Ima Dhoni Amaibi is the current senior Amaibi at the JN Manipur Dance Academy. This set of short videos were taken at her home in Imphal as she gives lessons to other Maibi and a research student from the university.
(Special thank you to Ima Dhoni Amaibi, Ima Apabi Amaibi, and Mahesh H.)
The Maibi are the priestesses and ritual upholders of Manipur’s indigenous faith of the Umang Lai. Their lives and duties encompasses a wide range of activities associated to the spiritual life of the Meitei and Chakpa people. They are priestesses specifically chosen by the Lai deities, to be their intimate caretakers and oracles. The mystical folklore surrounding the Maibi and their supernatural abilities make them a mysterious and respected group among Manipuris. The name of Maibi is of unknown origin. But they most definitely originated and are a product of the land of the Manipuri valley. They exist nowhere else and presently rank about 150 to 180 in number. Amaibi is the formal title with Maibi as the familiar. Amaibi are always addressed as Ima, which means Mother in Manipuri. No matter the Maibi’s age or the age of the person addressing, they are to be respectfully called, Ima.
Of all the facets of the dance, music, and rituals of Manipur, it is the Amaibi’s part which for the outsider is the most exotic and fascinating. Who are these woman and sometimes men that are the chosen mediators between the deities and the people?
The Maibi must learn and perform the skills of communicating with the deities known as the Umang Lai. Their training and education is considered a mystery and incomprehensible to the common man. This is in part because they are supernaturally connected to and communicate directly with the Lai who exist on a different plane of reality and consciousness. In their training the Maibi must learn ritual oration, the use of herbs, the making of ritual offerings, and the songs and dances of Lai Haraoba.
They must also learn to harness and channel the energy of the Lai, who possess and use them as oracles. Each Maibi is attached to one particular Lai who has reached out and chosen them. No one can choose to become an Amaibi. It is their fate, which must be accepted and then becomes their sacred duty. If they resist, they will become physically and mentally ill and in time the unharnessed energy flowing through them will drive them mad. All real Amaibi have experienced this supernatural possession and erratic behavior prior to their training. Once their training has begun these erratic signs diminish, and it is said they become full Amaibi once they have the control to balance these supernatural forces.
Because of their mysterious and supernatural nature the written descriptions of the Amaibi are few. Outsiders have had little contact with them, even the average Meitei only witness the Maibi fleetingly during special rituals and Lai Haraoba. The few comparative descriptions of what an Amaibi is are generally second hand and tend to be misinformed and misleading. For example the Maibi have been given the label of shaman, which is an incomplete description. To say the Amaibi is a shaman, priestess, oracle, dancer, ritual expert, or singer, would be correct in parts but not enough to describe the whole. The Maibi must possess all of those described attributes. They are also distinguished by their unique personal relationship with the Umang Lai deities. The Maibi are gifted the ability to communicate and bridge the gap between the other world of the Lai with that of our physical world. As such conductors their minds are both powerful and sensitive in nature and personality. They have been individually chosen by the Lai to speak the words of the higher deities. However they are also as fragile as any human being. The currents of supernatural energy that pass through them can at times be too much for the lower capacity of the untrained human mind. This can trigger the inexperienced Maibi into erratic behavior and the more experienced into spontaneous trance possession. Because of their mysterious personal connection with the Umang Lai they are revered and held in awe by the people. They command respect, curiosity, and are in a way celebrities wherever they go. No one would dare to disrespect them, or pique their wrath.
The Amaibi are responsible for the arranging and conducting of many of the rituals in connection with the Umang Lai. Therefore in the highly ritual based society of the Meitei they are indispensable. Occasionally there are also a few men who are called by the Lai to become Maibi. Some of these Nupa Maibi (Male Maibi) dress as female Amaibi and will conduct Lai Haraoba as equals with their female counterparts. The Maibi have a fabled individual connection with their Lai deities. It is known that Maibi will have nighttime visitations from their personal Lai where they will have physical and actual intimate encounters. At these moments they do not call to their Lai in spells or incantations but it is the Lai that appear and in an amorous way will physically take them. The Maibi can be married and have children and families, but its said that their true union must be to their Lai, and their family and husband must accept this. How this is possible there is no explanation and is something the Maibi have no need to explain.
The process of becoming a Maibi is also mysterious and held to be unknowable to anyone beside the real Maibi themselves. Some of what is known is that the chosen one will start showing the outward signs that they are potential Maibi. At some point they might fall into trance and act like an animal such as a snake or a pony, or begin exhibiting erratic obsessive and explosive behaviors. Some show the outward symptoms similar to those of schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder, such as pulling of hair, or hearing voices and speaking in tongues. These signs can start to occur at any time in the person’s life, from adolescence to middle age. They say though that the strongest Amaibi are the girls who are possessed at a young age. When these signs manifest, the potential Maibi will by supernatural ability seek out and find their mentor or Ima mother who is an established Amaibi and ask to be taken in as an apprentice. Then through secret rituals the novice is initiated into the fold of the Maibis. Traditionally the fresh potential Maibi will then go to live with their Ima Amaibi and spend years learning how to become adept in the conduct of ritual, and learn the dances and songs of the Lai Haraoba. The new Maibi will also follow and accompany their Ima Amaibi to ritual events and Lai Haraoba. In this way they will gain on the job training and first hand experience and in time become recognized as a full Maibi themselves.
Copyright Byron Aihara and Seven Sisters Music. With permission of Ima Dhoni Amaibi of Imphal.