When the full moon dazzles on the Manipur sky on a KartikPoornima night, hundreds of Radhas and hundreds of Krishnas - babies, toddlers, girls and little boys, dressed in traditional attire have only one destination-the RaasMandap of any temple for the Maharas of the “Gem Country-Manipur”, where dance is a way of life. The Divine Maharas begins first at the Govindaji temple attached to the palace at Imphal and then it starts in all others, the one at the Shri ShriGopinathji temple at the outskirts of the town Ningthoukhong, 30km. from Imphal in the Bishnupur district of Manipur being one of the most important.
The Ras Lila projects the eternal theme of the love of Radha and Krishna, but the treatment is a highly dignified and subtle one. They show the ethos of the people and the spiritual fervour. Traditionally there is no male performer in the Raslila. Krishna is also enacted by a little girl. Other young girls dress as “Gopis” and dance around Radha and Krishna. Only Radha wears a green sequin-studded glittering skirt and all the gopis are in red. Of the three main Ras dances-the KunjaRas, VasantaRas and Maharas , Maharas is the most significant , interesting and visually very pleasant.
The Meitei king MeidinguChingthangkhomba popularly known as the Saint King Rajarshi Bhagyachandra , was a great patron of the arts and said to have began the tradition of Ras dance in Manipur. Legend says that Lord Krishna appeared in his dream and revealed the mystic Ras dance and asked him to perform it as an offering in Krishna’s honour. Bhagyachandra also devised the shimmering “fairytale” costume known as Kumin for Radha and the sakhis adorned with ornaments and flowers, according to his vision of the rasa dance of Krishna.
The costume of Krishna was a yellow dhoti, a dark velvet jacket and a crown decorated with peacock feathers. So the spectacular costumes of Rajarshi Bhagyachandra’s dream are still an indispensible part of the Manipuri Ras dance but during the KartikPoornima in around end October-November each year the scene is celestial. Mostly mothers dress their children as Krishna or Radha to participate in the Ras dances. The number is unbelievable. It is believed that some parents take a vow to the Lord that if a certain wish of theirs is fulfilled or an illness cured they would dress up their child as Krishna and offer him as a participant in the Ras Dance. Before the Maharas commences, the dancers offer ”Aarti” to the dancing pair of Radha and Krishna.
he Maharas is an integral part of any important function at Manipur as is the Nata Sankeertan. The Nata Sankeertan stems from the Gaudiya Vaishnavism transported from Bengal by the teachings of Sri Chaitanyadeva. Sankeertan is community prayer but in Manipur it has a special colour. It is executed by singing keertans, chanting and dancing while playing the Poong,the Manipuri drums (PoongCholam) or the cymbals (KartalCholam).The Poong, hanging from the neck of the dancer is played as he dances within the format of the Manipuri classical idiom, but is embellished with leaps, jumps and spins in the air. The kartalcholam is dancing while playing the kartal. It is more spiritually intoxicating than visually pleasing. But the high point of many important functions remain the spectacular lyrical Maharas where Krishna is missing at the end.
The inaugural function of the 10th Rajarshi Bhagyachandra National Dance Festival organised triennially(proposal is to make it annually) by the Department of Culture, Government of Manipur, last KartikPoornima began with a solemn ceremony at Ningthoukhong in the Gopinathji temple with the Hon’ble Chief Minister of Manipur, O.Ibobi Singh by lighting the lamp and offering “Prasad”. The festival is a tribute to the Saint King who gave the Maharas to the world. The first Raslila was in 1769, where The King’s daughter Lairoibi played the role of Radhika! The First Bhagyachandra National Dance Festival was organised at the historic Kangla Fort in 1989! The 10th one had the performances in the make-shift stage and amphitheatre of the Kangla Fort Compound with the Govindaji temple at the backdrop. But the mandatory Nata Sankirtan and Maharas had to be in ShriShriGopinathji Temple.
The road from Imphalto NinnthoukhongBishnupur is a smooth delightful ride through avenues of tall evergreen trees. The skyline lined with the hills witness was to the second World War. Passing the headquarters of the Women Police Of Manipur, one feels proud. You stop at a memorial, a weak iron frame-the gate of a small enclosure where IromSharmila ‘sat’ and began her fast! It was important for the driver to stress the fact that a renowned Bollywood filmstar had shot there!
Passing through market places with heaps of dried shrimps , vegetables and daily necessities was an indication that the largest business centre, Ningthoukhong, of the state had approached. Suddenly the sight of a unmetaled road decorated on both sides with flags , typical Manipuri Shattras(Umbrellas), led to the sprawling temple complex, decorated with flags flowers and umbrellas. Beside a huge water-body stands the temple of Gopinathji and Radharani where the big crowd of Radhas and Krishnas assembled. The Temple overlooked the Raasmandap lined with concrete benches and mattings(typical of the North East), Strong smell of incense and smoke of scented resins filled the air. The artistically decorated fruit and puffed-rice sweet offerings were placed inside the mandap across which, beyond a courtyard, the idols were installed. There was one alcove for Jagannath,Balaram and Subhadra too!
The inauguration over, the Natasankitan by the artists was followed the heavenly procession of Radhas and Krishna and finally one is lost in the hypnotic Maharas of KartikPoornima!
Written byNita Vidyarthi
Writer and Critic of Performing arts , trained in Rabindrasangeet, kathak and Bharatanatyam with exposure to manipuri . specialises in Dance, Light music(vocal) Rabindrasangeeet and theatre.Commonwealth scholar with a Ph.D. in Polymer Science Nita Vidyarthi is a retired Professor in Chemistry is widely travelled and devotes her time in travel writing, science communicating and writing in The Hindu,TheStatesman,Sruti, narthaki.com and Nartanam and other publications.