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Sacred space

By Huned Contractor

A fascinating new film on the Maibis of Manipur -- priestesses, philosophers, poets, healers -- suggests that it is indigenous cultures that hold the secrets to a restoration of the balance between humankind and the environment

The high tide of time gradually begins to wash away many elements from history. That explains why certain cultures and traditions have faded out, leaving behind faint wisps in the memories of those who can still remember them.

Will that happen to the Meitei religion of Manipur too?

Hopefully not. That’s the assurance that emerges from Pune-based filmmaker Kaushik Gupta Ray’s documentary titled Sacred Space which forays into hitherto unknown territory (both geographically and spiritually) and unveils the magic of the Maibis. These are the female mediators between spirits and men and, as such, have been the guardians of scripture. Only they are ordained to enter into oracular trances and perform ritual functions such as the Lai Hraoba.

In this film commissioned by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, Ray and his camera turn silent spectators, peeping as it were from behind a curtain at the Maibis and their mysteriously enchanting activities that include the physical and mental states of possession. Weaving, chanting and dancing through the many rites that the Meitei religion comprises, the women come across not just as the torchbearers of conventions that were prevalent before the advent of Vaishnavite Hinduism but also as truly empowered personalities who are able to handle matters of the hearth and religion with deep understanding, sensitivity, maturity, and delicacy.

Not much has been documented about the Maibis, and to that extent Sacred Space is like a journey into the unknown, driven by the curiosity to find out more and reveal the many intricate layers of a society that has so far not succumbed totally to the ravages of modernisation.

The filmmaker says: “The Maibi Loisang (the institute) has been responsible for the training of Maibis. The Maibi is unique because, apart from being a religious functionary of the Meitei religion, she is also a midwife, healer, herbalist, clairvoyant, spiritual leader and dancer. As a dancer, she communicates the traditional skills of fishing, weaving, house-building, etc, and this is what differentiates the Meitei people from the other hunter- gatherer tribes in the region. As poet and philosopher, she transmits knowledge of the sacred watercourses, the pats (lakes), and sacred groves (umang lais) unique to Manipur where each tree and herb has a specific function at a given point of time.”

The film captures all this and more even as we watch a Maibi sing of the Ngamu fish that will not survive in unclean water, or preside over the Ngamu Usin Ba when fingerlings are released into the water to symbolise renewal and purity. The Maibi sings of the grasslands and all the food and raw materials derived from it, and it is believed that the famous Loktak lake in the region was the body of the goddess Lairembi herself.

Looked at from a larger perspective, the film showcases the independence and self-actualisation characteristic of the women of Manipur. On another level, it brings out the wonderful harmony that exists between man and nature, with the latter being held as a precious gift that must always be treated with love and respect.

This is not to say that modernity has not been threatening to pull the carpet from under the Meitei religion and those who practise it. Ray shows this with great subtlety as he captures images and sound bites of those who feel saddened by facts such as brightly-coloured sarees replacing the traditional pure whites, or new styles of dance beginning to impose upon the old. “There are many forces, economic and patriarchal, which threaten to appropriate this fragile system that has come to us through the passage of more than a thousand years. However, what is interesting is that with the resurgence of connection of the Manipuri people with their Meitei roots, the Maibi may just provide the bridge between the values placed in her guardianship and the steps required into the complex future of India’s democratic polity,” the filmmaker says.

Describing the process that finally led to the documentation of this interesting society on film, Ray, an alumnus of the Film and Television Institute and winner of several awards in documentary filmmaking, explains: “My first visits to the region and the discussions I had with scholars on this subject made me realise that there were far too many intricacies to this subject, and that it would be difficult to incorporate all of them. For instance, Manipur is also politically fragmented and there are several socio-economic factors that have played havoc with the lives of people living here. But since my focus had to be on the Maibis, I decided to present it through the eyes of a senior Maibi, Hemalata.”

In this enticing attempt at understanding and experiencing the lives of a group of priestesses as a cultural phenomenon in itself, Sacred Space opens by placing the Maibi in the context of the Sanamahi religious beliefs of the Meitei people of Manipur. The viewer is then taken into the heart of the Lai Hraoba festival, an annual event dedicated to the deities of the Sanamahi cult. The Maibis are seen here in their ceremonial role. Further on, the film documents the process by which a woman becomes a Maibi; we are witness to the ancient rituals and training systems that are used. At the Maibi Loishang we get glimpses of the training process, all part of a system that will make them not only priestesses of ritual but also singers, dancers and spiritual mediums.

Apart from being an informative tapestry of this unique culture, what does the film propagate? For one, it soon becomes clear that it is these indigenous cultures that today hold the answers we need to try to undo the damage caused to the environment we live in. Enshrined in these cultures lie the secrets of how to manage, use and enhance the proliferation of vital species, and how to husband the abundance of their habitats in supportive sustainable ways that are low-cost and productive at the same time. “As I shot the film, the one realisation that was driven home was that the magic of these cultures lies in an intimate connection between man and spirit and man and his natural surroundings and their interplay. The earth lies at the centre of their cosmologies and is the bridge between their ancestors as the past, as provider of material needs in the present, and the future as legacy to be held in trust for generations to come,” Ray explains.

(Huned Contractor is a Pune-based freelance journalist)

Infochange News & Features, June 2011