Personal notes from ritual spaces
Ensconced within the ramparts of the Manipur University at Canchipur is Langthabal hill, the location of the raasmandop where it is believed the first Raaslila was danced in 1779. The ruins once stood as Chingthangkhomba’s palace. As an archaeological site, the ruins are protected under Manipur Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act (1976, Sec:4:1). Perhaps due to a panoptic view, Langthabal hill has been the Company Operating Base of the Assam Rifles for many years, making it an impassable zone. I had narrated the historicity of the site to a high-ranking officer in the summer. Within a few days I had received a text from him informing that the commanding officer of the base would be happy to host me for an hour under his supervision. At Langthabal, a junior officer from Bihar was instructed to walk me around. He twice requested me not to photograph any part of the army base, but the old ruins. Walking through the tightly packed quarters of the soldiers, I find a clearing where a temple stands. The small, bulbous spire and four minarets are reflective of the eighteenth-century Bengal style. Leaving those intact, the rest of the structure had been white-washed peach sometime in the recent past. The crevices which carry motifs and gods in temples from the same time, lie bare. The interior walls however were plastered with posters of Hindu gods.
The roofless raasmandop was behind it, its edge almost aligned with the edge of the hill. In comparison to the active shrine maintained by the soldiers, there was no sign of life in the mandop. I danced by myself for a few minutes, aware of the fact that violence has robbed the people of their rights to visit the site. Balancing a kettle and cups in his hand, the officer from Bihar stared at me quizically, “is this what the hall is for?” After I narrated my experience of Langthabal, Anandini had held my hand for few minutes. “You have been to a place where we are not allowed” she said, “you have been to a place where Govindaji once danced”.
On the full moon night of Sajibu when rain had halted for few minutes, draped in darkness as all nayika-s in Indian folklore do, I negotiate with a tri-wheeler-owner to take me to the Konung or the Govindaji Temple, where vernal Raas Lila is set to begin. Long fabrics in hangammapal has been hung in two layers around the raasmandop. The space has also been decorated with vines made of cloth to resemble a nikunja, bower. There is a torrential downpour. Shivering, an old lady mutters in Meiteilon to her companion, “this is not spring; we anger our gods year after year. Today they are letting us know exactly how angry they are”. The other woman responded affectionately, “Ebemma, Govinda will give a fitting reply to Indra, wait till the Raas begins”. I request them to explain the myth of Indra one of them had invoked. Having learnt I was from Bengal and they having spent years in Nabadwip, narrated the myth to me in Bengali.
Indra in the Vedic myth was a preeminent warrior divinity, who later was known to control rains and thunderstorms. Govinda or Krishna during his early years, found the villagers of Braja worshipping Indra as he gave them rain, but Govinda persuaded them to make offerings to rivers, trees and Mount Govardhan instead. Filled with wrath, Indra ordered his clouds to flood Braja. Govinda lifted Mount Govardhan on one finger on top of which all inhabitants of Braja took shelter. Torrents of rain continued for seven days. Indra finally gave up conflict and admitted Govinda’s superiority over him in power and manifestation of it. The cosmic victory has since been ritually narrativised in regional theatres, especially in north India.
At the end of the narration the older woman wanted to say something more about misplaced devotion, and the price a devotee must pay to re-earn trust of the divine. She added, “on top of the storm, today it is chandgrahan, a most ill-fated time. Nothing good comes of a Raas which begins on such a day”. Her ever-optimist companion assured, “The full-moon will shine when Krishna’s flute will play”. Some might think that this banter on mythic events sound very distant from the everyday lives of these women of Manipur. Yet the hierarchy of gods in which Govinda had been placed at the top as the divine player, is an intimate element of Hindu socio-religious life in Manipur. Govinda is celebrated in every season, like the night of Basant Raaslila. Raas, the old lady told me, was an instance of “being close to god in a manner which is inscribed in Vaishnavism, or just by performing in it, no belief required”. This I thought was a fascinating dichotomy, except it is not. Many dancers come from their sense of piety. Some have come ‘to dance’ not to immerse in Raas.
Every Raas begins with an invocation or Nata Sankirtana performed by male singers and percussionists. This evening it was due to begin at 8pm; it has since been an hour. Some percussionists have taken the delay in their stride and are sleeping. Which meant the Sankirtana would not start soon. What was causing the delay? The April moon which has now been eclipsed by the downpour itself? Or had ritual officiants not arrived at the venue? Behind me, close to forty women in various stages of undress glide unhurriedly. Some have seen a camera in my hands; they duck shyly behind a wide curtain that shields them from us as they put on their make-up. Dressers and their assistants hover around them with poloi – stiff sequined skirts which sit rather heavily on waists. Most women seemed reluctant to wear them before the Sankirtana starts as they would have to wear it for close to 5-6 hours. I could see the dressers gently coaxing the younger women to wear the poloi and several pieces of jewellery all of which would be neatly stitched to the layers of clothing they had already worn. A tin of sweets is being passed amongst them, some eagerly digging into it than others. One of them is Thoibi, whose laughter I can hear amidst the rain thundering on the new roof of the temple. I met Thoibi at Maha Raas in the same venue a few months before this evening. Govindaji temple was in the final stages of repair then, the women had huddled together in much smaller mandop outside. Thoibi’s warmth had instantly drawn me in. She had chatted with me as she and her nieces dressed as Gopis – Krishna’s devotees and consorts in Raas. Like today, she had waited for the Sankirtana to begin. After which she wore two remaining pieces of garment – the poloi, and around her waist – poshowal, a white and silver fabric stiffened with wire that surrounds the body in wave-like folds. Leaving laughter behind, she had then covered her face with maikhum, a translucent fabric and meditated till it was time to dance. She was joined by similarly-dressed women to dance the Raaslila, to metaphorically engage in a love-play that is licit in its illicitness.
‘Raas’ in Raaslila has come about from the Sanskrit word rasa – a polysemous word meaning ‘sap’, ‘taste’, ‘affective state’ and in the domain of aesthetics, ‘dramatic sentiment’. Rasa-pancadhyayi or ‘The Five Chapters on the Rasa’ within the Bhagavata Purana is the main text on which the essence of Raaslila resides. The mood of Rasa-pancadhyayi (The Five Chapters on the Rasa) within the Bhagavata Purana is madhura i.e. romantic, in which devotees imagine Krishna in erotic relations with them or with his consorts. The goal of Meitei Raaslila is shanta rasa, an affective state that is irenic and one which is predominantly awakened amongst the spectator-devotees. For those present at Raas, faith, kinaesthetic sense and sense of Meitei identity is necessary, for it is not possible to prise them apart in the community’s embodied archive. It seemed to me Raaslila was not only the synthesis of social and aesthetic factors, Raaslila also becomes a ritual of release for natural or physiological emotions.
Towards the end of Maha Raas in Konung, I came across an old woman crying at the threshold of the pillared-hall. She wore sandalwood paste on her forehead, little etchings of Hare Rama Hare Krishna gleamed on her cracked lines. Her friend sat close to her observing the Raas with a smile. The second woman mentioned that her friend’s heart has been heavy due to an unfortunate death in the family, which was brought on many years ago by arbitrary shooting of the paramilitary forces. She coaxed her friend to stop the tears. Except the old woman said, as violence is the state of her heart, it has replaced god’s lila. She wants to be free of her sorrow. “But maybe this too is God’s lila”, not the love-play but the whimsical dismantling of people’s everyday life through strikes of violence.
Death, transforms or captures only one way in which one can make sense of Raaslila. The old woman mentioned that after the violent intervention, she withdrew from dancing in the Raas. She attends one due to her faith, for a soteriological closure to her pain. To her like many other Meiteis believing in liberation or attainment of Vrindavan, Raas makes the unfamiliarity of everyday life familiar through stories and environ of Govindaji. Raas brings closer the idea of lila as an inexplicable spiritual conduit which seemed to pull at the strings of mortal beings.
The vignettes are from Biswas’s ethnographic research conducted in Manipur between 2014-16 for her PhD thesis in anthropology at King’s College London