In Memoriam

By: Lokendra Arambam, Khilton Nongmaithem

THANG TA is popular term for the ancient Manipuri Martial Art known as HUYEN LALLONG. The art developed from the war environment of the tiny state of Manipur in North-east India, which was an independent kingdom since the early Christian era. It played an important role in the geopolitical environment of medieval times in between India and China with many independent states at war with each other. Constant life and death struggles between clans, tribes and states resulted in the devising of ways and means of safeguarding the lives of the citizen soldiery and at the same time developing an inward attitude to problems of life, death and afterlife.

The art of the battle simultaneously envisioned a deep value system or world view ensconced within the culture of the small ethnic communities struggling for survival from constant attack from hostile neighbours and also to sustain a social order based on rank, status and kin affiliations of a collective kind. The individual was always in deep relationship with the community using ritual as a means of constant regenerative action in tune with the movement of the spiritual world of ancestors beyond human life. The world of man was an outward revelation of the inner life of the natural world and the universe. Deep harmony between outer action and inner forces resulted in the use of the body in various forms of expression.

The art of the battle and the use of weaponry, when its warlike engagements were over, developed into a system of wielding objective elements in organic relationship with the cosmos. The body itself became a space where the tensions and dynamics of creation was worked out in a system of movements reflecting the essence of these creative forces. The whole world of the dynamic cosmos was recreated within the world of the body of man.

THANG TA (The art of sword and the spear) thus became an expressive art form which however retained its fighting character at the secret home schools of individual teachers or Gurus, after being prohibited during the period of the colonial raj (1891-1947). It survived during the period of Manipur’s integration with the Indian Union in 1949, where the art was shown in festivals and performance platforms abroad since 1976. Unfortunately, the internal system of meditative practices and its essential spiritual character is at risk of being lost through lack of knowledge and committed practice by the present generation. Contemporary theatre practitioners are gaining awareness of its basic energy use and creative exercise of the body’s resources which would enhance the performance energy of the artist. It is at an exploratory stage that this new culture is being re-examined.

The movement behaviour of the different parts of the Manipuri martial body are derived from the cultural and habitual uses of daily life. Certain extra-daily postures, positions. and movements are compiled into codes adding to the natural repertoire.

Physical Characteristics in Customary Usage and Ritual Practice

1.Khurumba (the bow) - where the forward/downward flexion of the relaxed spine is used.

2.Tha Leiba -Rotation and tilts of the pelvic joint in different angles while supporting the torso in regular curvilinear uses are most common. The half turn of the chest are also common.

3. Thong khong (bridge support) - The squat is also a familiar use of the lowering of the upper extremities nearer to the ground, where the two legs in deep bent position support the whole body, thereby proximally utilizing the use of the upper extremities at the ground level. Men use three positions of squat in a descending order to enable the firmer hold of the body in pro-gravitational positions.

4. Wai teiba - a daily ritual of cleaning the floor by women. Women use a different flexible squat system with the bent knees opened out to enable the forward flexion of the torso or spine. The hand uses the washcloth with more space at her command while rubbing the floor. The entire system of body use are rich and varied, and the wrists could be most appropriately exploited in Khujeng Leibi (Wrist circling) to emulate the figure of eight.

Thang(Art of the sword) emphasizes Phidup (coil), lowering of one’s body near to the ground to enable a spring action for expansion and attack.

TA(Spear) emphasizes PHANBA, an opening out of the body with two forms, NONGPHAN to stimulate the expanse of the sky, and the LEIPHAL emulating the expanse of the earth at the ground level in order to reach out to all directions of space. The spear uses about 75% of the lower extremities in motion, while the wielding of the sword normally takes 75% exercise of the upper extremities.

The martial system is a much more vigorous use of the body in order to reach out to the space of the opponent, and the two arts are derived from the physiographic and cultural environment of the Manipur plains and the hills. The Meitei in the plains, the pre-dominant ethnic group are capable of using both sword and spear in its weapon system. The sword is most favourably used in protecting the body from attack from all sides, whereby the figure of eight is extensively used to cover the all vulnerable parts of the body. The Meitei often use more movement than stillness while preparing to fight the opponent, and the self as target is dynamic, moving and shifting position often. There is also the use of stillness while awaiting the attacking move of the opponent, depending on the nature of the enemy.