Kabui Lai of Kakching

Dr. Jogendro Kshetrimayum *

 Kakching <i>Lai Haraoba</i> at 4th Lai Haraoba festival of Govt Dance College :: June 12 2015
Kakching Lai Haraoba at 4th Lai Haraoba festival of Govt Dance College in June 2015 :: Pix - Shankar Khangembam

As the world reels under a global pandemic, this is Lai Haraoba season in Manipur. For many Manipuris, Lai Haraoba is not just another festival. It is one of the most significant annual events in the cultural and spiritual life of Manipur and particularly so for the majority Meetei/Meitei community.

Lai Haraoba --- or Lai Hou Lowba --- is usually a multi-day celebration of local deities (lai) through dance, music, prayers, rites and sports. The central theme of the festival is the celebration of God's creation of mankind which is retold through dance as an integral part of the festival.

Although the spirit and the general form of Lai Haraoba is the same everywhere, there are differences in the way the rituals and the performances are structured and executed. These differences often reflect the nature and history of the associated deity.

And, as is the case in all religions or spiritual traditions, the story of the deity/God is also a human story. For instance, every year the Kubui Lai Haraoba of Kakching reminds us of a unique tale of love, loss and belonging.

The town of Kakching lies 44 kms south-east of Imphal City. In Kakching, the Kabui Lairembi is one of the local deities whose Lai Haraoba festival is celebrated.

For the last two hundred years or so, the Kabui Lai Haraoba has been celebrated at its current location on Yaikhom Pareng street in Kakching Mayai Leikai. The story of Kabui Lai is unique and different from the other deities in Kakching.

One distinction is that the Kabui Lai is not an ancestral deity in the way Ibudhou Khamlangba, Irum Ningthou and others are to the people of Kakching, which is a predominantly Meitei/Meetei community.

As the name "Kabui" indicates, the deity is associated with the Rongmei Naga tribes who have historically settled in other parts of Manipur and in the neighboring states of Nagaland and Assam. And, interestingly, Kabui Lairembi belongs to the Kshetrimayum Sagei (sub-clan) of Kakching whose members are responsible for its upkeep and for the organization of the annual Lai Haraoba festival.

Given the intermittent tension and conflicts between the Naga movement and the Manipuri Meitei/Meetei community, one might wonder how a Meitei community, in this corner of Manipur, came to worship a deity associated with the Naga tribe.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, according to the legend, one Shajou of the Kshetrimayum family adopted a young Kabui girl. Growing up in the Shajou household, the little girl was very attached to a particular doll. She loved playing with the doll by herself or with friends from the neighborhood.

During mealtime, she would seat the doll and 'feed' it as if it were a real person. In fact, the doll had become her closest confidant and friend. "Ita Laidibi" she called her. At night she would tuck her friend in a little bed inside a small box (a type of box traditionally known as Khongchai upu). In the morning she would wake her up saying, "Ita Laidibi, get up. It's morning now."

For a while, it would seem that the Kabui girl was adjusting well. Unfortunately, everything changed when Shajou passed away unexpectedly. She was heart-broken; she wanted to go back to her real family.

Shajou's son Tonjao persuaded her to stay because she was now part of their family. Again, the account is silent as to how long she lived after Shajou passed away. According to some account she is described as a young 'maiden' when she died of some illness.

After she died, the legend says, the members of the bereaved family experienced some unusual phenomena. They often heard the doll crying inside the box. It must have been quite disturbing to hear the constant sobbing and crying of the doll in the middle of the nights.

Finally, the family decided to get rid of the doll. They took the box with the doll inside it to the back of the family homestead where the meandering Sekmai river runs gently. Two giant fig trees grew at the edge of the river bank. According to the legend, it was between those two figs trees that they tossed the box into the river.

A few days after they got rid of the doll, a strange thing happened. A group of girls from the neighborhood, friends of the Kabui girl, went down to the river to fetch water. To their utter disbelief, they saw the same box floating in the water, in the exact spot where it had been tossed a few days before.

By this time, the currents of the river should have taken it to some unknown corner downstream. But there it was! Floating, unwilling to move away from the Shajou family homestead. It must have been the most unusual sight. This was a cause of concern for the elders of the Kshetrimayum Sagei.

A Maibi was consulted to find out what the spirit wanted. Kabui Lairembi (a goddess) the spirit possessing the doll was to be worshipped as a family deity of the Kshetrimayum Sagei of Kakching.

Since then, the box with the doll inside it has been enshrined as a family deity in the current location. Every year, during the months of April-May ('Kanlen' in the Manipuri Lunar calender), the Kshetrimayum sagei celebrates Kabui Lai Haraoba for one day.

Perhaps, through a secular lens the whole affair of Kabui lai could be dismissed in terms of 'natural' phenomena; the sobbing and crying of the doll, a reflection of a bereaved family dealing with grief and trauma; the floating of the box in the river, a freaky coincidence caused by the complex fluid dynamics of river currents.

With such an attitude, however, the story of the Kabui girl might have been lost in the current of time, so to speak. For a people who believed in the spirits, however, it had a different meaning; they saw beauty in it, they saw the sanctity of human relationship that transcends bloodlines and social groups.

They understood the gravity of love and loss. If science offers one way of making sense of this chaotic world, belief in the spirits offers another. The Kabui Lai Haraoba makes me wonder about the scores of other deities whose Lai Haraoba are celebrated every year by Manipuri communities around the world and the human stories they tell.

Unfortunately, this year, for the first time in its history, there might not be any celebration of Kabui Lai Haraoba. The grim reality of the current global pandemic (COVID-19) is that there might not be any Lai Haraoba anywhere, not just for the Kabui Lairembi.

It will be a logistical nightmare to organize a 'social distancing' Lai Haraoba which requires, among other activities, hundreds of participants dancing and singing in unison, in a confined space, for hours.

Even though we cannot physically celebrate Lai Haraoba we can still meditate on its spiritual, cultural and social messages, which are particularly pertinent as the current crisis of global pandemic should make us acutely aware of our responsibility towards each other and to the natural world.

After all, at its heart, Lai Haraoba is about the celebration and the sanctity of this divine creation.


[1] In Manipuri, 'ita' is a term of endearment used for a close female friend, and 'Laidibi' literally means doll.
[2] In the pre-Hindu Meitei tradition, Maibi is a priestess, akin to an oracle or a shaman, who has the unique power to communicate with the spirit world. For more details on the tradition of Maibi see Parratt (1980:96-100).


o Khaidem, Pramodini Devi. 2005. "Lubak-Nunggi Laidhibi Lairembi" in Anouba Mangal, Vol 4:20-21. Alliance for Development Alternatives Manipur: Kakching. Pp 37-38.
o Mayanglambam, Gourachandra. 2015. Kakching Haraoba. Peoples' Museum Kakching: Kakching
o Parratt, Saroj Nalini. 1980. The Religion of Manipur. Firma KLM Private Limited: Calcutta.

* Dr. Jogendro Kshetrimayum wrote this article for
The writer is a cultural anthropologist and teach part-time at Eastern Michigan University, USA.
The writer can be contacted at jogendro(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on May 16 2020.

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