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Lai Haraoba - a fertility rite of the Meitei

Creation myths, belief and superstitions, the concept of birth and rebirth according to the Meitei philosophy, are ingrained in the rituals of Lai Haraoba.

BySanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh

Updated 15 May 2022, 6:09 pm

(Photo: IFP)
(Photo: IFP)

 

Manipur is home to more than 33 ethnic groups. Encircled by high hills ranges, Manipur valley, dotted with ponds and lakes, lies at the Centre. The Meiteis, the largest group, live in the valley where a few sacred groves are the only forests left untouched by humans. These sacred groves are intertwined with socio-cultural and religious practices and are zealously protected and preserved by the people living in the surrounding areas. It is believed that many pre-Hindu deities reside in the groves.

Meitei religion is centered on the veneration of deities, and centuries after the coming of Hinduism, the tradition of worshipping pre-Hindu deities continues. Lai Haraoba or the performance of ceremonial rites to appease these deities is an important festival of Manipur. By February-March each year, the magical touch of spring awakens the dormant buds of trees from their deep winter slumber. April enters with intermittent light showers of rain causing plants and trees to flower profusely. Butterflies, bees, and other insects get busy sucking nectar, unwittingly helping in pollination. May and June bring along dark nimbus clouds and the sky resounds with the roar of thunder. Flowers fertilized develop into fruits and trees are laden with these.

Manipur is a state, which is well known for its rich tradition and ethnicity, is considered one of the beautiful places with beautiful natural beauty and great tourist spots. The state is also known as the land of festivals as there is hardly any month where there is no festival celebrated by the local residents. There are a number of festivals that are celebrated in the state, which is a way to bring happiness, peace and harmony among the family, relatives and communities. They celebrate every festival with lots of happiness and this way they try to preserve and maintain their tradition and culture even in today’s modern world.

In tune with the changes taking place in nature, May-June also heralds the celebration of Lai Haraoba at many localities of Manipur.

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The Lai Haraoba festival is celebrated with great joy as a remembrance of the Almighty’s creation of the universe and is an important traditional festival for the people of Manipur. According to the legends, Guru Sidaba was the greatest lord who resided in a dark vacuum which once got illuminated and gave him a sign to create the world. So, the whole purpose of this process is not to forget the creation of the universe. Also, according to some belief, the festival was first celebrated in Koubru Ching (Hill Range).

Lai Haraoba is one of the important festivals of Manipur and it is celebrated to pay respect and honour to the local traditional deities and ancestors. The festival is usually celebrated by the Meitei community and is also referred to as the ‘’Festivity of Gods’’. In this festival, the people worship Sanamahi, Pakhangba, Nongpok Ningthou, Leimarel and around 364 Umang Lais (Jungle deities). This festival is organized as a piece of memory of the contribution of God in creating the universe and also it is celebrated in the memory of the development of plants, animals and human beings.

During this festival, the local people dance before the idols which is a part of their customs and they also bow to the spirits of their ancestors in order to seek blessings from gods, goddesses and ancestors. Both the old and young people perform colourful and traditional dance and songs as a part of the celebration. They also perform dramas, where the people enact the lives of Khamba and Thoibi who are the hero and heroine of a popular folklore. During the evening, the deity is carried in a palanquin and moved around the locality for people to seek god’s blessings.

Lai Haraoba is celebrated in honour of the deities of a particular locality, though it honours and calls upon other Lais (gods) as well. The main religious functionaries of the traditional Meitei religion are the Maiba (male) and Maibi (female). The word Maiba, when used without the association of religion, may mean a shaman, a witch doctor, or a traditional medical practitioner. Similarly the term Maibi, when used outside the context of religion, simply means a midwife. The Maibi of Meitei religion is a priestess as well as a dancer, a songstress, a medium through whom a Lai delivers oracles, and an occultist sans its pejorative overtones.

In Lai Haraoba, the Maibi plays a more prominent role. Unlike the colourful traditional dress worn by a Meitei woman, the phanek (lower ankle-length garment wrapped around the waist) of a Maibi is white. An additional waist-cloth of half the length is wrapped over the phanek. She wears a long sleeved blouse and a white enaphi (chaddar) completes the dress. Maibi Jagoi or the Maibi dance has become a very popular form of Manipuri performing arts. As visual performance demands, the additional waist-cloth and the enaphi of Maibi now have colorful borders.

Lai Haraoba has evolved over a long period of time and incorporated the traditions of all the people of Manipur’s original seven principalities, including the Chakpas. There are variations in Lai Haraoba since certain rituals inherent in the original local form of worship have been retained in their respective areas. Each form of Lai Haraoba has its own liturgical prayers.  Depending on the variations in the vast complex rituals, dance, prayer and song, the many version of Lai Haraoba may be brought under four groups viz: (i) Kanglei Haraoba (ii) Chakpa Haraoba (iii) Moirang Haraoba (iv) Kakching Haraoba.

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Important rituals of Lai Haraoba include Lai Phi Setpa (adorning the deities with dress), Lai Ikouba (invoking the deities to come out of water), Lai Themgatpa (imploring the deities to come to their shrines), Yakairol Ishei Shakpa (singing of awakening songs), lei langba (offering flowers), Naoshum Eshei Shakpa (singing of lullables) and Laimang Phamba (communication with deities or seeking of prophecies). All the rituals and performances of Lai Haraoba other than those with Lai Ikouba and Lai Themgatpa are performed in the laibung, (the empty space in front of the shrine of Lai).

There is another episode of Lai Haraoba called Lai Lam Thokpa or Lai taking a stroll. Lais are placed in dolai (palanquin) and taken out in procession to any suitable place where rituals can be performed in the presence of a great number of people. Songs are sung during the Lairoi (conclusion of Lai Haraoba): these include Ougri hangen (a song to pacify the mind) Khencho (a song illustrating the union of male and female) and Hijan Hirao (a song describing the woes of a mother tree when she learns that her son will be felled to make a large boat).

After the Maiba and Maibi, the Pena-khongba or Pena player performs the most important role in Lai Haraoba. The Pena, a small one-stringed fiddle, is a traditional bow and string instrument. Pena Khongbas have to be present at all the rituals associated with the deities. They take a major part in chanting and singing prayers to the accompaniment of the Pena. At the conclusion of the sacred liturgical prayers and rituals of Lai Haraoba, many traditional games such as lamjel (flat race), Thouri Chingbi (tug of war), Mukna (wrestling), Khong Kangjei (a novel form of hockey), Yubi Lakpi (snatching of coconut/ rugby) and Sagol Kangjei (polo) are played.

In a way, Lai Haraoba is also a ‘’fertility rite’’ for in the olden days it was celebrated to appease the deities, to replenish the sacred potency of the earth depleted by the harvesting of the crops, as well as to increase the human population. In those days when the infant mortality rate was high, it was important to keep the birth rate high. Lai Haraoba gave opportunities to marriageable boys and girls to meet, show off their talents and get acquainted.

Creation myths, belief and superstitions, the concept of birth and rebirth according to the Meitei philosophy, are ingrained in the rituals of Lai Haraoba. Despite the fact that it is a pre-Hindu festival, the Hindu Meitei still celebrate it with traditional pomp and fanfare, for Lais, continues to be worshipped by the Hindu Meiteis and Sanamahi in particular is still worshipped in every Meitei’s households irrespective of the faith they follow. To conclude Lai Haraoba may be said to reflect the culture of Meitei’s in totality, irrespective of cast, creed or faith.

(The views expressed are personal)

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First published:15 May 2022, 6:09 pm

Tags:

manipurimphalmeiteifestivallai haraoba

Sanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh

Sanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh

Assistant Professor, JCRE Global College, Babupara, Imphal. The writer can be reached at sjugeshwor7@gmail.com

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