The Life and Culture of the Tangkhuls of Manipur
   By : P.Lalit, IAP_MHA_CTL     [The Internet Association for the Promotion of Manipur History Art Culture Tradition and Literature]


(Tangkhul life and culture) [Shri Wungmareo shaiza IAS (Retd) in“Tangkhul Baptist Long (TBL) Centenary-96 “page 25-29, 1996].

History of a people lives through the ages in their Folk Lores and Songs.  The traditions and folk tales expressed in the form of poetries unlock the mysteries and glories of Tangkhul Mirin. Here are some capsules containing folk songs:


“O! Kachili tunglo O! Kachili tunglo O!
O! Samsok Keinungli tungthuiya,
Ngakungana O! ili  phungshok,
Ngakangana O! ili pangthang
Lungshang Makanzana
Safa sing sing O! ili mala mangmi.

O! Hunphun Ava Khararshi,
Ya ngachang Chihuili
O! rom ungpheiza,
O! Shokvaoli unghoyama
O! Inaoshang ungngakan thuilu,
O! Mavalungli Mei ungngayar”.

This song tells us about the Exodus and the 159 miles ODYSSEY from Samsok (in Kabo Valley) to Ukhrul Hills via Imphal with nothing to guide their way except the signs of cut plant through the thickly wooded forests.



  O!. Meiteilava sitmahui,
Wungram Kashangla leishiya,
Ali reklai ungsifaya,
Nashimphungli Maran thei sui,
Suikhareireilo ini Kuini ini khuinasa,
Thishunglo O! Nathanvala thishunglo!

During the protracted war between Burma and Manipur, many Meitei families fled to Ukhrul Hills and took shelter in Tangkhul villages to escape from the oppressions and atrocities in the hands of Burmese soldiers. Some families returned to the valley while others got themselves absorbed in Tangkhul society. This is a song addressed to a girl from the Valley expressing his feelings towards her. It is also written in the History of Manipur that some plainsmen begin driven out from the Valley by the Ningthoujas, fled to the Hills merged among the Kabuis and the Tangkhuls. This happened in the first century A.D.  According to Sir James Johnstone, the Political Agent of Manipur in 1880, the Burmese tried in vain to subdue the Tangkhuls also and in one case, a force of 700 men that they (Burmese) sent against Tangkhul was entirely annihilated.  1891 Census has identified at least 9 Headmen of Tangkhul Villages of Ukhrul District, bearing Meitei names such as Thawaijao, Sajaoba, etc.



 O! Falingnao, Homshai shangnao,
 Homshaisa homungulo!
 O! Masapa, hosi hora
 O! Aphungwo
 O! longnaola
 O! Thingkanshai
 WO! Longnaola
 O! Hisisa
 WO! Hithasa”

This is a song sung during Longra festival. Long is a unique Institution of Community life and Centre of Learning tribal ways of life and culture for the unmarried youngmen.  The Long members perform ceremonial dance at a place called “Wonyaithing” which is a wooden plateform erected for the dead.  The spirits of the dead are supposed to come to this platform to partake of the food and drinks which are kept for them.

The youngmen there after go in procession from house to house, singing Khuishok laa, (mentioned above). Women of every household keep something ready before-hand to be given to the procession of youngmen. Christians sing similar ‘Khuishok-ulo’ laa during Christmas and collect donations in kind or cash from house to house.  This Longra laa describes the traditional community life of sharing and concern for the “dead; which undoubtedly, are the traits of ancient civilisation and our proud heritage.  The combination of traditional Longra and Christians in the form of celebrations should encourage us to foresee the emerging Christian Society of “Tomorrow”.  This harmonising influence is the key to our identity.

Even in Europe with the coming of Christianity, such traditional customs have survived.  Instead of abolishing the tribal customs, people tried to introduce ideas which were Christian in outlook and forms and attempts were made to Christianise the tribal customs.  Ancient Celtic tribes of Wales, Ireland, Scotland and England observed 31 October as Harvest festival.  Animals were burnt to please their tribal Gods (same as the Tangkhul concept of spirits called Kame). Some European customs display their belief in spirits and supernatural beings. Halloween is a festival for the dead and owes its origin to the faith in a life after death like the Tangkhul festival of Longra, Wonyaithing and Thisham.
Halloween continues to be an important part of European culture even today.

The Red Indians like the Tangkhuls also keep food, drinks, etc. on wooden platforms specially erected for the spirit of the dead members. In modern times, ALL SOULS DAY is observed on 2-November every year by all Christians.  Prayers are held at the cemetery for the dead. Relatives of the dead wash their graves, place flowers on them and burn candles and incense.



This is a 12 day festival for the dead.  This time honoured custom,being too expensive, has discontinued from 1915-16 with public consent (not due to lack of faith nor by legislation). T.C. Hudson on ‘Naga Tribes of Manipur’ and W. Pettigrew have also written on Kathi Kasham: “The spirits of the departed appear at a distance from the village in
the faint moon-lit night, wending their way slowly over the Hills and driving before them the victims they may have slain etc.”  Our forefathers have witnessed this strange spectacle of the procession of the spirits of the dead with flickering flames of fires in a clear dark night over the SHIRUI mountain range.  This expensive send-off ceremony reflects the genuine love of the ‘living’ for the ‘dead’.  The Tangkhul concept of one God whom they call VIRIVARA, the belief in life after death and in the existence of spirits in some form are universal.



Shirui Kashong 8421 ft. above the sea levels is a sacred Mountain to our ancestors for ages.  Many bizarre happenings, stories stranger than fictions mostly tragic cases surrounding Shirui Mountain, which stands as astrice like a Colossus have defied scientic explanation.  Tangkhul people look upon this Mountain with respect, fear and wonder.

British Administrators and Anthropologists regard this Mountain as the centre of distribution of Tangkhul people over the length and breadth of the Hills. William Pettigrew had a good look at all the Hill ranges from the top of Shirui Kashong before starting his missionary work in 1896. Our ancestors while coming out of from Samsok (Burma) set their feet on the Mountain.



After the World War II, F. Kingdom Ward a plant hunter by profession came to Ukhrul (original name Hunphun) on assignment given by American Service chief to locate the three aircrafts that crashed among the deep hills between Assam and Burma and bring out the dead.  From Ukhrul, he could see an aircraft spreadeagled (in his own words) like a dead goose against the steep face of a ridge it had failed to clear. At the end of the ridge rose the rounded hump of Shiroi Kashong.  On crossing over the ridge, he found the other aircraft the next day.  The grisly relics he had discovered from the wreckage were quickly packed off to Ukhrul for onward journey to New York.

In the last war, hundreds of Japanese soldiers defeated, famished and physically and mentally broken; perished and their bones scattered over the deep jungles between Naga Hills and Burma. Japan has been collecting the bones of their dead soldiers from Manipur during the last 50 years. The retrieval of the bones involved expensive operations.  Nothing, however, was more rewarding and satisfying than the redemption of the SOULS from their captivity in strange lands far away from New York and Tokyo.  This is more like a tribal custom than the concept of SOULS of
the 20th century.

In the 3rd millennium i.e. 3000-year BC., civilization developed in the River Valley of the NILE, EUPHRATES, and the INDUS, are characterised by their culture of burying the ‘dead’ along with articles of daily use such as vessels, ornaments and treasures.  Sometimes, the ashes and bones are collected in an URN and buried along with household articles. Our ancestors also followed the same customs and culture by burying the dead along with their favourite smoking Hookahs, rice beer, bamboo mugs, etc.  The idea of life after death was deep rooted in the old Tangkhul
Society as was the case with people in the ancient Egyptian, Messopotamian and INDUS Civilisations, 5000 years ago.  Concern for the dead, giving of food packets (Hanrom-zatrom) to weary travellers, construction of resting places, (wonra) on the road side, traditional tribal hospitality and the proverbial honesty of the Naga people are
unmistakable marks of a civilised Society.



It was Kingdom-ward again who discovered the Shiroy Lily known by the name Lilium Mackliniae - on his second assignment to UKRUL in 1948. Among the 150 species of herbaceous flowering plants growing on SHIROI
Mountains, he found this Queen of Lilies hitherto undiscovered which won the coveted ‘AWARD OF MERIT’ in England in 1950.  Kingdom-ward in his book ‘Plant Hunter in Manipur’ paid tribute to the Tangkhul Nagas as
exceptionally honest people. It is true that honesty is the back-bone of Naga Culture, which is a rare quality in Modern society.



Tangkhul country is a compact territorial area of about 5000 sq. km. which comprises the present Ukhrul district and part of the Senapati Distt. inhabited by Tangkhuls.  “Gazetter of Manipur” by E. W. DUN shows the 1881 Census figures of Tangkhul population as follows:

LUHUPAS - 28552; Tangkhuls - 4490 : Total = 32,852.

LUHUPAS are Tangkhuls who used to wear helmets on certain occassions. The name has disappeared long back and no longer spoken of even among the Manipuris now.

Taking the decadal growth of population at 20%, the Tangkhul population by 1991 should be around 2,40,000 including the population of the few Tangkhul villages since transferred to Senapati District.  The Census of 1991 however shows the population of Ukhrul district as 1,09,952 only. This includes Kukis, non-Tangkhul Govt. Employees and others, residing in Ukhrul district.  National growth rate is 23.79%.  Nagaland has recorded the highest growth rate of 56.08 percent.  Growth rate at Ukhrul district is 32% which is considered normal. The census statistics
and the varying growth rates are somewhat baffling; but the relevance of population in the matter of representation to the Legislative Assembly etc. should not be under estimated.



Somra people are Tangkhuls spread over 12 villages at the time of boundary demarcation in 1880.  The transfers of Kabo Valley in 1834 and the 12 Somra villages in 1880 to Burma are glaring instances of distortion of history which constituted gross injustice knowingly committed by the British against the interest of Manipur.  The pioneering mission works of our senior Tangkhul Evangelist and teachers in Somra desrve to be kept alive in the memory of generations to come, lest we forget, “they are our own Kiths and Kins”.



According to Royal Chronicles, Pakhangba was the first king to ascend to the throne of Manipur in 33 AD.  He is said to have come down to the Valley, following the IRIL river which flows through the Hills inhabited by Tangkhuls at that time also.  History of Manipur speaks of one immigrant from the west named Poireiton who was a contemporary of
Pakhangba.  Poireiton visited the valley and the Hill area inhabited by Tangkhuls, Moyons, Anals and Marings on his way to Kabo Valley. T.C. Hudson in his book “Naga Tribes of Manipur” writes “From the records of Manipur, we gather some rather important facts regarding the antiquity of Tangkhuls.... It is quite clear that these tribes especially the Tangkhuls were settled in the areas they now occupy at an early date, when the Meiteis, now their masters, were yet wild and untouched by the finer arts of life”.

The Khangkhui Limestone Cave, locally known as Khangkhui Mangsor situated about 11 kms from Ukhrul, is a huge Stone Cave said to be of cretaceous origin.  The artefects of pre-historic men belonging to palaeolithic culture have been discovered from inside the dark caverns which suggest the existence of pre-historic men inside the cave 10000 or more years ago.  There is no doubt that Tangkhuls have lived in the present Hills since time immemorial by whatever name or names they were called by others or they called themselves.  This extra ordinary Rock Cavern and the famous SHIROI LILY are now tourist attractions.



We have a rich tradition and cultural life which await to be unfolded by re-orienting our policy towards education and development to facilitate the younger generation to imbibe and incalcate the spirit and yearning for revival of our traditional art and culture which appear to be slipping away beyond our grasp during the last 100 years.  Our identity needs to be re-discovered.  While Christianity has been increasingly fast in numbers towards saturation point, the gap between the “haves” and ‘have nots’ has been slowly and imperceptibly widening as the years roll on.  This poses a threat to the unity and integrity of Christian society.  Forces inimical to the Christian faith in the guise of physical comforts of life in many subtle ways, may subvert the minds and faiths of the suffering under-previledged people.
Our ancestors like the Hebrews (Israelites) of the old Testament implicitly believed in justice here and now in this life.  Revenge was their culture, their way of life (Psalms 109 and 137).  100 years after William Pettigrew, our Christian Society is moving closer and closer towards the goal of embracing 100% of our population; but hatred and revenge are live issues today, before the eyes of all peace loving people.  Love and forgiveness in place of hatred and revenge can alone remove the agony and anguish from our tormented hearts. Let this Centenary bear the fruits of tolerance, forgiveness and mercy.



[Dr. M. Horam in North East India: A Profile, p. 96, 1990].
The status of women is remarkably high among the tribals (of North East India) and they honoured for their role in the family and their accomplishments.  They have the same status as men and suffer no discrimination on account of sex.  Widows remarry without any stigma.  Unlike the so-called advanced women, tribal women do not need liberation; and as the much-publicised women’s ‘lib’ contributes nothing new to their lot.  Prof. Haimendorf writing about the Naga women said: “Many women in more civilized parts in India may well envy the women of Naga Hills their high status and their free happy life; and if you measure the cultural level of a people by the social position and personal freedom of its women, you will think twice before looking down on the Nagas as ‘savages’.


[Ramnganing Muivah I.A.S. An Introduction to Ukhrul in “Tangkhul Baptist Long (TBL) Centenary-96 “
page 16-18, 1996].

Ukhrul district is the home of the Tangkhuls.  They are a highly cultured people.  The name Tangkhul was given to them by their neighbours, the Meiteis.  The northern Tangkhuls were also called the Luhupas.  The name Naga was given to them by the Burmese (Myanmar), which, in Myanmar means people with pierced earlobes. Piercing of the earlobes is wide-spread practice among the Naga people including the Tangkhuls.  The Tangkhuls belong to the great Mongolian race which is spread all over the World.  Linguistically, they belong to a large language family called Sino-Tibetan, within that family to the sub-family Tibeto-Burman.  In general this points towards an origin in the north, that is south-west China and Tibet.  The earliest home of the Tangkhuls was the upper reaches of Huang heo and Yangtze rivers which lies in the Zinjiang province of China.  Like the other desert areas of the world, the people including the Tangkhuls, due to hardship of life, dispersed from this place to different directions. One group moved towards east and southeast to be become known as Chinese, another group moved southward to become the tribes of Tibeto-Burman which includes the Tangkhuls and other Naga sub tribes.  That was between c, 10,000 B.C. to 8000 B.C.  This movement has continued into recent historic times.  S.K.  Chatterjee noted that from 2000 B.C. onwards, Sino-Tibetan speakers from China pushed south and west and entered India.  According to W.I. Singh, in his “The History of Manipur”, the Tangkhuls settled in Samjok (Thuangdut) area in Myanmar.  They belong to Yakkha tribe in China.  The Tangkhuls were first noticed in Manipur by Poireiton, one of the earliest kings of a principality in Manipur valley.

The Tangkhuls as also other Naga tribes came to Manipur, Nagaland, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh through Myanmar. Some of them also settled down in Myanmar and did not venture further.  However, their movement over Myanmar and into India was spread over a period of time.  They entered the present habitat in waves following one another and in some cases in close succession. The Tangkhuls came together with the Maos, Poumeis, Marams and Thangals because all of them have references to their dispersal from Makhel a Mao village in Senapati district.  They had also erected megaliths at Makhel in memory of their having dispersed from there to various directions.
The Tangkhuls point out to the association of their forefathers with the seashore. Most of the ornaments of the Tangkhuls such as kongsang, huishon, etc. were made of sea shells, cowrie and conch shells a prominent feature of the people who live on the shore.

By 2nd century A.D. the Tangkhuls were living in Samjok (Thuangdut) in Myanmar.  Ptolemy, a Greek astronomer and geographer of Alexandria in his Geography of Further India c. 140 A.D. referred to the Tangkhul Nagas (Nangalogue) at Triglypton (Thuangdut).  The Tangkhuls began disperse from Samjok after the invasion of Ko-lo-feng and his successor I-mau-shun the king of Nan-chao in the closing part of the 8th century A.D. and beginning of the 9th century A.D.  They were further driven towards the north west of Myanmar by the Shan people.
Thus, the Tangkhuls as also other Naga tribes have travelled from China to Myanmar and from there finally they came into their present land traversing through innumerable snow covered landscapes, mountains and wild forests confronting wild beasts and wild tribes.  The exodus of the Tangkhuls from China to Myanmar and finally to India is indeed a story of heroism of human courage and endurance.

In course of time every Tangkhul village became a small republic like the Greek city states.  Every village had an unwritten constitution made up of age-old conventions and traditions.  The Tangkhul village were self sufficient except for salt, and self governing units ruled by hereditary or elected chief assisted by a Council of Elders.  The chief was a judge, administrated and commander rolled into one.  However, absence of a national government was disastrous for them in the mediaeval period as the small village states were unable to withstand the onslaught of the organised army or the Meitei king.

The ancient Tangkhul history is hitherto an unrecorded past.  History however became more enlightened by the beginning of the 13th century owing to the cultural, trade and sometimes turbulent relations which had grown up with the people of the valley.  We find a reference to the Tangkhuls as early as the 13th century during the reign of Thawanthaba (1195-1231 AD) of Ningthouja Meitei dynasty.  The chronicles refer to the frequent raids in many tribal villages.  Thawanthaba raided Chingshong Tangkhul village which was defeated and burnt down.
There has always been some form of relationship between the Tangkhuls and the Meiteis in terms of political alliance and trade relation.  Some items of Naga material - culture indicate a long history of contact between the plain and hills.  The “Elephant Cloth” (Leirungphi), for instance, resplendent with complex animal designs, worn by the Nagas of Manipur, has its origin in the wish of the ruler of Manipur in the mid-seventeenth to present his Naga allies with a special cloth.  The popular Tangkhul shawl “Changkhom” is also known as “Karaophi” in Manipur.  The Tangkhul dance (pheichak) was known as “Chingkheirol” in Manipur, from the fact that it came from “Chingkhei” (North East of Imphal).

During the reign of the most powerful Meitei King Pamheiba a.k.a. Garib Nawaz (1709-1748) for the first time, the heartland area of the Tangkhul country was brought under the suzerainty of Manipur. In 1716, the king’s forces invaded the great Tangkhul village of Hundung and sixty eight prisoners were captured. In 1733, the king sent a millitary expedition to Ukhrul and conquered.  The outcome of the expeditions incurred heavy casualy on the King’s forces; the royal chronicles record the death of seventy Meitei soldiers.  The defeat of these two big villages situated in the heart of Tangkhul country was landmark in the establishement of the Meitei political hegemomy over the Tangkhul hills which started feeling the brunt of the Meitei power.  The Ningek inscription of king Garib Nawaz refers to the Khullakpa pf Okhrul (Ukhrul).  Ukhul was the headquarters of the Tangkhul  Long (Tangkhul Assembly), as well as the Tangkhul annual fair locally known as “Leh Khangapha” used to be held at Somsai in Ukhrul.  Hence the fall of Ukhrul in 1733 in the hands of the Meitei Maharaha herald the fall of the Tankhul country.

The next significant relationship between the hills and the valley took place during the reign of Bhagyachandra (1759-1762 and 1763-1798).  In 1779 king Bhagyachandra established a new capital at Langthabal about seven kilometers south east of Imphal.  For the nest 17 years Langthabal remained as the capital.  He emplyoned many Tangkhul and Kabui Nagas in the digging of moats around the new capital of Langthabal.  Of the Tangkhul chiefs, Khullakpa of Hundung and Ukhrul made friendship with the king. The Tangkhul Cheifs of Ukhrul, Hundung and Huining came to pay respect to the king.  King Bhagyachandra allocated land to the Tangkhuls for settlement of a Tangkhul village in the valley at a place called Puru pat. .....

The relationship between the Tangkhuls and the Meiteis during the mediaeval period was not only of wars and conquests.  They also carried on trade and commerce.  The Tangkhuls supplied cotton to the valley.  They also came and did sate and purchased in the Sanakeithel which was the principal market in Imphal.  The Tangkhuls are used Manipuri coin of bell-metal locally called ‘sel’ as a medium of exchange which was first introduced during the reign of Khagemba (1597-1652).

The boundary of Manipur and Burma (Myanmar) was laid down by an agreement signed between the British authorities (East India Company) and Burma on 9th January, 1834 on the river bank of Nighthee (Chindwin).  The Article No.4 (iii) of this agreement relates to the Tangkhul country.
“Fourth (iii) - On the north, the line of boundary will begin at the foot of the same hills at the northern extremity of the Kabo Valley and pass due north upto the first range of hills, east of that upon which stand the villages of Chortor (Choithar), Noongbee (Nungbi), Nonghar (Nunghar), of the tribe called by the Munepooriis (Manipuris) Loohooppa (Tangkhul), and by the Burmahs Lagwensoung, now tributary of Manipoor.”
As a result of this boundary demarcation without the knowledge let alone consent of the Tangkhuls, many Tangkhul village situated in Somrah hills are include under Burma. Later, when India and Burma attained national independence, the Tangkhuls found themselves totally dismembered belonging to two different countries.