Manipur elections 2017: How a royal tradition turned into a compulsory electoral practice

During elections, several Athenpot Thinba processions can be seen near the houses of local candidates and leaders in Manipur

In poll-bound Manipur, it seems that a Vaishnavite festival is doing the rounds. Pass through the streets of the Imphal valley and you will see traditionally dressed Meitei men and women with gifts in their hands. It’s not some festival that they are taking part in, it is, in fact, a gift-exchange ceremony that takes place during elections. Athenpot Thinba, a gift presentation ceremony is an age old tradition which started in the royal era.

During elections, several Athenpot Thinba processions can be seen near the houses of local candidates and leaders in Imphal. The ceremony is especially held during a flag hoisting event by the local MLAs and MPs where the leaders interact with the people of their constituency.

In the ceremony, each party carries gifts especially different kinds of fruits, vegetables, sweets, rice, honey, rice, flowers etc. The gifts are carried in bamboo buckets and steel plates which are placed under a basil plant under the hoisted flag.

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With the offerings, they also sit and pray for the success of their leaders to the almighty. Surprisingly, this festival is not bound by religion. People from all communities including Christian, Muslim and Hindus are seen giving gifts and wishing candidates.

“More than 40 communities of different caste and religion are settled in my community, and this tradition is going on since the time our forefathers lived here,” said N Ratan Meitei, INC MLA of Imphal East.

These gifts are not for the candidate’s personal use but are in fact used by the leaders to treat their workers and supporters. Athenpot Thinba is organised in 40 Meitei dominated constituencies of Manipur.

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Even Chief Minister Ibobi Singh was recently seen attending one of these festivals in East Imphal. Earlier during the princely rule, Meitei people from the plains and the hill people surrounded Imphal valley used to gift a fair share of their hand-grown agricultural product to the Kings as a token of respect.

Since there is no Princely rule or kingdom anymore, the Meitei people keep this tradition alive by linking it to their favourite leaders and MLAs. Manipur was a princely state before 15 October 1949. The state had been ruled by a succession of kings since 33 AD.