The urgent need for documenting Manipur’s Nupa Amaibi tradition.
Nupa Amaibis/ Maibis[i] are the men shaman of Manipur. They were seen mostly in Lai Haraoba performing dance and rituals. The Amaibi dress they wear during Lai Haraoba is a bit different from the one that is worn by female Amaibi. Until the late 1990s, their participation was seen popularly in every Lai Haroaba place. However, in the present days, their participation and visibility in the Lai Haraoba places is remarkably low. Within the Nupa Amaibi community, there are also a very few individuals who identify as Nupi Maanbi (trans women). The aim of this research is to explore the possible reason of the lower representation of Nupa Amaibi in Lai Haraoba spaces and reduction in the number of their population. There is no literature that is exclusively based on Nupa Amaibi. Hence, this documentation intends to place an introduction of Nupa Amaibi through individual stories.
Amaibis are the shamans of Manipur and the tradition of the Amaibi is much visible among the Meitei community[ii]. God’s (Lai) chosen people, they serve as a mediator between the local deity and humans. Any individual cannot become an Amaibi. They are chosen by the gods and get their calling when the time is favourable during the course of their lifetime. When an individual gets the Amaibi calling, he/ she will start seeking for another Amaibi and Amaiba/ Maiba[iii], probably senior in the community who they will consider as their new parent. The new parent needs to be chosen according to the instruction of the deity that is associated with the Amaibi. The deity associated with each Amaibi is different and all these deities are from the Meitei pantheons. The chosen parent is the one who is going to take care of the new Amaibi in every aspect. The chosen parent will give a good mentorship to the new Amaibi to train him/ her in rituals and the intricate and detailed celebration of Umang Lai Haroaba[iv], which is celebrated in honour of the local deities.
Therefore, this tradition occupies huge social and cultural spaces in the Amaibi community. Amaibis wear a unique female dress when they perform the ritualistic tasks. The dress they wear during the Umang Lai Haraoba is different from the one, which they wear in private engagement. However, outside of the ritual world, they also wear the regular dress.
The Amaibi tradition has been flourishing in Manipur since time immemorial. The Amaibis occupy and play a huge role in social, culture and state affairs in the earlier Manipuri society. For instance, they used to tell the calendar of the independent Manipur and the king performed according to their advices. However, in the new millennium, the importance of Amaibis seem to be declining due to several factors, mainly new influences like the globalisation, aged old regressive practices like gender-based prejudices and myths or cultural imperialism. Nevertheless, they play an extensive role, which includes divination or healing, especially during Lai Haraoba and even at the domestic level.
Though the word Amaibi is a female gender pronoun, people who possess (or are possessed by) this divinity become Amaibi. It can be men, women or Nupi[v] Maanbi[vi] (trans women). Amaibis are always associated with Amaiba and they are the trained men performing certain ritual that are compulsory for ritualistic activities. A woman cannot officially become an Amaiba and the word is also a male gender pronoun. They are not God’s chosen people. However, the combination of two gendered word – Nupa[vii] and Amaibi – in the tradition is a threat to the homogeneity of the tradition. This resulted in the lower representation and participation of Nupa Amaibi and Nupi Maanbi Amaibi in the Lai Haraoba tradition. In this scenario, Amaibis who were assigned male at birth and identified as Nupi Maanbi, are again facing much rejection from society, family and Amaibi community.
The Nupi Maanbi Amaibis are very less in number both in the Amaibi insititution and social organisation. They are shunned by the Amaibi community because of their feminine behaviour and mannerism. The constant threat that comes from different sections of society has pushed them to the margin. Intolerable lived experiences encountered by the Nupi Maanbi Amaibi have led the community to live in the closet and many of the young people even suppress their Amaibi trait and try to fit into the mainstream normal regular lives. Amaibis in general are assumed as people having weird characters that can perform sorts of black arts. They also follow very strict rules. For instance, they cannot eat catfish; there are also many other things, which they cannot do like other ordinary people. Nupa Amaibis and Nupi Maanbi Amaibis, on the other hand, are the people who performed female in a male body with the divinity trait. Therefore, the degree of socially prejudicial treatment received by them is much higher than the Nupi Amaibis (female Amaibi).
This documentation aims to explore the socio-cultural understanding of the Amaibis who are assigned male at birth but identify as Nupi Maanbi (trans woman). The attempt is to place a narrative of Nupi Maanbi Amaibi for the larger audience. It is highly important to furnish a comprehensive narrative of the Amaibi tradition of Manipur that encompasses the recognition and acknowledgement of all genders in the Amaibi community and institution. Otherwise, the diversity and traditional heritage of Amaibi is getting corrupted, poisoned and polluted, and may result in the division and extinction of the Nupa Amaibi and Nupi Maanbi Amaibi from the tradition.
In the course of this documentation, there were several field visits to Cachar district in Assam, and Jiribam, Moirang, Nambol, Bishnupur, Imphal East, Imphal West and Thoubal districts of Manipur. The field visits were made through a few senior Nupa Amaiba with prior communication. During the field visits, there were interactions with several Amaibis and experts who associate with Amaibi Loishang[viii]. As the documentation aims to uncover the ground reality of Amaibis who identify as Nupi Maanbis, the story is confined to two Amaibis. Their interview was taken through voice recordings and a video recording was made during a private engagement to present a glimpse of their ritual processes. The documentation was authorised through informed written consent. Many other Amaibis, experts and an extensive literature survey have contributed to this documentation.
Available information on Nupa Amaibi and Nupi Maanbi Amaibi remains scarce. My activism has enabled me to reach out to many scholars and the community in the state, which are under research and having underprivileged lives. Moreover, my activism is not limited to Nupi Maanbi but also to encompass intersectional issues. My engagement with the various community and individual has inspired me to explore the people’s stories and neglected literatures. There are so many challenges in the process for exploration but they help me gain knowledge and establish an emotional relationship with them. And I believe that in every live there is an extraordinary story, which many of the internationally developed communities and countries have not been able to reach out. Especially for Nupa Amaibi, I have a long relationship with a few men shaman who are of feminine expression and subjectivity, and who have been extending support in various ways. This long association with them has enabled me to understand their live experiences and concerns. Their untold stories have touched me deeply and also made me realise that they may be erased forever from the Amaibi tradition and community. Almost all the personal stories are filled with rejection, oppression and exclusion. There is no story of hope, which can possibly be counted as a path to a dignified life and recognition of their existence both in the family and society. However, their participation in the Amaibi tradition has been rooted in the history. In order to place evidence in the international shaman’s chapter, I have intended to highlight a few narratives of the community so that their existence is not forgotten. This documentation may possibly draw attention of the people in India and abroad and serve as a primary literature for the Nupa Amaibis and make it easier for people to start doing ground work on the subject. I believe that this documentation is a good asset for the many people across the globe.
This documentation may possibly draw attention of the people in India and abroad and serve as a primary literature for the Nupa Amaibis and make it easier for people to start doing ground work on the subject.
My name is Nanao Sanasam and I am 25 years old. I am an Amaibi and tagged as Nupa Amaibi in the official record of Amaibis. Apart from this male gender marking in my Amaibi status, my preferred gender is female and I identify myself as Nupi Maanbi (transgender woman). I live in Oinam Irengbam[ix] in Bishnupur district of Manipur. My father is a businessman selling cable wire, auctioned from electricity department and my mother is a weaver. I am the eldest of three siblings; I have a younger brother and a sister. Being the eldest I am more responsible of the domestic affairs. My house is on the sidewalk of the road and a big drain separates our house from the main road.
When the cleaning of the drainage was being carried out in 2005-06, I remember becoming unconscious while searching for my mother who was amongst the locals engaged in the cleaning works. I could not remember anything when I regained consciousness and got to know about it from the neighbours. I was 12 years old then. My mother told me that the people who worked with her put water on my head and provided local treatment. As the condition did not improve, I was taken to a doctor in Nambol immediately. The doctor told my parent that my health was normal but apparently, I was speaking indistinctly, in seemingly different dialects. My mother said that the dialect had the same intonation like that of the other tribal communities of our state. As the doctor failed to deal with the situation, we returned home.
I still remember it was Saturday, 11 June 2006, that I got the Amaibi’s calling. My aunt’s house was just adjacent to ours and I often stayed there. Aunty had a very big kitchen garden and they had lot of chillies, which were turning red. One day when I was at her house, I suddenly felt dizzy as I was searching for fruits in the kitchen garden. Instead of getting fruits, I started rolling on the chilli plants and destroyed a lot of them. There were rashes all over my skin due to insect bites and burn from the chillies.
Many people came to see me when they got to know that I was not keeping well. Some cried when they saw my condition deteriorating. During that time, I started telling fortunes of the people who visited our house. My parents were not able to find a way to cure me but it seemed they realised that my condition was related to the Amaibi trait and I did not eat anything for a month. They started asking me to tell the name of the deity that was associated with me. The first name came out from my mouth was Kounu Lairembi[x], wife of Koubru[xi]and Nungthel Leima[xii], wife of Loyalakpa[xiii]. However, I saw and felt Ema[xiv] Nungthel Leima and Kounu Lairembi feeding me with banana tree juice and milk. The deity in me even demanded a Phanek[xv] to wear. The last deity that came to me was Laisna[xvi].
I told my mother that three mushrooms grew at the place where I sat and gave oracle for the first time. I instructed her to go and collect the mushrooms. The first morsel that I took after remaining without food for a long time was the curry of those three mushrooms. I was not able to eat the food properly and asked for fruits like the lemon. I drank a glass of lemon juice.
In the initial period, I was completely like an insane person. There was chaos in my mind when so many deities came to me and I was unable to control the connection with those deities. I needed to channelise and be directed with the spiritual connectedness, and therefore sought for a guide, who was like a parent. I was taken to Pabung[xvii] Tomba who lived in Ningthoukhong in Bishnupur district. He guided me to Amaibi Loishang[xviii] and conducted Epan Thaba[xix] for me. The Epan Thaba was conducted at the end of the month of July. In the ritualistic procedure, he asked me to tell the name of the deity associated with me. That day I confirmed the deity was Laisna.
I had a very difficult time. I was not being able to eat and sleep properly. I would wake up in the middle of the night. Such disturbance happened before my actual deity was confirmed and its shelter was not in place. It seemed supernatural when a Tairen tree[xx] suddenly started growing up inside my father's garage. The deity had chosen to live at the foot of the tree. Hence the deity’s house was built there; it is still there at the same place.
In the beginning, neighbours used to tease me and it was difficult for my father to accept me becoming an Amaibi. He even used to beat me up for my life’s decision. Many people insulted me saying that I chose to be an Amaibi because I wanted to become a ‘homo’[xxi]. The Nupa Amaibis take up a feminine stance and expression. They also wear female attire in Lai Haraoba. People assumed that my Amaibi calling was an excuse to transform myself into a female gender identity. There was no way out to escape from that hatred by my family and the society at large. I still carry scars in my body from all the torture and abuses.
Ironically, the financial condition of my family improved after I started living my life as an Amaibi performing ritual occupations. The gradual improvement in the family was welcomed as did my Amaibi identity that also goes along with my Nupi Maanbi identity. They even called me as Emoinu[xxii] of our family. My Amaibi identity did not only provide me income and resources but also got me recognition and fame. My mother declared that she stood for me and had accepted the fact that female attributes could not be changed. She feels my enemy is her enemy and tells me not to participate in any Lai Haraoba in the vicinity of my village. I have been following her advice and am bound to her instructions. My mother cannot tolerate the negativity directed towards me many of which are associated with my feminine expression and Amaibi identity.
It was around 2008-09 when I was regularly attending the Amaibi Loishang. During that time there was huge respect towards Nupa Amaibi and they enjoyed certain degree of freedom in terms of dressing, make up and mannerism. I still remember those senior Nupa Amaibis putting black kohl and wearing Khudei[xxiii] in the form of Phanek. Now the scenario has completely changed as a sign of embracing heteronormative identity.
In 2012, a cultural organisation suddenly made things problematic for us. It adopted new strictures over Nupa Amaibi and forced them to wear Pheijom[xxiv] in place of the Chamara[xxv] (the traditional female attire Nupa Amaibi used to wear in Lai Haraoba). That year, Nupa Amaibis in some Lai Haraoba started wearing Pheijom, under pressure from the social organisation. However, in 2017-18, a meeting led by renowned scholars like Pabung Bidu[xxvi] and Pabung Kerania[xxvii] was held at Pandit Loishang to discuss about the historical facts of Amaibis. In the resolution of the meeting, a decision was taken to retain Nupa Amaibi female attire. All traditional scholars and Amaibis (both men and women) who participated in the meeting signed a written agreement in this regard. Following the agreement, Nupa Amaibis started wearing Chamara in Lai Haraoba and at the Kwak Taanba[xxviii] ceremonies.
The numbers of Nupa Amaibis, including Nupi Maanbi Amaibis, participating in Lai Haraoba has remarkably decreased. In the current scenario, most of the Lai Haraoba place is being occupied by Nupi Amaibi (female shaman). However, there are still a few Lai Haraoba places where Nupa Amaibi are given the leverage to perform important rituals.
Within the Nupi Maanbi community there are prejudices associated with Amaibi identity. I was bullied when my Nupi Maanbi community came to know that I am Amaibi. We are connected to so many young Nupa Amaibi but they suppress their Amaibi trait and work in beauty parlour business because of the disparity in the income and the privileged position it comes along within the society. Besides the social recognition and value, the contribution of the Amaibi is very less when compared with the amount of acceptance received by a Nupi Maanbi who is also in the beauty parlour business.
Advancement and developments also impacted the Amaibi tradition. Easy access to information through the internet and the new found knowledge is considered as advanced and progressive. People are distancing themselves from aboriginal cultures and traditions, perhaps because of limited documented records and their online unavailability. Besides there is no empowerment programme for Amaibi community and their ignorance also allows external influence to interfere in the community narratives. The dominant narratives of Nupi Amaibi will continue to subdue the existence of Nupa Amaibi including Nupi Maanbi Amaibi in generations to come.
The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed us to an unfamiliar environment we were never prepared for. Like a lot of other festivals and celebrations, the Lai Haraoba festival was halted in every place badly affecting our livelihood. Lai Haraoba used to be the main earning for us, and this year the picture is grim. The income that we used to get from Lai Haraoba was about Rs.80,000 to Rs.100,000 every year. However, this year I am not even able to afford my hormone supplements and the money I get from private engagement is not enough to care for my daily requirements.
My name is Naoba and I reside in Malom Awang Leikai in Imphal West district. I am now 24 years old. It was during summer in 2016 that my first Amaibi calling took place. That was a time when Lai Haraoba was happening at a place close to my house. Hence many Amaibis were present there. And I did not struggle much to find my Ema and Epa[xxix].
I went into a trance as soon as I reached home from the Lai Haraoba site. My mother told me that when I was in trance, I informed her that a particular Amaibi, short in height and having a round face, in the Lai Haraoba can only treat me. This was instructed to me by my deity.
When I came back to my senses, I found that an Amaibi and an Amaiba were tending to me by sprinkling water using tairen (Indian cedar) leaves. They did all the necessary rituals for me and directed me to adapt to new changes – spiritually and physically. According to my mother, I got the chance to get timely treatment from the Amaibis participating in the Lai Haraoba. On that day, I found my Ema and Epa. My Ema was Ema Shanti and Epa Pena was called Tiken from Heinou Khongnembi. After the Lai Haroaba was over, I started following my Ema and Epa. Along with them I started attending Amaibi Loishang. Subsequently Pabung Tiken conducted Saroi Khangba[xxx] for me and taught me the right way to communicate with deity at the right time. He said that real deities came early in the morning, early afternoon and early evening, and would not harm me but those who come in between are all evil spirits and I should avoid communicating with them. That ritual was just a fragment of the Amaibi procedure and one most important ritual was still yet to be performed. The final and the most important ritual is Epan Thaba in Amaibi’s proceeding. It confines to the new Amaibi the position of participating in Lai Haraoba and access to the deities. It is also a declaration of one’s Amaibi identity in the family.
For me Ema Shanti was responsible for the Epan Thaba but she was not ready to conduct my Epan Thaba. Instead of considering the fact that I am Amaibi, she insisted me to convert into Amaiba. She said I am a boy and I can be Amaiba only. But that was irrational and an attempt to control my real Amaibi that is inside me. What she did for me was the Leimarel Chuk Phukpa[xxxi] but that was not the end procedure to get the ability to participate in Lai Haraoba. She used to take me to many Lai Haroaba ceremonies but I was treated differently. That ill treatment hurt me and I felt excluded and uneasy when she took me to Lai Haraoba and secluded me from her Amaibi children.
Luckily, I met Da Nao[xxxii] who is also a Nupa Amaibi. I expressed my wish to participate in Lai Haraoba but my Epan Thaba was not accomplished at that time. Da Nao and I discussed to get the Epan Thaba done and Da Nao advised me to meet a senior Nupa Amaibi named Pabung Brojen. I along with Da Nao went to Pabung Brojen and he was very happy to see me. He treated me like his own child and agreed to do my Epan Thaba in the beginning of January. I was very lucky to find Pabung Brojen. He fixed a day for me in January and wholeheartedly completed all the pending rituals. Since 2017, I began participating in Lai Haraoba.
When I received the Amaibi’s calling, initially my neighbours shunned me and said that it was a gimmick. In their view, my Amaibi status was an intentional choice that I was trying to liberate my feminine expression taking the Amaibi excuse (all Amaibis irrespective of their gender performed as women in Lai Haraoba). They even put pressure on my parents to beat me as a way to bring me back to ‘normal’ life. My uncle’s sister in law is also an Amaibi and is a cis-woman. She is respected by all neighbours who believed in her predicaments and oracle. However, people fail to show that much respect to me and often blame my oracle as fraud. The difference between the two of us is because of my Nupi Maanbi identity, my long hair and feminine mannerism.
Within the Amaibi community also many of the cisgender Amaibi often threatened me for keeping long hair and long nails. Of course, there were Nupi Maanbi friends who encouraged my Amaibi identity but most of them made fun of me.
My pain that is associated with my Amaibi identity is immeasurable. But I have been serving so many people since I became an Amaibi. There are so many families and individuals that I have dealt with, and they have healed from many a condition. But my own relatives hire other Amaibis for their ritual ceremonies, and for this I receive negative remarks from my own Amaibi community. Their act is a visible example of the amount of hatred towards me. They fail to realise that I am not even going to charge them money like other Amaibis do.
The negligence of the existence of Nupi Maanbi in the Nupa Amaibi narratives is one factor that leads to the diminishing status of a section of gender identity in the Manipur Amaibi tradition. I have seen many documentary films about Amaibis and one example is Ishanou[xxxiii]. The existing documentations are all based on the life story of Nupi Amaibis. Even in the cultural institutions the Amaibi education has been dominated by cisgender women Amaibis and scholars. In the movement towards the preservation of Lai Haraoba and Amaibis, concerned people and organisations are only focussing to promote Nupi Amaibis. The structural discrimination toward my kind and Nupa Amaibis is a threat to the gender diversity that exists in the Amaibi tradition. Lastly, Amaibis cannot be converted into Amaibas and the threat over Nupa Amaibi to convert into Amaiba by a few cultural organisations is to control and take over the Amaibi tradition and Lai Haraoba space. This new agenda is a visible sign of prejudices against the unconventional gender people in the Amaibi community. The particular organisation has claimed that Nupa Amaibis are not real and men cannot become Amaibis. A false narrative along with set of rules for the Lai Haraoba was also circulated to all the Lai Haraoba places. The organisation has instigated and warned to keep restriction on Nupa Amaibis to perform in the female attire in the Lai Haraoba. However, in the history of Amaibi, the importance and existence of Nupa Amaibis is clearly documented and the female attire they wear also carries a historical significance. It is an attempt to exercise power to authorise gender, identity and Amaibi’s space for certain political benefits. Amaiba, Amaibi and Pena are like fire, water and air. The association of these three entities is inevitable and their full participation in Lai Haroaba and other ritualistic events is very important. As each of them possesses different skills and qualities, any particular task cannot be messed up.
- Wangam Somorjit, Ancient Historian, President, Advance Research Consultant
- Lai Loken, Pandit Loishang, Pana Maichow
- Dr. Moirangthem Macha Chaoreikanba, Assistant Professor, Department of Dance and Music, Manipur University Canchipur
- Khuman Tomba, Nupa Amaibi Ashuppa, Maibi Laoishang
- Dr. Thounaojam Chanu Ibemhal, Memchoubi. 2006. AMAIBI: Manipurda Shamanism. Imphal: Arambam Yoimayai
- Ngariyanbam Kulachandra Singh. 1963. Meitei Lai Haraoba. Imphal: Self Published
- Ngangbam Kumar Maibi. Kanglei Haraoba. 1988. Imphal: Thambal Angoubi
- Dr. Moiramgthem Macha Chaoreikanba. Nungi Mashak Utliba Kanglei Haraobagi Jagoi. 2019. Imphal: IMAKHOL
[i] Maibi/ Amaibi – Common name for the shaman in Manipur
[ii] Meitei – An indigenous community of Manipur
[iii] Amaiba/ Maiba (common name) – They are males who are well trained to perform certain rituals in the traditional devotional activities. They do possess the divine quality to communicate with the deities. They have an intricate relationship with the Amaibis/ Maibis. And every ritual is done with the participation of a Nupa Amabi/ Nupi Amaibi, Amaiba and Pena, who is a performer of hymns with the traditional music instrument called the Pena.
[iv] Umang Lai Haraoba – Umang Lai: The ancestral deities worshipped by different Meitei clans and these deities live in sacred groves. Umang Lai Haraoba – an annual festival dedicated to the worship of Umang Lai
[v] Nupi - Woman
[vi] Nupi Maanbi – Manipuri term for transgender women
[vii] Nupa – Man
[viii] Amaibi Loishang – An institution for all Amaibi
[ix] Oinam Erengbam – A village in Bishnupur district
[x] Kounu Lairembi – Name of a Meitei female deity
[xi] Koubru – Name of a Meitei male deity
[xii] Nungthel Leima – Name of a Meitei female deity
[xiii] Loyalakpa – A male deity and husband of Nungthel Lairembi
[xiv] Ema - Mother
[xv] Phanek – A traditional attire worn by Manipuri women
[xvi] Laishna – A female deity and wife of god Pakhangba
[xvii] Pabung – Father
[xviii] Amaibi Loishang – The institution of Amaibi
[xix] Epan Thaba – Practised by the Meitei, it is a child’s first ritualistic ceremony. It is performed to purify and accept the child in the worldly form as soon as it is born. However, in the Amaibi tradition the same ritual is symbolically performed to accept them as a messenger of the deity and to accept them as the members of the Amaibi community.
[xx] Tairen – Considered a sacred tree of Meitei. The leaves of this Indian cedar are an essential one required for cultural and customary rituals and practices.
[xxi] Homo – A derogatory term called to men/boys who are feminine in behaviour and mannerism
[xxii] Emoinu – A Meitei goddess of wealth and prosperity
[xxiii] Khudei – The traditional men casual attire worn by Meitei community
[xxiv] Pheijom – A traditional formal attire worn by Meitei man
[xxv] Chamara – A white long skirt type dress worn by Nupa Amaibi
[xxvi] Pabung Bidu – Local traditional scholar
[xxvii] Pabung Kerani – Local traditional scholar
[xxviii] KwakTanba – A festival of indigenous Meitei community of Manipur. The day falls on the 10th lunar day of Mera month in Meitei calendar. It is a ritual festival to expel any forthcoming impediment in the land.
[xxix] Epa – The chosen father
[xxx] Saroi Khangba – Propitiation of evil spirits
[xxxi] Leimarel Chuk Phukpa – A ritual to part the way of evil spirits and other deities and to identify the deity associated with the Amaibi.
[xxxii] Da – Brother, Nao – Name of a Nupa Amaibi
[xxxiii] Ishanou – An award-winning film based on the life story of a Nupi Amaibi