar with his mother, with hopes to ally with the Cachhar King to usurp the elder brother’s throne. So Sanongba, backed by the Sylheti Bengalis’ force attacked Manipur; only to be defeated.

Stubborn, like a younger child’s characteristic, Sanongba refused to give up. Fortunately, the Cachhari king had good relations with the Arabs who were the power in Bengal at that point. The Catchhari King approached Bengal for alliance and thus, with an army of Pathans, Catchhari Bengalis and his, they readied to attack Manipur with strong indignation at success this time.

On winning the battle, the new King, King Sanongba, content with the Pathans (Pangals, the Pathans of Bengal. The word is derived from ‘Bengal’) service, offering them lands and Meitei women as wives, inviting them to stay back.

The progeny of this inter-cultural and religious mixture are the Manipuri Muslims as we know and see today.

Manipuri traditional apparel has two pieces, Phanek (skirt), and the Innaphi (chunni as we call it in Northern India) which you wear on top of a blouse or top.

However, Manipuri Muslims have reinvented the same traditional dress to complement their faith.
The Phanek remains the same but you’ll notice young girls and women drape Innaphi around their head. Married women also tie a green cloth on top of their Phanek which can be of any colour. It’s a marker of marriage. Apart from this and facial features in come cases that are prominent, there’s nothing that you’ll notice is different between the Meiteis and the Meitei Muslims. From the food to the language, they were and are of the same Mother.

Yet, the story is far from over. Kazi uncle’s recount of history does not match with that of what’s recorded.

A week after meeting Kazi uncle, I went to see his friend in Baskandi, Prof Hamid Ali, a retired History professor.

Between what Uncle Kazi said and what Hamid Ali said, the bone of contention is the battle.
According to written records, Sanongba’s army backed by Catchhari Bengalis and the Pathans from Bengal in its second attempt too couldn’t win this battle against the fierce defense of the Meitei army in the Capital Kingdom.

Instead, after their clear defeat at the hands of the Manipuri army, many Pathans and Mangals (Manipuri word for “others” who are not Manipuri) were taken captives. King Pakhemba, on noticing their artistic artisanship offered them Meitei wives and lands on the pretext that they settle in Manipur. And as I wrote earlier, the progeny of this cultural and religious coming together are what we know of as Manipuri Muslims. In fact, an interesting fact that Uncle Kazi had brought to my notice was that these Pathans were offered or took up new surnames, based on the kind of work they were involved in. For eg, a gun shooter was surnamed Nongthombam which is a literal translation of the same in Manipuri language.

The second last sentence comes out with so much pride and hope of the possibility of an inclusive nation state. So with this in mind, I asked a few Manipuri women I met on my way back from Prof. Hamid Ali’s house, “Do the two communities still intermarry?”

“No. But in the younger generation, there have been cases where a Meitei girl marries into ours, but it does not happen from our side. Nobody has left the community to marry another outside of it”.

Irrespective of the point of diversion, what is commonly believed, and in records is that this Battle between the two brothers is a defining moment that paved parallel history for Manipuri Muslims.

However apart from this, as is said and recorded, Muslims from near and far off places came into Manipur, as the propagator of the teachings of Islam, as traders and so on. In fact, as is recorded by Farooque Ahmed in his book on titled, “Manipuri Muslims: Historical perspective, 615 -2000 CE” notes that Aribam (the word is derived from Aribah in Arabic meaning ‘Pure Arabs’), a Muslim clan in Manipur traces it’s paternal history to Saad ibn abi Waqqas, the Maternal uncle of the Prophet.

You can follow Deepika’s escapades here.