While we debate whether to forgo ‘Ningol Chakouba’ this year as the ethnic conflict enters the seventh month, nobody has asked a single question on Diwali. Should we light the Diyas on Diwali night even when we are not sure there is light at the end of the tunnel? Diwali is one of the biggest festivals of India and people celebrate its lights particularly in North India. People lit up their homes with candles or colourful blinking lights while young people celebrated by bursting crackers on the particular day.
But the festive season lasts for about a week in which families go about bearing gifts and sweets for relatives and friends. Diwali night is not the same with North India as Manipur Vaishnavites celebrate it one day later. Of course, the North India version is called ‘Yongita’ whereas a single Diya is lit at the gate. Manipur practices a different version of Hinduism which we call Manipuri Vaisnavism while the way we celebrate Hindu festivals is quite different from that of North India.
The ancient culture and value system of the Meiteis are deeply rooted in the Manipuri Vaishnavism which is practised here. Pluralism is inherent in the Meitei society and it is evident in its culture and religious practices. Every Hindu family, including the Brahmins, maintains a special place for Lainingthou Sanamahi in its designated corner and worships it daily. And to the Manipuris, it is strictly a personal choice whether one celebrates Diwali or not. It is about the lights and festivities.
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Once upon a time, the centre-piece of Diwali in the state was evening at the main market ‘Khwairamband’ more particularly, the two stretches of Paona Bazar and Thangal Bazar. Almost all the shops would be open and liberally decorated with diyas, colourful candles and twinkling lights as the young and middle-aged dressed in all finery would swarm the streets. Firecrackers were burst at will, boys tease the girls as they threw crackers amidst and they all will have a merry time of it.
As the years go on, the lights spread to the periphery areas of the main market and homes decked with twinkling lights, all over. And, it was not a question of whether one is a Hindu or not, just celebration of the light. But nobody debates about it, only the pollution caused by bursting of firecrackers. It has even come up to the Supreme Court.
And here we are talking about foregoing Ningol Chakouba this year, in view of the crisis, as many are dead and missing while more than 50,000 people are living in relief camps. Nobody disputes that fact and everyone is in mourning. There is also a practice of foregoing Ningol Chakouba when the ‘Phiroi’ of a family member is still hanging. The Ningols do not even wear festive dress while attending occasions outside the family. Yet, it is still a personal affair and matter of choice.
To perceive ‘Ningol Chakouba’ only as a festival would be erroneous. If we look deeper, it is a ritual about renewing umbilical links with the sisters and daughters who had merged into other clans to which they are married. On Ningol Chakouba, fathers and brothers invite daughters and sisters for a feast of reunion on the second day of Hiyanggei month. On the day of Cheiraoba, the Ningols or married sisters and daughters would bring gifts for male members of the family, which in turn would be compensated during the Ningol Chakouba. One must conclude, Ningol Chakouba is personal and a bonding ritual. If at all we have to debate, it should rather be on whether we are neglecting the part of the economy revolving around Ningol Chakouba. After all, next to Agriculture, fishery is also one of the important drivers of the economy.