As if it was some heroic action, a recent post in FB displayed a group of young girls who were detained by police for disturbing the public. Their alleged crime: seeking donations for Yaoshang Thabal in the streets from the general public. Even some ‘public-minded’ people were seen approving the police action. We sometimes wonder, what is ailing our society?
It is not everyday that girls are coming out on the streets to seek donations. They are indeed mindful of their dignity and it is not that they have shed all inhibitions for the sake of rupees 50-100 donated by folks. Many a time, they were subjected to indecent teasing and ridicule.
Every year before Yaoshang and after, groups of girls go for door-to-door collection of donations in their own locality and it is only when the collection is not enough for organising the Thabal that they venture out of the locality. And in recent times, the girls are working under extreme pressure as Thabal Chongba is restricted to only five days and many simply refuse to distinguish between Yaoshang and Thabal Chongba. So, it is rather unkind for some people to pass undue judgement on girls seeking donations related to Thabal Chongba or for the police to round them up.
Yaoshang is one of the most important festivals of Manipur which is celebrated for five days during the Meitei lunar month of Lamta. As it happens with the onset of Spring season, it is also associated with the age-old tradition of Thabal Chongba which is in fact a formal occasion for young boys and girls to meet. What is Thabal Chongba and what it means for the Manipuri society?
One often tries to get away with the simplistic description of a popular folk dance during the annual Yaoshang Festival and even a literal definition of Thabal chongba as ‘dancing by moonlight’. The only other occasion existing till today albeit only in some rural areas is ‘Likkon-Saanaba’ where young boys and girls gather for a game of dice.
Perhaps it is because of the stars, adolescent urges to understand members of the other sex begin to develop in the Meitei month of Lamta as a prelude to the onset of the creation festivities like Lai Haraoba season in the month of Kalen. Every youth has gone through this phase and no one has bypassed it. Thabal Chongba is one such occasion where the adolescent urges or itch is channelised ritually through a merry dance.
It is not just holding hands and dancing away the night with gay abandon. For two consecutive years we have banned the Thabal Chongba ritual or festivities. It means bottling up the itch or adolescent urges and it could most possibly lead to negative social situations which we all would want to avoid.
We have seen in the past, an explosion of negative sexual behaviour among the youth as a result of extreme forms of restrictions and conservatism. Essentially, Thabal Chongba is a folk dance with a purpose for the Manipuris. It serves as one of the socially sanctioned forms of courtship between adolescent boys and girls, with roots in the creation myths and fertility rites of yore.
Being a conservative society, courting is usually allowed at the girl’s home under parental supervision. Yet, socially sanctioned spaces are also created for boys and girls to meet and get to know each other. Thabal Chongba is one such space which continues till today although the forms and settings have evolved. But, it is always under the watchful eyes of the brothers and mothers as it is always held at the locality of the girl.