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Role of feasts and festivals in Bishnupriya Manipuri culture

News & Views//By DILS Lakshmindra Sinha:

The Manipuri culture has its own identity. That this is a blend of Aryan and Mongoloid cultures has been backed by scholars like E Nilakanta Singh. Though the Manipuri culture has its origin in the Aryan culture, influence of the Mongoloid culture on it in attaining its distinct and own identity and development cannot be ruled out.

The Bishnupriya Manipuris are from the Aryan group. Till the Colonial Rule, both the Meiteis and Bishnupriyas were called Manipuris. Dr GA Grierson laid stress on this fact. Barring their languages, the cultures of these two communities are almost alike. In the post-independence era, the Bishnupriyas have been making efforts for their separate identity on the question of their mother tongue.

When viewed from its origin, Bishnupriya Manipuri culture is the Aryan part of Manipuri culture. The cultures of Austric, Mongoloid and other ethnic communities had their influence for thousands of years on the development of Bishnupriya Manipuri culture, which is why similarities –– right from their simple way of life to folk culture and language –– of this community with that of the ethnic groups of Manipur and the Northeast are glaring. It is due to this fact, the innumerable Vedic elements that are traditionally found in the social life of this community, studded with new folk elements, have made the social life of this community vibrant. While the classical Raasaleea is the soul of the culture of the community, addition of folk elements like baaran daahaanir ela (songs appeasing the rain god) are something like the icing in the cake. However, with the advent of Chaitanya-propagated neo-vaishnavism in the community in the 18th century, many Vedic and folk elements that were prevalent in the community had to undergo gradual modifications and many of them did the vanishing act in the process. Baalaar elaa (songs that were prevalent in the community while harvesting crops together by the community members in turns) are a matter of yore. Not to speak of baalaar ela, baalaa (harvesting ripe paddy by the community members together in turn) itself is on the verge of extinction in the community.

According to pundits, cultural development can be dated back to the beginning of cultivation of land. The Bishnupriya Manipuri community is basically an agrarian community, and hence its cultural elements are interwoven with agricultural activities. Modern cultural onslaught due to urbanization and globalization has cast its ugly shadow on the traditional culture of the community, but failed to eclipse it totally. This is why the language and culture of this fanatic and conservative ethnic community survived many an extinction threat in all testing periods in the past.

Feasts and festivals have a decisive role in any society and its cultures, and the Bishnupriya Manipuri society and culture is no different. Feasts and festivals of an ethnic community are essentially pivoted on its religious consciousness, natural calamities and traditional beliefs.

The cliche Baaro maahaat tero paarban (13 festivals in 12 months) is very much applicable to the Bishnupriya Manipuri community too. This community observes Bishu or Cherou Utsav for five days from the last day of Chaitra. According to pundits, the word ‘Bishu’ has been derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Bishub’. In Asomiya, it is called Bihu. Cherou means birds in Bishnupriya Manipuri. Members of the community have a belief from time immemorial that on the last day of the year, gods, semi-gods and other spirits shift from one place to another in the form of birds. The fellow beings of the community offer anna prasad (rice) along with many items of curry on the roads in front of their houses on banana leaves for the incoming birds. Water is offered in cylindrical bamboo pieces. There is a traditional belief that since this festival is observed by the community members to welcome birds, they call it Cherou Utsav.

On that day, all household commodities like clothes and utensils, and all the four yards of houses are cleaned and sanctified by spraying basil water and water dissolving cow dung in it. All cattle are bathed and cattle sheds are also sanctified. There are fair competitions for making delicious dishes among the women folk who distribute the edibles among the fellow beings in order to maintain solidarity and integrity among them. Distribution of dishes is done after the edibles are offered to the birds and gods.

Bishu continues for five days in the community during which various competitions like gilla (a rural sports being played by sliding a rectangular and flat seed of a plant prevalent in Manipur) or dasu (a kind of dice that doesn’t come under gambling) are organized. Youths of both sexes milk cows of the villagers at midnight without seeking permission from their owners in order to cook payash, but such sorts of activities are not considered theft on the Bishu days in the community.

In Ashar the community observes Kaang (Rath Yatra). This festival is very popular in the community that observes it as one of its national festivals. Both young and old are equally moved in this festival. The festival begins on the second day of Shuklapaksha of Ashar when Lord Jagannanth of Puri in Orissa leaves for his Gundisa temple i.e. the residence of his aunt taking his siblings Subhadra and Balabhadra along with him. Kaang in Bishnupriya Manipuri means rath (chariot), and kaangar kumei means Rath Yatra festival. Lord Jagannath stays nine to ten days in the house of His aunt from where he returns on the day of Harishayan i.e. on Dashami. That festival is observed as Fira Kaang (return rath) by the community. The devout Bishnupriya Manipuris contribute their might in pulling the Jagannath Rath and get devotional satisfaction by doing that sort of activities. The festival of rath is very popular in the community which is why Bishnupriya Manipuri literature has enough works on Rath Yatra. Popular poet Madan Mohan Mukhupadhyay's one of the mostly read poem, Khaalar Paarar Kaang, gives a vivid picture of what Rath Yatra is all about in the community.

Kaang Utsav continues for nine/ten days when young and old of both sexes get together in their village mandirs/mandaps, stand in a circular line in the mandap and sing dashavatara prayers (prayers relating to the ten incarnations of God) of Geetgovindam of poet Joidev Goswami and some other devotional and instructional songs. Khichdi along with as many as 18 items of curry is offered to Lord Jagannath and that khisri is taken as prasad by the devotees.

Shraban is marked by the five-day Jhulan Utsav during which Radha-Krishna are cradled, and the Raasaleela is observed on Jhulan Purnima day. The women folk of the community play the role Braja Gopis and express their divine love for Radha-Krishna in the form of a Raasaleela on that day. Mild hand and body movements are associated with Jhulan Raasaleela.

Srikrishna Janmastami and Sriradha Janmastami festivals are observed by this Vaishnavite community. On Janmastami i.e. on the eighth day of Krishnapaksha of Bhadra, the devotees fast till the moon is visible at night. During this period they can eat fruits. They have a firm belief that the moon is visible only after the birth of Srikrishna on that day.

Ashwin is the month for pritritarpan and Durga Puja. During Pitripaksha the head of every household pays tribute to his forefathers in a water body or river. Rice, teel and dubari (a kind of herbs) are offered during tarpan along with pindodaan. The women folk offer various kinds of vegetables, fruit, rice, flowers, betel nuts etc. for their forefathers in temples. Some people organize feasts for the eternal peace of their forefathers.

The fellow beings of the devout vaishnavite community consider Durga as a devout Vaishnabi and offer her puja in the vaishnavite style. Of course, this community considers the Basanti Puja as the main Durga Puja that was initiated by King Surathe on the earth in Satyayoga. On the influence of their neighbours, the Sharadiya Durga Puja is seen in the community as a public festival nowadays. A distinct deviation in the Durga Puja of the Bishnupriya Manupuri community from the rest of Hindus is that they don’t sacrifice any animals since they are viashnavas. A symbolic sacrifice of pumpkins is, however, seen in the pujas of this community also. The community also gives equal importance to Lakshmi Puja.

Kartik is the month for Maharasaleela and kapakar pali (turn). Pali begins from Lakhsmi Purnima day and continues for the entire month. After hyming devotional songs related to the return of Srikrishna from grazing cows along with other gopals (cowboys), Baalkrishna aarati and Radha-Krishna duet songs are sung at temples. Sometimes, there are competitions of aarati and playing of dhols and dholaks. Reading of epics like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata or any other holy books is a must on every evening during the Kartik month. Pali ends on Kartik purnima day when the community observes the Maharasaleea, the festival that is observed with the highest degree of devotion. This is the national festival of the community whose members, young and old as well, are equally moved in this festival that is full of divine love and happiness, but not even an iota of amusement. Rasaleela themes often make their ways to the Bishnupriya Manipuri literature. In a poem of this writer, a vivid picture of Rasaleela has been depicted.

Tumi mridangar tale tale nasi aha/ Gopinir bhalpuwabur loi (You dance and come at the staccato of mridanga taking the divine love of Brajagopis)

(To be continued in the next issue)

Courtesy: The Sentinel (September 27, 2009)

Today is Ninthoapa (Monday)

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  • Comments

    1. Very informative. One of the finest articles,covering some of the very important and critical
      stuffs that we dont know of or need to be knowing. All thanks to Lakhindra Bini for producing it. I had earlier only heard about your work, today i can read it. Am sure you've a lot to share with us, please do keep writing in this forum.

      Thanks again

    2. Very nice and informative article to read on about the different festivals celebrated in our community with explanation and reasoning on this festive occassion. Waiting for the next part to come up...

      Thank you uncle

      Pratibha Sinha


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