Thangjing Haraoba, Rongmei Dance, Cine stars and Thanjing Seva Mandal: Beyond optics

NS Hemam *

 Lai Khong Chingba at  Ibudhou Thangjing Moirang Lai Haraoba on  :: 02 June 2014
Lai Khong Chingba at Ibudhou Thangjing Moirang Lai Haraoba on 02 June 2014 :: Pix - Lamdamba Oinam

The Thangjing Lai Haraoba is the mother of all Lai Haroaba festivals of Manipur. It is indeed worth remembering that when Col. J. Shakespear made an essay on Umang Lai Haroba of Manipur, a century ago (1913), it was the Thangjing Haraoba that he documented (Shakespears J: Man, 1913).

It is indeed fair to say, no other Lai Haraoba festival of Manipur involves such intricate, elaborate and ritualistic features that intertwines with the lives of people who practice it than the Thangjing Haraaba does with people of Moirang. The daily lives, the annual cycles, the livelihood systems (agriculture, fishing, industry, etc.), and the belief systems of Moirang people are in some way or other shaped by/connected with the ritual cycles of Lord Thangjing.

Till today the extreme reverence of Lord Thnagjing by people of Moirang has helped in preserving Laiharaoba festival in its pristine form. It is no surprise then, in spite of changes around, as for Thangjing Haraoba, the core of Lai Haraoba remains untouched except for the optics - the elephants, large number of phamnaibas and phamnaibis, the grooves, etc. are no longer there and variety of programs have increased in tune with changing time.

It is very unfortunate that such a revered festival is dragged into avoidable controversies. In the midst of an alleged misuse of traditional dresses of Rongmei tribe and wrongful depiction of its traditional dance form, there were many unfounded and wild accusations made by a few 'so-called' expert commentators who had very little/or no knowledge of Thangjing Lai Haraoba and Thangjing Seva Mandal.

The Thangjing Seva Mandal, unlike other Umang Lai Haraoba committees, is an elected body for three years representing 30 (thirty) leikais of Moirang. This is a not-for-profit society registered under the Societies Registration Act, Manipur. The unique feature of the committee is its harmonious blending and integration of old traditional system (phamnaiba loisang) and modern democratic system - the traditional Pibas (clan head), Phamnaibas and Amaibas are permanent members of the Thangjing Seva Mandal.

The Thangjing Seva Mandal, under the leadership of Ex-CM Shri M. Koireng Singh and Ex-Education Minister, Shri Hemam Nilamani Singh, evolved from a people's movement to prevent forcible takeover attempts of Thangjing Temple by Kanglei Ningthou in early 1950s. People of Moirang had bled and fought hard for protection of Ibudhou Thangjing (local culture) long before the present generation of protectionist came into being.

Thangjing Lai Haraoba is not a simple extravagant festival for fun, but it's a way of life (tradition) for people of Moirang. It's well advised that those ignorant people who often make disparaging remarks about Thangjing Laiharaoba/Seva mandal should educate themselves about Thangjing's/Moirang's history first before they make uneducated comments.

Is anyone aware that in the past most of the Lai Haraoba Festivals in the state used to seek symbolic permission (Lai La Louba) from Ibudhou Thangjing and could start their festival only after completion of Thangjing Haraoba?

It's shameful that such ignorant commentators even go on to say that the period (say a month) of 'Thangjing Laiharaoba' is too long, and it is only meant for generating cheap money; little did this dud aware that the period of 'Thangjing Laiharaoba' varies from year to year. There were instances in the past that Laiharaoba festival lasting only for a week or two.

The 'Puyas' of Moirang and seitharols of Thangjing Haraoba vividly mentioned about one to one and half month-long festival. Besides, as a part of the continuing tradition, the number of days for the festival is fixed by the Amaibas and Amaibis of Thangjing Cheirap Loishang, based on their khutpai calculations, but certainly not by the Thangjing Seva Mandal.

As mentioned earlier, the harmonious co-existence of early tradition and present democratic system epitomizes the Thangjing Seva Mandal. What is most distasteful aspect of the commentary being - the very people who make a living 'as the protector of Manipuri tradition' blaming others for protecting their own tradition. Please take a walk - let people of Moirang and Thangjing Seva Mandal decide what is best for Thangjing Lai Haraoba festival, as per its tradition.

The issue is more complex and more challenging - it is not about Thangjing Lai Haraoba anymore, but it is about the false notion of culture superiority. A dominant culture trying to impose its values to other smaller culture. The truth is - there is nothing like a superior or an inferior culture; instead we should celebrate our cultural diversity.

There are many other Lai Haraoba traditions like Chakpa, Kakching, and Kanglei, though they are not as elaborate and popular as Thangjing Lai Haraoba, and they are the remnants of our diverse past traditions of different communities. All cannot be put into a single basket and a single value system.

The day we leave this 'hegemonic attitude', half of our social tensions among different communities will be gone. If we look at the recent history of Manipur, all skirmishes and social tensions have invariably been linked to this superiority and hegemonic attitude.

My dear friend, Manipur is made up of innumerable small principalities with distinct culture, belief systems, traditions, lifestyles - be it in the valley or in the hills - we all need to respect and preserve these diverse culture, tradition and lifestyle as it is. Let's avoid judging others based on one's value systems.

The ignorant commentators need to apologize to the Thangjing Seva Mandal and people of Moirang at large for making unfounded allegation and misleading general public. Every single paisa/proceed that comes to any program (individual or group) at the Thangjing Laiharaoba goes to the performer(s) but not to the Thangjing Seva Mandal.

The clarification from cine artists association did clearly mentioned that they were doing the program to donate the proceeds to a charitable cause. Then, why make unnecessary and unfounded allegation to such a revered festival? Does the person(s)/or organization represented have other vested interest to malign the greatest Lai Haraoba festival of Manipur?

As a tradition, Thangjing Lai Haraoba doesn't discriminate based on one's caste, creed or color to any performer. All are welcome to offer his/her art to the Thangjing deity and every performer is given strict instructions of 'Dos and Don'ts' on the stage.

At times, there were also instances where some of the programs inadvertently went beyond the brief. The moment such instance came to the notice of Thangjing Seva Mandal, such programs were stopped or withdrawn. If one recalls the cine artists' dance program was also curtailed/stopped much before its ending steps; it was because the Thangjing Seva Mandal felt that some parts of the choreography was inappropriate for Thangjng Lai Haraoba festival.

The archaic mindset interpreting as if "tradition" as a static entity will have no takers in this seamless world. The day when a culture become static and fails to evolve and adapt, that culture becomes a 'dead' culture. The entity that we treat as our tradition or heritage, who knows, may have been a part of another evolving entity.

If one goes a step further, the 'Umang Lais' are sylvan deities with no idols and definite shape, but more in a spiritual form. The Umang lais of today are represented in physical form by idols, more in the line of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. It is a change that has come along with changes in our societies, and we have enculturated and internalized it over time.

Besides, we also need to accept that many of the past customs, traditions, belief systems, etc. are no longer compatible with present day lifestyle, aspiration, demands, etc. After all the dress that we call our own traditional dress may have come from a different civilization - it was not long ago that women or men in the state wore no/little garment, forget about the stylized garments. Change, therefore, in every sphere is inevitable.

The apologies of 'cine artists' to the Rongmei tribe have been accepted. It is indeed a very welcome step to resolve the crisis.

At the same time, it also opens up a slew of intriguing questions - who has the sole right to use one's dress or one's culture? Can it be protected, as in commercial terms, like patent rights, GI rights, the copy rights or trade secrets? What if, one day, the Britishers/Westerners were to say 'stop wearing our pants and shirts' or 'stop humming our western songs' as it differs from their tradition?

The food we eat, the lifestyle we follow, the dances we dance, or the society we live in are different in every aspect from western societies, then do we have the right to use their items or follow their culture? Every tradition exists in time and space; but who decides when and where remains unresolved.

Similarly, any art form cannot be a static one. The beauty of any art form lies in the endless variations it could create, without diluting the basics. For instance, the fame Khamba-Thoibi dance of today has innumerable variations and interpretations, having the same core features. Should we or could we stop all Khamba-Thoibi dances of today as it differs greatly from the original one?

The world famous 'Manipuri Rashlila' is the interpretation and representation of a larger tradition (Vaishnavism) in our own way and, in the end, it creates a fusion of several traditions molded into a beautiful art form. The day we cease to evolve, that'll be the day we cease to exist.

It is estimated that one language goes extinct in the world every three months as there are no speakers, and by the end of 21st century 70-80% of the world language may disappear. Let's not go into the "extinct" trap by closing the door to everyone.

* NS Hemam wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at hemamns(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on June 11, 2019.

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