Today the state of Manipur comprises a complex and shifting mix of ethnic groups, dialects, religions, and traditions. Nevertheless, the age-old geographical division of Manipur into hills and valley continues to provide a useful frame of reference for understanding the major cultural and social distinctions which characterise the peoples of this ancient land.

The hills and mountainous areas of Manipur are inhabited by more than 30 tribes, the Nagas in the north and the Kuki-Mizo in the south east being the most prominent groups. They are largely Christian, following their conversion by missionaries during British colonial rule.

The Manipur Valley, with Imphal at its centre, is dominated by the Meitei – an ancient people with a cultural identity forged out of a history, language, religion and customs dating back thousands of years.


Philologists consider Meetei Mayek, the ancient Manipuri script to be at least 4000 years old; while the origins of Meeteilon, the oral language the script represents, remain obscure. In present day Manipur, Meeteilon (or Manipuri) is the most commonly spoken language. It is the official language in government offices and taught as a subject up to post-graduate level in universities throughout India. Closely related to Sino-Tibetan languages, with lexical resemblances to Kuki and Tangkhul Naga, Meeteilon’s exact classification remains unclear. And while categorised by UNESCO as a ‘vulnerable language’, it is spoken in Assam and Tripura, as well as Bangladesh and Myanmar, and is a powerful integrating force among the various ethnic groups of Manipur, who use it to communicate.


Although Hinduism has been central to Manipuri life for centuries, and Islam, Buddhism and Christianity are all practised by significant sections of the population, it is Sanamahism, the Meitei indigenous religion which best defines the identity of Manipur.

Sanamahism is focused on the worship of the Sun God or Sanamahi, interpreted as the eternal force responsible for the creation of all living things. For the Meitei, ancestor worship and animism are incorporated into this belief system: Pakhangba, for example, is both the name of ancestral kings and a dragon/snake god with deer antlers said to inhabit the wild and holy places of Manipur. Pakhangba and various other governing deities known as Umang Lai are still honoured in virgin forest tracts.

The sacred groves where these sylvan deities are believed to reside are invariably located in areas of rich biodiversity. Protected by local people since pre-agricultural times, they act as repositories of rare plant species valued for their healing properties. Conserved and used by Maiba and Maibi (male and female practitioners of Maibarol, the traditional Meitei healthcare system) the value of these medicinal plants has only recently started to be appreciated by Western medical science.


In addition to religion and language, Manipuri society is further bound together by other aspects of its unique cultural heritage — through traditional music, theatre and dance, arts and crafts, family life and sports.

The Meitei have always been respected for their strength, bravery and battlecraft, honed during a long history of defending the valley kingdom from waves of foreign invaders. Today they express this athleticism and competitive spirit through a variety of traditional sporting activities.

The Manipuri martial art of Huyen Langlon, which incorporates both armed (Thang Ta) and unarmed (Sarit Sarak) disciplines, requires strength, stamina, speed and agility. Practitioners must also adhere to an ethical code of duelling as passed down through generations in religious songs and legends.

Mukna (wrestling), Khong Kangjei (‘foot’ hockey), Yubi Lakpi (coconut rugby) and Hiyang-Tannaba (boat racing) are other popular sports. Manipur is also the original home of the modern game of polo or Sagol Kangjei. The oldest polo ground in the world is in the state capital, Imphal.


While the state of Manipur incorporates a diversity of peoples, each with their own longstanding customs and traditions, it is the Meitei culture which most accurately defines modern day Manipur. In fact, it is so pervasive that in social and political discourse and within the media the terms ‘Meitei’ and ‘Manipuri’ are virtually synonymous.

Politically, tensions exist between the Meitei and the hill tribes, who see themselves more closely affiliated to the regions from which they originated (e.g. Nagaland, Mizoram, Myanmar). While their interests are protected by The Department of Tribal Affairs and Hills, many tribal communities still feel under-represented in the policy-making process.

There has also been significant resistance – from both Meitei and tribal groups – to laws and policies implemented by the Indian central government. In 1958 it instated the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Manipur, giving the military broad powers to control ‘disturbed’ areas. Manipur is the only state in India to have been under such restrictions for so long, and the economic, social and political development of the country has suffered as a result.


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“The worth of a civilization can be judged by the place given to women in the society" K.S. Bhalla


The women (or Ima) of Manipur play a central role in the social, cultural and political life of local communities. In ‘Ima Tales’ we will share some of the Manipuri women’s homegrown wisdom, bringing you stories about the traditional remedies, recipes and other indigenous practices that make Manipur such a distinctive place. Click here to find out more…



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