It took him 17 years to translate the royal chronicle of Manipur into English. Meet Nepram Bihari.
Eighty-one-year-old Nepram Bihari can't stop smiling. This is his first ever media interview. The long retired bureaucrat has reason to feel joyous. He has just completed translating Cheitharol Kumbaba, the royal chronicle of Manipur, into English. An effort that took 17 years. It was worth it. What nobody knows is that unlike other royalty, the Manipuri kings had a strong tradition of writing history.
So Cheitharol Kumbaba chronicled each and everything that involved their kings from 33 A.D. till its last Maharaja Bodhchandra's rule that ended in 1955.
“When I saw a packed auditorium at the launch of the book in New Delhi the other day, I really felt that the years I spent on it was worth it; I always wanted to do something worthwhile for the State,” says Bihari, who lives in Imphal.
For a conflict-ridden State where over 20,000 people have fallen to militancy, and counter insurgency operations, in the last five decades, Bihari's work holds significance.
Wrapped in it is a detailed record of the rule of 76 kings spanning 3000 years.
It's a formidable reference point to why the State continues to remain in turmoil.
Cheitharol Kumbaba gives an insight into a protracted bout of cultural imperialism foisted on the people of Manipur. Like, king Pambeiba banning their original religion, Sanamahism, in 1729 after he was converted to Vaishnavism by guru Shanti Das Gosain, from present-day Bangladesh. He ordered the burning of over 123 holy treatises belonging to Sanamahism to help Vaishnavism set root in Manipur. Like proscribing the people's script, Meitei Mayek — in practice till the 18th Century — to bring into use the Bengali script.
Bihari's work in English will help many Manipuris, who were not taught Meitei Mayek in school, to know about their recorded history for the first time.
“Since Bengali was the medium of education during my time, I had to learn Meitei Mayek, from my elders. This is how I translated the chronicle,” says Bihari. (Since some years now, bowing to people's demand to revive the language, Meitei Mayek has been introduced in State-run schools.) What's stupendous about Bihari's effort is that it took him seven years to gather the chronicle.
“Like many other royal kingdoms, the customs and culture of the people were in the hands of the maharaja. As many as 14 pandits had the sole job of recording history. After the privy purse of the maharaja got cancelled in the 1950's, the work of writing history was taken up by the Govindaji Temple Board formed then. This board is the highest authority of Vaishnavism in Manipur. But it was seen as an effort to only record the Vaishnava history of the State. In 1976, due to people's demand, a bill was passed in the State Assembly to form the Lainingthou Sanamahi Temple Board which now keeps a record of the times, particularly from the Meitei point of view,” explains Bihari.
He is the vice president of the Sanamahi Temple Board, which he says helped him to get access to the record books. Bihari spent Rs. 5,600 to photocopy them, consulted the notings with historians, bought many dictionaries (From Sanskrit to English and vice versa, from Bengali to English and vice versa, from Manipuri to English and vice versa, from Assamese to English and vice versa) to decipher words mentioned in the records before coming up with a voluminous book of over 500 pages divided into three parts. As Bihari says, “I have translated the original in toto.”
The book is studded with information on how the royal game of polo had its birth in the State; that the art of making Chinese silk and bricks were commonly practiced here. It brings out the historical proximity with neighbouring Burma and yet the king responded to Gandhiji's freedom struggle by sending 30 of his sepoys to Delhi to join the satyagraha.
With a laugh, he says, “I found some notings quite funny, for instance, recording a marriage, a birth and a death in the same sentence. In one such mention, it talks of Pandit Nehru's first visit to Manipur and the following line was: A royal horse died.”