From 2017 to 2019, I was on a mission to trace the manuscripts known in Manipur and among the Meeteis as ‘puyas’, now scattered across Europe. Based on my research, I was certain that some of them would have landed in the British Museum or the British Library. In 2019, after going through thick handwritten catalogues listing manuscripts from Southasia in the British Library (acting on a tip-off from a colleague) I was able to trace a rare and exquisite puya manuscript in excellent condition. I entered the following in my research journal:
The box contains three manuscripts: the first one is obviously in Manipuri in Meetei script. The other two manuscripts are probably in Tai-Ahom or Burmese. These two manuscripts seem to be copied from their original manuscripts. They are written on black paper with bright yellow ink. The manuscripts were transferred to the British library from the British Museum.
The Manipuri manuscript on the other hand is a fascinating specimen. It has beautifully painted lacquered wooden covers (on both sides), probably to protect and hold the folios together. Bright colours are used for painting several floral patterns on the wooden covers. The pages of the manuscripts were strung together by a thread through a small hole pierced in the middle of the manuscript. The manuscript is written in the old Manipuri paper (agarbak che). There is a British museum seal on the back of the manuscript, indicating its former custodian. In total the manuscript has 26 folios. Only the first page is written on one side. The rest are written on both sides. Some pages are torn, and they seemed to be stitched together by some thread. It was either sold or transferred to the British Library in November 1910.
(3 June 2019)
When the manuscript was brought to my table in the restricted section of the reading room, I was excited to read it and appreciate its material beauty. As I started to hand copy from its folios, I contacted the curator, who had earlier denied the manuscript’s existence, to seek permission for taking photographs. Soon, the curator rushed to my table and confiscated the manuscript, claiming that it was fragile and unsafe in my hands. In the following months, several attempts to regain access were unsuccessful. The curator later asserted that the manuscript would only be available to researchers when it was properly examined and restored to good condition. This brief encounter made me think about the journeys of similar objects now in colonial museums, libraries and private collections, their accessibility for the societies which produced them, and the possibility of restitution or repatriation.
The expansion of European empires resulted in the flow of various objects – sacral, regal and mundane – from subjugated societies to a large number of public museums and private collections across Europe. This included a number of items from Northeastern India, particularly from the Naga communities inhabiting the region. How these objects travelled thousands of miles from the societies which produced them is still debated among historians, who see them either as gifts or stolen objects.
The Nagas became a subject of interest among anthropologists who were studying ‘primitive’ societies and collecting objects for ethnological museums in the 19th century. The East India Company was first drawn to the region due to the looming threat from the rising Burmese power in the east. The largest Naga collection in the world is in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, collected by various colonial officials such as J P Mills, J H Hutton, Henry Balfour, R G Woodthorpe and Sir Robert Reid. The collection consists of many objects of interest such as human skulls, headgear, jewellery, daos, spears, knives and specimens of textiles from the region.
While several scholars have looked at the cultural significance of these objects for Naga society, the role of colonial power and violence in acquiring them is often overlooked, with few exceptions. Considering the large number of colonial-era punitive expeditions, the burning of numerous villages in the region throughout the 19th and 20th century, and the colonial practise of looting cultural artefacts, it is not far-fetched to conclude that many Naga objects were acquired as spoils of war. Certain cultural artefacts like human skulls (from headhunting practices) and other religious objects could not have been given up easily by the Nagas and other communities. Punitive expeditions provided the perfect opportunity for colonial administrators like J H Hutton to collect these artefacts. Yet, there is a tendency to erase colonial violence from public memory. Historian David Zou talks about a persistent ‘raj nostalgia’ among many communities in the region. Even recent academic works continue to characterise the colonial state as pacifist and benevolent. Violence and looting are also generally omitted from colonial records. The looting of Benin city in Nigeria in 1897 by British forces was not reported in official colonial accounts or news reports, which represented the event as a moral victory over the local ruler who was held responsible for the alleged death of British officials. In his book The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution Dan Hicks argues that many European museums continue to fail to adequately recognise these objects as stolen, even in the way they are curated and displayed.
Most colonial ethnographic works and later interpretations portrayed the Northeastern frontier as a region with predominantly oral traditions. However, recent works have shown that many societies in the region developed writing systems long before the colonial period. The colonial state encountered these in the late 18th century, and subsequently many manuscripts were collected and transferred to museums and private collections in Europe.
In 1762, officers of the English East India Company encountered a strange script when the envoys of the ruler of Manipur, Meetingu (Lord of Meeteis) Chingthangkhomba, visited Chittagong to meet Harry Verelst of the Company to forge an alliance (which was later ratified in 1763.) Manipur state was represented by Yipungsi Ananda Sai, the lakpa (chief) of Khwai and a group of court scribes, including Bengali clerks Hari Das Gossain and Jaganath Das, who were deputed to translate letters and documents on behalf of the Manipuri officials so that a treaty could be signed by the Company authorities. The contingent was also carrying a letter from the king, written in the old Meetei script, which was presented to company representatives. Subsequently, several Europeans visited the capital between the 1780s and 1800s to collect manuscripts from the region, and one European was even reportedly imprisoned for attempting to smuggle a manuscript out of the state.
I do not know exactly how the exquisite manuscript I found reached the British Museum and then the British Library.
Colonial officials continuously sought these records since they were unfamiliar with the region, which they described as an unruly landscape with an inhospitable climate, strange rituals and traditions, and people who spoke in ‘gibberish and rude’ tongues. This information gathering became even more critical after the Treaty of Yandabo in 1826 and the establishment of a Political Agency in Manipur in 1835. Political agents such as George Gordon, W McCulloch, R Brown and G H Damant were all intrigued by court records and other texts and made continuous attempts to acquire manuscripts from the court for translation. The court scribes vehemently resisted such attempts and only allowed colonial officials to have partial supervised access to these records, which they constantly consulted for daily administrative work. Perhaps as a result, many political agents described the Manipur court scribes as belligerent and deceitful. James Johnstone described them as the most arrogant race he encountered in the east, while Colonel H. Maxwell described them as scheming ‘demon worshippers’. Such observations also reveal the shrewdness and resilience of the local literati class against colonial intervention.
Captain Damant was particularly interested in the languages and scripts of the region, and he was able to persuade the court to appoint a scribe (Thoutam Chaopaton) by royal decree to teach him the script used in court writings. Before he was beheaded in 1879 in the village of Khonoma in the Naga Hills, he was able to collect several texts such as Takhel Ngamba, Samsok Ngamba, Mayang Ngamba, Langlol and Salkau – historical accounts of military expeditions by the rulers of Manipur and treatises on morality and animal husbandry. He also attempted the earliest English translation of a Meetei text, Samsok Ngamba (Conquest of Samsok), which gave a glimpse of the literature of the region to the rest of the world. The translation and manuscripts were most probably handed over to the Asiatic Society of Bengal which published his translation along with a facsimile of the manuscript in 1877. He was also interested in collecting the court record, Cheitharol Kumpapa, which he described as a national chronicle, but lamented that the ‘vile’ court scribes would not even show the manuscripts to him. Many colonial officials outside the state also sought the services of the court scribes and access to the court records of Manipur. For example, in the year 1875-76 CE, C C R McWilliam, Deputy Commissioner of Cachar, wrote to the court for manuscripts of a particular Meetei lairik (text) which was eventually sent to him by the court after much persuasion by the office of the political agent.
The violent acquisition of Meetei manuscripts
After the conquest of Manipur in 1891, the political agents were able to gain more direct access to court records. There are local narratives of the burning of puyas by colonial forces commanded by Sir Henry Collett, after the occupation and sacking of the capital. It is alleged that 144 manuscripts and records were collected by the political agent from the royal palace and burnt on 20 July 1891 at the Manung Kangjeibung (polo ground) inside the walled citadel Kangla. This incident along with the destruction of the statues of Kangla Sha outside the Uttra Sanglen (coronation hall), the desecration of graves of former rulers and other destruction were not reported in colonial accounts, which largely dismissed the invasion as a military operation to quell the treacherous rebellion of local rulers. This is quite similar to the sacking of Benin city and the nature of its subsequent reporting.
However, the looting of the palace records was recorded in detail by court scribes in the royal court record Cheitharon Kumpapa. After the occupation of various buildings in the capital, the chief court scribes were imprisoned and accused of waging war against Queen Victoria, the Empress of India. Colonel Maxwell, who was appointed superintendent of the state, called for the court records, kept in sealed royal boxes in the Maipa Loishang (institute of court scholars and scribes), to be transferred to his residence in Kangla and translated into English, based on instructions he had received. The seals on the royal boxes were broken. Due to his distrust of the court scribes, he relied on Bengali clerks such as Babu Rasik Lal Kundu, Babu Umesh Chandra Ghosh and Babu Bama Charan Mukherjee to handle the court records. A total of 12 court scribes were also compelled to participate in transcribing and translation since the clerks did not know Meetei language and script.
It is imperative to question the discourse associated with the collection of these objects and recognise the role of colonial violence and power in their transfer outside the region, for any future discussion about decolonising accessibility to these objects.
Similarly, other manuscripts such as the genealogies of the ruling family were handed over to Maxwell for translation. In the following years, Bama Charan was also given the important task of collecting manuscripts of various lairiks for Maxwell’s collection.
Once more direct colonial administration was established in the region, it appeared to be much easier for colonial officials to access and collect these manuscripts. Many colonial officials and visiting anthropologists started citing and reproducing facsimiles of these texts routinely in their work. Colonial anthropologist and author of the 1908 text The Meitheis, T C Hodson continuously referred to court records in his private correspondences with other colonial officials. He also reproduced a facsimile of the text Numit Kappa (Shooting of the Sun) in his book. Partly written in verse, this is considered the oldest text in Meetei language by scholars, and is a mythical tale of a time when there was more than one sun in the sky. Some of the political agents’ wives were also involved in the collection of these manuscripts. Lady Mai Kathleen, the wife of Manipur political agent H W G Cole, spent most of her time in the capital while her husband was away touring the state, learning the language and collecting manuscripts and other artefacts from the region. She developed a friendship with the young English educated Maharaja Churachand Singh, who offered her easy access to his court scribes and manuscripts in the palace records. Her correspondence suggests that she was able to collect several artefacts from these exchanges. Similarly, Reverend William Pettigrew, a missionary and language scholar who worked in the region for decades (from the 1890s to the 1930s), was also able to access and collect several manuscripts for linguistic study.
These manuscripts were forgotten for a long time in museums and private collections in Europe. Historians in Manipur are only aware of the translation of texts, but they do not know that many manuscripts were collected and transferred to British India and Europe during the colonial period. However, this was not the first instance of these manuscripts being moved from the state. The Burmese army looted the capital continuously between 1750 and 1826, and carried away a large number of manuscripts from the region, along with thousands of skilled artisans and scribes as slaves. Similarly, many scribes who were exiled to the royal court in Ava also carried away manuscripts with them.
I do not know exactly how the exquisite manuscript I found reached the British Museum and then the British Library. However, the British Museum houses other objects from Manipur, such as gold and silver coins, ornaments, and panels, made of carved and painted sandstone, of deities such as Karttikeya, Narasimha and Krishna, of warriors wielding swords and spears and scenes of cavalry on a battlefield, which were collected by Maxwell from the state and later donated by his daughter E Moysey in 1928. The manuscript most probably came from the collection which Maxwell and others acquired from royal residences and religious shrines inside Kangla after 1891. Other manuscripts from the region also finally found their way to various museums and libraries through donations, purchases and auctions. Manuscripts collected by the Coles are now in the Pitt Rivers Museum, donated by D M Bourdas, Lady Cole’s daughter in law from a previous marriage.
This collection contains the transcription of a text described in correspondences as Meihoubalol Puran in Roman and another text called Leishang Kongtrol (5 leaves). However, the most fascinating specimen in this collection is a manuscript of a large map or plan of Kangla, the citadel fortress with extensive colourful illustrations and markings with the old Meetei script. The Pitt Rivers Museum also acquired notebooks and writings belonging to Rani Gaidinliu, a significant political and religious leader from the region. Her writings have immense value for the followers of the Heraka religion and were confiscated by James Philip Mills from Hangrum village, North Cachar Hills, where she was arrested along with her followers in March 1932, after which they were donated to the museum.
The demand for repatriation and restitution has not gained as much traction in India as in African countries, despite some notable recent examples of stolen objects being returned to countries in the Subcontinent.
While there are several widely known examples of violent looting by colonial powers, such as at Behanzin palace in Benin by French colonial forces in 1892, the sacking of Kangla in 1891, the plundering of Benin city in 1897, and the pillaging of palaces and monasteries in Tibet by British forces in 1903, there were other ways of acquiring valuable artefacts. Meripeni Ngully pointed out that many colonial officials posted in the Northeastern region like Hutton had close relations with ethnological museums like the Pitt Rivers Museum and constantly acquired objects from the region for these museums. This was also true in the case of other officials like Mills and Woodthorpe. Henry Balfour, the first curator of the museum, also visited the Naga Hills (1922-23) to collect objects for the museum and claimed that he paid money for the objects or that they were gifted to him by the village chiefs in his tour diaries.
Renato Rosaldo, however, argues that colonial ethnographers continuously dismissed colonial domination and asserted innocence, or otherwise distanced themselves from the colonial state, which funded their work and made their ethnography and close contacts with the communities they were studying possible. As a result, such activities are often projected as harmless hobbies or private endeavours. This is now contradicted by many historians. The collection of these objects could not have been possible without colonial domination. Balfour was invited to the Naga Hills by Deputy Commissioner J H Hutton and his tours and collection of objects were assisted by the colonial administration. Hence it is imperative to question the discourse associated with the collection of these objects and recognise the role of colonial violence and power in their transfer outside the region, for any future discussion about decolonising accessibility to these objects.
Many societies such as the Karens in Myanmar have oral narratives about the tragic loss of their cultural objects, such as religious books, to European colonisers. The discourse of restitution is embedded in these stories, which assert that their books will one day be returned. There are similar histories of loss and longing for return among several communities in the Northeast. Recent debates among scholars and activists in Europe have raised questions about possible reparation and even restitution of these objects to the societies which produced them. Many former European colonies such as Nigeria and Senegal have officially communicated with their former colonisers to return artefacts that were acquired as ‘spoils of war.’ An early example was the 1924 demand by the Egyptian government to return the iconic bust of Queen Nefertiti, currently in the Neues Museum in Berlin, which was first discovered by German archaeologists led by Ludwig Borchardt in 1912.
In his book The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution Dan Hicks argues that many European museums continue to fail to adequately recognise these objects as stolen, even in the way they are curated and displayed.
Some European countries such as France, Germany and the Netherlands have taken significant steps towards restitution recently to rectify what they describe as ‘historical injustice.’ In 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron affirmed that his government would facilitate the permanent transfer of looted objects to African nations, with a bill on restitution unanimously passed in the legislature. Similar planning efforts are being made by the Dutch government and activists to return artefacts to the source countries and build infrastructure and human resources to facilitate the transfer. The report of the Advisory Committee on the National Policy Framework for Colonial Collections, commissioned by Dutch culture minister Ingrid van Engelshoven, even recommended the restitution of objects that were not necessarily acquired by violent looting or acquired indirectly from colonial power, as long as these objects hold significant cultural or religious importance for the societies which produced them. German cultural minister Monika Gruetters also announced the initial repatriation of artefacts from the former kingdom of Benin, held by Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum.
Such developments can be interpreted as recognising the dark history of colonialism and also dealing with increasingly unavoidable questions on reparation in recent times. These questions do not have easy answers, especially for many countries like France, with a long history of legal red-tapism due to strict laws regarding the inalienability of national collections. It is notable that the United Kingdom, which has the largest collection of looted objects, many of them in the British Museum, has refused to consider returning them, although some regional museums appear more willing. Controversially, this includes artefacts such as the Benin Bronzes, among the most prized collections in the British Museum, which were acquired during the sack of Benin city, when they were looted mercilessly by British soldiers and sailors. While various efforts have been made to facilitate their return, there is not yet a secure modern museum in Nigeria which could act as a temporary or permanent home for these objects. Only two such objects have been returned by a private owner named Mark Walker in 2014, who inherited them from his grandfather who took part in the looting of Benin city. Perhaps imperial pride, exceptionalism and wilful amnesia about colonial violence and looting and its continued legacy contribute to the hesitancy to address these questions in contemporary Britain. Such imperial amnesia is captured by recent works such as Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland (2021) and Padraic X Scanlan’s Slave Empire (2020).
The manuscripts from the Northeast remain overshadowed by more spectacular objects, which include mummified heads and human skulls, spears, daos, ornaments, headgears and a huge collection of fabrics and warrior shawls. Such representation of the region in museums is consistent with depictions in colonial ethnographic accounts.
Questions of reparation and restitution of looted objects have gained popular support in many African countries, taken up by academics, activists and politicians. In June 2020, five repatriation activists attempted to remove an object originating from Chad, from the Quai Branly Museum in Paris to highlight the issue of misappropriation of cultural heritage from Africa by colonisers. These popular mobilisations have resulted in public acknowledgement of colonial lootings and growing international pressure to return the objects. In contrast, the demand for repatriation and restitution has not gained as much traction in India as in African countries, despite some notable recent examples of stolen objects being returned to countries in the Subcontinent.
While many of my European colleagues believe that these objects should remain in colonial museums since they are well preserved with advanced practices and technologies, the issue of accessibility remains the biggest challenge. Zubeni Lotha, a Naga photographer and writer who was invited to help the curators of the Humboldt Forum with the concept design for the Berlin Naga collection, argued that these objects contain knowledge of the Nagas’ past, which were taken away from them and that it would be very beneficial for the community if they could access them directly. She is right in highlighting that these objects are much more than collectable artefacts, being rich material archives for understanding the history of Naga societies. For example, the 274 Neolithic celts collected from the Naga Hills in the Pitt Rivers Museum would be useful for archaeologists to study social formation among the Nagas.
The manuscripts from the Northeast, like the one I located, remain overshadowed by more spectacular objects, which include mummified heads and human skulls, spears, daos, ornaments, headgears and a huge collection of fabrics and warrior shawls. Such representation of the region in museums is consistent with depictions in colonial ethnographic accounts. Yet, these manuscripts are significant repositories of knowledge of the history of communities in Northeastern India. They have value for followers of the Sanamahi religion. Linguistic scholars like George A Grierson and Reverend W Pettigrew, in private correspondences between 1899 and 1927, argued that these manuscripts are repositories of the old Meetei language and that through them, linguistic scholars and historians could understand the genealogy of the Tibeto-Burman linguistic family. However, they are not easily accessible to anyone who is not a scholar located in the Global North. These valuable artefacts should be made accessible to the region from where they originated, either by permanently returning them or temporarily loaning them to museums and galleries in the region for exhibitions and research. For historians, these manuscripts, along with the other artefacts, could be key to understanding the Northeast’s past.