I was half expecting the Mahabali temple to be closed but decided to make a visit anyway in the intermittent drizzle that accompanied me during my walk with an umbrella towards the temple. I had also decided to get at least a few pictures of the monkeys who are known to be at the temple and who I thought must be starving and angry. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that the gate was open and the monkeys were playfully roaming on the roofs and climbing the trees and some of them enjoying the heaps of fresh food which had been placed for them inside the monkey sheds in the premises. When I met the sevait of the temple B Gyaneshwar Sharma and his wife Medhabati Devi the first thing he informed me was that the food for the monkeys is brought 3 to 4 times a week by Marwaris from the Imphal Bazar and the monkeys are happy. The MP, MLAs and Meitei people from the leikais (colonies) also make sure there is no shortage for the Baishnobs (a respectful name he uses for the monkeys) regarding food.
The Ramji Prabhu temple at Ningthempukhri
The Hanuman Thakur temple was built in the time of king Garibaniwaz, as per the history of the temple told to Gyaneshwar by his family elders. He has three to four brothers who along with him are the family sevaits and, he said, by god’s mercy, well-wishers and general people help with offerings in cash and kind to keep the seva (service) going. The brahmin said that in his daily prayers at the temple he always has humanity in mind and asks Hanuman Thakur for the quick recovery of those taken ill. Gyanaeshwar also related the instance of small babies who are afflicted by Khongalai (acute weakness) and are cured after prayers and on being given a bit of the half-eaten food of the monkeys.
Visitors these days are asked to wash their hands and feet according to WHO regulations before entering the sanctum sanctorum. However, Medhabati said the narrow precincts has put the Pujaris in threat of contact. Another interesting facet from their close contact with the monkeys, Gyaneshwar informed of, was that monkeys do not cuddle each other’s babies. They stay with their own families and some of them are very tame and ride on the Pujari’s shoulders when they are fed. But there are others too who get angry and sometimes even bite, he said.
Catholic missionary Sister Jacinta distributing ration to domestic workers
By a stroke of luck just as I came out of the Mahabali forest temple I saw on the riverside road a small crowd of women with a Christian nun and her two assistants preparing to distribute relief materials. Previously I had been thinking of visiting one of the many churches at Chingmeirong to get an idea of what Christian devotees were doing during the pandemic, but this chance meeting, I mused, would save me the trip in the inclement weather. Sister Jacinta is from a Catholic church and as a Catholic nun she works for an organisation named Manipur Domestic Workers Movement Organisation with their office at Paomei Colony, Chingmeirong. The organisation’s focus is on domestic workers. “They suffer very much, so we’re giving them relief. This is the third time we’ve come to this area,” said Sister Jacinta adding that the domestic workers include migrant ones also.
The relief team has already been to Tarung, Kshetri Bengoon, Nagamapal, Khoyathong, Nepali Basti and Demdailang. The last time they were in Mahabali Kabui the team distributed rice, dal, salt and oil, though this time they could give only dal and rice due to limited funds, said the Sister, while rueing the fact that they aren’t able to give as much as they would have liked to. But still the organisation was providing 4 ½ kg of rice and dal to each woman and the team has already helped 565 domestic workers.
Govindaji Temple, desolate for the time, but not disheartened
Sister Jacinta explained that it is purely relief work for the needy, and though she is a Catholic nun, she is not looking only for Christian people, to help them. “We are doing this work on humanitarian grounds. There is no Hindu, no Muslim, and no Christian for this work or in our organisation. There is no difference in religion,” she said.
Half a kilometre across, bypassing Govindaji temple on the way, I found the Ramji Prabhu temple, next to the massive and scenic pond, Ningthempukhri. As the elder sevaits were away, it being a little late in the morning, I spoke to Shanta, the grandson of the head sevait, sitting under the thick foliage of trees in the temple courtyard. Because of the lockdown the temple is not hosting any religious ceremonies and feasts. Eery since the lockdown began, the temple has been holding only essential worships. The temple is using up its funds fast, and though a beautiful temple with homely surroundings, it seems it does not have enough fund reserve. It also does not get any grants from the government though it is a major historical temple in Imphal. Shanta did not complain of this and said even after the lockdown, open congested gatherings would still not be permitted.
Shanta’s grandfather was the guru, and also a khol drummer, of the erstwhile king Budhachandra and the Manoharshahi style of singing has been preserved at the temple since his time. During Ram Navami and Sita Navami a Sana Pala led by males (singing festival) is held till today in the tradition. The temple also has two pairs of Ram-Sita idols and has a story behind it. During the Second World War the original idols disappeared and later the king installed new idols. However, the chief of the Tera Ramji Khul, a tribal village, informed the temple that the original idols were present in his village, after which they were brought back; both the idols were worshiped then on. The Tera Ramji Khul gets offerings each year during a ceremony to mark the occasion. The temple also has idols of King Garibaniwaz and Shantidas Gosai, a figure of Ramanandi religion in Manipur, who is much disliked by the Meitei revivalist groups. Shanta said that though he does not know the significance, the thumbs of the Shantidas idol are kept tied together by a thread.
On my way back a heavy shower started and I took refuge at the huge Govindaji temple where I found a bashful and humble brahmin, Inderjeet, keeping watch on the temple sitting on a long mat. He told me with government orders and from their temple board feasts might start soon and more visitors were expected. He said the temple hoped the Manipuri migrants and students come back fast and get cured so that normalcy can return. Out of the 30-40 Pujaris only 10-15 are at present at the temple ashram but they do get rest in the afternoons as they do service in batches, he said.
Inderjeet said nothing is lacking at the Govindaji as the temple’s phou (rice harvest) is enough to feed them and aratis, like in the early morning, and especially Gwal arati in the evening, are carried out with teams of singers’ marup (groups) who provide service by way of their musical expertise. The young priest said they forget all hardships once they enter the temple for services and it is very peaceful then. However he gave one bad news that the grand Ratha Yatra festival, known as Kang in Manipur, won’t be held this year due to the pandemic.
The priest directed me to Oja Dasarath and his junior, Gwal arati experts, whom I found lying closely to each other under their shawls on two long mats put together. Thangjam Dasarath told me that Gwal arati is held on Lord Krishna’s return from the forest with the cows and calves in the evening, and this he said is very significant in these times of disease, because Mother Yasoda shows him fire which is the purifier for any kinds of contamination and evil spirits from the forests.
“Doctor’s work is only a necessary arrangement. It is the doctor’s duty to treat, so he is treating; otherwise there is no cure yet for Covid-19,” said Dasarath adding that the lucky ones will get cured, not necessarily because of availability of a cure, but only because protection from god is there. “It’s up to God,” he said wisely, throwing a manner of light and understanding on the matter only God-inclined people like him can do.