An introduction to Manipuri Vaishnavism

K Brajamani Sharma, Acharya Retd. Librarian
Contd from previous issue
However, the Manipuri Vaishnavism has distinctive differences from the other sects because there are many amalgamated items which are taken from indigenous system. In a Hindu Manipuri house there are two places reserved for Sanamahi and Leimaren, the deities of the erstwhile religious practices.
The Hindu Manipuris attend to the Lai-haraoba festival practiced in the locality, the system of the former religious practice. In any Vaishnava Shraddha, marriage or other religious practices, the Manipuri Vaishnavas have loyalty to the family God and Goddess. Moreover, the dresses of Radha and Krishna in Manipuri Vaishnavism are different from the other Vaishnavas. There are Kajenglei, pais, shamjin, chuda, potloi, pushman, thakhum, koktumbi and other ornaments which bear a meaning of its own.
For example, the peacock feather on the head of Sri Krishna is designed as if the hood of a large serpent, which is not in the dress style of other sects. Such and such other meanings are with each item of ornaments.
We cannot ignore the glories of Rasa Leela and Nata Sankirtana of Manipur which have been dignified by people from different corners. Actually, the origin of both is from Vrindavana and Nadia respectively, but there should have distinctions on the productions of Manipuri Rasa Leela or Nata Sankirtana. Obviously, there are.
In Manipuri Rasa Leela the Gopis should have no exposure of face or any part of the body that may attract the spectators with respect to human limbs. They have big and thick dress which obstructs from being seen any part from waist to the sole.
The pushman, an ornament at the waist, being a large and stiff structure protects anybody to touch the artiste. There is a cloth that covers thorax above the shirt, so that no attraction is made on the artiste. Moreover, there is a thin piece of cloth that covers the face and hence, the spectator has to use mental faculty than that of the organs of view/sight.
That, imaginative factors are more than the organic instinctive style given by the play to the viewers. The closing of the Leela is with arati or offering of burning ghrita vati (light burnt on clarified curd), which is purely devotional activity. Similarly, the artistes in Nata Sankirtana have to follow certain rules in dressing, singing, and dancing. He has to wear dhoti without border colour line. He has to twist the back cloth while putting inside at the back. Another white cloth is to be used for fastening at the waist above the dhoti. A special turban of white clothe is also to be put on the head. This is called three types of dressing. The artistes are representing particular divine personalities while performing the Nata Sankirtana. Anybody who offers cash or cloth to the artistes are to bow down with the offering and not allowed to give hand to hand, that is the person would have an idea that he is offering cash or clothe to the divine personalities through the visible human forms, that is the artistes. Moreover, there is a presiding Officer known as Mandapa Mapu, by whose orders the Sankirtana is to begin, by whose decision will be final when if there is dispute or any misunderstanding. The Manipuri Vaishnavas imagine that there are four doors in a mandapa where a Sankirtana is performing. There are four kinds of audiences in Mandapa representing the devotees of four Yugas and so on. The Nata Sankirtanists have to start with a Raga and end with Vijaya or Nityai pada and there will be Ragataba, Men, Tanchap, etc. as per rules. During the period of Raga no one is allowed to enter the Mandapa. There is also a conch blower sitting at a particular place in the audience.
It is clear from the short accounts on Rasa Leela and Nata Sankirtana that the Manipuri Vaishnavas give emphasis on devotion than physical abilities.
Another difference is that the Vaishnavas are graded into two in the Manipuri society. The one is simple; the Hindu systems of Sanskarya ceremonies like Chudakarana, Yajnopavita, etc. are followed as per guidance of the purohitas or the Brahmanas who are experts in these ceremonial observances.
The other grade, having Dasa nama and Manjari nama from a competent Guru and are known as Gurupranalika phanglaba (who have their lineage to the list of persons regarded as Sidha purushas or perfect persons). Such persons (male or female) are not allowed to have family system of living.
Each will have a deity of his own, cook by himself for the deity and eat the remnants, and also be a vegetarian strictly. They are to use black tilaka on the forehead, bear three rounds of tulasi mala, yaajnapavita and be interested in rolling the beads inside a special bag chanting the mantra given to him/her by the Guru.
Rajarshi Bhagyachandra
As already mentioned above, the name of Bhagyachandra cannot be neglected at any cost for the contributions to the Manipuri Vaishnavism. The king istalled the famous Sri Sri Govindaji temple, Sri Vijaynatha Govindaji, Sri Gopinathji, Sri Nityanandaji, Sri Advaita Prabhuji, Sri Vanshi Vandanji, Sri Madan Mohanji, Sri Mahaprabhu, etc. in suitable places of Manipur and worshipped with royal patronage. The king installed at Navadwipa in West Bengal the deity of “Anu Prabhuji” and has been a sacred place for the Vaishnavas, particularly for Manipuris. Rajarshi Bhagyachandra is the architect of Rasa Leela and Nata Sankirtana. He ruled the land in the name of Sri Govindaji. We owe to the God-man, Rajarshi, for the opportunities we have been enjoying.
Hari Aum Tat Sat