Life account of Manipuri indigenous transgender Shamans
I am Santa Khurai, a Manipuri indigenous Nupi Maanbi1 . Nupi Maanbi can be translated as transgender women in English. I am a writer, gender rights activist and also an artist. I associate with a state level apex level body called ‘All Manipuri Nupi Maanbi Assocaition’ in short called AMANA, which is a community based organization for transgender community in Manipur. As a writer, some of my published work were two poems ‘Nupi Maanbi Thabal’ and ‘My father’ that I have contributed in the first South Asia queer anthology titled ‘The world that belonged to us’ and co-authored the book ‘PHEIDA” that explored the gender plurality in the erstwhile Manipuri society. The translation of ‘Yellow sparrows’ is my upcoming book which is a collection of my memos.
I have chosen to do this podcast because in the modern society people across the globe uses various digital medium as a tool to convey stories of different people’s lives. Likewise, this podcast is conducting with the intent to convey the stories of the Nupa Amaibi. The voice recorded from the Nupa Amaibi participants will help to establish a human connection with the listeners. The rhythm and the voice tone will definitely reflect the emotion and the feeling of the participants. Moreover, there will be English translation provided in the podcast to enhance the deeper understanding of the narratives by the listeners. The podcast is easier to wider dissemination as it doesn’t required much technical skills to use.
The popularity and the regards which the community enjoyed once upon a time is been replaced with pain, exclusion and reprehension.
With this, I would also like to place an introduction of Nupa2 Amaibi3 for the peoples who are new to this subject. Amaibi- is a shaman like indigenous community in Manipur. Within Amaibi there are men, women and transgender. However, transgender shaman have lost their historical identity in the local, domestic and the international. The community faced constant rejection and denial from the society, family and shaman community in Manipur. The popularity and the regards which the community enjoyed once upon a time is been replaced with pain, exclusion and reprehension. Though the Amaibi (shaman) tradition has its own place in the international and national, academic and cultural domain, the stories of Nupa Amaibi is completely invisibilized. Unfortunately, there is also no scholarly for the Nupa Amaibi. However the book on the Lai Haraoba4 written by a few Nupa Amaibi and are still using as a reference and curriculum at the Manipur Dance Academy and Manipur University. Regretfully, in the contemporary Manipur the popularity of the books written by the Nupa Amaibi is unvalued and declining. Likewise, there are so many under-represented communities like Nupa Amaibi in the different corners of the world, their stories are unheard, and their voice are silenced due to several factors. One common reason that leads to the silencing of their voice is the suppression of their narratives and erasure of their existence from the consciousness of the people at large. Such unprecedented subjects are treated anomalous and deviated from the mainstream subjects. To enhance the practice and acceptance of a more inclusive and a diverse human society, it is the high time that people with capacity extends support to these community and people to raise their voices and present their narratives at the limelight.
David’s Story (Voice over):
My name is Konjengbam David. People know me as Tomba. I am from Moirang. And I am studying in BA first year student. I also working as a Nupa Amaibi in Pandit Loisang.
Since an early age, I have been an Maibi5 .
These things happened to my grandmother first. It was suppressed in her case. It has returned to me now. Since I was a child, when I was around six, I became an Amaibi.
It occurred to me for the first time when I was alone. It was dusk. I was ill and I was on the bed. There was no one in the house. Everyone had gone to attend to my grandfather as he was ill.
I saw that there was a small bright light coming out from the Lainingthou Kachin (which is a corner in the house). From that light, I saw that a boy with long hair ran out. I was scared. I didn’t even slap the mosquito biting on my hand because I thought what if the boy was a lai, meaning God. I was scared that it might run to me.
After running around for a while, the boy went to Lainingthou kachin and stood there. The boy turned and looked at me. After that, he went inside it.
After that, at time I could not eat rice because it would smell really bad to me. Also, often I felt the desire to go to Lainingthou Kachin and play Khulokpi6 or Marum konbi7 there. At dusk, I would like to sing and I would become emotional also. I would also feel that I did not want to be with people. I avoid gatherings.
I would cover myself and laugh. I faced all these difficulties. People thought that I was just playing because I was a child.
One afternoon I was sitting at a friend’s place. My mother was doing business those days so I usually didn’t stay at home in the afternoon. I would stay at friend’s place in the afternoon. One day, I had difficulty breathing. People attended to me after that. They inform my mother of what happened. Initially, they thought that I was tired and fainted because of that. Such incident became frequent after that.
My father did not like Maibis. I was scared that my father will beat me.
I thought that the lai, meaning God, started calling me. Early morning, I would go the market and sit there. I faced these difficulties. After that, time came to look for my Ema8 Guru. The lai made me hear that Ima Guru would be at this or that place. But, I did not go because I was scared of my father. My father did not like Maibis. I was scared that my father will beat me. During lai-haraoba, I couldn’t bear it. The sound coming from there made it difficult for me to stay at home. So, I would run away.
Even before the Kandha Epan ritual9 , I used to play like Maibi. I would wear white clothes; I would hide in the cupboards. I took the small pots which were used for offering ghee from the neighbouring Bamon10 . I made ekou chaphu with paper. For water, I pretended the water tank to be a pond. In this manner, I played a maibi performing a ritual. My father would beat me asking whether I want to be a maibi. I would reply to him that I would become a maibi, even when I grow up. Such incidents happened frequently.
When they ask me go to tuitions, I wouldn’t go to tuitions; I would go to the place of Lai. Many a times, when I did go to tuitions and they would look for me, I would get caught sitting at the place of Lai.
The most disheartening incident that happened in my life is when I was allowed to participate in lai haraoba but they did not allow me to stay there till the end.
During lai haraoba, it would be difficult to stay at home. I wanted to run to it. They would not allow it. The most disheartening incident that happened in my life is when I was allowed to participate in lai haraoba but they did not allow me to stay there till the end. My parents did not allow me because they were embarrassed when the people from the locality started saying that how come a boy can be a maibi. They took me to a Maiba’s11 place and tied me with the iron chains there the whole night. I felt really bad that day.
When people started coming to see me as a Maibi, people in the locality would object to it saying that they are making me a Maibi. The people coming to see me would be scolded. People also continued coming. I felt bad about it.
I didn’t do it intentionally. I thought that it also happened to my grandmother. Why do not they understand it? It is not that I am pretending. If I am pretending it, I cannot do it for long. I would have these thoughts. I have seen a lot of suffering.
In my own home, my siblings do not want me to be a maibi. It could be the case that they want better for me. But I am destined to become a Maibi. So I cannot leave it.
I do not stay with my family because they do not like me to be a Maibi. I fought with them and left the house one night.
I am staying with my uncle these days. And I have faced these kinds of suffering.
After that time I came to look for an Ema Guru, my Ema Guru is from Bishenpur. I ran to Bishenpur during lai haraoba. It was in Toubul, in Khoijuman. When Pakhangba Haraoba 12 was going on, my leinam taba ritual happened.
For a period, kandha epan thaba ritual did not happen for me. Given this, I could not stay at home. So, I was in a terrible mood. As laichak (rice of God) has not been offered to the lai, I was in a terrible state of mind. I did not want to see my family. As my grandmother knew the situation, she did the kandha epan thaba ritual for me. After that, I became a disciple of my Ema guru.
Even after that, my family did not allow me to be a maibi. Before my 10th standard examination, they started putting more restrictions as they thought that the lai would win and turn me into a maibi. They wanted to separate me from the lai. I suffered a lot before my 10th examination. I was living in a boarding school those days. I would feel the presence of the lai there also. People from the locality would come to visit me because they found out that I am a maibi.
The teacher at the boarding did not allow me initially to go for performing rituals. Both the teacher and his wife became ill. After that, they allowed me to go for rituals if it is not far.
My family was worried that I would not write the 10th standard examination. I wanted to leave the house. I felt that the lai was calling me afar. I felt better when I sit at the bank of a river or walk on water. I also felt good when I am alone in a forest. I hide in cupboards also.
After that, I met an epa13 guru. I became his disciple. Things became better after that. I found peace. With the help of epa guru, I cleared the 10th standard examination and also the 12th standard. Now, I am studying B. A in Manipur University.
I am working at Manipur Pandit Loishang14
Nupa Amaibi. I think it’s better to be part of this organisation. It is good that Nupa Maibis are united under this office as a community. It is required because Nupa Amaibis are facing many issues. Some people hold that nupa-maibis should not be included in the lai haraoba. They should not be allowed to touch the lai. If we are not part of this office, if we are not united, the tradition might become extinct. Given all these, I became part of this office thinking that it is always better to stay united and develop community.
My path is the conservation of the tradition of Nupa maibi which is dwindling now.
I came to Pandit loisang only recently. I started with the amaibi office of Ibudhou Thangjing of Moirang. I began from there. When I started living here for my education, there was a ritual at Uripok. Those days I had friend in the boarding from Keirao Langdum, he was friends with some nupa maibi. I came into contact with them. After that, I started going to Kanglei haraoba15 . Once I started taking part in Kanglei haraoba, I met some people. They told me that being registered at Moirang is not enough if I want to continue with kanglei haraoba, I need have the kandha epan thaba ritual at Pandit loisang. I registered at Pandit loisang after that.
I am still in contact with my old friends. But, I am not close to them like before. I have taken a different journey. They have taken a different path. My path is the conservation of the tradition of Nupa maibi which is dwindling now. I have been meeting elders and doing research on it. I have been dedicating my time on it. For this society, I want to save the tradition of nupa maibi. I have decided to work on it. So, I have enrolled myself as a student in BA First Year in Dance Department of Manipur University. I have been studying the Lai haraoba also. I have decided to work with people in this tradition for saving this culture. Given these things, I have been more close to people who are in this tradition such as Nupa Maibi, pena players, epa guru and elders, than my old friends.
I am only close to few people. I meet all of them when there is meeting at Pandit Loisang. It is only five–six of us that go together for rituals and Lai Haraoba. I became close with some of them because I go with them for rituals. Epa guru’s own children are also there. They are like my own siblings.
We meet each other at the loisang. We meet in the loisang for discussions on different issues and incidents pertaining to nupa amaibi.
Earlier, nupa maibis were necessary part of lai haraoba. These days nupa maibi are not invited much. The committees responsible for lai haraoba prefer Nupi Maibi. These days the essence of lai haraoba has changed. People think that only nupi maibi should be involved in lai haraoba. It is only those who know the tradition of nupa maibi properly are the ones who are inviting us for lai haraoba.
The situation is that some people say that we became nupa maibi because we want to behave like women. Many people hold that nupa maibi should be humiliated. Even people in committee for lai haraoba think like that. They think that we want to behave like woman that is why we have become nupa maibi. Given these things, we are looked down upon and our place in the society is shrinking.
In today’s society, the way they look at nupa maibi now it is different from earlier days. Those laibung16
where nupa maibis used to perform rituals are now been replaced by nupi maibis.
We need to study more on nupa maibi. We need to look at the origin of nupa maibi and how one becomes a nupa maibi.
Now, the nupa maibis are looked down upon. Even our own families and friends do not want us to be maibis and look down on us. I do not like these things. It is not that we have a choice. We are endowed with it. We cannot separate the lai from us so that a woman can get possessed by it instead of us. It cannot be done. We are born with it. We want little respect for the things we do. We all need to understand what nupa maibi is. After knowing about it, everyone should help us to uplift the tradition of nupa maibi.
We need to study more on nupa maibi. We need to look at the origin of nupa maibi and how one becomes a nupa maibi. We need to understand all these things. We need to ask whether they should take part in lai haraoba or not. Given that they are necessary for lai haraoba, nupa maibis should be allowed to take part in it like before. Furthermore, there is a space in today’s society for nupa maibis. They treat people suffering from unknown ailments; they also conduct rituals such as saroi khangba17 for the locality. Nupa maibis perform these roles in the society. Given these things, nupa maibis should be encouraged. They should be allowed to prosper.
Thoi’s Story (Voice over):
My name is Moirangthem Lanngamba. People know me as Thoi. I live in Yumnam Leikai Ngakraba Leirak. My father’s name is Moirangthem Jayanta and my mother’s name is Moirangthem ongbi Dayathoibi Devi. Currently I am studying in class 10.
It’s very recent when I realised that I was going to be an Amaibi. Earlier, when I was at home, I used to feel the urge to dance and sing songs related to gods. Sometimes, I had shamanic experiences and then suddenly retracted. Most of the times at home; I used to wrap a towel around me and pretend to dress like an amaibi. Even when I was at a laibung18
, I always used to be with the maibi. I always felt content while I’m near the Lai. At the time of Lai haraoba, I felt drawn by their words and tones. During Lai Haraoba, there is a ritual called lai houdokpa in the morning. When they would start playing pena, I used to get goosebumps and also feel lazy. I had strong urges to listen to it but also felt scared and restless. A mixed bag of emotions. At this time while I was experiencing it all, my father used to beat me. He was unaware of what was happening, so was I.
In the end, she told me that I had the presence of a particular ema and asked to control what I eat. That day onwards I realised that I was an Amaibi.
Speaking of the time when I realised it, there was a cousin named Hemanta in my neighbourhood. He played pena19 . One day, the person who was going to be my ema guru had visited his house. When I was visiting his house, she was also there. The moment she saw me, she kept staring at me and her body was shivering. She took my hand and conveyed the laibao20 . She said that I had the presence of a lai and I should control what I eat or wear.
Then, one day, I visited Erengbam Ema Nanao from Nambol. I narrated all my stories to her and asked her to properly look into the situation. She thoroughly analysed me at her sacred place, laimang, and confirmed the god I was associated with. At that time, when she was conveying the laibao, I saw a female face but did not know what it was. My body kept on shivering while receiving the laibao. I was hallucinating. When she asked me questions, I could not answer since I was unaware. In the end, she told me that I had the presence of a particular ema and asked to control what I eat. That day onwards I realised that I was an Amaibi.
These days we see even on social media that most of the laibung celebrate lai haraoba but mostly by women. The Yumjao Lairembi Ema at my place was once conducted by nupa maibi for a long time. It has stopped since 2014. Moreover, money is involved in every aspect and people think that we are pretending. Even I have been told by my neighours that I am pretending and I am desperate to be a maibi. But I think to myself that the lai, who is present in me, is not in you. Also, the lai has chosen me. Also, a maibi usually dresses up and puts on make-up. Some even say that we are trying to be like women, as if it is a choice that we made.
Nupa maibi is going extinct. Even in my locality, nupa maibi has been banned from conducting lai haraoba since 2014.
I know one or two nupa maibi. The one I am closest to is my first oja guru, my guardian. If the nupa amaibis have to meet to discuss something or at the time of crisis, we meet at pandit loisang. I have been there just once.
Nupa maibi is going extinct. Even in my locality, nupa maibi has been banned from conducting lai haraoba since 2014. So, female shaman, the maibi, conduct the rituals in most of the laibung, the sacred space where Lai Haraoba is performed. Some say that nupa maibi cannot touch the Lai and some call them khuraklei. Even my neighbouring uncle also uses such insulting language. Since they have stopped conducting the rituals, there is a decline. Only a few are left now. They sometimes take part in the rituals. It also depends on the kind of committee that is in charge. If they know well about the Lai, they should preserve nupa maibi and celebrate lai haraoba like before.
People want a man to just stay as a man. If one becomes a maibi, the person will start dressing up and putting on make-up. There is a difference in the mannerism, too. A matter of money is also involved. They take nupa maibi in a different sense. People avoid them even when they are at the laibung. Even within the committee or by the public who had come to attend lai haraoba, nupa maibi are usually made fun of. Though I haven’t experienced it myself, I have heard when I visit.
According to me, the most important factor is money. Moreover, they like it more if women perform the rituals. Now a days, people need money is every aspect of life. Some charge more, some charge less. Looking for benefits, they now want to completely ban nupa maibi. We want people to understand who we are, what is it that we are doing, our behaviour, character. It is very important. Once realised the presence of a Lai in us, we won’t be the same as the rest of the people. I don’t want people to mock us for this. I have had personal experiences. If I am to conduct a ritual, some ask to read their palm to mock us. This should stop.Most of us are educated enough to understand who is a nupa maibi. I want people to understand our work and capabilities. These days it is also easy to find out the truth. Some take it up as a profession and take trainings. But first, we all need to clearly understand the matter. We need a clarity on what is nupa maibi and their roles in rituals. People can also easily see if one is genuine or not. So, I don’t want people to act out of ignorance.
- 1Manipuri term for transgender women
- 3Common name for the shaman in Manipur
- 4an annual festival dedicated to the worship of Umang Lai, the ancestral deities worshipped by different Meitei clans and these deities live in sacred groves
- 5Common name for the shaman in Manipur
- 6childhood game played with stones
- 7An Indigenous Manipuri Children's Game
- 9rite which purifies the novice, and thereafter, she becomes a full-fledged amaibi
- 10Meitei Brahmins
- 11They 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.
- 12An annual festival dedicated to the worship of Pakhangba, a primordial serpentine dragon god in Meitei mythology and religion.
- 13The chosen father
- 14Council of priests
- 15Kanglei Haraoba is one of the types of Lai Haraoba which is performed in the Imphal valley of Manipur.
- 16Places Of Worship
- 17propitiation of the evil spirits
- 18Place of Worship
- 19Musical Instrument