The Meiteilon word for doll is laiphadibi. It is made up of two words: lai, which means god and phadi, which means a shabby piece of cloth. The last syllabi, bi, denotes the feminine gender. So, laiphadibi is a feminine image of god, made from shabby clothes. They are treated as living spirits with feelings. The dolls are always referred to as ita, meaning female companion.
Laiphadibi, or laidhibi as it is commonly known, and the commercially made plastic dolls of today are very different in how they are made and regarded.
Earlier, for everyday play, children or their elders made the laidhibi at home from either old clothes or pieces of cloth collected from local tailors. The laidhibi usually did not have any facial features—a colourful thread running vertically across the face denoted their physiognomy.
All the children, mostly girls, gathered at a friend’s porch with their respective dolls and accessories. The accessories were wide-ranging, from multiple phanek (long wraparound) and phi (a piece of cloth worn like a shawl) to beds and sofas and sometimes even kitchen utensils. They were handmade with cloth, mud and pieces of leftover wood, and stored neatly in a lubak (bamboo basket). After the play session, the dolls were put to sleep, lovingly tucked under a blanket inside the lubak. If the laidhibi was left unattended and uncared for, the elders warned the children, ‘If you do not put your laidhibi back in the lubak after playing, they will cry at night under the banana trees.’ This was a scenario that no child wanted.
When the child grew up and stopped playing with the laidhibi, it was time to part ways. However, the laidhibi was not to be thrown away or discarded but passed down to a younger sibling or buried under a banana grove. It was important to bring the relationship and the association to an end with a formal closure.
Today, the tradition of making laidhibi at home has suffered a decline. The dolls made by professionals have striking features. The faces are mostly round, probably inspired by the notion that rounded faces are the epitome of beauty. The eyes and brows are sewn with black thread, which is also used to simulate long luscious hair, and the nose and lips are stitched with red. The face is made of plain white cloth and the head stuffed with rags. The outstretched hands and torso of the laidhibi are made of straw. These dolls have no legs and stand on their potloi (ornamental lower dress).
Who Makes the Dolls?
Though there are no strict rules about who can make the laidhibi, it is usually done by elderly women. A ritual called boriba initiates a person into doll making; it involves seeking permission and blessings by offering a nominal fee to the teacher.
State handicraft-award winner Khongbantabam Thoibi, 66, recalls that she learnt doll making from her maternal grand-aunt. Watching her grandmother engaged in the craft, piqued her interest, and she started at the early age of 12. Highlighting the importance of boriba, Thoibi says, ‘If this ritual is not observed, the doll that’s made cannot see and speak. In real life, this translates to giving birth to physically deformed children. I have six children and none have any problem since I followed the ritual properly.’
These days, several young women take up doll making to earn a living. The need for economic survival takes precedence over beliefs and fears. Bhumita Bachaspatimayum, 37, makes traditional cloth dolls and dresses up the plastic dolls. Khomdram Khomdon, who is now 43, started doll making at the age of 25, after the birth of her youngest child.
Most of the women who make dolls do so while taking care of their houses. They juggle between making and selling their products every day at the markets and during the busy festival season.
Thoibi tells us that it is only at night that she can sit down peacefully to make dolls. ‘But then the mosquitoes also decide to get busy. I have made most dolls inside the mosquito net on my bed after dinner and finishing all the household work.’
For Khomdon, the story is no different. She rushes to the market around eight in the morning, carrying unfinished dolls in her bag. In the hours she spends selling the dolls in the market, she also manages to make some new ones.
How are They Made?
To make laidhibi, one needs cloth of various materials and colours—plain white cotton for the face, velvet for the blouse, bright-coloured dress materials for the potloi, plenty of colourful beads and sparkly sequins to embellish it, zari fabric for the boswan (a flared-up cloth worn around the waist), net or semi-transparent material for the veil, laces and jewellery. One also needs needles of various sizes, threads, metal wires, glue, stapler and scissors. Old carton boxes, bought in bulk, are used for making the base for the potloi. This piece of attire can also be made with rubber, which is a sturdier material, if the client is willing to pay more.
The heads of the dolls are filled with rags while straws make up the hands and torso. Depending on the clients’ demand and budget, the dolls are further ornamented. Eyes are the most difficult part to make, as they must look alike. The eyes, eyebrows, nose and lips are sewn on the face. Hair is made separately before being attached to the head. Once the torso is complete, the makers proceed to dress the dolls with the potloi, which is decorated with beads and laces. The laidhibis on which the embellishments are glued and stapled are cheaper than the ones on which they are stitched.
The potloi is followed by the boswan, which is sewn around the waist while ensuring it flares out. Similarly, the necklaces, earrings and veil are also thread-woven on to the doll.
Stories and Beliefs
Children today have more dolls than they can play with; they are thrown about, limbless or headless, often making the elders reprimand the child for being insensitive and uncaring. This feeling originates from the belief that laidhibis are living spirits and need to be treated with respect.
There is a popular folktale in Manipur called ‘Ita Laiphadibee’, about a young girl who had a long association with her laidhibi. When she reached marriageable age and had to go away, both the girl and her laidhibi were heartbroken. To show gratitude for the love that the girl had showered, the laidhibi granted her a wish—that she could understand the language of animals. On her wedding night, the girl heard a fox talk about a dead body of a man floating in the river with a magic ring on his finger. According to the fox, the possessor of the ring would never face any difficulty in life. The woman decided to go and look for it, unaware that her husband was following. The body had been in water for long and the fingers were bloated. The girl was struggling to take the ring out, so she covered the finger with a piece of cloth and pulled it off. Her husband, who secretly witnessed this, thought she was a witch. He complained to the king, and the couple were called to the court. The husband refused to take her back. But before the king could pass his judgement, a crow started cawing on a nearby tree. The king asked the woman what the crow was saying. She replied that there was treasure buried under the tree, which turned out to be true. The king married the woman and made her the queen, and the kingdom prospered. The moral of the story is that laidhibis care for their human companions and, if treated with dignity, bring prosperity.
Thoibi says that many people, mostly doctors or engineers, come to her asking for life-size dolls. Legend has it that if such dolls are placed at the entrance to a home, the residents are protected and they are endowed with wealth. The reason for the placement of the doll at this spot, Thoibi says, is based on the Goddess Panthoibi myth. According to the story, some spirits once tried to enter the goddess's house to kidnap a member of her family, but were encountered by a figure that looked like a human as well as god at the entrance, and left immediately. The laidhibi had successfully scared away the evil spirits, foiling their plan of causing harm to the family. Thus, it is believed that the laidhibi protects houses even when their residents are away. This is why even after marriage, a woman cannot move her laidhibi from her maternal home, until a month later. Many people in Manipur also hang the dolls on their vehicles based on the belief that they prevent accidents.
Significance in Sociocultural Practices
The ancient text Leisemlol Sai-on-ba mentions the making of dolls and their usage in rituals and as playthings. The dolls are integral to certain rituals. If a person dies on Thursday or nongmapanba (the first day of the month as per the lunar calendar) or tatnaba (inauspicious days), two dolls are placed on their grave after the funeral. The shaman sends the two dolls to perform two different responsibilities—to open the door for the living and to shut the door for the dead. It is believed that if this is not done, there will be consecutive deaths in the family within a short period of time.
In religious rituals, a laidhibi is tied on top of a flag before it is offered to god. In Meitei households, house-deities Sanamahi and Leimarel are placed under a thakan (cloth roof under which the deity sits), with four dolls on four corners guarding the directions. Dolls are also used in ushin-touba and chabanthaba (rituals where offerings are made to appease spirits to end a spell of disease or calamity) and semjinba (similar to black magic, where spells are cast to harm or win someone).
Chawangbam Jano, 75, sells dolls and cheap imitation jewellery in Ima Keithel, the largest all-women’s market in Manipur. She mostly sells cheaper quickly made cloth dolls that are used in rituals, especially to ward off evil spirits or to cast spells. During our interaction, Jano picked up a white doll and said, ‘See, this one is the male doll. People buy the male and female doll together for couple problems. The world of humans is full of all kinds of problems. So, we use dolls that are replicas of us to divert our problems.’ 
Unlike the dolls commonly seen, the ones used in rituals and other religious purposes do not have any facial features or hair, nor do they wear colourful dresses. They are made from plain white cloth. These stipulations trace back to the time when there were no needles or decorative items, and have remained unchanged for centuries.
Among the Lois people of Manipur, if an unmarried man dies, a female doll made of cloth is kept in his coffin. If an unmarried woman dies, a male doll provides her company. The Lois believe that this provides the deceased person with a companion in their afterlife.
The Economy of Doll Making
The laidhibi still holds a significant place in society, evident from their popularity in the local market. Many doll makers, however, have begun using plastic dolls, which they dress up in laidhibi costumes. The makers often choose to change the blonde hair of the dolls with black threads or put chandan (sandalwood) on their faces to make them look local. They purchase the bare plastic dolls for Rs 420 a dozen. But since there are two dolls in a pack, buying a dozen actually means getting 24 of them.
Once these dolls look like laidhibi, they are sold in the market for a wholesale price of Rs 80 and retail of Rs 100 per piece. The price shoots up to Rs 150 if the costume is elaborate and sees a further increase during festivals.
The original cloth-based dolls are more expensive. Sellers think that plastic dolls are more popular because their colours do not fade and they do not distort over time. The cloth dolls are prone to wear and tear as they are hand-stitched; their eyes, nose and lips often come off.
Apart from the regular markets, the other avenues for selling dolls are festivals, including Meitei Cheiraoba (New Year), Rath Yatra, Janmasthami, Radha Asthami and Durga Puja. They also find place in trade fairs, exhibitions and tourism festivals, periodically organised by the government. The area around the Mahabali temple in Imphal is a small but old and significant selling place as it is frequented by devotees with their children on Tuesdays.
Thoibi sells around Rs 2000 worth of her dolls on Tuesdays. The sales go up during festivals like Janmasthami. During the 2018 Janmasthami, she earned over Rs 7,000. Thoibi says that apart from buying from the market, people also visit her home to place orders, paying anywhere between Rs 10,000 and Rs 15,000 each for large dolls.
There is an increasing trend of buying laidhibi as gifts for birthdays and other occasions, some of it inspired by the consumers’ desire to help the local producers.
Changing Forms of Laidhibi
Laidhibi has undergone a sea change since the days when they were made from worn-out hand-me-downs. Thoibi says that the earlier versions that were commercially sold were the ones wearing a tonga-phanek and lai-phi (clothes offered to and meant for the gods). Then came those wearing a simple potloi, shorn of embellishments. Now, the market has been taken over by the dolls that imitate the costumes and jewellery worn in the raslila. The simple doll evolved into the highly ornate one wearing potloi and boswan.
Koktumbi dolls with a thin transparent veil are most popular among tourists to Manipur. Such dolls have a conical cap on the head instead of hair and other ornaments. They are distinctive and have been popularised by the raslila dance.
When the British arrived in Manipur in the late nineteenth century and started discovering the handicrafts of the people, the Manipuri dolls were one of the earliest items they took back with them. Gradually, from being an essential item of religious practices and toys for young children, the doll became a showpiece, a souvenir item.
Sorokhaibam Sushila, 36, of Kakwa makes dolls the size of humans. She stitches the blouses in sizes that could fit a mature woman. Her dolls wear a petticoat and imitation jewellery and are sold above Rs 10,000. She makes dolls based on characters out of mythology and folktales. Some of her popular dolls are Khamba–Thoibi, the star-crossed lovers that inspired many works of literature, art and music; Sandrembi–Chaisra, the good and evil sister duo from folktales; and Radha–Krishna, the eternal lovers and protagonists of the raslila. She also makes dolls of different ethnic communities of Manipur, bride and groom dolls, goddesses, and fishing women.
Another doll maker, Konjengbam Pakpi, 48, makes beautiful ghagras, perfect fitting blouses and elaborate wings for her ‘Cinderellas’, who like perfect fairies hold a wand in their hand. Her dolls are a popular birthday gift for young girls. ‘These dolls look beautiful and last long unlike the cloth dolls,’ Pakpi informs, ‘I cut the dolls’ legs and attach them to wooden stands. This way they can stand like the traditional cloth dolls.’ She has been doing this for two years. Pakpi spends her free time making wings for her dolls, with intricate design and fine needlework.
From a time when they were faceless, laidhibis now have eyelashes. Khomdon elaborates on these shifts, ‘Earlier we used to use old cloth and dye them. But these days we have to buy everything. The boswan used to be only white but now people make them in matching colours. The customers’ demands decide what we make.’
In the current competitive age, the humble laidhibis are jostling for space with various new and sophisticated toys. In a bid to keep up with the demands of today’s children, Mongjam Debananda, a potloi maker and a dance teacher from Manipur, decided to add mobility to his dolls. Debananda buys the blonde, blue-eyed, battery-operated dolls from Moreh, an Indo-Myanmar border town, and dresses them up in potloi and other finery. His dolls move but the music that accompanies them is at odds with the aesthetics of the laidhibi.
Today, doll makers are innovating and trying to adjust to the market demands to sustain their art. But preservation will require a little more. As Thoibi points out, ‘More and more educated young people should learn this craft and save an important part of Manipur’s cultural heritage from the onslaught of the affordable and industrially manufactured dolls and toys.’ She wonders, ‘If I could speak the languages spoken in Delhi, imagine how much I could tell them about my craft and also sell my products.’
 Khongbantabam Thoibi, in conversation with Akoijam Sunita, September 8, 2018.
 Chawangbam Jano, in conversation with Akoijam Sunita, September 14, 2018.
 Khongbantabam Thoibi, in conversation with Akoijam Sunita, September 8, 2018.
Indira, Khangembam. ‘Social Organisation and Religion among the Lois in Manipur.’ PhD thesis, JNU, 2013.
Sharma, A. Chitreshwar. ‘The significance of Laiphadibee in Manipur Society.’ A paper written for a workshop on traditional dolls and toys of Manipur, December 7, 2007.
Singh, Sanasam Birendra. Khut-heiba-Lak ta gi. Thokchom Ningon Sanasam Ongbi Radheshyam Devi, 2013.