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Not Just a Piece of Cloth: Cultural Politics of Leiroom Phee and Beyond

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There is an intimacy between the body and the cloth we wear. In fact, clothing is, as Marshall McLuhan in his well-known work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, puts it, “extension of our private skin”. To that extent, clothes are parts of the things that we called ‘body politics’, in whatever sense of the term. Clothing can become, to quote McLuhan again, “a nonverbal manifesto of political upset”. The controversy over Manipuri leng with traditional designs, which was used by the Prime Minister as a muffler, is an example of this political mooring. The development is a part of cultural politics embedded in the ongoing socio-economic and political contestations between communities within Manipur, and between those of the state and those outside the state.


Cloth and Cultural Politics

Clothing, as McLuhan says, “can be seen as a heat-control mechanism and as a means of denning the self socially”. Like all clothing items, leng too has those properties. It is about culture and identity as much as that of power relations involving matters of history and economy as well. In that sense, controversy over clothing can generate heat, literally as well as metaphorically. In fact, contestations over leng, including its designs and “ownership”, has already generated some “heat”. And it is expected to get intensified in the days to come. As it gets more heated, like the exchange particles of physics, the forces of attraction or repulsion within and between societies shall be played out in the near future.

Tangkhul Naga Pottery Making at Nungbi Village, 14 February 1939

Like virginity which is built around a part of the body (i.e., hymen), there is also a cultural politics around this clothing. In that, leng is not just a piece of cloth just as the hymen is not merely a “small tissue”. There are myths around both which reproduce and sustain some form of cultural politics that shape identities and organize social relations. And, as McLuhan points out, “neither clothing nor sex can be understood as separate isolated factors”, these are not isolated elements. They are woven into the fabrics of life and time of the people. Thus, we can hope to get some sense of the issue by unpacking the texture – what, how, why and when it is woven.

But at the outset, two issues must be stated as a way to begin this act of unpacking. First, it seems better to start with the present and move backwards in history to figure out the identity or identities of this clothing. Second, even though the clothing is being discussed in a singular sense, a composite character seems to mark its identity.

We may as well start the exercise with the use of leng by the Prime Minister as a starting point. While announcing the extension of the lockdown on 14th April, Mr Narendra Modi had donned this modern Manipuri clothing item. It said leng carries a design/motif similar to the ones found in a traditional shawl variously known, amongst others, as leiroom-phee  (or simply leiroom), luirim kachon etc. in the state. To a people who often experience humiliation and violence in this country (e.g., being called “Chinese”, “chow chow”, “coronavirus” or spit upon or physically assaulted etc), and suffer from a sense of rejection, this act of the Prime Minister seems to have given a sense of being acknowledged or accepted. Thus, some in Manipur, including the political leadership, have responded with a sense of pride and happiness, and conveyed salutation to the Prime Minister for using their “traditional cloth”. But the issue does not end here; it has produced a predictable ripple effect in the state, and beyond.

First, in a not so subtle way, the question has been raised as to whether leiroom-phee (or luirim kachon) “originally” belongs to which community, and whether leng which carries its motif can be used as a gift to dignitaries in official functions in the state. In this regard, an obscure – three months old letter written by the General Secretary of the Tangkhul Naga Long (TNL) – (formerly called “Tangkhul Long”, an apex body of the Tangkhul community in Manipur has emerged. This letter, dated 19th December 2019, which raised objection to the use of “lengyan” (this name is a colloquial expression and seems to carry inappropriate connotation – see below) in this fashion, has been circulated in social media after the Prime Minister was seen wearing the scarf on 14th April 2020.

The said letter was a response to an earlier official notification issued by the Director of Handlooms and Textiles, Govt. Of Manipur (dated 3rd December 2019/ No. HL – 79/H & T/2017) calling for suggestions/objections on the proposed use of “lengyan” which is woven with the motif-pattern of leirum-phee for “official use and other purposes in Manipur”. It’s worth recalling that the official notification was talking about “lengyan”not the traditional bigger shawl leiroom-phee per se.

Collective Symbol and Invention of Leng

Incidentally, a prototype of the leng had emerged or rather was “invented”, in 2004 during the First Indo-ASEAN Car Rally which was flagged off from Guwahati and passed through Manipur. The then Government of Manipur took a decision to create something that represents the state to be given as gifts to those who participate in that rally. As per that instruction, this prototype leng was designed and produced by the craftsman and craftswomen of the state with Mr Meghachandra, the then officer on special duty (OSD) at the Manipur Handloom and Handicrafts Development Corporation Ltd (MHHDC), under the overall supervision of Dr R. K. Nimai, I.A.S., who was then Director, Commerce and Industry, Govt. of Manipur. Since then, similar leng has been used as gifts to dignitaries in official functions.

On the face of it, one might dismiss this objection as an expected Pavlovian response seeking to make a needless cacophony over a piece of cloth. However, brushing aside the objection is to miss the politics that is being played out over this “piece of cloth”. It is a politics that implicates ideas of ownership, pride, honour and difference. And one might as well add, the contestation serves the familiar ideological challenge to the idea of a unified Manipur.

Objection to the leng can very well be seen as a reflection of the same identity-based politics that marks the estrangement in the social and political realms in Manipur. In a sense, that the objection comes from the Tangkhul Naga Long itself is instructive

In a way, one might seek to brush aside virginity, especially that of women, as nothing but “making a big issue over a small tissue”. However, the fact remains that the issues around the virginity of women are a part of the cultural politics of patriarchy. Myths have been created around hymen in order to sustain the patriarchal political project of controlling women. Thus, onto this tissue, patriarchy has inscribed meanings such as that of purity, honour, pride, difference, ownership and gift etc. In this sense, any contestation over these meanings is a part of the body politics that seeks to (re)define selfhood and (re)configure relation, especially that of gender relation.

Seeking to dismiss virginity as “making a big issue over a small tissue”, however, must be backed by unpacking the myths around that “tissue” itself. For instance, factually speaking, neither the tissue “covers” the vaginal canal nor it “breaks”. For that matter, it comes in all shapes and sizes. Similar things can be said about leng as well (see, next segment below).

Quite like the above inscription of cultural meanings to a part of a body, leng as a clothing item, as an “extension” of the body, is also inscribed with cultural meanings. These meanings often get implicated in cultural politics. Indeed, the introduction of, and objection to, the said leng, which carries the motif and/or patterns of leiroom-phee, are aspects of the body politics that seek to (re)cast Manipur and the relationship amongst its communities.

The traditional shawl leiroom or luirim

The leng in question is to represent the state. The choice of the motif and colours used in the design of the said leng seeks to serve that purpose. To begin with, its design is particularly informed by the traditional shawl leiroom or luirim (as it is called amongst the Meiteis and the Tangkhuls respectively). Besides, the motif and/or the pattern and/or colours (red, white and black) which have been adopted in the design of the leng are found in various clothes used by various communities – both “tribe” and “non-tribe”. Given that the very integrity of the state as a geo-political entity has been under threat from identity-based political mobilization amongst various communities, leng comes in as a collective symbol of the state.

Thus, objection to the leng can very well be seen as a reflection of the same identity-based politics that marks the estrangement in the social and political realms in Manipur. In a sense, that the objection comes from the Tangkhul Naga Long itself is instructive.


Historicity of a Clothing and Its Multiple Legacies 

There is no gainsaying that many of the salient voices that represent Naga nationalists’ demand for the merger or integration of certain areas of the present state of Manipur into one “administrative unit” (read, with the present state of Nagaland) are from Tangkhul community. Ironically, the controversy over leiroon (or luirim) also throws up the close affinity between what we called today as the “Tangkhuls” and the “Meiteis”.

Indeed, of all the communities in the state, not only a clothing item with similar-sounding names and designs are found in both the communities, but the two also have this familiar legend of the Tangkhuls as the “elder brother” and the Meiteis as their younger brother. Incidentally, this legend seems to be a generic myth, in the sense that it is a familiar narrative that describes the relationship between the people in the hills of Manipur and those in the valleys of the state as brothers, with the former as the elder brother and the latter as their younger brother. This myth might have been a product of certain cultural politics as well as founded upon the fact that in distant past the valleys were underwater and human settlement must have begun in these areas by those who were in the higher regions gradually shifting their habitation as the water level receded in the course of the history of the land. Back and forth movements between highlands and lowlands, fusions and fissions of human groups are not an unknown reality in this part of the world. While linguistic and cultural affinities amongst various communities stand as testimonies of these linkages, some of the ancient texts of the state also carry hints and glimpses of these movements and group/social formation.

However, generic and historical facts these might be, none has this legend of elder brother and younger brother been formalised into a lived historical practice for centuries as it is between the Tangkhuls and the Meiteis with the annual ritual still being marked with the titular King of Manipur paying visit his “elder brother”, the Chief of Hundung, a Tangkhul Village.

In this sense, leiroom or luirim unmistakably reminds of the proximity between these groups of people and the nature of conflict amongst these communities. It is, in a sense, could be considered as a classic example of what Sigmund Freud once called “narcissism of minor difference”. This idea which suggests that people in close geographical proximity and similar traits – e.g., racial, socio-cultural and linguistic traits etc – are the ones who are likely to be embroiled in conflict, have been exploited by those social scientists in their studies of “ethnic conflict”, particularly starting in the 1990s as an alternative formulation to Samuel Huntington’s thesis of “clash of civilization”. Perhaps, just as Ashis Nandy proclaims that the most well-known war in the mythology of South Asia was fought, not between “strangers” but “two first cousins” – the Pandavas and the Kauravas, the conflict between the Tangkhuls and the Meiteis over leiroom or luirim could very well allude to a conflict of “brothers” who suffer from “narcissism of minor differences”!

Group of Tangkhul Nagas, Lambui Village, 16 November, 1937

However, beyond the blind spots of “narcissism of minor differences”, if one were to go by the writings and views of people who have worked or have some authority on this issue, it seems that this clothing comes in different sizes or different fabrics with variegated textures or even motifs. For instance, a prominent traditional scholar on textiles of Manipur, Matua Bahadur says that the motif/design engraved on leiroom that we find today is not exactly the one which was created during the reign of Meidingu Loiyumba (1074-1122). Similarly, the cultural usages of this clothing are multiple in nature or multiple purposes (e.g., amongst the Meiteis, it used in the wedding ceremony and till recently, in cremation), which have also changed over the years. Even the name may display variations within the same speech community. For instance, different words were used to refer to the identical thing in different geographical areas of a speech community (e.g., the Angom community called it “Charei Paroithel, Mallou Koiayek”) or different contexts (e.g., “manga-phee” or “kangthon-phee” which used to cover the coffin).

Incidentally, “lengyan” seems to be a colloquial expression leng. The former, which is commonly used, may even invoke inappropriate connotation. For instance, according to Dr R.K. NImai, under whose overall supervision the present leng was created in 2004, in court parlance, the expression “lengyanphee” is also known as “eru khudei” (the one which is used as a towel while taking bath). In the traditional Manipuri Sankirtan, there are two kinds of clothes called “leng” and “nam”, something that one can see as a part of lived world even today in ceremonies like marriage and death (as in the expression ”leng amadi nam kuppa”, placing/covering with leng and nam). It seems that the former is the one which one places over the shoulder while the latter is a relatively bigger one that can cover the body. In that sense, the appropriate expression, according to him, is “leng”. The word, “nam” seems to be a shorten version of “namthang”, which, according to Mutua Bahadur, is an old word for cloth (i.e., phee).

Lest, the cultural politics backed by the wave of neo-liberal political economy will sweep through this mountainous land with its misty hills and green valleys, uprooting the very indigeneity for good. As such, the cyclone of power loom driven “Modi Gamcha” has already been formed in the distant land, and is in fact on its way towards the small battlegrounds of “ours vs. theirs”!

In terms of origins of this cloths, there are multiple narratives, including those which spoke of possible cultural diffusion between the Tangkhuls and the Meiteis. According to Mutua Bahadur, this clothing item was cited in Loiyamba Shilyen, a text written during the reign of Meidingu Loiyumba. According to him, this clothing emerged during 9th and 10th centuries as “mungphee leirum” (or “mungphee”) without motifs engraved on it, and it was made by a Meitei family/clan called Thingujam. Later on, with the engraving of motifs, of flowers, the name was known as “leiroom” which was made by a family/clan called Sachilam (this clan was mentioned by another scholar as Salchiram) during the reign of Meidingu Loyumba. But this is not the only textual sources mentioned by scholars on this matter.

In fact, its emergence was placed much earlier by other scholars. For instance, Naoroibam Indramani, a traditional scholar and archivist (reportedly, he was a former staff of the State Archive), cites other manuscripts (Palchangba Laihui and Pakhangba Phambal) which, according to him, talked about “the introduction of the leirum” during the reign of Meidingu Khuiyoi Tompok in the later part of the second and early part of third centuries. According to him, “originally”, it was a cloth of the Angom community. According to him, it was presented by the parents of “Nongmoinu Ahongbi of the Angom clan” during her marriage to “Khuiyoi Tompok, the king of Kanglei (Meitei king)”. This episode was cited as what the author termed as a “cultural thrust” which continued to date amongst the Meitei marriages.

Thus, these accounts point to the fact that there are competing narratives on the origin of this cloth itself. This is not unique to Manipuri scholarship. Modern scholars have noted on how narrative can multiply, especially as it traverses from one generation to another and across different spaces over the centuries. One well-known view is that of R. K Ramanujan, whose seminal essay “Three Hundred Ramayans: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation, captures this thesis.

Leiroom and Beyond

However, two crucial aspects can be noted here. First, the fact remains that leiroom is an essential item in marriage amongst the Meiteis even today. It is used to wrap around layers of bed sheets which comes with the bed and mattress as a part of bridal gifts. It is spread over the bedsheet in which the newly married couple sleep, which is supposed to be there that way for five days from the day of the marriage. Many narratives seem to seek to account for this practice. The above narrative of an Angom lady marrying a Meitei king is not the only one to do that. Tangkhuls have more than one narrative to account for this – ranging from elder brother (i.e, Tangkhul) gifting the cloth to his younger brother (i.e., Meitei) at the time of the latter’s marriage to Tangkhul man eloping a Meitei girl wherein the Tangkhul man had given the cloth (luirim) to the Meitei girl so that she could wrap her clothes with it.

However divergent these narratives might be, they do display a common thread, that if close interaction amongst these communities. Given the proximity, geographical or otherwise, this is not unexpected. Far more than disconnect, these narratives that pertain to Leiroom or Luirim allude to either a case of cultural diffusion or that of groups having branched out from one source or both.

Prime Minister Modi

Here it must be reminded that the communities that we know as the “Tangkhuls” or the “Meiteis” today have evolved from cognate or even disparate groups of people in course of history. These were not the same entities in the past as they exist today. This is despite the fact that the Meiteis have become one entity with one language and more or less a high degree of shared cultural practices. While the heterogeneity is still felt, especially in terms of language, amongst the Tangkhuls. Incidentally, in one narrative amongst the Meiteis, the cloth was identified as having originated from the Angom clan. The Angoms have been integrated to become a part of Meitei (as one of the seven clans). Geographically, they had their own principality which was just south of the present-day Ukhrul District. The dynamics of fusions and fissions of social/group formations, back and forth movements of people between the hills and the valleys is what the presence of leiroom and luirim tell us. The antagonistic claims and counter-claims must be seen in this context.

Indeed, it’s time for “narcissism of minor difference” to sense, to borrow from the lyrics of Def Leppard, “the hurt inside when love and hate collide…when we treat each other…like an act of war…a million lies…would come as no surprise [w]hen the truth is like a stranger, hits you right between the eyes”. Lest, the cultural politics backed by the wave of neo-liberal political economy will sweep through this mountainous land with its misty hills and green valleys, uprooting the very indigeneity for good. As such, the cyclone of power loom driven “Modi Gamcha” has already been formed in the distant land, and is in fact on its way towards the small battlegrounds of “ours vs. theirs”!

The author is a social and political psychologist and teaches at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The North-East Affairs)

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