Friday, February 15, 2008

Lai Haraoba of Manipur: Text, Structure and Meaning

This article is part of my M. Phil. Dissertation submitted to Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 2005.

The Lai Haraoba ritual forms an important part of indigenous Meitei religion. It is not only a prime community festival but also a great living tradition of the Meiteis of Manipur. The significance of the festival is that it depicts the socio-cultural life and ethos of the indigenous people of Manipur, the Meitei. As a matter of fact, it may be said to represent the cultural ethos of Meitei society. Before we get into the intricacies of Lai Haraoba, it is imperative that we give an outline of the Manipuri society.

Manipur: An Overview
Manipur is a term given to this land after the declaration of Hinduism as a state religion during the time of the great ruler of Manipur, Pamheiba or Garibniwaza, in the beginning of the 18th century. In early times, she had different names such as Kanglei Pungmayol, Kangleipak, Meitrabak and Poirie Meitei. She was also known by a variety of names in the neighbouring areas. The Burmese called her Kathe, the Assamese called her Meklei, the Cacharis Monglei and the Shans termed her Kassay.

There is still a controversy regarding the origin of the Meitei. According to Kh. Ratan Kumar[1], there are three views regarding the origin of the Meitei. These views are discussed below.
1) The theory of the Indo-Aryan origin of the Meitei
The protagonists of the theory of the Indo-Aryan origin claim that the people of Manipur are Kshatriyas who are the descendants of the great Pandava hero, Arjun of Mahabharata. They maintain that ‘they always belonged to the valley, and have always been a separate race and Hindus.’[2] R.K. Jhalajit asserts, “The Manipur of today is the Manipura of the Mahabharata.”[3] This theory has been rejected by almost all the British and modern writers alike. J. Roy believes that according to Wilson, Manipur of the Mahabharata was situated by the side of the sea and that cannot be identified with the modern Manipur which is far way from the sea coast. N.N. Bose in his Viswakosh has located Manipur in Kalinga. Gait also subscribes to his view. Dr. Apte locates it in the north of Madura.[4] Gangmumei Kamei has also rejected this theory and claims that the Meiteis as a whole are not Aryan, but there are Aryan elements among them.[5]

2) The view as expressed by the British writers in 19th and early 20th century
Most of the British writers who served as Political officers in Manipur during 19th and early 20th century argued for the non-Aryan origin of the Meitei. The ethnic name, Meitei, B.H. Hodgson in the mid 19th century thought, was a, “combined appellation of the Siamese ‘Tai’ and the Kochin Chinese ‘Moy’ and that the Meiteis belong to the Moi section of the great Tai race. However, T.C. Hodson does not agree with Hodgson’s view and rejects it on linguistic grounds.”[6] Many of the British colonial writers including W. Mc Culloch[7], G. Grierson[8], R. Brown[9], R. Constaitine[10] and T.C. Hodson[11] put forward the connection that the Meitei are descendants of the surrounding hill tribes and their contention is based mainly on the then prevalent popular tradition and cultural and linguistic affinities.
3) New theory propounded by modern writers based on fresh findings and archaeological evidences.
This theory is propounded by new group of historians and writers. Their contribution is based on archaeological findings. The proposition they have put forward is that the Meitei ethno-linguistically belong to the Tibeto-Burman family of Mongoloid stock.[12] Sir Johnston also wrote, “Meiteis or Manipuris are a fine stalwart race descended from an Indo-Chinese stock, with some admixture of Aryan blood, derived from the successive wave of Aryan invaders that passed through the valley in pre-historic days.”[13]

The emergence of the Meitei nationality was the final outcome of the formation of different ethnic tribes and social groups, all of which merged to form Meitei society. Meitei society is a segmentary system with units of different genealogical distance. The largest segment or unit is called Salai (clan), the second one is Yumnak (maximal lineage), the third one Sagei (major lineage), the fourth Chagok (persons in three living generations), the fifth is Imung (family) and the last one is man. The main feature of the social structure of the Meiteis is the institution of Salai. Salai is a large exogamous unit, each tracing itself to a common mythical ancestor, who is part of Meitei Divine Pantheon. It can be loosely translated as clan.[14] The Meitei society has seven patrilineal units known as Yek-Salais. These seven Yek-Salais are Mangang, Luwang, Khuman, Moirang, Angom, Khabanganba and Sarang-Leishangthem (also called Chenglei).[15] The first five Yeks i.e., Mangang, Luwang, Khuman, Moirang, and Angom had single descendant each while the Khabanganba and Sarang-Leishangthem had a pair of descendants each namely Khaba, Nganba and Sarangthem, Leishangthem respectively. These nine descendants are considered as Salai. These last four salais were fused together into two, the Khaba-Nganba and the Sarang-Leishangthem or Chenglei. All these began to be referred to as Yek-Salai.[16] The Yek-Salai is an exogamous division. The people trace their descendence through the male line. It is assumed that all the members of same Yek-Salai are related through blood. Men and women belonging to same Yek-Salai are Namungba, which means taboo against marriage.

Each Yek-Salai has one ancestor. The original ancestor can be a god or a Ningthou (chief) and is called Apokpa.[17] The Apokpa is worshipped as God. The founder of the Ningthouja Salai was Nongda Lairen Pakhangba; the Angom Pureiromba; the Moirang Nganghunthok and Ngangningshing; the Khaba-Nganba Thongaren; the Chenglei Nungou Yumthangba; and that of the Khuman and Luwang was Poireiton. All the seven Salais have strict prescribed dates, modes and materials for worshipping their respective ancestors. For instance, the Mangang clan offers the lotus, the lime, the mahasir fish, the monba (a small rat), and their special day is Monday and their special month is Inga (June/July).[18]

There is no hierarchy in this Yek-Salai system. All Salais have equal status as each of them is an exogamous unit. This system also eased out the possibilities of tension and conflict among the Yek-salais. However, the unification of all seven Yek-Salais under one cultural community did not mean the loss of their identity.[19]

Each Yek-Salai is again divided into a fixed number of lineages called Yumnaks. The name of one’s Yumnak may denote the name of the ancestor, or occupation of ancestor, or the divine attribute of ancestor, or the place from where the ancestor migrated.[20] Sagei is the segment of a Yumnak. It is a corporate group, which observes Yummangba (birth and death pollution). Generally Yumnak and Sagei are regarded as synonymous among the people. Chagoks are loosely defined sub-groups of a Sagei. A Chagok is made up of three generations only. The eldest male member of this three-generation group is given the highest respect and his decision is binding. But Chagoks are not clearly defined and is not in use today. Imung (family) is the smallest social unit of Meitei society.

The Naga and Kuki–Chin groups mainly constitute the hill people of Manipur. There are 33 Government recognized tribal groups in the hills of Manipur.[21] They all speak a language that belongs to the Tibeto–Burman group. Among the various sub–groups of Nagas, the Tangkhul and the Kabui have a special relationship with the Meiteis. They are considered as the oldest hill tribes of Manipur. The Kuki–Chin groups are the more recent immigrants who mainly inhabit the southern and western parts of the state. They do not have a close relation with the Meitei as the Nagas have with the Meiteis. Before the coming of Hinduism in the valley of Manipur there was a close relationship between the hill people and the Meiteis of the plains. The only difference was that of language and facilities of communication and agriculture.[22]

Religion has always been a part and parcel of the Meitei social life. Every aspect of life such as politics, fine arts and crafts has never maintained separate existence from religion. Worship of deities by the help of music and dances to ensure the welfare of the community is part of their belief. The Meitei thought is often identified with Vaishnavite philosophy. But there is a basic philosophy in existence outside Hinduism. It is a composite culture in which the indigenous religion (Meitei Dharma) with ancestor worship and nature worship and different Hindu cults are welded together to form a particular belief system. It is a localized Hinduism in which the Vaisnavite Meitei is also equally devoted to both Shri Krishna and Umanglais (Sylvan Gods).

The Meitei words for god are Chingu (one who can see the universe by his divine eyes), Khoyum (one who has his abode in the navel) and Lai (from the word laiba or easy, which means the one who carries out his will into action very easily).[23] The fundamental concept of belief in the Meitei religion is that there is one Supreme God, above, with a descending hierarchical order of the subordinate deities and below this is a vast body of human beings who surrender their destiny to these Supreme deities. The concept of Tengbanba Mapu also called Atiya Mapu Sidaba (immortal sky god), represents the highest god who is the soul of the universe, the guardian of the cosmos.[24] And all other deities are the manifestations of this Supreme God. In order to create the world of living being, according to Wakoklon Hilel Thilel Salai Amailon Puya[25] and Sakok Puya, Tengbanba Mapu manifested himself as two deities: His right became Lainingthou, and His left became Lairembi. Lainingthou is addressed as Salailel Sidaba and Lairembi as Leimalel Leishi Leipunbi. They are the Supreme Pa and Pi (parents) for the whole world. Salailel and Leimalel had their male and female divine ancestors manifested from the Supreme.

T.C. Hodson concluded that the indigenous religion of the Meiteis is a form of animism. He discovered at least four definite orders of spiritual beings that have crystallized out from the amorphous mass of animistic deities. There are the Lam lai, gods of the countryside who shade off nature gods controlling the rain, the primal necessity of an agricultural community. The second category of deities is Umanglai or deities of forests. The third one is the Imunglai, the household deities, and lords of the lives, births and deaths of individuals. The last category is Sagei Lai Apokpa (tribal ancestors), the ritual of whose worship is a strange compound of magic and nature worship. Beyond these divine beings that possess a sort of majesty, there are spirits of the mountain passes, lakes, rivers, sky, stars, vampires and also witch craft.[26]

Umanglai: An Outline
The Lai in Lai Haraoba refers to Umanglai. Various lineage and tribal ancestral deities were elevated to the position of Umanglai. Gangumei Kamei writes that worship of Umanglai was started during the reign of Nongda Lairen Pakhangba. Regarding the religious belief, the Umanglais, the deities of the villages, who were originally ancestors, were worshipped during his (Pakhangba’s) reign.[27]

The Meiteis use the term Umanglai to denote deities of different categories. However, there are various interpretations of the term Umanglai as expressed by different scholars. Hodson gave the meaning of the term Umanglai as deities of the forest.[28] Shakespeare also subscribed to the view of Hodson.[29] Louis Lightfoot also wrote “‘U’ means ‘tree’ and ‘Umang’ means ‘forest’, ‘Lai’ means ‘spirit’. In ancient scripts only the term ‘lai’ was used, but now they are called ‘forest’s spirits’ probably because their original environment, the forest, is preserved around them. Ancient trees grow at the shrines and new ones grow up untouched.”[30]

K.B. Singh regards the term as indicating tree deities.[31] Umanglai is derived from the term “Uram lai” (the deity, which was used to be visible). It becomes Uram lai from Uramba lai. The deities, who were once visible, are not visible now. They are not known as Umanglai as their abodes are located in the forest.[32] Saroj Nalini Parrat says that Umanglai was never regarded as limited to particular forest areas. While disagreeing with the interpretations of Umanglai as forest deities or tree deities, she thinks that the term Umanglai is used generally to cover all categories of gods, although it has a narrower meaning when applied specifically to the first of these groups. As she observes, “The Umanglai may be classified broadly into four groups-
a) Ancestors, or deities, that were believed to have had a human existence at some point in the past. Examples of these are Pakhangba, Nongpok Ningthou, Poireiton.
b) Important lai associated with one particular yek.
c) The domestic deities, which are the possession of particular clan or family groups. These are properly called yumjao lai.
d) Tutelary deities, i.e. guardian spirits connected with particular places or areas. There are various places in Manipur which are associated with a particular deity. Examples of this are Thangjing hill in Moirang, and Nongmaiching, which was formerly associated with Nongpok Ningthou and subsequently with Siva.”[33]

According to R. K. Achouba Singh, all ‘Umanglais’ can be classified into four groups, i.e.
1) Primeval Umanglais
These refer to those lais or deities assumed to be involved in the creation of the earth. Examples are Koubru, Thangjing, Marjing, Wangbren etc.
2) Ancestral Umanglai
They are those deities associated with the observance of ancient forefathers by their descendants. For example, Pakhangba, Khagemba, Naothingkhong and Tabungba etc.
3) Sagei Nandabi Umanglai
They refer to those deities who were believed to have existed due to unnatural death, eternal missing, etc. For example, Yumjao – lairembi, Eereima, etc.
4) Exotic Umanglai
These are lais associated with the Hindu Gods as Lamjee Ningthou of Thinunggei and Senku Deva of Yumnam Huidrom, etc.[34]

The literal meaning of Umanglai is forest deities. But as the tradition of the Meiteis reveals, it has a different significance. Yumnam Tamphajao writes “The one, the Supreme Lord of the universe, reveals himself as Umanglais to show mankind his different traces in the deep dark wood of worldly manifestations. The traces of the lord of the universe who is within each being, when set outside in the world of manifestations, are called Umanglais.”[35] There are two kinds of Umanglais being worshipped by the people. Some worship Umanglai as Lainingthou (the Supreme deity) while some others worship Umanglai as Lairembi (the Supreme female deity). This only shows that the world of living beings is the world of two, the Pa and Pi. The Supreme lord of the universe with his hair lock on the front is the Supreme Pa, Lainingthou, and with its hair lock at the back is the Supreme Pi, Lairembi. The one can be worshiped as Lainingthou, or as Lairembi, according to the likes of the people. But that makes no difference as the worship refers to the lord. The different places of the Umanglais do not make any difference in offering prayer and worship to the Supreme Lord. The different Umanglais are the different traces of the same Lord.[36]

Another writer, H. Kullabidhu in his article ‘Mera Mel Tongba’ brings out the implication of Umanglai thus: “In course of the attempt to realize the true self (the soul/ the thawai in Meitei language) it is found that it has 361/ 364 traces. These traces are worshipped as Umanglais. The Umanglais are the main centers for tracing the Supreme. They are the different aspects of the Lord.”

The Umanglais are thus deities, which are but traces and manifestations of the Tengbanba Mapu. Writers who take Umanglais as forest deities following its literary meaning cannot satisfactorily explain the religious and philosophical significance of the Umanglais as impressed upon the Meiteis who are worshipping them since time immemorial. In fact because of the traditional preservation of a grove, or forest area, or a place decorated with trees and plants as the abode of a particular deity outside the residential campus of the people, these Meitei deities have been termed as Umanglais. But from this it would not be proper to reduce the Lord of the universe (the Tengbanba Mapu) to the level of a forest spirit. The number of Umanglais is said to be either 361 or 365.[37] They include tutelary, ancestral, domestic and yek deities. To the original Umanglais have been added human personalities of the later age who attained the order of the divine by virtue of their superior disposition, nature and efficiency that placed them above the normal human beings. Khagemba, Khunjaoba, Khongnagthaba etc. are human personalities. But they are now worshipped as Umanglais.[38]

Evolution and Genesis of Lai Haraoba
Meitei believe that by performing the festival of Lai Haraoba, the pleasure of the deities is evoked and, in return, human beings on earth are blessed with happiness and prosperity. Through the performance of the festival, human beings exalt the virtues of the Supreme Almighty, Taibangpanba Mapu by reenacting the works of His creation and, in doing this He is pleased and blesses the mortals. That is why the Meitei celebrate the festival of Lai Haraoba so that they can attain ‘dharma, wealth, piety and emancipation’.[39]

According to Saroj Nalini Paratt[40], Lai Haraoba means literally ‘pleasing the god,’ and the essence of the ritual is that it is performed to call up the lai and to give him pleasure. It is unlikely that the phrase should be understood in the active sense to mean, as E. Nilkanta believes, ‘the merrymaking of the gods and goddesses’. The essence of the ritual is that it is performed by the maibas and maibis as priests and priestesses, not as representatives of the gods. Shakespeare’s phrase ‘the pleasing of the god’ is preferable.

The evolution of Lai Haraoba is inseparably linked with evolution of Meitei society and state, which can be observed through the emergence of clan system. Before the formation of a centrally administered system of state in the valley, there were various ethnic groups originated from their far-flung places. These ethnic groups had their own traditional belief systems. The evolution of the religion in the state was the dynamic movement of the ethnic amalgamation of various groups in the state. The traditional belief system of these ethnic groups, through a long and complex process of evolution, developed to a higher order of polytheism and finally to the still higher order of monotheism. After monotheism was attained, the Supreme God was mythified as being manifested in many forms, which were of the polytheistic state.[41] Thus the evolution of Lai Haraoba in the Meitei society passed from the stage of Apokpa to Umanglai to Sidaba Mapu.

The etymological meaning of Lai Haraoba is derived from the phrase Lai Hoi Laoba in the creation myth of the Meiteis. Literally translated, the term Lai Hoi Laoba would mean ‘the shouting of hoi by the Lai or deity.’ According to Ng. Kulachandra, it refers to the shouting or singing of Hoi by the primal elements while coming out from within the person of Atingkok Sidaba at the time of Leishemba (creation).

The origin of Lai Haraoba is obscure. The Lai Haraoba is evidently a composite festival and consists of episodes of diverse origins. It is possible that it was originally an ancestral ritual. The fact that the Haraoba is performed in honour of certain deities (for example Pakhangba, Thangjing and so on) who are the ancestral deities of certain of the yeks makes this a possibility. It is supported by the fact that the ritual of the Haraoba, in a simplified form, is performed at the festival for the sagei lai (Apokopa Khurumba). Furthermore, Shakespeare[42] has noticed that the Lai Haraoba has many points of similarity to Kuki ancestral rituals. The possibility that what we have in the Lai Haraoba is basically an ancestral ritual cannot be ruled out.[43] It was mentioned in Panthoibi Khongkul that the Khaba clan started to worship Panthoibi and Nongpok Ningthou with simple form of Lai Haraoba.[44] The Lai Haraoba has been in vogue since the creation of the earth by God Asiba, nine Lai Pakhang (male god in the prime of youth) and seven Lainuras (female goddesses in their virginity).[45]

There are four types of Lai Haraoba as recognized by Pandit Loishang of Manipur.
These are:
i) Meitei or Kanglei Lai Haraoba
It is celebrated in the core Meitei area in the central portion of the Imphal valley. This is around Kangla (ancient palace of Manipur), where the main deity is Pakhangba, the Supreme ancestor of the royal/ Ningthouja salai.
ii) Moirang Thangjing Haraoba
It is celebrated in Moirang, near the Loktak Lake. The main deity is Lord Thangjing.
iii) Chakpa[46] Haraoba
It is observed at the peripheries around Imphal, by people, who are believed to be the earliest settlers among the Meitei inhabitants. Their Lai Haraoba is considered most authentic and original, devoid of any outside influence whatsoever. The main deities are Panam Ningthou, Pureiromba, Koubru and Loyarakpa.
iv) Kakching Haraoba.
It is celebrated in Kakching. The main deity is Lainingthou Khamlangba.

These distinctions are more on the basis of regions rather than on the basis of completely different rituals. All these symbolize the happiness of god after creating the malem (world). There are slight differences in timing, difference in ancestors, and differing emphasis on myths pertaining to creation, as well as history. But they are all mostly held between April and July each year.[47] Though there are some significant differences between them, the basic structure of the Lai Haraoba is common to all the three.[48]

The Lai Haraoba rites were divided into three categories during the monarchical time––
1) The Lai Haraoba sponsored by the villagers if the lai belongs to the village.
2) The Lai Haraoba sponsored by the sagei if the lai belongs to the sagei concerned.
3) The regal Lai Haraoba sponsored by the state if the lai belongs to the king.[49]

Ritual Functionaries: Maibi, Maiba and Penakhongba
The main rituals of Lai Haraoba are performed or led by the maiba (priest), maibi (priestess) and penakhongba (musicians playing a bowed instrument called pena). The male maibas and female maibis are the ‘traditional priest and priestesses’ of the old Meitei religion. They belong to one or the other of the sagei and fully integrated into Manipuri society in general, and are not a separate ‘caste’. The maibas and maibis play a very important role in Meitei religious life. In several kinds of rituals the presence of maiba and maibi is considered essential and the ceremony is not considered complete without their presence. But the maibis play a more important role in religious ceremonies than the maibas because the maibis are god–gifted while the maibas are made and trained through their labour and research.[50]

The maibas and maibis have a three–fold role, as priests and priestesses, givers of oracles, and preservers of oral tradition. In the first of these roles they offer gifts and bloodless sacrifices before the lais at various points during the festival. As preservers of the oral traditions it is their responsibility to memorize and repeat accurately the sacred lyrics of the festival, and to lead the congregational singing. The maibi’s role as medium is perhaps the most remarkable, and the most original and authentic.[51]

The chance of becoming a maibi is by being selected by the lai. A woman may become a maibi at any age, young or old. According to McCulloch, “at present any woman who pretends to have had a ‘call’ from the deity or demon may become a priestess, that she has had such call is evidenced by incoherent language and trembling, as if possessed by the demon. After that she becomes a normal woman like any other.”[52]

Women who become maibi are in fact deviants who do not conform to the standard Meitei social roles. The chief occupation of the maibi among the people appears to be fortune-telling.[53] A maibi is considered a chosen woman, a vehicle of super–natural power, and she communicates on behalf of earthly people with the divine world. Conventionally, a maibi should be addressed as Ima (mother), evoking from all.[54] The maibis dress themselves very distinctively. They dress in white. Even a man also can become a maibi. They also wear phanek (dress for women of Manipur), of white colour, especially at the time of the Lai Haraoba festival.[55] Maibi is an intermediary between lai and human beings. If a maibi is married then she sleeps on the left side of the bed with her husband. The lai visits her during the night on some fixed date of the month. On this particular day she sleeps alone if married. Thus the married life of maibi is often complicated by her relationship with the lai who possesses her. They are in fact deviants who do not conform to the standard Meitei social roles.[56] There is also another maibi group who is chosen by God but specialized in the function of a mid–wife. They are called Wangon Shangda Angang Ngaibi Maibi.[57] They deliver the child, cut its umbilical chord with a bamboo knife, and while cutting it request Mi (shadow) or sixth soul to take its place in the child.[58]

The spiritual partners of the maibis are maibas who conduct the ritual with their knowledge of ancient lore, spirits, incarnations and psycho–analytic methods. Unlike the maibis, who can be either male or female, maiba is a profession only for males. Maibas are trained maibalon[59] in the Loishang, which was attached to the court for five or six years. After schooling himself long enough in this field, he is qualified to be ordained as a recognized maiba. They are the traditional physicians who cure people of their physical as well as psychological and spiritual illnesses. They are not chosen by the God. They participate actively in the ritual of Lai Haraoba and treatments of patients.

There is another variety of specialists who are not traditional priests of Lai Haraoba ritual but act as shamans and medicine men. All these specialists helped people combat witchcraft or protect them from the infliction of harm by evil spirits.[60] Their services are also sought in getting rid of evil spirits from the house. They are also called to cure the sick. Some cure their patients by traditional magic and others do it through natural cure. These maibas are different from the traditional priests who are also called maiba. They do not perform the traditional ritual of Lai Haraoba.

Both maiba and maibi have certain restrictions in social life. They can not take food, which is not clean and prepared in a house where child birth has taken place or food prepared by a woman during her menstruation period. Maibis are specially prohibited from eating a kind of fish called Ngakra. They also can not use certain trees/ plants as firewood like Ngonglei–shangou, Khiklei, Heimang etc. According to them if prohibited foods and articles are used or consumed, they tend to suffer from acute body pain, unconsciousness, and restlessness.[61]

There are sub–divisions within the maibis community according to the yeks for whom they serve. The Sanglen maibas and maibis officiate for the Ningthouja yek, the Phura for the Khuman and Khaba– Nganba yeks, and the Nongmai for the remainder.

The main task of maiba and maibi is to perform different rites for ordinary people, the king and the state. They are considered to have divine characteristic and knowledge of the animistic cult of the Meiteis. While the Brahmin priests of the Hindu religion have a hereditary tradition, the Meitei priests and priestesses are neither hereditary nor chosen by the king. They assumed human forms to save people from calamities and guide the people, at the critical junctures of the nation. Even the kings bow their heads before them.[62]

Today, the importance of maiba and maibi has lessened because of an awareness of modern science and rationality, but still in many cases no ceremony of birth is complete without the maibi cutting the umbilical chord and infusing the Mi (shadow), or sixth soul into the child, and no death is declared in any house, before a maiba comes, who after performing certain rituals and touching the pulse of the deceased, officially confirms it.[63]

The pena player, the penakhongba, is also basically a religious functionary and his presence at the Lai Haraoba is as essential as that of the maibi and maiba. The penakhongba is, in every sense, a professional musician. His training is long and exacting and he has to be thoroughly proficient in lairon, sacred music. In the Lai Haraoba the penakhongba plays to accompany some of the dances, but he also acts as a cantor, chanting the sacred lyrics to his own playing. The singing technique has to be learned, and it has its own idiosyncrasies.

The Text and Structure of Lai Haraoba
The text of the Lai Haraoba is an oral tradition, not a literary one, and it was and it is still the responsibility of the maibis, maibis and penakhongbas to preserve the wording. There are indeed differences in the texts being used in the various Haraobas, and some quite considerable. This is due partly to the different lais who are addressed, and also to local variations. In general, however, the basic text of the Lai Haraoba represents a tradition that has remained substantially unchanged over time. Although the archaic Manipuri script (called Meitei mayek) probably goes back a thousand years or more, the Lai Haraoba was never preserved in written form. But now a good deal of valuable work has been carried out by Manipuri scholars to preserve the text of Lai Haraoba in written form. Furthermore, the Lai Haraoba text as it stands today is only a part of that pre–literate oral tradition. This tradition included praise-hymns to the gods and folk songs as well.

The Lai Haraoba is a sprawling complex of song, dance and ritual which has clearly grown up over a period of time, and incorporated within itself a number of diverse elements. These are enclosed within the overarching structure of the coming of the lais to be present at the festival on day one and their return to the heaven on the final day. On the beginning of the festival the lais are called forth from the waters by the maibi (at Lai Eekouba= calling the lais) and ceremonially taken in procession to the shrine (Lai higaba=bringing the lais by boat). At evening the lais are sung to sleep by the penakhongba chanting and playing the lullaby naosum, and each morning the lais are greeted with an aubade, yakeiba. On the central days the lais are symbolically brought out in the courtyard to witness the rituals. The main rituals may be grouped into the following broad sections:
1) The Laibou (birth) cycle consists of dance sequence depicting creation, an invitation to sexual congress, the creation lyric (anoirol), and a mimed dance with antiphonal singing demonstrating the life-cycle;
2) The Panthoibi cycle is a series of lyrics largely to do with fertility;
3) A third cycle, performed beneath a canopy (phijang), consisting of complex dances, accompanied by songs, which are meant to portray the creation of the universe; and
4) On the last day only, a series of dances and lyrics which symbolize the gathering in of the universe into one (Ougri) and ending in a song of rejoicing (kencho).

At the end of the festival the lais return to heaven by means of a boat (Hijang Hirao). This final section begins with the cutting of the tree to make the vessel, following which it is ‘rowed’ to heaven (Lai Nongaba). This concluding episode mirrors the coming of the lais at Lai Eekouba and Lai Higaba on day one. To this main structure other interludes are added. There are numerous cleansing and apotropaic rites, and offerings of flowers and fruits. At set points the maibi becomes possessed and delivers oracles. In its traditional form the end of the Lai Haraoba was also the occasion for communal and sporting activities.[64]

The celebration of Lai Haraoba festivals starts at the onset of the wet season in the month of kalen (April-May) and may continue through to June. Each festival normally lasts a little more than a week. Traditionally the women of the family or locality would make offerings at the shrine before the maibas and the village or clan head would decide on the date. Certain days of the month are considered propitious, and on one of these the festival has to commence. Propitious days are those which contain the number 1, 2, 3, 5 or 8 (i.e., the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 8th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 15th, 18th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd, or 28th day of the month).

There are always two lais, the male and the female. The representation of the lais varies, but is never an image. In its earlier form it was simply an object that was associated with the lais and symbolised them. It is now most commonly a pair of brass masks, and the lais traditionally never had a body, only a representation of a face. The use of a wicker basket to symbolize the body seems to be a later development.

Lai Haraoba has both the characteristics of sacrificial and life-cycle rituals. However, with the dominance of Vaishnavite Hinduism under royal patronage from the beginning of the 18th century one may surmise that only bloodless offerings were permitted.[65] There is also ritualization of ordinary activities like yumsaba (building of the house) and pam yanba (process of clearing and burning off the land for agriculture). The ritual functionaries along with people perform these rituals, which are expressed in mimed dance and antiphonal lyrics.

The grand success of the Haraoba was dependant upon the social, economic, political, moral and physical support of the people. The larois, singlois, penakhongba, maiba, maibi, horses, elephants sent from the palace and their performances on the day of eekouba and lamthokpa constituted the royal support. The division of work among the organizers i.e. laroi, singloi, leiroi, yuroi etc. are aspects of the social and political system. The cooperative efforts of the people were represented in making huts in the laibung, contributions of money and materials, fund collections from the field of lais. Rice and money were also contributed from every house. Nobody was permitted to work during the days of Haraoba. The daily offerings of essential things in the morning by the womenfolk were an economic support. Lai Haraoba had an established social and political order. The arrangement of procession and seat of the audience were very important. The king and nobilities were seated in the front. The seats of the nobilities were arranged in order with the Senapati (Chief of the army) taking precedence over the Khullakpa (Chief of the village), the Luplakpa (Chief of the community), the Naharakpa (Chief of the youth), and the Loumidang (in charge of cultivators). Next to the nobilities were the common people arranged in order of age. The female side was also arranged in a similar manner.

The Rituals of Lai Haraoba
Day One:
Lai Eekouba or Lai Themgatpa Cycle (Calling or Bringing up the Lais from the Water)
At the Shrine
Lai phisetpa dressing the representations of the lais
Laihou jagoi dance to begin
Jagoi okpa dance to welcome
At the Water
Leirai yukhangba offering
Konyai hunba offering
Khayom lakpa offering of khayom in the water
Chafu haiba jagoi dance with the pots of the lai
Laihourol creation song
Laipao oracle
Hiri sikatpa drawing the lai through the hiri
Leiyom happa placing the leiyoms in the pots
Makhong hamba cleansing through water
Leimaren chafu drawing water
The Lai Higaba Cycle (Bringing the Lais to the Shrine)
Jagoi okpa welcome dance
Mei okpa cleansing through fire
Khoiju lamok cleansing through smoke
Thawaimi happa putting the soul in the lais
Luk thaba food offering
Sharen katpa/ chanba live offerings
Anamathou cleansing
Naosumba (Rest of the Lais)
Naosumba lullaby
Day Two and Subsequent Days
The Morning Rituals
Yakeiba awakening
Lai luk katpa (Heiruk kaba) offerings
Laipao oracle
The Laibou Cycle (The Birth Cycle)
Jagoi okpa welcome dance
Lei langba offerings
Laiboula thaba placing the laiboula
Lai happa putting on the lais
Kuruk lei jagoi dance sequence with the langthrei
Laiching jagoi bringing the lais into the courtyard
Hoi laoba/ hoirou haya invitation to lais to create and procreate
Anoirol dance lyric
Hakchang saba the building of the body
Yum saba the building of the house
The Panthoibi Cycle
Panthoibi ishei Panthoibi lyrics
Paosha love lyrics
Pam yanba cultivation
Gathering the Souls
Longkhonba gathering of souls, driving away of spirits
The Phijang (Canopy) Cycle
Phibul ahabi dances with the phibun
Chungkhon yetpa dances around the canopy
Chungkhong litpa dances beneath the canopy
Lairen mathek Python dance
Wakon ‘last’ lyric
Naosum lullaby (omitted on the final day)
Final Day (Lairoi)
(The following are added after Wakon)
Lai Lam Thokpa/ Nupi Thiba seeking a wife for the lai
(days 5, 9 and 11 only)
Thang jagoi protective sword dance
Loutaba cultivation
The Ougri (ingathering) Cycle
Ougri hangel gathering in the universe
Thabal chongba leaping dance
Thawaimi konba gathering in the souls
Sharit litpa going beneath the joined hands
Kencho (Rejoicing)
Lai Nongaba Cycle (Return of the Lais to Heaven)
Uyarol song for making the boat
Lai nongaba ascending of the lais
Nongarol song for the ascending of the lais
Lai tethaba dismantling of the lai
Saroi khangba appeasement of the spirits
Communal sports (days 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9)
Notes and References

[1] Kh. Ratan Kumar Singh. 2001. Lai Haraoba of Manipur. Imphal: Ph. Pratima. p. 3.
[2] R. Brown. 1975. Statistical Account of Manipur. Delhi. p. 57.
[3] R.K. Jhalajit.Singh. 1992. A Short History of Manipur. Imphal. p. 6.
[4] J. Roy. 1973. History of Manipur. Imphal. p. 4.
[5] Gangmumei Kamei. 1991. Op. Cit.
[6] T. C. Hodson. 1989. The Meitheis. Delhi: Low Price Publication. p.10
[7] W. Mc Culloch. 1859. An account of the Valley of Manipur and Hill Tribes. London. p. 4.
[8] G. Grierson. 1905. Linguistic Survey of India. Calcutta. p. 6.
[9] R. Brown. 1975. Op. Cit. p. 27.
[10] R. Constaitine. 1981. Manipur: Maids of Mountains. Delhi: Lancers Publishers. p. 23.
[11] T. C. Hodson, T.C. 1989. Op. Cit. p.17.
[12] See O. K. Singh. 1988. ‘Aspects of Archaeology in Manipur’ in N. Sanajaoba (ed.). Manipur: Past and Present. Vol. 1. p.69. & Gangmumei Kamei. 1991. Op. Cit. p. 21.
[13] J. Johnston. 1971. My Experience in Manipur and Naga Hills. Delhi: Vivek Publishng House. p. 97.
[14] N. Vijayalakhsmi Brara. 1998. Politics, Society and Cosmology in India’s North-East. Delhi: Oxford University Press. p. 83.
[15] R. Kumar Shah. 1994. Valley Society of Manipur. Calcutta: Punthi Pustak. p. 94.
[16] Salai was originally an ethnic group or a tribe converted to a Meitei clan, having a territory, speaking a language or dialects, enjoying political, later on, social autonomy (when it came under Meitei community). And Yek is social exogamous group within which marriage is not permissible. But now Yek and Salai are used almost in the same sense. See Gangmumei Kamei. Op.Cit. p. 87 & R. Kumar Shah. Op. Cit. p. 94.
[17] N. Vijaylakhsmi Brara. Op.Cit. p. 85.
[18] T. C. Hodson. Op.Cit. p. 109.
[19] N. V. Brara. Op.Cit. p. 93.
[20] Ibid. p. 99.
[21] See Appendix 1 for the name of scheduled Tribes of Manipur.
[22] N. Tombi Singh. 1972. Manipur: A Study. Delhi: Rajesh Printing Press. p. 17.
[23] M. Kirti Singh. 1988. Religion and Culture of Manipur. Delhi: Manas Publication. p. 10.
[24] L. Bhagyachandra Singh. 1987. A Critical Study of the Religious Philosophy of the Meiteis Before the Advent of Vaishnavism in Manipur. Imphal: L. Jayantakumar. p. 57.
[25] Puya is the written records of traditions by the forefathers.
[26] T. C. Hodson. Op. Cit. p. 96
[27] Gangumei Kamei. Op. Cit. p. 89.
[28] Ibid.
[29] J. Shakespeare. 1913. The Religion of Manipur. Folkore 24. p. 409-55
[30] Louis Lightfoot. 1958. Dance Rituals of Manipur. Hong Kong. p.14.
[31] K. B. Singh. 1963. Traces of Pre-Hinduism in Meitei society. Folklore 5. p. 201-206.
[32] Khulem Chandrashekhar Singh. (ed.). 1980. Umanglai Khunda. Imphal: All Manipur Umanglai Haraoba Committee. No. 4. p. v.
[33] S. N. Parrat. 1980. The Religion of Manipur. Calcutta: Firma KLM Private Limited. p. 9.
[34] R. K. Achouba Singh. OP. Cit. p. 11.
[35] Y. Tamphajao Singh. 1978. Meitei Lai Haraobagi Wangurol. Imphal. p.1.
[36] L. Bhagyachandra Singh. 1987. A Critical Study of the religious Philosophy of the Meiteis before the Advent of Vaisnavism in Manipur. Imphal: L. Jayantakumar. p. 33.
[37] See Appendix 2 for the names of Umanglais.
[38] Ibid. 33-34.
[39] M. Chandra Singh in Ng. Kulachandra Singh.1963. Meitei Lai Haraoba. Imphal. p.1.
[40] S. N. Paratt. 1980. Op.Cit. p. 53.
[41] Kh. Ratan Singh. Op.Cit. p. 43.
[42] Shakespeare. Op. Cit. p. 351.
[43] S.N. Paratt.1980. Op. Cit. p. 53-54.
[44] M. Chandra. 1987. Panthoibi Khongkul. Imphal. This is one of the versions of the origin of Kanglei Lai Haraoba.
[45] M. Kirti. Op. Cit. p.167.
[46] The Chakpa were regarded as belonging to a lower social caste by the newly converted Hindu Meitei. They did not embrace Hinduism and they still continue to preserve the traditional culture and religion. During the ritual observance of Lai Haraoba, the people of Andro, Phayeng and other Chakpa inhabited places still don the traditional dresses. Above all, animal sacrifice is still very much practiced.
[47] N. V. Brara. Op. Cit. 174-75.
[48] Paratt and Paratt. Op. Cit.p.18.
[49] R. K. Achouba singh. Op. Cit. p. 11.
[50] M. Kirti Singh. Op. Cit. p. 172.
[51] S. N. Paratt and John Paratt. Op. Cit. p. 34–35.
[52] W. McCulloch. 1980. An Account of the Valley of Manipur. Delhi: Gyan Publication. p. 17.
[53] R. Brown. Op. Cit. p. 51.
[54] Manjusri Chaki–Sircar. Op. Cit. p. 214.
[55] R. Constatine. 1981. Manipur: Maids of Mountains. Delhi: Lancer Publishers. P. 54.
[56] Manjusri Chaki–Sircar. Op. Cit. p. 168.
[57] N. Vijyalakshmi Brara. Op. Cit. p. 140.
[58] Ibid. The Meiteis believe fire, water, air, sky, earth as five souls and mi (shadows of the body) as the sixth one
[59]Maibalon is physician’s text. It mainly deals with pulse reading and it is mainly through this that the whole physiology of the patient is understood.
[60] Manjusri Chaki-Sirkar. Op. Cit. p. 119.
[61] N. Vijyalakshmi Brara. Op. Cit. p. 137.
[62] L. Bhagyachandra Singh. Op. Cit.p. 138.
[63] N. Vijyalakshmi Brara. Op. Cit. p. 102.
[64] Ibid. p. 20-21.
[65] But in Chakpa Haraoba, people still offer blood sacrifices.

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