A long time ago, a Burmese princess from Kabaw married a simple soldier from Khurkhul, a village in the rival kingdom of Manipur. On reaching his home, she saw that her husband and mother-in-law lived in a modest dwelling. She came up with a plan to change their fortunes. The princess asked the soldier to prepare a room with no windows, with only a bed and a mosquito net within. No one was to enter that room, not even the husband. Every morning, the princess would collect mulberry leaves and lock herself in the room. This continued until one day she emerged with a silk cloth of immense radiance and beauty, and asked her husband to sell it.
This soon became a ritual—the princess would collect mulberry leaves, enter her room and emerge with a beautiful cloth. How she managed to do this, and how it changed the fortunes of the princess and the soldier, is revealed in the story And That Is Why The Weavers Of Khurkhul Make Silk.
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Twelve such delightful tales of gods and goddesses, animals that talk and argue, and courageous heroes and heroines, make up And That Is Why: Manipuri Myths Retold. The children’s book has been authored by L. Somi Roy, a cultural conservationist and curator who writes on film, culture and polo for publications in India and the US. In the past, he has translated the original works of his mother, M.K. Binodini Devi. This book, published by Puffin Books, also features exquisite illustrations in shades of organic pigments, inspired by traditional manuscripts, by Sapha Yumnam.
These stories have been passed down through generations in Manipur, by elders sitting around the hearth, or by balladeers singing in the Tibeto-Burman language of Manipuri, or Meiteilon. Over time, some of these stories found their way into texts as part of the little-known manuscript tradition of puya. Written mostly in the Meitei Mayek script, these drew from the pre-Hindu religious practices of the Meiteis—largely ancestor-worship and animistic— that continue to coexist with Vaishnavism to this day.
Over time, numerous tellings and retellings saw different versions of these stories taking hold around the state. Roy, aiming for stories that would appeal to children aged eight and above, found it tough to pick a single narrative. “I checked and double-checked the various sources. I chose some stories from one source and some others from a different source. The tale underlying And That Is Why The Deer Does Not Eat Rice came from my friend Thouyangba, who had published a delightful little book for children,” he says.
Towards the end of the story, goddess Phou Oibi, sent to earth to plant rice, reaches a riverbank and sees a deer grazing on the other side. She asks him which parts of the river are deep and which ones, shallow. The deer lies: Where the waters run deep, he tells the goddess they are shallow. When Phou Oibi enters the river, she starts drowning.
“In one version, her father, the Eternal Creator, looks down from heaven and intervenes on seeing his daughter in trouble. But in the balladic version, a small silver fish, ngamhai, comes to her rescue and helps her to the other side. There are so many variations but I have chosen the one where Phou Oibi thanks the fish for saving her life and blesses her that the balladeers will henceforth sing of her silvery beauty. And she curses the deer for lying to her,” says Roy.
In a recent interview to The Indian Express, he elaborated on his writing process, which included cross-references, consultation and verification. “With the help of folklorist Mayanglambam Mangansana, scholar Chanam Hemchandra and historian Wangam Somorjit, I managed to hear all versions and shape a single narrative,” he said in the interview.
Roy’s vibrant writing style matches the tone of the accompanying illustrations. Together, they engage not just children but adults too. Roy has explained the stories in such a manner that even those not familiar with Manipuri myths and legends would be able to follow the adventures of the many creatures that inhabit them.
How these myths and legends were written into the manuscripts is perhaps just as interesting as the tales themselves. As Roy mentions in his introduction, many of these were written down on sheets of handmade paper, in ink made from lantern soot, by the writers themselves.
His serious engagement with Manipuri manuscripts started after 2005, when the state library in Imphal burnt down and many books were lost. “I was in New York at that time and this incident left me very disturbed. I started thinking of the future of these manuscripts,” he says. Embarking on a digitisation project, he went to the US’ Columbia, Kentucky and other universities to discuss collaborations and started delivering talks at the New York Public Library. Roy invited scholars, artists and curators to visit Manipur and see the manuscripts. “As I kept working, the project kept morphing into different shapes. The children’s book is one such outcome,” he adds.
Whether it is the story of the genesis of dance in Manipur or a quirky tale of why the cat buries its poop, most of these were revelatory to Roy. While collecting these stories, he also realised just how enmeshed these myths and legends were with children’s lives across the state.
“You will find many of these stories encoded in children’s rhymes. We always heard the story of pied cuckoo as a rhyme. Similarly, in the story of two brothers, Sanamahi and Pakhangba, you find celestial goddesses protecting the latter, who had turned into a chicken, within a ring. As children, we would form a circle and play the tiger and chicken game. Little did we know that it was based on this story,” says Roy. “Games and rhymes are powerful means of transmitting mythology.”