Published on 22nd May, 2023, in Times of India.
Manipuri dance is a popular classical dance in India, which shows Raas Leela of Krishna, a reminder that Vaishnav parampara and Krishna bhakti reached even the eastern most state of Manipur.
Northeast India is full of hills and valleys, full of tribes, who have a contentious relationship with Hinduism of mainland India, Islam of Bangladesh, Buddhism of Burma and American Christian missionaries. Manipur is no exception.
Krishna in the Northeast
There are many places in Northeast India which are often connected with Vaishnavism. King Bhishmika, father of Rukmini, and father-in-law of Krishna, is said to belong to the Idu Mishmi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh (not Vidarbha, as is commonly assumed). In Assam, the people of Tezpur believe that Banasura’s daughter Usha was married to Krishna’s grandson Anirudha. These are folk beliefs and cannot be proven or disproven and remain a matter of faith except for politicians who wish to harvest these ideas for political gain.
In the Mahabharata, we are told that Arjun married Chitrangada the princess of Manipur, but where is this Manipur located? If you ask a person with Hindutva leanings he will say it is the state of Manipur.
However historians will point out the name Manipur was given to the land only around the 18th century and did not exist before. In fact, some people will point out that in all likelihood Manipur referred to Manikapatnam in Odisha which is associated with Krishna bhakti.
The Meitei faith
Manipur region has its own unique Meitei identity, with seven clans, and stories of gods who inhabited sacred groves in nearby hills, valleys and lakes, which predates the arrival of Hinduism. Sanamahism is the traditional Meitei belief system, full of tales of local spirits and heroes, including clan gods, ancestral gods, family gods, regional gods and celestial beings, and gods associated with the directions. Lai Haraoba is the festival marking the merriment of forest gods and retelling of their tales. It involved dancing and even playing sports like wrestling and polo.
The local people refer to Manipur as Kangleipak the meaning of which is ‘dry land’ (Kang=dry, Leipak=land) because once the valleys of this land were covered with water and it was a large lake. As per local lore, an ancient god used to travel between the hills on a dugout boat until one day he decided it would be easier if he drained the land.
In the Hindu version of this tale, this god on the boat was Mahadev and he used his trishul to allow the water to flow out through the drain area today, the water drains out towards Burma.
Lainingthou Nongshaba, is the mysterious supreme god, giver of light, who appears like a lion-like dragon with horns of the famous endangered Sangai deer. This is the famous Kangla Sa, a majestic beast much venerated by locals, and currently the state’s emblem.
In one of the many mythological tales, we hear of two divine brothers competing to be the king of the world. The elder brother goes around the world while the younger one goes around his father, and becomes the king. This story is similar to the competition between Ganesha and Karthikeya.
Another tale speaks of the rice goddess Phou-oibi, who is said that she’s a fickle goddess of fortune, reminiscent of Lakshmi, Hindu/Jain/Buddhist goddess of wealth. When she enters the house there is prosperity but she leaves the house there’s misfortune.
There are stories of her falling in love with a human being and coming to his house, but the hero is not at home and his mother treats her very badly, so she runs away, leaving behind a pile of gold and telling her lover that they can never be together.
Arrival of Brahmins
Around the 14th century local kings of the region married princesses from different parts of India, from the Gangetic plains, from Bengal, from Odisha, even from the Dravida lands. This led to Brahmin immigration, who introduced Hinduism, especially Vaishnavism, gradually into the land.
In the early 18th century, the Meitei king Pamheiba took a Persian sounding title Garib Nawaz but accepted Hinduism under Brahmin influence, and wanted the whole state to follow. He even used force, burning the local sacred literature, Puya, of the Meitei. He tried to impose vegetarianism, and forced people to cremate rather than bury the dead. But this exercise was resisted.
His grandson, King Bhagyashree (Ningthou Ching-Thang Khomba), who faced many internal and external challenges, including attacks by Burmese kings, dedicated the kingdom to Krishna, who, he claimed, appeared to him in visions and dreams, and helped him in his wars and even in subduing a wild elephant, thus affirming his royal legitimacy.
The king ordered sculptors to carve a likeness of the vision of the lord in a jackfruit tree as directed by the lord. This became the image of Govindaji to which the kingdom was dedicated.
On the date of the deity’s installation, his horoscope was made, as was common practice in many Vaishnava temple rituals, transforming the deity into a person. The king declared himself (as was practised amongst many Hindu and even Sikh kings) to be merely regent of the lord. So the deity was given a nine-umbrella insignia while the regents had a seven-umbrella insignia.
The king introduced the Maharaas dance and dedicated it to Govindaji. The king’s daughter did the first performance and took the role of Radha.
Unlike other Indian dance forms, no anklets are worn in Manipuri dance, and although the theme is Vaishnav, the dance is based on many older dance traditions of the region. There are now many elaborate different forms of the Raas Leela such as Basanta raas (on Chaitra full moon), Kunja raas (on Ashwin full moon), Maha raas (Kartik full moon), Nitya raas (all other nights) and Diba raas (all other days). Complementing this dance are the drummers, whose strident performance is a reminder of Manipur’s martial arts.
Manipuri Vaishnavism is closer to Bengali Vaishnavism and Odia Vaishnavism influenced by Chaitanya’s love for Radha-Krishna.
It is different from Assamese Vaishnavism which is more based on Advaita, tends to be monastic, prefers name chanting, shuns image worship and adoration of Radha.
Many wonder if Hinduism exists in Manipur does caste exist too? While it is vociferously denied there are subtle practices, such as that of the Brahmins avoiding food which is cooked by members of other castes, the purity associated with vegetarian food, and the ritual purification ceremonies when the bride or groom happens to be of other tribes.
Now, whether these rituals came with Hinduism, or were already part of ancient inter tribal rituals, remains a contentious issue amongst scholars.
Today while a third of Manipur practises Hinduism, and another third has converted to Christianity, faith in native tribal systems, especially Meitei religion, remains widespread, and resurgent.
The point is to realise that Manipur will always have an underlying Meitei layer, over which will be a Brahmanical Vaishnav or Hindu layer. The question of whether both are given equal respect depends on the next generation, and how they respond to the challenges of missionary Christianity, Islam and ideas of secularism.