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Home > Textiles in India > Textiles in North-East India > Manipur

Traditional WeavingThe growth of handicrafts and textiles in Manipur is related to the socio-religious functions and imbued with their philosophy of life. Woven fabrics often identify the social status of an individual. To differentiate the chief from the serf, the craftsmen produced superior and durable textiles in varied patterns and workmanship. The craftsmen improved their skills, experimenting with vegetable dyes and different kinds of yarns.

In Manipur, handloom weaving had its genesis in the need to clothe the family, and to establish strong emotional bonds within the family unit. Women as part of their domestic chores undertook weaving. It is only recently that the concept of commercialization and marketing of handloom products has gained momentum, and has become a means of providing employment to people.

In Meitei lores, the weaving of textile appears as a replica of the cosmic process, during the dance of the creation, the male and female messengers of God (Maiba and Maibi) stimulate the sound of spinning and weaving. In other words, creation is a magnificent process of weaving to the cosmic being. It is a matter of great significance that in the traditional belief system of the Meiteis, it is the God of Handicrafts (Leismbi) who taught the Meiteis, the method of textile weaving as well as the mystique of the dance creation.

This is however, an alternative stand in the belief system of the Meiteis. According to this, it is not by the grace of God that man has learnt textile weaving; but it is by his own enterprise that man has picked up the skill from nature. He observed the spiders weaving their webs on the shrubs and bushes and he responded to this challenge.

Among the rulers, who are believed to have been great patrons of the craft in their time, mention may be made of Jabista Nongda Laivel Pakhangba (who is supposed to have ruled between 34 A.D. to 153 A.D.) and the king Loyamba.

Manipur DesignThe art of weaving has developed more in Manipur as compared to any other part of India. Unlike weaving in other parts of India, the Manipur weaving is entirely the work of women. Weaving is a part of their domestic duties. In fact, it is a primary qualification of a Meitei woman. This handloom industry is practically monopolized by women not only from the idea of economic necessity but also from the sense of social custom.

A Meitei girl is initiated with this art at a tender age, and throughout her life, she practices this art. Not only does she supply clothing to her family members but also make it a source of their income. It is said that the development of this industry by the women is linked to the fact, that the Manipur men were continuously engaged in wars and these women supplied them with uniforms and maintained their families from the sale product of this industry.

Among the Meiteis, Kabuis, Thangkhuls and Kukis women practicing this craft are married women. Whereas, among the Paites and Hmars majority of the unmarried women practice weaving.

Design and embroidery used in Manipuri Textiles
Manipur DesignThere are a number of embroideries in Manipur that are specially made for warriors and to be presented by the king as a mark of distinction.

  • Lamphie:  It is a war cloth that is a special type of shawl embroidered by the women at home and is used by the warriors at the time of going out for war.
  • Ningthouphee: It is a waistcoat, which is presented by the king to the warriors of the country.
  • Saijounba: It is a long coat that is prepared with special embroideries for the very trusted courtiers of the king.
  • Phirananba: These are the small flags delicately embroidered and used by the warriors as plumes on their turbans.
  • Namthang-khut-hut: A design derived out of the head of Pakhangba on the wrapper, meant to be used only by the ladies of the royal family.
  • Khamenchatpa: These designs are embroidered on the dhotis and are presented to the people of distinction.
  • Phiranji: It is a red colored blanket presented to the persons of merit. The color of the blanket is totally red and is believed to have been copied from the blood with the placenta.

Manipur CostumesCostumes of Manipur
The costumes of Manipura (Meitei) are simple and functional. The women wear a phanek, a colorfully striped wrap around sarong and an innaphi that covers the upper part of the body. The men sport a white dhoti and, on ceremonial occasions, put on a pagri.

The innaphi, literally wrapper, has undergone several changes. The traditional Innaphi, though distinctively Manipuri, is clearly related to the Indian sari and dupatta worn by the women of India.

Originally made of the bark of creepers, called uriphi, it was later substituted with cotton and silk obtained locally. In its earliest stages, the innaphi consisted of a thick, coarse-textured fabric that lacked its aesthetic beauty and intricate motifs and patterns. As society progressed, clothing came to denote status and began to play an important role in gaining recognition for its wearer. For the royal family and nobles, the innaphis came to be adorned with intricate designs and unique motifs that became their exclusive privilege. Special innaphis with exquisite motifs were presented to those brave warriors who returned victorious from the battlefield. Innaphis can be simple or ornately designed, but they almost always feature some motifs on the field and border.

The Innaphi
PhanekManipuri (Meitei) women have long worn a delicate muslin innaphi, woven in fine cotton yarns. Since its warp and weft threads are loosely woven, the cloth is transparent. Until recently, the bride wore a wrapper such as this on her wedding day. It was also donned by women who participated in the ritual act of serving among lai on the occasion of Lai Haraoba, the traditional festival of the Meiteis (Manipuri). Today, exquisitely woven innaphis can be found at weaving centres such as Koogba, Wangkhei and Sagolband, The Meities of Manipur also believed that wearing of shirts sewn from the used Phanek (womens skirt of Meitei mother and grandmother) could ensure victory in hunting and battles.

It is believed that wearing of amulets containing within a piece of mothers Phanek would be a good omen. In this way the descendants used to preserve with care and reverence the clothes worn by parents and forefathers. This practice has been continued as a tradition from generation to generation.

If someone wished to see these clothes, these could be seen only on specified days. One day before the day on which one wishes to see or worship the clothes, one must visit its owner and offer certain offerings such as banana, Kwa (betal nut), Panamana (beal leaf), etc. This is known as Lai Baton Jouba. Those who have come to see these clothes should not try to touch them since none except the owner can touch these. In some families, it is strictly prohibited to let shadows of the worshippers or onlookers fall on these clothes.

Since the 2nd century, the tradition of giving Manaphi (Royal cloth) to the nobles and warriors as a reward was started. The rewards included clothes as well as items made of metal such as bracelet, Tan (armlets), necklace, etc. The stitching of torn-out traditional clothes with cloth pieces of different designs of Meitei women and then using these again as different kinds of clothes in certain other events, was also a common practice.

Kanap Phanek (womens skirt) had been one of these clothes. Some of these Kanap Phaneks were also used as Innaphi (shawls). It was customary to leave a part incomplete where it can be hardly noticed, while stitching or weaving a cloth.

It was a tradition among Meiteis to stitch together different clothes having varieties of patterns and colors so as to make a complete cloth. Not only does this present a kind of colorful cloth, but it also makes stitching of different clothes easier. A very convenient aspect of using such assembled cloth was the possibility of easy removal of an undesirable or torn part of cloth. The open space of cloth was then replaced with a new cloth and it was then used generation after generation.

Examples of such a costume is the Samjin (a headgear used by the kings, nobles and great warriors) and Ningkham (a waistband with V shaped protrusion in the rear). Long ago there were seven Salai (clans) in Manipur. Each Salai used a different colour for its textile. These seven Salais have now been integrated into one ethnic community. Nonetheless, since different colors and patterns of Phanek worn by women still remain, they can signify different Salais.

Varieties of dresses used by the Meitei ethnic groups in Manipur may be broadly classified in the following way.
(i) Dresses for Lais (deities)
(ii) Dresses to be adorned by the monarch at the time of coronation ceremony
(iii) Dresses to be worn during the festivals
(iv) Dresses for dancing
(v) Dresses for mourning
(vi) Dresses for kings and queens
(vii) Dresses for noblemen
(viii) Dresses for different communities
(ix) Daily (commonly used) dresses. Amongst the dresses used at the time of rituals, the main is Chin-phi (an embroidered Phanek) and Lai-phi (a white cloth with yellow border).

Dresses of kings and queen were different from common people. The dresses to be worn by the kings at the time of coronation ceremony were carefully kept separate.

The Maibies (priestess) only wore dresses of white colour. Bracelets and armlets were also worn. Sarong was also worn around the waist. Ningkham Sanjin (turban) was worn by the Tengmai Leppa (bearer of the boat team) in the boat race. Special Ningkham and Sanjin worn by the kings had Chiron (symbols at the top).

The material used for weaving clothes was mainly from cotton and Kabrang (mulberry silk). In both the plains and the hills of Manipur cotton was widely grown.
Three types of cotton were available:
(i) White cotton
(ii) Reddish cotton
(iii) Tree cotton

Patern Of ShawlThe third type was seldom used in weaving. It was used mostly for making pillows. Around 19th century, cotton began to be imported from outside countries. Nonetheless, most of the villagers of Manipur, both in the hills and the valley, used the cotton grown by them only for weaving clothes. Mulberry silk known as Laima Kabrang has been used in Manipur since very early times. It is stated that many centuries before people of mainland India knew about silk industry, silk clothes were widely used in this land.

Since very early times, Meitei women of Manipur valley have been doing the work of dying threads and clothes by using varieties of plant leaves flowers and basks. In their own home estates women grew plants from which dying colour could be extracted. Besides, such plants are also available in the surrounding hills.

Since early times, Meitei women used spinning tools made of bamboo and wood for the purpose of reeling threads from mulberry silk cocoon. The work of reeling is called Khere Chingba. With the help of the Khwang-Iyong loom, different varieties of cloth can be woven and various designs can be created with it.

Not only plain clothes, but also highly stylized designs of animals, insects, and plants with the application of circular hook like motif were woven in loin loom, throw shuttle loom and fly shuttle loom. While making the designs, not less than four colors were used.

Women during the Haroba festival wear a type of cloth known as Nahong-phi. The same cloth is used at the time of death of a person in a village - the cloth is folded in such a way known as Pheija and placed just above the forehead of the dead person.

Khamenchatpa is a ceremonial dhoti that cannot be worn by any common person. It was presented as an item of reward by the king to brave persons.

The Meitei used large and broad textile designs, so as to make these easily and clearly visible to the public eye. Fish design is widely used in weaving of clothes. The designs of horses and elephants, sun and moon, spears and phantup (Meitei traditional type of stool) are used in the highly stylized forms. While Shaphi-Lanphi that is made by the Meitei women and worn by the Nagas.

The textiles of Manipur showcase the great heritage of traditional and indigenous garment making in the whole of northeastern region of the country. The exquisite garments of this region has now become very popular but still lack in exposure and patronage, if taken with a view that it has the potential to become an established cottage industry and even go further into the realms of large scale merchandising. Knowing about the traditional richness and the expertise of the Meities, one will understand that the contribution of this little State in the development of contemporary textile designing is phenomenal. 

From Fiber To Fabric
Traditionally cotton and silk are the only two fibres used for weaving cloth in Manipura. Silk yarn is obtained from the cocoons of Silleima til that feeds on the leaves of the silleima tree, as well as from the cocoons of other silkworms. The hill people cultivate the cotton plants, and the Meiteis bought the yarn through a system of barter, offering them vegetables and cereals in exchange.

Production of Cotton
Cotton Weaving MachineCotton is not much grown in Manipur. Whatever little is grown is neither enough nor of good quality. It is true that cotton is not grown much in Imphal but people in the hills grow part of their need in their Jhum fields, in between two crops. They purchase major part of their need of yarn either through the co-operatives or from the local shops. Those who produce cotton in their fields have to pass through different stages to make suitable yarn for weaving.

In order to produce proper yarn they pass through the following processes:

  1. Ginning is the process of removing the seeds from the cotton.
  2. Garding means cleaning the cotton by flicking method. Spinning is the process through which the cotton is wound round the wooden or iron spike.
  3. Winding is the process of transforming the yarn from wanks to bobbins.
    Twisting and Spinning
  4. Dyeing - the dying is done with indigenous dyestuff, mostly from barks and the common type of mordants.
  5. Sizing - Once the yarn is ready, they start weaving and finally the garments produced have to pass through the process of bleaching. Yarns are bleached to make them white or to prepare them for dying or printing.

Natural Dyes and Their Preparation
Earlier, all dyes were obtained from natural sources such as plants and minerals. This provides a valuable vocabulary of vegetable and mineral dyes. The methods of preparing dye from plants and flowers and also types of plants, from which dyes are extracted, are found to be different from one village to other. Besides names of the dyes were derived from nature, flower petals and colors of the flowers. These dyes were used to colour the cotton and Kabrang silk threads. Types of colour ranged from mild ones to bright ones. Fast chemical dyes were found to be available since 1930 till today. Only undyed threads were imported from outside Manipur and these are dyed by dyers in Manipur and then sold in the market.

The colors blue and black are obtained from the kum plant (Strobilanthus sp.). To obtain the desired colour, young kum leaves are cut into pieces, soaped in water, and kept in jars that are placed in the sun. When the leaves begin to decompose, they are removed from the jar. Kum sunu (calcium carbonate, prepared by burning oyster shells) is added to the liquid in the jar, and stirred. The froth produced on the surface is collected in a small pot. The next step is to squeeze the coagulated kum in the ash water (infused liquid) of khusum pere (Acanthaccac). Yarn or fabric is dipped in the liquid. To obtain the appropriate color, the liquid may be boiled or kept in the pot for a few more days. This helps produce a grayish blue colour. To obtain deep black, clay is mixed in kum infused liquid.

Example: Pink is extracted from the petals of the kusum lei. To obtain the colour of clay, a mixture of turmeric root pulp, red clay and fresh milk is prepared. The yarn or fabric is dipped in this mixture for some time before being treated in a heibung solution, and then washed thoroughly.

Significance of Colors
In traditional Meitei society, colors are rife with symbolism. Red, the colour of blood, signifies courage, bravery and good luck. Green, the colour of the surrounding vegetation, is symbolic of growth, peace and tranquillity. Yellow is associated with the advent of spring and symbolizes gaiety, innocence and the lively sentiments of youth. White, used in temples and for ritual dresses, indicates purity, devotion and sanctity. Black signifies evil, bloodshed and death. Saffron is a sign of sacrifice and surrender, and is worn by women on sacred occasions.

Types of Loom
Three types of looms enjoy prevalence in Manipura, the loin loom or khwang, the throve shuttle loom or pangiyong, and the fly shuttle loom or kon yongkhan.

Innaphis are woven on the fly shuttle loom. Introduced to produce better fabrics for high-ranking members of society, the complex loom helps the weaver in producing longer lengths of cloth of uniform quality. The loom consists of four large, upright bamboo poles, each with a notch and tongue for carrying the front and back rods, konnaba. The four poles, about 130 cm high, are rectangularly braced by small, horizontally placed bamboo poles, two each on the four sides.

Various parts of the loom are composed of the treadle, reeds, bamboo strips and wooden rods. Originally, two or more treadles were made for the insertion of the weavers feet. Later, these were replaced by wooden mechanisms, to be pressed down with the feet. Pressing one treadle pulls up the other and vice versa, thus making the shed.

Women of royal birth would decorate their muslin wrappers using lace that was separately woven for the purpose. Three kinds of lace were prevalent.

Lamthang khulhat was made of yellow silk thread, and designs were woven using threads of the same colour. In a few specimens, it has been observed that the designs were shaded in appropriate colors against a white background.

The royal bridegroom on the occasion of his marriage used Luhong phichil. The lace, woven in two parts had a black and white color scheme. Its pattern developed in the applique technique, and suitably embroidered.

Harao phichil is a colorful lace but with a less intricate design. Against a white background, rudimentary figures of Khoi-akoibi in green were done in applique. The lace was hemmed on both sides using a red border, and the outer fringes decorated with tassels. It was used for decorating thin muslin wrappers worn by women on the occasion of the community festival of Lai-Haraoba.

Embroidery On Phee ClothApplique
An ornamental style developed using similar materials, and involved the stitching of pieces of fabric on to the surface of another fabric. The technique blended fabrics finely in a harmonious combination. Applique designs involve eye-catching, rounded patterns that cannot otherwise be produced on the loom.

There are three distinct types of embroidery patterns in Manipura. An interesting pattern is the round or circular design seen on the border of the phanek. This pattern is stylized and abstract. Another pattern depicts natural objects realistically, while a third type, the sha-nga, has excellent examples of exquisitely worked needle craft that is highly developed and aesthetically appealing.

The textile motifs of Manipura are rooted in sociological significance and mystic symbols. The designs and patterns date back over the centuries and are associated with commonly held beliefs, customs and rituals.

The serpent god, Pakhangba, is an important deity in the state. Traditional Meitei motifs are inspired from the pattern of snake scales. In this region the serpent signifies fertility and life. A popular circular motif, khoi, is derived from the pattern formed by a serpents tail being swallowed up by its mouth symbolizes the eternal cycle of life.

Another pattern depicts natural living beings such as the cock, or butterfly. This pattern is believed to have originated from the Mao area. It was supposedly embroidered for officers who performed extraordinary services for their rulers or for society. A rare design depicting animals and fishes (sha-nga) is believed to have originated from Burma.
Another popular pattern is the lamthang khulhat. Originally a pattern, of lace, called maree and mapak, it was stitched on the borders of the innaphis worn by royalty. Its design is believed to have been adapted from the abdominal scale pattern of the Meitei snake god. More recently, this pattern has been used in the innaphi itself. A simpler adaptation of this design, lamthang khulhat sudaba is used on innaphis worn by ordinary people.

The ningkhan samjin is another pattern traditionally used in mens ceremonial headdresses. This block printed design is now also used as a woven design for innaphis.

The extraordinary flora and fauna of this beautiful state too has inspired textile motifs. Mention may be made of floral motifs such as khongunmellei (orchid), gulab (rose), thambal (lotus), and kundo (jasmine). The swan, parrot, and peacock are some of the birds invariably used as attractive motifs in Manipuri textiles. Geometrical motifs too are popular, with triangles; crosses, rhombuses and a blend of these used interestingly. A distinctive border design using triangular motifs can be seen on a wrapper called moirang phis, woven in Moirang.

Innaphi - The past and Present
Block Print DesignThe innaphi as we know it today has undergone a series of changes before evolving to its current form. From a thick coarse fabric that was essentially utilitarian in nature, it has now become a fine Meitei textile, combining both beauty and simplicity in its warp and weft. If the arts and crafts of a society reflect the mental and emotional make-up of its people, it is evident that the quality and organization of old Meitei society was simple. An easy accessibility to natural resources, fertile soil and favorable environmental conditions helped in the socio-economic development of the Meiteis. Their simplicity was reflected in the patterns and designs of the traditional textiles. Surrounded by seven ranges of hills, Manipura managed to maintain its unique cultural heritage, and Meitei solidarity has helped preserve its tradition of arts and crafts.

However, the demands of modern society and the adverse living conditions in which the weavers find themselves as a consequence of it, has taken a toll on the quality of their work. Though there is a favorable demand for handloom products in the country and abroad, no appreciable improvement in the working of the industry and the condition of the weavers has been observed. A lack of appropriate marketing efforts has also dwarfed its growth.

There are other factors too that are responsible for the failure of the weaving industry in Manipur, at least on a commercial basis. A principal factor is the volume of production, which is lower than the quantities required for substantial margins of profit. Since weaving was earlier considered an activity of leisure, production volumes were low. The result is that outsiders who exploit the weavers now control the supply of yarn. Along with the lack of adequate marketing facilities, this has proved detrimental to the commercial viability of woven products.

It is also clear that it is because of its attempts to commercialize the handloom industry that Manipur now finds the innaphi transformed to its present, hybrid state. To conform to the needs of a profitable market there has been a compromise on the part of the weavers in terms of quality and intricacy of design. To save time, money and energy, the weavers have forsaken the traditional motifs and have taken to simplified versions of the original motifs. Their attempt is also to make garments such as chunnis and sarees that bring more profitable returns in the market.
Though most traditional designs have been abandoned, there is no doubting the veracity of the weavers skills, now adapted to newer designs and motifs. These creations are spontaneous reflections of a more modern lifestyle. Influenced by market demand, the production of new designs is in full swing. Change of course is inevitable but new ideas need to be more gradually absorbed, so that the traditional cultural, ethos is retained.

The look may be new, but sophistication and elegance remains an essential part of Manipurai textiles. With easier accessibility to raw materials, and a more widespread knowledge of dyeing and weaving, the market potential for hand woven products has increased manifold.

Costumes for Festivals

Rasa LeelaRasa Leela
Any occasion in Manipura-births, marriages, the changing of seasons is reason enough to celebrate and dancing to the rhythms of the Rasa leela, Krishnas divine dance is the perfect way to do this.

The Manipuris use elaborate costumes for these ceremonials deduce. The Rasa leela is a graceful dance with a particularly beautiful form and structure. In the performance, Radha and the gopis wear the unique costume called the potloi. The origin of the potloi dates back to over two centuries, the creation of King Meidingu Bhagyachandra Maharaj (1763-1798) who is also the father of the Rasa dance. The potloi kumin is the lower garment styled on the phanek, only it has much more decorative elements to beautify the costume. Potlois are usually in two colors, red or green. The red potloi is worn by the gopis while the green one is reserved for Radha. The color green signifies that Lord Krishna is ever present in Radhas heart.

The old design of the potloi has undergone a series of remarkable changes. Earlier, kumin was made of pure silk, muga, but with increasing commercialization, muga has been replaced with satin, making the costume both cheaper and more easily available. The konpak, kongon and other such pieces, originally made of gold, have been substituted with brass, dulling the overall richness of the costume. The most significant change in the costume has been the replacement of the konpak with applique work using the khoi pattern. This tempers the overall Vaishnavite feel of the costume, and imbues it with a certain Manipurai quality. The overall look of the potloi has changed with the addition of new designs by gurus and teachers involved in this craft.

The New Look Potloi
The potloi consists of three principal parts, the kumin, poshwan and khaon. The kumin is made of red or green satin. It has a broad border decorated with circular designs made of red felt and mirrors franked by embroidery. The upper portion of the lace skirt is decorated with scattered sequins and zari borders. This portion is stiffened on the inside with canvas and cane. The poshwan is a short skirt worn over the kumin. This is made of 5-10 meters of fine, semi-transparent, white cotton with silver ribbons and a mirror work border along the lower fringe. The fringe is stiffened and shaped with wire. The costume is further complemented with the khaon, a rectangular decorative piece made using framed mirrors, gold and silver zari, and sequins. It is worn on the right side hanging from the waist and supported by a decorated belt hanging from the left shoulder. In addition, there are two belt pieces, the khwangoi and khaongnap. The former, a decorative belt made of brass franked mirrors, gold and silver zari and sequins, is tied at the waist over the poshwan. From the belt in front hangs the khwangnap that is a decorative adornment, 30 cm long. The complete ensemble includes the following parts:

Starching cloth and wrapping it together layer by layer, and then drying it in the sun prepare a kind of bukram base. The dried bukram is cut into a two-meter length, covered with satin and adorned with brass pieces in a linear design. The pattern consists of seven to 10 lines. On the lower section of the kumin, mirror work is done, sandwiched between two lines of lace. The applique work consists of khoi mayek designs made of red phirangjee with a thick bukram base laced over a yellow cloth and decorated with charik chamaki (sequins) and nungsen konpham (brass work). The edge is hemmed with etched cane.

A transparent gauze material, laced with elaborate chamaki in a pattern known as kasok chaibi, it is hemmed all around with tapes of lerfita along the border.

Ornaments made with glittering ribbon, ghirni, form the elaborate headgear that constitutes the kok. Its components include the jhapa, a pendant over the forehead; karna phul, bands that extend from either temple to the tip of the ears; a nari string that connects the jhapa and karna phul on either side of forehead. A broad braid at the nape of the neck called shamjinam and a protruding stock just above it called shamjithet adds to the whole look.

A decorative string is designed using pairs of butterflies made with an applique of chamaki over a thin bukram laced with the string of the karna phul on either side.

This is a blouse-like garment made of velvet and adorned with chamki chank in a variety of patterns over the trunk and arm.

Some of the necklaces worn with the costume include the lik khuji, ngaksham pakpi and tampha tongbi. The adornments for the wrist and arms, called khul-sha, consist of bukram hemmed and decorated with chamak charik.

The importance of Rasa Leela Motifs
When Maharaj Rhagyachandra conceived the Rasa leela dance, he wanted the costumes to reflect the essence of the Brindavan gardens where the enactment is based. The gopis or milkmaids, who, in the dance, signify the soul, also signify the yogis or sages of Brindavan. The costumes worn by Radha and the gopis symbolize the celestial world. The sequins, mirrors and other glittering adornments reflect the stars and other heavenly bodies. A recent addition is the khoi appliquι, which roots the elaborate costume within the ambit of Manipuri culture.

In that sense, the Rasa leela incorporates the richness of one culture in another and helps to produce a unique blend of both. The richness of Vaishnavism and its myths and legends is the main thence behind the concept that is interpreted in yet another form, and carries within it the breath and soul of Manipuri culture. With the encouragement it has received from the government and the patronage of the people, the stunning potloi ensemble, which is so much a part of Manipuri culture, needs to be revived as a craft and an art in it. 

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