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THE MEITEI CULTURE AND RELIGION OF MANIPUR
    -- P. Kunjo Singh, M.A. (Manipuri)


CONTENTS
A. RAS LILA
B. VAISNAVISM IN MANIPUR
C. LAIHARAOBA


 
The Manipuri Ras Lila
   A. MANIPURI CLASSICAL DANCE -  Ras Lila :
    Rajrishi Bhagyachandra Maharaj was born in 1748.  In his reign when he took shelter in Tekhal (Assam) in a war with Ava (Burma)  he found the image (darshan) of the almighty Lord Shri Krishna in his dream in the most beautiful and special dress more suitable for the softest dances.  The Lord was in his Natabar besh and a flute in his hand and a top-knot (Chura) of peacock feathers on his head.  The union (jugal murti) of Lord Krishna and Srimati Radhika was seen in his future vision.  The king had a dream telling him to make idols from the jack fruit grown in Kaina hills and worship it.  
 
After his life, the king left a great legacy, the legend of Rajrishi Bhagyachandra.  He had his dream to make true and with his aspiration he resolved to worship Lord Shri Krishna performing the Ras-Lila-dances which he had seen in his dream. 

In 1776, the devoted Vaisnav, Rajrishi Bhagyachandra, established the Govindaji temple and inaugurated the divine idol of Radha Krishna and began to worship the Lord with his consort in the Royal Palace. After this the Rajrishi tried his dream of the Ras dance to be a living legend and taking essence of the twenty ninth to the thirty third Chapters of Shrimad Bhagavata Darshan which are known as the Raspanchadhyaya, he trained many artists for the different kinds of Ras dance of Radha-Krishna. And, from the 11th day of Hiyanggei (November) 1779 to the full-moon day, the Ras-Lila of Radha Krishna was held with the most enthusiastic mood of the religious people of Manipur. From the religious point of view and from the artistic angle of vision, we can claim that the Manipuri Classical Dance, the Radha-Krishna Ras-Lila is one on the most chastest, modest, softest and mildest but the most meaningful dances of the world, in relation to its highest form of Sudha Swatic Gunas (pure qualities of the Lord).

The movements are very grandeur and beautiful. The fixation of eyes is to the point of the tips of the fingers. It fixed 
only at, not higher than forty five degree above, a distance of about three meters. The artist never looks at any person or audience as a mark of concentration to the Lord surrendering the outward world and illusions of Maya and also giving up all lust, greed, anger, envy, hatred and pride of the Gopies. The steps are very much acute and complex and never show outward feeling of lust and amorous play. Here lies the specific significance of the charms and beauties of the Manipuri Classical Dance, the Ras-Lila of Radha-Krishna in various episodes. 

When one sees the Ras-dance of Manipur, he will be brought to a far off place in the heaven of Lord, the Creator as the style of the Choreograph, the distinction of the mudras, the suitability and beauty of the costumes, and the acuteness of the rhythms are supernatural. 
 
A Small baby Dressed as krishna
One more important aspect of the Manipuri dance is the mingling of faiths of Vaisnavism and Saivism with that of the Lai-Haraoba - a traditional dance of the three hundred and sixty four deities of the Meiteis of Manipur. Here in Ras-dance the philosophy of the Meiteis is the basis on which the philosophy of the Vaisnavism is the body and plot of the dances with the essence of the Bhagavata philosophy. 

 The Ras-dance was performed in the field in its inceptions. Then, it comes to the Mandabas. In both the cases the audience were watching the play from all sides. Sitting arrangement is also under a very strict rule. The Maibas, Maibis, the king, the knights, the warriors, the ladies, the females, the girls, etc. are given special seats. But, now again stage performances within a limited, short period have been developed.  Thus the technic of the production and presentation have been changed to a great extent. This makes the enthusiastic, interested scholars witness the inner meaning of the dances without any lost of time and energy. This also makes the dances popular in all section of the elite people of the world. 
 
 

         Still, the sentiment of the religious devotion is still remained inside, because the dances signify not only the merriment of the artistes and the audience but also spares a room for appreciating and drinking the nectar of the religious practices towards the truth, the good and the beauty with a complete surrender to the supreme Lord, Shri Krishna.
           There is no restriction of the number of Gopis in the Ras-dances. There is also no restriction of the duration of the performance. The guru and shutradhari should take as much time as they think it necessary for arousing the feelings of rasa, raga, anuraga, bhava, bibhava, etc. within the hearts of the Gopis as well as in the hearts of the audience. The guru, the shutridhari and  the drum beaters together try to develop and depict the inner idea of the gunnas (the qualities of the Lord), the union of the individual selves with the only supreme power of love of Shri Krishna. Waiting for Shri Krishna, calling his name, decorating for this satisfaction are all the important steps sung by the Gopis shedding tears on the chicks. 

There are different kinds of Ras-dances. They are: 
1. Maharas - to be played on the full-moon day of Mera (October) based on Shrimad Bhagavata Panchyadhyaya. 
2. Kunjaras - to be played on the full-moon day of Hiyanggei (November) based on Brahma Beibarta Purana. 
3. Basantaras - to be played beginning from the full-moon day of Shajibu (April) to the full-moon of Kalen (May) based on Govinda Lila Amrita. 
4. Nityaras - to be played on any auspicious day of ten months except Hiyanggei and Shajibu based on Govinda Lila Amrita. 
5. Dibaras - to be played in all months on any auspicious day, based on Govinda Lila Amrita. 

    The exponents of the Ras-Lila dances mentioned above are different. Maharas, Kunjaras and Basantras were of Rajrishi Bhagyachandra Maharaj and Nityaras of Shrijut Chandrakirti Maharaj. Besides these, there are also different kinds of dances, such as Gosthalila, Udhukhal, Ekagopi, etc. which were originated in this culturally fertile land of Manipur. To mention all these should take much more volumes beyond our expectation. A combined preparation is required for the complete focus on the most beautiful and highest form of dance. Only then, we all the people of the world will be benefited in two ways - in the emancipation of this life and in the attainment of the higher level of scholastic views. 



C. LAI HARAOBA - The Merry Festival of the Deities: 

    Manipur is a land of deities with Atiya Shidaba as the Supreme God. Atiya Shidaba, Apanba and Asheeba are the three manifestations or incarnations of God as the creator, the preserver and the annihilator of this universe respectively. Pakhangba, Sannamahi and Nongpok Ningthou are the incarnations who play the role of the male deities of the Meiteis whereas Leimarel Shidabi and Panthoibi, the role of female deities. Besides these, three hundred and sixty four deities with their consorts are the most important deities worshipped by the Meiteis.  Lai Haraoba is the festival of the recollection of the creation stories played by all these deities with the first origin of this universe and evolution of the plants and animals through the will of Atiya Shidaba. 

    Sannamahi and Leimarel are worshiped in every house of the Meiteis. The other gods and the three hundred and sixty four deities are worshipped in the "Umanglai Laisangs" (temple of gods in the reserved woods with spacious grounds) in the villages. 

    The Umang Lai Haraoba (Merry Festival of the Deities) is the most important ceremony in which the deities are worshipped by all inhabitants of the village as a symbol of the part and parcel of the creation work. Meiteis take every male and female as god and goddess who play the role and deities in the Haraoba.  In the Laiharaoba worship of all the deities such as Thangjing, Marjing, Koubru, Wangbaren, Khamlangba, etc. the rituals are the same except in some items or hymns i.e. ikouba, ikourol, and yakairol at the beginning and mikon thagonba, ngaprum tanba, etc. at the end of the festival. In the performances, the evolution story with the amorous love-affairs of Nongpok Ninghthou and Panthoibi is depicted and played equally in all kinds of lai haraoba. 

    There are six major types of Lai Haraoba: (1) Kanglei (Imphal) Haraoba, (2) Chakpa Haraoba, (3) Andro Haraoba, (4) Sekmai Haraoba, (5) Moirang Haraoba and (6) Kakching Haraoba. The differences in the six festivals are very wide and broad. But, the inner significance and the gist are the same. The difference are in the variations of processes and in cultural aspects and not in the inner wisdom and basis of the philosophy of lai haraoba. The origin of the festival is that the gods held the first Lai Haraoba on the Koubru hill, so that their descendants should imitate them and perform the same as it had been done by the deities so that they will never forget the secret and sacred story of the creation of this universe and the birth of the different lives on this earth. 

    First of all, the laibung or haraobung (festival ground) is properly arranged. The king, the knights, the warrior chiefs, the ladies, the village elders and the youths and the girls are given their respective seats properly. The audience thus sit around the festival ground on the three sides of the laibung opposite the yathokshang (temporary temple of the deity for the festival). The festival continues from one day to even thirty days. But, in most cases ten to fifteen days are commonly held. 

    The first step for lai haraoba is lei langba, plucking of flowers representating the god and goddess with the collection of many other kinds of flowers offering in the festival. The most important character of lei langba is the keeping of celibacy of the leiroihanjaba (the one in charge of lei langba) with his attendant. All the participants: the maiba-maibis (priest and priestesses), the dolairengba (the bearers of the palanquin), the pena khongba (the player of an indigenous string instrument), the chong paibas (the special umbrella bearers), the sword and spear (Thang-Ta) bearers, Kwagok-Sengok pubas (the bearers of the ornamented vessels for bettle nuts, flower and money for donations and awards to the top participants) and all the other members who should take part in this festival should strictly follow the disciples of keeping celibacy during the festival. 

    Some of the items of lai haraoba with slight changes and small differences for the deities are lai ikouba (calling or taking the gods out of water, at the beginning of lai haraoba), lei langba, naoshum ishei shakpa (lullabai), yakairol ishei (awakening), phammang (laimang) phamba, lei katpa, laibou chenba, laibou shaba, etc. The complete festival begins in the day time of the second day. It has about twenty steps or items in it. Laiboula thaba is the most important part of the beginning of laibou shaba (creation of the Universe and the  synthesis of the human body). A plantain leaf on the specific place represents the unseen God manifesting the world. The maibi with all the participants who also join in the lai ikouba and lei langba should move around the plantain leaf three times symbolising the manifestations of Mangnag Kuru Shidaba, Luwang Kuru Shidaba, and Khuman Kuru Shidaba (clan deities). 

    After this the maiba-maibis stand erect before the deity and pray for the beginning of the laibou. At this time no one should move, speak and change his/her position. No one could come in or out of the laibung during this item, Hoirou Haya Laoba. The maibi begins to move in the form of the Khayom jagoi (a dance with hands at the level of the navel) with the Hoirou Haya hymn. When the maibi sings Hayingeina noibadi meina waina noiye; he tangna shamna noiye, after some of his/her hymns, all the participants begin to move their footsteps without dancing their hands and body. 
In laibou shaba the maibi narrates with hymns and dances the creation of this universe; the sun, the stars, the planets, the moon, the earth, air, water, etc. After making this earth inhabitable, the dances shows the creation of all beings including man. In the case of man, the different parts: the hand, the fingers, the palms, the arms, the head, the neck, the eyes, the body, the thigh, the feet, the toes, and all the other parts are made with the hymns and dances in different khut-theks (hand movements). There are sixty four important khut-theks for making the human body. All are shown with very fine, attractive and meaningful dances representing the development of the human body in twelve months in the parents? womb. Then the building of houses, starting of agriculture and other stages of human development are played. The last part of the dance confines with the songs, paosha isheis, for the welfare of all the individuals. The control of lust, keeping strict discipline of celibacy and control of the mind are very clearly and forcefully sung to remind all the participants the importance and the value of life in this human birth. Lairen Mathek and chongkhong litpa are played to represent the continuity of human life. 

    Kanglei-thokpa or lai-lam-thokpa is a play of the festival performed outside the laibung, in any place suitable for assembling greater number of participants. Lairoi (the end of haraoba) is very important and it includes performances: Ougri Hangen (the song of the control of mind), Khencho (the concept of the third birth or the next birth or the human birth), Hijan Hirao (the song of cutting big trees for two big boats: one for the male deity, the other for the female deity and with which boat race is held) are sung. The different kinds of lai haraoba have different kinds of special programs and items. But, the aim and object is the same. To satisfy the gods for making man free from sickness, fearfulness, illness, and for blessing them with good, prosperous, wealthy and healthy descendants, is the only prayer sung in the whole story of the festival. 

    On the next day of lairoi, Mukna (Meitei wrestling), kangjei (meitei hocky/polo), and races are held and prizes are given to those who win in the competitions of sports and games. Thus, lai haraoba is the only cultural activity in which social, philosophical and religious life of the Meiteis are depicted very deeply and carefully. With this cultural activity, the continuous thought of the people of this culturally rich land is preserved from the long gone days never decaying and fading. 

    Meitei Script and Scriptures: In addition to the oral literature of Lai Haraoba, Meiteis also have their own script, literature and scriptures. The Meitei script is so much meaningful that in the explanation of the alphabets all the philosophies of the ancient religion and thoughts of the Meiteis are found in significant meanings of the composition of the alphabet. For example, Kok, K in English, is composed of seven lines representing the seven Yumphams (Chakras) denoting the seven colors of the sun light, or, the seven Salais (Clans) of the Meiteis, or, the Lainura taret (seven women mother goddesses), or, the seven layers of the heaven, etc. Thus all the alphabet have their own highly philosophical meanings. The scriptures - Wakoklen Thilel Salai Amailon Pukok, Sakok Lamlen Ahanba, Leithak Leikharol, Pakhangba Yangbi, Pakhangba Phambal, Indri Sekning, Pombi Lang, Khangoi Yangoi Sekning, and many others discuss the soul and its existence in human body, the soul of all creatures, the secret state of life and death, the origin of this universe and so on. The most specific feature of the scriptures is the place of the male and female deities in the religious practices of the Meiteis.  The scriptures give the highest place of the Lainuras: Panthoibi and Leimarel Shidabi, the supreme mother and its incarnations as the mother of all kinds of living beings and as the mother of the origin of the Universe: the sun, the planets, the stars, the moon, the earth, etc. After studying these manuscripts, the Meitei religion (Sannamahi faith) may be rightly called the PAKHANGBA LAINING. 

#[The Meitei Lai Haraoba has been translated variously as The Merry-Making of the Gods or  Festivities of the Sylvan Deiteis or The Merry Festival of the Deities  by Manipuri Scholars. On the other hand, the British writers preferred to translate as The Pleasing of the God or Gods.  For detailed protocols and interpretations of Lai Haraoba, refer to a recent book  *The Pleasing of the Gods: Meitei Lai Haraoba * by Drs. Saroj N. Arambam Parratt and John K. Parratt (1997)]. 



B. VAISNAVISM IN MANIPUR:

    Vaisnavism came to Manipur without any infiltration to the old Manipuri (Meitei) Culture and faith of the ancient time.  We can see the two different faiths the Vaisnavism and the Meiteism mingling and going together in this culturally fertile land.  Only in literature there came a sudden change to a great extent.  If we study the process and the development of Vaisnavism in Manipur, we will certainly understand the mingling style of the development of the new culture and literature of Vaisnavism with that of the Meiteism. 

    In the 15th century, the Neo-Vaisnavism had been expanded very quickly.  In this age, many great saints and preachers were born.  Sankaradeva, Cheiteinadeva, Kabir, Ballavacharya, etc. were the great Gurus of Neo-Vaisnavism.  During this period, the king Kyamba began to worship the idol of Lord Vishnu with the rituals by the ascetics (Brahmins).  There is also an opinion of the historians that the idol of Shri Vishnu was present to the King in 1474 by the King of Pong (Shan Kingdom in Myanmar).  It is also believed that Vaisnavism prevailing in the reign of Kyamba might have been the Shri Vishnu Swami sect.  In the reign of Khagemba (15th century) also Shri Vishnu was worshiped.  People from the western states of Manipur came to this land who were worshipers of Shri Vishnu and inhabited at Bishenpur.  In this time Neo-Vaisnavism did not come to Manipur. The Siva, Sakta, the tantric cult and the Meitei Sannamahi-Pakhangba Laining were prevailing together. Thus, the new Gouriya Vaisnavism which was accepted by many people of the other parts of the eastern India did not reach to this land. 

    After this period, at the end of the 17th century and at the advent of the 18th century, great force of the Neo-Vaisnavism came and spread in this land.  The king, Tubi Charairongba was initiated as a disciple of Raibanamali Krishnacharya into the Gouranga Vaisnav Sect.  Pandit Atombapu says it is the Shri Cheiteina Sect.  But, Lairenmayum Ibungohal says it is the Madhabacharya sect.  But, later on,  the Manipuri Vaisnavs admitted that the Madhabacharya cult was mingled with that of the Gouriya Vaisnavism. 

    After the king Charairongba, Vaisnavism was highly developed,  in the middle of the 18th century, in the reign of king Garibniwaj Pamheiba.  In his time, Shantidas Goswami from Shylhet came to Manipur and he initiated the king with his subjects into Ramandi sect.  Again, the king Garibniwaj was also initiated into Gouranga Vaisnavism by Gopaldash.  But after this, Shantidas Goswami could turn all the Meiteis in Ramandi (worship of Ram).  The Ramandi predominated the Gouriya Vaisnavism in all parts of the state.  Again, it is said that Nimandi cult was also spread and the king Garibjiwaj was initiated into this sect.  Nimandi was founded by Nimbark in the 11th century. Shri Jayadeva and Keshav Kashmiri were the great exponents of Nimbark.  Nimbark was very much suited for the people of Manipur as the sect also worship both Radha and Krishna.  We also found in the book Sanamahi Laikan that Sakshya faith was also initiated to Garibaniwaj by Brahman Gangadhar.  When king Garibniwaj was old, he was more devoted to Gouranga cult and then Gouriya Vaisnavism dominated in this beautiful land of Manipur.  The pilgrimage to the sacred place, Brindabana was the greatest craving of the disciples and the vaisnavs of Manipur.  Shijaguru ongbi was the first who had the darshan of Radha-Krishna at the holy place, Brindabana. 

    After Garibniwaj, the Gouriya Vaisnavism had been down-rooted in the reign of Rajshri Bhagyachandra.  The king also was initiated into the Nimandi sect by Shri Rupa Parmananda Thakur (Bhagyachandra Charit, pp. 204-5).  One preacher, Ram Gopal Beiragya taught the king about four sects - (1) Shri, (2) Brahma, (3) Rudra (Bishnuswami) and (4) Sanak (Nimandi and Nimbark).  At last, the king resolved to follow the path of Gouriya Vaisnavism.  Thus the religion of Manipur, after frequent changes from one to another, became only in a single faith, Gouriya Vaisnavism, the worship of Radha-Krishna Jugal Rupa as it had been preached by Gouranga Mahaprabhu. 

    Cheiteinadeva preached and taught the philosophy of the Pandits (Goswamis) of Bengal and it is totally followed by the Manipuris.  But, the style of offerings, the Sankirtana processes, the tilak Dharan (the marks of chandan on the forehead, etc.) are newly styled.  Along with these changes, the worship of the Meitei deities - Nongpok Ninghthou, Sanamahi, Leimarel Sidabi, the Umanglais (the three hundred and sixty four deities) have been worshiped in all the houses and in all the Umang Lai temples respectively. 

    In course of time, Vaisnav temples with spacious mandabas have been sprouted and Shri Shri Govinda (Imphal), Shri Shri Nityainanda (Imphal), Shri Shri Bijoy Govinda (Imphal), Shri Shri Abdeitya (Lamangdong), Shri Shri Gopinath (Ningthoukhong), Bangshibodon (Khangabok), Shri Shri Krishnachandra (Kakching), etc. were inaugurated and the Vaisnav cult and culture have been the main religious practices of the Meiteis. 

    The philosophy of the Bhagavad Geeta is strictly followed and the Bhakti marga is the only darshan on which the religious practices are based.  The madhur-prem of Rakha Krishna and other kinds of love - (1) Shanta, (2) Dashya, (3) Sakshya, (4) Batsalya are taught.  Bhakti prem Sadhana is the greatest yearning of the disciplines.  The Mahabharta and the Ramayana are always sung and narrated in almost all religious ceremonies.  They are performed and played in grand styles.  But, in the Shradha ceremonies the episodes of the life of Gouranga Mahaprabhu with the madhur-prem lila of Radha-Krishna is sung. 

    When the cults of the Hinduism spread in this land, the ancient scriptures of the Meiteis (puyas) were collected and burnt down so that the people of the land might be easily initiated into the Vaisnavism.  People thought that Shantidas Goswami had made the king to burn all the puyas of the Meiteis.  But, we came to know that the duplicates of the lost puyas and chronicles were kept secret in the remote places of Manipur.  From Kakching, Khoibu, Kwatha and from many other places many puyas are recovered now-a-days.  This made the old religion, culture, heritage and customs more luminous because, as have been mentioned above, the literature and the practices of Hinduism could not infiltrate into the ancient scriptures and practices of Manipur (Meiteis).  It only makes our ancient culture richer.  But, the deep-rooted Vaisnavism still remains to be the major religion of this land when some  people of the Meiteis and majority of the tribal people of this land converted into Christianity.  Buddhism has also been a new religion of the state.  The new philosophy of Swami Sivananda keeping a mixture of Gyan, Karma and Bhakti has been wide spread.  ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) is also quickly developing.  In the meantime the revivalist movement of the Meitei Pakhangba Laining moves faster for the re-vitalization of the ancient religion and culture of Meiteis. 
 

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