Manipur is a land of stories and Gods, and stories about Gods. Altogether, there are more than 300 Gods worshiped throughout the state. Their stories are passed down through generations and have become an intrinsic part of the Manipuri way of life. Even today, many of these stories are celebrated as local festivals with the same vigor as in ancient period, reflecting the resilience of faith and beliefs which have clearly stood the test of time. One such story that I heard from Somendra and Bipin, my companions on field visits to Thoubal was that of ‘Lai Haraoba’ or ‘Merrymaking of Gods’ which celebrates the creation of universe and life.
Legend has it that initially, the universe only comprised of the Supreme God, ‘Atiya Sidaba’ who lived in complete darkness. Then one day seven colors of rainbow somehow found a way to his dark room and illuminated it. Inspired by the beauty of these colors, he set out with some men and women to create the framework for this universe. He was frustrated in his efforts by the evil forces whom he defeated with the help of Goddess of Lightning and ultimately created this universe of ours.
Once the universe and life came into existence, the Gods held the first Lai Haraoba on a nearby hill so that their descendants would not forget the sacred story of its creation and the birth of the different lives on this earth. According to local beliefs, every year when the summer begins (in April and May), the Gods visit the Earth. Through Lai Haraoba, people celebrate the arrival of the Gods amidst them and pray for peace and prosperity.
The story piqued my interest enough to request Somendra to take me to the local temple to witness the festival in all its glory. On the way, we saw a number of devotees dressed up in colorful traditional outfits and carrying baskets containing offerings for the local God Ningthou. At the temple gate, a long queue awaited us. It comprised mostly of young girls and children who were excited to get inside the temple and eager to perform in front of the Gods.
All geared up and ready
The colorful outfits also add to the charm of the festival. Men sport a white dhoti, dark velvet jacket, and garlands along with a decorated turban which has among other accessories, a peacock feather. Girls wear a traditional skirt, dark colored velvet blouse coupled with a special hair-do which falls gracefully over the face. Sometimes, they also add roses and a crown of feathers on their forehead. The jewelry is delicate and the designs are unique to the region.
The captivating Lai Haraoba at Thoubal Ningthou temple
The main attraction of Lai Haraoba is a dance drama performed at the temple of the local deity. The performers enact the stories with the guidance from the head priest and priestess of this temple. Sometimes, men also carry Pena, a musical instrument similar to a violin, churning out tunes complementing their footsteps.
The mood at the temple mesmerizes the audience and transports performers back in time
The priest and priestess chant the holy hymns while performers form a human circle around them and dance to it. Very soon, a rhythm sets in and the fluid bodily movements of performers syncs in perfectly with the drum beats and holy chants, filling the atmosphere with a powerful energy. The performers go into trance and are transported back to the time when the universe was being created. This goes on till late night and covers all stories up to the creation of universe and life.
While the adults do the main performances in the dance drama, what caught my attention was the enthusiasm with which the children and youth actively participated. Perhaps this is one of the reason for traditional beliefs to take deep root in the Manipuri way of life. The children are exposed to these stories from an early age and so they grow up appreciating and carrying forward the traditions. There were young boys who forgot the steps but took no time to improvise to the tunes. The young girls were keen to get the steps right as well as eager to look out for their proud parents in the crowd. Those too young to dance also their presence felt by dressing in the traditional way.
Happy faces at the festival
While Lai Haroaba is based on an ancient folklore, Somendra told me another reason for its huge popularity among the youth and children. On the following day of the festival, sporting events like athletics, wrestling, hockey, polo, boat racing are held across Manipur and local youth actively participate in these events. He proudly tells me that the game of Polo, in fact, originated in Manipur. The winners are handsomely rewarded. Apart from celebrating an age-old tradition, this festival also celebrates the sporting spirit of Manipuri people. This has played an important role in making Manipur a proud home to many sporting heroes and their achievements. Thus, Lai Haraoba has been successful in blending traditional stories with sports to produce something that holds immense significance for our country today.
In the plains of Manipur, the distinction between old and new disappears. They go hand in hand. They not only coexist but also breathe life into each other. The celebration of an ancient folklore of Lai Haraoba shows that old does not always necessarily need to give a freeway to the new. Sometimes, both old and new can find a way to survive and flourish. Those taking part in the festivals and sporting events afterward win medal and laurels for the country. They will also tell the stories to their children who will ensure that the legend is preserved and awards always find a way into their homes, much like the seven colors that found a way to reach inside the dark room of their Supreme God.