Manipur always had its fair share of festivals since time immemorial. With the entry of new cultures and religions, more and more festivals were added. Now also, we are still thinking up more festivals to celebrate. Of all the festivals which have stood the test of time is the Lai Haraoba which is a celebration of the gifts of nature and of fertility of all living beings.
In the valley, the Umang Lais or sylvan deities are given designated areas of jurisdiction and the local population conducts Umang Lai Haraoba mostly during the month of Kalen. Among the pre-Vaishnavite festivals mention may be made particularly of Cheiraoba, the celebration of Meitei New Year and Ningol Chakouba, where fathers and brothers invite daughters and sisters for a feast of reunion on the second day of Hiyanggei month.
While both Cheiraoba and Ningol Chakouba are secular festivals, certain elements are still trying to confuse Cheiraoba with a religious connotation. There is nothing religious about it and it is merely heralding of the New Year based on the lunar calendar relating to the method of mathematical calculations vis-à-vis their own cultural heritage and tradition. Instead of being objective, the state chose not to antagonise both the duelling arguments and ended up recognising two versions of the festival as Sajibu Nongma Panba and Cheiraoba by declaring general holiday on both dates.
A common feature of both Cheiraobas is that the Ningols or married sisters and daughters would bring gifts for male members of the family on this occasion, which in turn would be compensated during the Ningol Chakkouba when sisters and daughters are invited to the yearly feast. It is good that Ningol Chakkouba is still secular.
However, it gets postponed if it falls on a Thursday, a day devout Vaishnavites shun non-veg food. This festival has indeed become universal within the state as many tribal families have begun celebrating it. Even the police and security forces have joined the bandwagon in an effort of building good public relations with Meira Paibis and womenfolk.
After the advent of Vaishnavism, so many more festivals were added and prominent among them is the Holi festival or Yaoshang and Rath Yatra or Kang Chingba. The Yaoshang festival coincides with the Thabal Chongba season. Thabal Chongba is a folk dance which 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 occasion where the adolescent urges or itch is channelised ritually through a merry dance. It is not just of holding hands and dancing away the night with gay abandon. Among the hill brethren, seed sowing and harvest festivals have been celebrated in different forms since time immemorial and Christmas and some other festivals were added after the advent of Christianity.
Among the Nagas, Lui-Ngai-Ni festival was given birth to in the recent past as a common seed sowing festival while Kut was invoked among the Kuki-Chin-Mizo groups. Interestingly, different festivals like Orange festival and Lemon festival have come up recently as a way of showcasing unique and area specific horticulture products in the hill areas.
Lakhs of rupees are invested in preparing infrastructure related to the festivals, while follow up infrastructural support for the products are at a minimum. The Sangai festival was conceived some years back by the government as a way of showcasing the tourism potential of the state and huge amounts of money is spent in building festival infrastructure and improving roads leading to the venues. Yet, it is still uncertain as to whether such festivals are yielding positive results in enhancing tourism revenue for the state. Other varied festivals like Singju festivals have come up in the last few years. We will have to wait if a ‘Kalei festival’ is in the works with the government working overtime to legalise liquor.