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When Spring Visits The Land Of Dance And Music

By Karunamay Sinha




Yes, you’ve rightly guessed it. It is Manipur. If it was Christian missionaries that transformed Mizoram into modernity, it was the last lag of the great Vaishnavite movement of medieval India that reshaped Manipur. Buddhism and Vaishnavism are two religious entities in India that had engaged in works resembling missionary activity. Unlike Christian missionaries, however, Vaishnav missionaries did not entirely banish old practices and traditions. One can thus get to see delightful coexistence of refined Hindu practices and pre-Hindu traditions existing side by side in Manipur.

As to the spring festivities in Manipur, one is at a loss where to start. The feel of this space is that of pre-Hindu, pre-Buddhist, pre-Islam, pre-Christian, animistic, pagan or other beliefs and traditions. But you cannot exclude the fervour of Holi while extolling the mood of spring in Manipur. The celebration of this ubiquitous, essentially Hindu Indian festival attains a very remarkable Northeastern character in Manipur. Did you know, for instance, Holi is celebrated in Manipur over five days? Did you know the last day of Holi is celebrated here with mud and not coloured powder (abir)? The fervour and life-force associated with Manipuri Holi compels me to give it a place alongside other traditional Northeastern spring festivals.

On the first day of Holi, the Manipuris build a hut much in the shape of a Manipuri temple. All the village boys and some guiding elders take part in making this hut in the fields. A few months before Holi, they observe a ritual of hoisting flags at each house on a sacred day, a day on which Hari or Vishnu wakes up from his sleep. These flags remain hoisted till the day of Holi. On the day of Holi, boys collect the flags together with their poles from each house of the village. The bamboo poles and thatch contributed by the villagers are the materials out of which the hut is made. In the evening, in a romantic moonlit setting, the villagers gather there, sing songs and offer prayers. Prasadom contributed by the village women is distributed among the people. Then the hut is set on fire. Real celebrations of young blood begin the moment fire is put to the hut. Girls try to flee the spot fearing youths who had been waiting for the moment to chase them and rub them with abir. A watchful eye can capitalize on the moment to tell which boy of the village is after which girl. For the blossoming dreams of budding youths find in this an opportune moment to erupt and rush forward breaking all inhibitions and confines. Even for the girls it gives an opportunity to understand their possible suitors. For often, it is at this moment of erupting spring that a girl gets to know for the first time which boy of the village is interested in her or is cherishing romantic dreams about her. Romances blossom on the glowing faces of the youngsters – glowing because of the huge fire around which they are experiencing the upwelling of emotions, the chemical changes that are taking place inside them. Hardly can there be a moment in any part of the world, in any kind of festivity that can match the power of blossoming romance in young minds as can the brief and precise moment of burning the makeshift hut on the moonlit evening of the first day of Holi in a Manipuri village.

Once the celebrations are kicked off by putting a makeshift hut on fire, Manipuri Holi can take all shapes. Youngsters can be trusted to indulge in all kinds of pranks. What the village belles need to do is to always remain alert. For over the next five days, any kind of incursion into their private domain may occur at any given moment. Begging from door to door during the five days of Holi for realizing a public purpose, say construction of a temple or buying some necessary instruments for one community hall is a common practice among the Manipuries. Groups of people dancing and singing Holi songs make the tour of the neighbourhood. Small children, coloured in myriad hues, are also seen begging from door to door to attain their private goals. But the most atypical of all this is the group formed by two or three scheming youths. Sinister-looking groups of rakish youths roam around in shifty steps to hunt down girls of their target. They are prowlers in the guise of beggars, looking for the right moment to pounce upon their prey.

The task for them is exceptionally challenging if the girl they have targeted happens to be from a somewhat conservative family. Holi is the only time they can make use of to reach out to such objects of their desire. If the girl is found alone in the house, or not formidably protected, these prowling youths have a field day. And there is no time restriction. Any time is Holi time during these five days. It is considered uncivil and unbecoming of a man with a true Manipuri spirit to raise a hue and cry about the escapades of Holi-ing youths. At high noon, during the hectic moments of tidying away things at sunset or at the dead of night – Holi beggars may turn up at your door any time.

The last day of Holi is meant for merrymaking with mud. Instead of coloured powder or abir, they rub mud on one another. It is the most unsafe of all the Holi days. The youth seem to cross all borders on this day. High-spirited youths form marauding gangs that set out with unshakable determination to muddy all girls of the village. The beautiful ones, the snooty ones and the ones from class-conscious conservative families happen to be their special targets. When the ravenous gang appear in the neighbourhood, unmarried girls run amok looking for the safest and most unreachable places to hide themselves. Usually rice bins, hayricks, bamboo clusters behind the house and other places of such irrelevance are chosen for hiding. But there seem to be no places that can elude the imaginativeness of the youths. Traditions and experiences have taught them where to go and haul out the hiding girl. The moment they reach the house of the girl, the mother or an aunt or a little brother informs them with a radiating smile that the maiden of the family has gone somewhere, and they do not know where. The smile on their faces is symptomatic enough to convey the message that they know where the girl is hiding. But resolute as they are, the youths take it upon themselves to find out where the girl is. It is beneath their dignity to plead with them to tell the girl’s whereabouts.

In most cases, the mud-spattered holi-ing youths hit the big time hauling out the hiding girl from most unexpected of places and give her a mudbath. The girl is sure to hurl abuses at the youths, particularly the ones who were instrumental in breaking the secret codes. Sometimes clever girls manage to give the youths’ gang the slip. After a long search, the valiant youths begin to assume a crestfallen look. Their movements become slow and mechanical. Looking at their fallen jaws, some guardian of the family orders the girl to come out. But the girl had not been so innovative in hiding herself to give away so easily. The youths by then have stopped their search and are about to leave accepting defeat. At this, one from the girl’s family tips them off with the wink of an eye. It is then zealous time for the less chivalrous. For true heroes aren’t interested in making a catch with someone else coming to their aid. However, after the tip-off there follow a few minutes of surreptitious movements and then there is an explosion of hilarity. The youths are back in their elements again.

The girl escaping the marauding gang of holi-ing youths isn’t a good thing, after all. The village youths may develop a feeling of immunity towards a girl who remained out of their reach. The parents and guardians of the girl know this better. So they come to the aid of the village youths when they fail to locate her.

Holi is only the preview of springtime celebrations in Manipur. Beginning with this, there commences a series of celebrations that almost overlap one another. Besides the Northeasterner’s innate urge to express illimitable joy at the approach of spring, there is the historic event of Hinduization of the land that contributed to the origination of so many festivities. Holi is the most authentic influence of Hinduization. But the Manipuris have Northeastern-ized it in a befitting manner. The irrepressible spirit of the untamed Northeasterner has seeped into the celebrations and given it a lively expression unknown to the mainlanders.

Holi has some crazy faces in some parts of the country. In Barsana, Vrindavan, holi takes the shape of a battle with the womenfolk beating armoured holi-ers. There is a place in Madhya Pradesh where people of two villages take long preparations to fight it out when Holi comes with a war cry. In Rajasthan, Holi takes an unusually mad face in an otherwise sleepy, conservative setting. But none can come anywhere near Holi celebrations of the Manipuris as far as the unrestrained flow of youthfulness is concerned. Until a few years ago, it wasn’t an unusual sight in the Manipuri inhabited areas of Assam and Tripura if one came across non-Manipuris taking it as a serious offence when Holi-ing Manipuri youths attacked passenger buses plying through their areas. Even today, drivers prefer to remain off road when it is Holi time and they have to drive their vehicles past a Manipuri village. With the passage of time, however, the unruliness on the part of Holi-ing Manipuri youths has diminished, but collecting (read extorting) petty amounts from vehicle drivers and passersby for undisclosed ends has emerged as a modern way of celebrating one of the most innocently cheerful celebrations of the Manipuris.

Close on the heels of Holi comes Thabal Chongba. A celebration purely for the young blood. On a moonlit night, the unmarried young men and maidens of the village assemble in a field and dance away till late into the night. The celebrations are very simple and down-to-earth. Girls and boys stand in a big circle, hold hands and dance away jumpingly at the bit of the drum, throwing their legs. Beginning from the full moon day, this dancing spree continues for about fourteen days.

What corresponds to Bihu in Manipur is Bishu or cherowba (Bishnupriyas call it Bishu while Meiteis call it Cherowba), again a Hindu festivity like Holi. This New-year celebration in Manipur involves all kinds of playfulness for which Manipuries are specifically known. Yes, the Manipuri ways of high jinks are known for their extremity and sometimes oddity to most other peoples, particularly non-Northeasterners. They are said to be more full-of-life, vivacious than many other peoples in the world. All Northeasterners are jolly and fun-loving. But the Manipuris excel in matters of lighthearted playfulness. Bishu is the time when they let lose the blizzards of their playfulness. There has to be the nightlong games of dos-pochish or Nikon (pasha in Mahabharat-ian terms) for five nights uninterruptedly. And in true Mahabharat-ian spirit. The youths form groups in the evening and with a flashlight visit every household to marshal the village belles one by one. Then in a house they assemble and play pasha all night. Several types of collective as well as private bets are placed. There’s a kind of midnight break in the nightlong game. At dead of night, all the boys and girls go out to steal milk – that is, go to the cow sheds of people in the neighbourhood and milk cows. This milk is meant for a slap-up meal at the end of the game.

It is a tradition among Manipuri woman to allow or even help with money their husbands who are fond of gambling. Addicted gamblers for whom wives are terror incarnates, find this time suitable for fulfilling their gambling aspirations without having to lie to their wives or being reprimanded by them.

However, as I said, spring celebrations overlap each other in Manipur. In the middle of all these, the Manipuris also have to play kang or kangshannaba (Bishnupriya Manipuris call it ghilla). Several tribes in the Northeast play this indoor game in different ways. But no other tribe is so fascinated by this game as the Manipuris are. Ghilla is a kind of disk-like seed of a wild plant, about one and a half inch in radius. Ace ghilla players use ghillas made of wood, ivory or even horns of buffalo and their ghillas are much bigger in size. Playing of the game begins at Sajibu Cherowba(meitei) or Bishu (Bishnupriya), and continues up to the new moon of Ashadha(June-July). The game has so profound a place among quite a few ethnic groups in the region that this national game of the Manipuris deserves special consideration from a different angle.

Another unique thing performed by the Manipuris during spring is lai-harouba, a pre-Hindu tradition of pleasing the gods with songs and dances. It is the one most in keeping with the traditional spring celebrations of the Northeast. In the accompaniment of pena, a traditional string instrument, men and women dance gracefully to offer their obeisance and thankfulness to gods before they start on the new farming season. However, the most intriguing springtime observance in Manipur is that of invoking rain-showers.

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