Amailon: the ritual language of the Nupa Maibi

Amailon: the ritual language of the Nupa Maibi

Language: Meithei
Depositor: Karen Parker
Location: India
Deposit Id: 0445
Grant id: SG0436
Funding body: ELDP
Level: Deposit

Summary of deposit

The Amailon variety of Meitei is a liturgical genre spoken by the Maibi (also spelled Amaibi), indigenous shamanic priestesses of the Sanamahi tradition in Manipur state, Northeast India. The term itself is a compound of mai ‘shaman’ + lon ‘language’. Meitei is thought to be a Tibeto-Burman language, but controversy remains regarding this point and there is no absolute consensus among linguists.

The language continues to be spoken by a community estimated to not exceed 1,200 individuals, and its status as a ‘living’ language exists entirely due on its continued use in indigenous rituals, dances and other ceremonies performed by the Maibi.

Among the Maibi population there is a far smaller sub-community of priestesses who are gender-diverse. These individuals, estimated to be no more than a dozen in number, are the Nupa Amaibi, who are the consultants for this project.

The archaic precursor to the Meitei language (also spelled Meeitei and Meithei), Meiteilon, is known to have an abudiga orthography (a C+V system of segmental representation) known as Meiti Mayek. The script dates back at least to medieval times, and according to some scholars, possible beyond two millennia. The language is unique in the context of Tibeto-Burman languages of North East India (few of which have script) for this reason alone.

In 1732, the reigning monarch of Manipur, King Meidingu Pamheiba, who had converted to Vaishnavism (a variety of Hinduism), ordered the destruction of literature written in the old language, in order to promote Bengali script. As a result of this linguistic and cultural erasure, only a handful of examples written in Meiti Mayek remain. The puyas, sacred books of the Sanamahi tradition, were almost completely destroyed in the process. Some puyas remain in the royal collection at Imphal, however these remain largely inaccessible outside the few with scholarly ability to read and interpret archaic Meitei Mayek.

Since there is virtually nothing remaining in the way of existing orthographic representations of the religious texts of the language, Amailon has only remained a living, spoken language exclusively thanks to the cultural practices of the cultural genres of ritual and the arts performed by the Maibi priestesses.

Group represented

The Nupa Amaibi are renowned for their skills in magical practices such as exorcisms and healing rituals, as well as cultural expressions involving song and dance, especially khutek, ‘hand dancing’. The tradition of gender-diverse shamans in Manipur goes back centuries, and they are known to have existed prior to annextation by the British in the 19th century. Documentary evidence for this lies in two photographs taken in the 1880s by Sir Thomas Mowbrey, a British military officer who acted as a British agent in Manipur upon retirement from military service.

In pre-colonial Manipur, the Nupa Maibi had a high degree of acceptance within traditional Manipuri culture, and some were employed by the royal court to perform divinations and for their dancing skills.

In modern Manipur, the dual impacts of militarization and post-colonialism, the position of social standing once enjoyed by the Nupa Maibi has been eroded, and there are only a handful of practitioners remaining who understand and can perform the complex rituals and dances of their culture.

The main consultant for this project was Ima Bobby Amaibi, a high priestess who was based in the capital, Imphal until her passing in April, 2017, shortly after completing the recordings for the project. Ima Bobby generously agreed to participate in the project, knowing that the cultural practices of her community were rapidly disappearing.

The recordings made for this project encompass Amaibi ritual, dance, song and also comprise interviews with Ima Bobby Amaibi, and another priestess, Ima Nanao Amaibi.

The feature recording is the ritual dance known as Laihou Jagoi (pictured above), wherein a long turn-taking narrative is sung, accompanied by dance. Other rituals included in the deposit are an excorcism, and a fortune telling. The interviews with Ima Bobby and Ima Nanao provide an interesting insight into the life of a Nupa Amaibi from the points of view of a senior and a junior priestess.

The content of the deposit is of interest not only linguistically, being a rare expression of archaic Meiteilon, but also culturally, in light of the rising influences of Hindu culture from ‘mainland’ India, and increasing contact with Western influences in mass media and communication, both of which influences are rapidly diminishing these arcane aspects of the indigenous culture of Sanamahi.

Special characteristics

The linguistic expression of the Nupa Amaibi differ in some ways to their cisgender counterparts, the Nupi Amaibi. Perhaps the most interesting difference lies in the semantic interpretation of certain songlines, and in the degree of complexity afforded to storytelling through rituals involving jagoi ‘dance’, and especially khutek jagoi ‘hand dancing’. Consultants also claim that there is a phonological variation that exists between the singing style of Nupa Amaibi, as compared to that of Nupi Amabi.

In the Leihou Jagoi text, which is almost entirely sung in archaic Meiteilon, a striking grammatical feature is the proliferation of nouns case-marked for gender. In Modern Manipuri, this type of case-marking has become degrammaticalized and only occurs as a semantic feature of a handful of nouns.

Deposit contents

The deposit contains five bundles, corresponding to five texts. Twi texts are rituals performed by Ima Bobby, Ine text is the group performance of Laihou Jagoi by a number of priestesses, led by Ima Bobby Amaibi, and the final two bundles are interviews with Ima Bobby and Ima Nanao.

Each bundle consists of an annotated elan file and a corresponding pdf file of the translated text with interlinear glossing. Informed consent was obtained on video and these are also attached to the bundles. All the materials are provided for access to users of ELAR.

Deposit history

The data for this project was collected by Karen Parker, PhD candidate at La Trobe University, and was supported by a small grant from the ELDP (SOAS). The data was collected between December 2016 and January 2017 when Karen parker went to Manipur on fieldwork.

Other information

In any discussion of the Nupa Amaibi, please be sensitive to the socio-cultural needs of the community. The Nupa Amaibi, as with most gender diverse and transgender communities of the world, experience high degrees of discrimination and violence. It is with a high degree of personal trust in the investigator that they were willing to share these documents of their unique position in the indigenous culture of Manipur.

None of the data in this project may be reproduced without consulting and gaining ethical permission from the researcher Karen Parker and her contacts in Manipur. In the instance that another researcher wishes to reproduce any part of the data presented here, the correct procedure would be to contact Karen Parker, who is able to in turn contact representatives of the Nupa Amaibi in Manipur.

Acknowledgement and citation

References to any part of the data presented here should acknowledge Karen Parker as the principal investigator, collector of data and researcher. Users who make reference to this project and its content should also acknowledge the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP), who supported and funded the project.

To make any reference to any item of data in the deposit, please cite as follows:

Parker, Karen. 2017. The Language of Meibi: a sacred variety of Meithei. ID Meibi [insert ID number here]. London: SOAS, Endangered Languages Archive, ELAR. URL: accessed on [insert date here].


Collection online
Resources online and curated


Karen Parker
Responsive image

Deposit Statistics

Data from 2020 October 23 to 2020 October 23
Deposit hits:1
Downloaded files
Without statistics

Showing 1 - 7 of 7 Items

Laihou Jagoi ‘Awakening of the Gods’ Bundle filenames • Media files: NupaAmaibi_Ameilon_20012017_video_dance_639-3.MP4 NupaAmaibi_Ameilon_20012017_INF.CONS_Bobby_639-3.MP4 • Elan file: NupaAmaibi_Ameilon_20012017_video_dance_639-3.eaf • Pdf translation file: NupaAmaibi_Ameilon_20012017_video_dance_639-3_translation.pdf Basic metadata Date of recording: 20th January, 2017. Location: Temple of Ima Bobby Amaibi, in Chingmeirong, Imphal. Participants: Ima Bobby Amaibi, Naba Amaibi, Sarat Amaibi, Liklai Amaibi, Jelendro playing the pena (string instrument) and Kangjamba playing the dhulok (drum). Others present: Karen, Meiphak (disciple of Ima Bobby Amaibi). Description: Laihou Jagoi ‘awakening of the gods’, is a traditional dance-ritual of the Sanamahi. It is performed by solely by Amaibi (priestesses). Interestingly, the Amaiba (male priests of Sanamahi), do not engage in dance or magical practices. The Amaibi performing in this text are several Nupa Amaibi, and one Nupi Amaibi (cisgender priestess). This recording is considered by the investigator to be the centerpiece of the project. The text contains many archaic words which do not occur in contemporary Manipur outside the ritual genre. Unlike the other recordings, the language used in the text is pure Amailon, and the relationship between the archaic and the modern can be seen in the many grammatical markers which are used in modern Meitei, and are also in evident this text. Much of the lexical content in the text is however no longer in use in contemporary Meitei. The investigator learned that unlike the other texts recorded, this one is unintelligible to almost all Meitei speakers who are not Amaibi practitioners. Only a small amount of the oldest generation (70+) are able to gain any understanding of the words. Yet the grammatical patterns are largely familiar, with some interesting exceptions. There are also some stark differences found in grammatical patterns of Amailon compared to Meitei. One of the most interesting of these is the proliferation of gender-marking on nouns. As Chelliah notes in her A Grammar of Meithei (1997), in modern Meitei these are restricted to a small amount of nouns such as occupational agentives. The implication is that over time, probably with the influences of Hindi and Bengali, these gender markers [pi / pa] have been de-grammaticalized, as gender marking took on a much more semantic basis for usage. The fact that a much wider usage of gender marking occurs in this orally transmitted ancient text implies that at least in this area of case-marking, in pre-colonial Manipur, the language was somewhat different grammatically. The performance consists of interactional singing and dancing, and is accompanied by two indigenous instruments, the string instrument called pena, and the drum, called khulok. The text is both a story and a ritual designed to invoke the gods. Various gods feature in the text notably the sky god Atiya Kuru Sidabi, and the goddesses Lairembi and Panthoibi. The story is packed with metaphorical language, much of which semantically relates to a magical code of sexual symbolism.

Recorded on: Unspecified

Recorded on: Unspecified

Recorded on: Unspecified

Interview with Ima Bobby Bundle filenames • Media files: NupAmaibi_Ameilon_05012017_interview_Bobby1_639-3.MP4 NupAmaibi_Ameilon_01012017_INF_CONS_Bobby_639-3.MP4 • Elan file BobbyInterview1.eaf • Pdf file NupAmaibi_Ameilon_05012017_interview_Bobby1_639-3.pdf Basic metadata Date of recording: 5th January, 2017 Location: Chingmeirong (Bobby’s temple), Imphal Participants: Ima Bobby Others present: Karen, Ibehaibi Yambem (Bobby’s sister) Description: In this interview with Ima Bobby Amaibi, she details some of her life story pertaining to her becoming as a priestess. As is common in all the stories of the gender-diverse priestesses (Nupa Amaibi), Ima Bobby talks of herself becoming physically ill and apparently babbling in a language undecipherable by her parents at around the age of reaching puberty (interestingly, this does not occur for the cisgender priestesses, the Nupi Amaibi). She also talks about the food restrictions for the Amaibi. Later in the interview, Ima Bobby shares her experiences of discrimination, and the misunderstandings that have arisen from those who suspect the Amaibi to be practicing sorcery. It becomes clear from the interview that the cisgender priestesses are preferred for the purposes of enacting rituals and cultural events in some villages, while the gender diverse ones are treated less favourably. On the other hand, there are some villages who prefer Nupa Amaibi to conduct ceremonies. There are some interesting comments regarding the language as used by the gender diverse priestesses when they are going through their transition, which coincides with their being ‘called’ to become priestesses. Ima Bobby also talks about the different tribal groups aside form Meitei who participate in Sanamahi rituals. Near the end of the interview there is some elaboration on the functions and meaning of the central magical tool of the priestesses, the surek, ‘bell’.

Recorded on: Unspecified

Keywords: Meitei - Meithei - Discourse - Ima Bobby

Healing Ritual Bundle filenames • Media files NupAmaibi_Ameilon_01012017_ritual_session2_639-3.MP4 NupAmaibi_Ameilon_01012017_INF_CONS_Bobby_639-3.MP4 • Elan file NupAmaibi_HealingExcorcismRitual.eaf • Pdf file NupAmaibi_Ameilon_01012017_ritual_session2_639-3.pdf Basic metadata Date of recording: 1st January, 2017 Location: Chingmeirong (Ima Bobby’s temple), Imphal Participants: Ima Bobby, Bhobon Amaiba Others present: Karen, Meiphak Description: In this demonstrated ritual, the priest Bhobon Amaiba plays the role of client and undergoes a healing ritual. Various incantations are used by Ima Bobby to invoke the deities and call upon them to heal Bobhon Amaiba. There are elements of the Sanamahi creation story embedded in the text, where the order of the creation of the elements are detailed. The association of deities with elemental forces is strong in all of the rituals, and in this one, the term nung-sit ‘wind-wave’ refers to the entrance of a deity on a gust of air. This association of the arrival of a deity with a ‘breeze’ makes salient the animistic basis of the Sanamahi tradition. Some of the metaphorical language used in this ritual was incredibly difficult to translate. This was especially so after the passing of Ima Bobby. With the help of Ima Nanao and after consulting some elder speakers, the ritual was however successfully translated. The poetic beauty of some of these metaphors in extraordinary. For example, the phrase thouri-thouya-lang, ‘rope-coil-arrange’ symbolizes the ‘cycle of time’. Several archaic words are used in the ritual, and we learn, among other things, that khabi is the archaic word for priestess Amaibi.

Recorded on: Unspecified

Senmit Yengba ‘Fortune telling ritual’ Bundle filenames • Media files: NupAmaibi_Ameilon_01012017_ritual_session1_639-3.MP4 NupAmaibi_Ameilon_01012017_INF_CONS_Bobby_639-3.MP4 • Elan file: NupAmaibi_SengmitYengba.eaf • Pdf file: NupAmaibi_Ameilon_01012017_ritual_session1_639-3.pdf Basic metadata Date of recording: 1st January, 2017 Location: Chingmeirong (Bobby’s temple), Imphal Participants: Ima Bobby, Meiphak Others present: Karen, Dilip Description: Senmit Yengba (sen-mit yengba ‘coin-eye see’) is a divinatory ritual commonly employed by Amaibi to rid the client of some kind of illness derived from a curse, or where there is a belief that the behaviours of the person are underlaid by the possession of the client by evil spirits. In this recording, Meiphak (one of Ima Bobby’s disciples) plays the part of the client for the purposes of the video recording. Essential to the ritual is the use of the leaf of the plant, called toon, and the manipulation of several old coins retained by the priestess as magical tools. The coins are not modern Indian currency, but from the period of British colonialism. The banana leaf la is sacred in the Sanamahi tradition and it plays a major part as a magical tool in this ritual. The coins are used to perform divination and the priestess reads the way the coins fall on the banana leaf in order to give appropriate advice to the client. The importance of directional which correspond to supernatural forces is very evident in this ritual. In the Sanamahi tradition, both the cardinal directions and the ‘semi-cardinals’ (e.g., ‘Northeast’, etc) are of vital symbolic importance. After making various predictions and attributing causes to the client’s ailments, advice is given to the client.

Recorded on: Unspecified

Interview with Ima Nanao Bundle filenames • Media files NupAmaibi_Ameilon_28122016_interview_Nanao_639-3.MP4 NupAmaibi_Ameilon_28122017_INF_CONS_Nanao_639-3.MP4 • Elan file Nanao_Interview.eaf • Pdf file NupAmaibi_Ameilon_28122016_interview_Nanao_639-3.pdf Basic metadata Date of recording: 28th December, 2016 Location: Khurai, East Imphal (Santa’s house) Participants: Nanao Amaibi, Rohit Others present: Karen, Jodha Description: The interview with Ima Nanao is a very long (1 hour) and rich account of many aspect of Amaibi culture, as well as a generously detailed account of her life. As a young priestess (19 years at the time of recording), Ima Nanao has been a priestess for around 7 years, and so her experience nicely compliments the account given by senior priestess Ima Bobby, who at the time of recording had been a practicing Amaibi for almost 40 years. The contemporary cultural context of modern Manipur is therefore on display in Ima Nanao’s interview. Whereas in Ima Bobby’s youth there were no visibility of non-shamanic gender-diversity (i.e., ‘transgender’), for Ima Nanao, growing up in the 1990s, she has seen the introduction of borrowed Western slurs like ‘homo’, which although a fairly mild and ambiguous term in the Western world, is considered a deeply offensive insut in Manipur. The impression one gets from Ima Nanao’s interview is that as a young Amaibi in the modern age, she has already struggled greatly with homophobia and transphobia, and continues to struggle. There are parallels with Western experiences of transphobia, in that she has experienced public mockery and violence, whereas in Bobby’s youth (roughly the 1970s) Manipur was more or less a ‘closed’ state and the Amaibis had a degree of cultural respect which has somewhat eroded since then. There is a very precise description in this interview of the way in which the deity invoked enters the body of the priestess. Nanao explains in detail how the goddess enters the body of the priestess and take position on their tongue; then the sacred words are issued from the tongue and the deity moves down to the navel area of the priestess’ body. The content of Nanao’s interview also contains actual ritual song and an authentic invocation of goddess deities in the Amailon language. There is a small degree of interaction in the interview with Rohit, a novice priestess who is learning from Nanao. The interview was a challenge to translate because of the high amount of informal usages used by both Ima Nanao and the assistant for this interview, Jodha. Grammatical particles and lexical forms are used which do not seem to be recorded in extant works on Meitei such as Chelliah 1997. It could be an interesting source for a pragmatic study of Meitei at a later date. A list of questions was devised by the investigator in collaboration with close friend and native guide Santa Khurai, and these were the basis of the structure of the interview with Ima Nanao. The questions asked of Nanao (including the informed consent statement) are reproduced below: 28/12/16 Informed consent statement. 1. My name is Karen Parker. I am visiting Manipur to study the Nupa Amaibi language and culture. I am from La Trobe University in Melbourne Australia, with the support of the University of London, England. 2. I thank you very much for coming to meet me and with your consent, I would like to ask you about the Nupa Amaibi language and culture, and about life in general for Nupa Amaibi and Nupi Maanbi in Manipur. 3. I will be recording with this video camera and this sound recorder. Please tell me if at any time you want to stop for a rest or if you are uncomfortable. We can stop at any time. Are you happy and ready to continue? 4. Ok, it is Thursday, 28th December, 2016. We are at Santa Khurai’s brother’s house in Khurai district, Imphal. Present are myself, Santa’s brother Joda, and two Nupa Amaibi, Nanao and Rohit 5. We can please talk one at a time. Who would like to go first? 6. Could you first tell your name and age please? 7. Ok now I will ask some questions about Nupa Amaibi. Please take as long as you want for each question, and remember we can stop at any time. Questions 1. Can you say any words, phrases and prayers in the Amaibi language? 2. Can you tell the creation story of how Nupa Amaibi began? 3. Can you say the words and sentences that you use when communicating with God? 4. Which deities do you worship? The Goddesses Pantoibi or Laishna or both, and/or others? 5. Can you talk about the magical rituals of Nupa Amaibi such as fortune telling, exorcism, healing rituals? 6. Are there any special words and phrases used in the magical rituals? Do you use regular Manipuri language in those rituals or a special language? 7. Is the language you use the same as the language used by other Amaibi? 8. Do you belong to the Furah, Sangleng or Nongmai type of Amaibi? 9. What kind of food do you prefer, and are there any foods you do not or cannot eat? 10. How do you become Nupa Amaibi, and at what age did you become Amaibi? 11. How did you realize that you are Nupa Amaibi? 12. How did you learn the Amaibi language? Does guru help? 13. Apart from in communicating with God, do you use the modern Manipuri language when you do rituals? 14. How do the wider society feel about Nupa Amaibi? How do they react when they see you in public? Is there much discrimination? 15. Do you get called bad names in public which make you feel uncomfortable? 16. How do the Nupi Amaibi regard the Nupa Amaibi? Do they feel positive or negative, or have different opinions? 17. What opportunities are available for doing the rituals? Have you ever been prevented from doing the rituals? Are the opportunities more available for Nupi Amaibi than Nupa Amaibi? 18. Could you talk about how you feel about Nupa Amabi, and its importance in the indigenous culture? 19. How do you feel about this project to preserve the language, culture and history of Nupa Amaibi? 20. In your experience, could you suggest approximately how many Nupa Amaibi existed before compared to now? And if the population is fewer, do you have any explanation for this? 21. Is there anything you think is important that I have not asked you about?

Recorded on: Unspecified

Keywords: Meitei - Discourse - Rohit - Nanao - Jhoda