John Donne, a metaphysical English poet puts it thus: ‘no man is an island entire of itself….’ In other words, nobody lives in a vacuum and society exists. The call for individualism by the age of Renaissance or Romanticism or rather the wave of individual liberalism and freedom by the age of reasoning or logic or rational thoughts, whatever the term may be – common will or so to say the popular will – was central to the political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is an important concept in modern republican thought. Culture is another aspect, which is as old as human themselves. It had been an integral part of the human society, like survival. Alongside evolution, all species have to work and try to adapt in any changing environment to survive, which is the primary concern of all life. Therefore, humans have been constantly interacting with nature with the best of his knowledge and skills to survive. In a plain sentence, humans have been working.
Festivities arise from the want of energy. Recreation is one main source of rejuvenating a tired body alongside sleep, which regardless of the situation is consider the best of all by many. Festivals are being celebrated by societies, communities, nations according to their own norms and cultures.
The Meiteis, a resident nationality in the North Eastern corner of the Indian Subcontinent have their own rich cultures and traditions. Surrounded by rows of hills on all side, believed to be nine in number as one of the descriptions of the small state in one of its folk song runs, ‘Chinglon mapan na koisanbi’, ‘Chingsang Lu-Hup thollibi’. In the middle lies a valley area which is approximately one-tenth of the whole area. The Meiteis boast of a long written history, starting since 33 CE. Reigned by members of only one dynasty, called the Ningthoujas, Manipur has a fair share of festivals. They follow a lunar year system of 12 months called Wakching, Phairel, Lamta, Shajibu, Kalen, Enga, Engel, Thawal, Langbal, Mera, Heeyangkei, Poinu. While collaborating with the Gregorian Calender, the month of Shajibu corresponds to the month of April, and is consider by majority section of the people as the beginning of a new year. However, a section of people believes Wakching to be the beginning of the year by equating each month to a pregnancy period and the development of the fetus. Some of the important festivals celebrated by the Meiteis include Shajibu Cheiraoba, Lai Haraoba, Kang, Kanglen, Tarpon, Mera houchongba, Ningol Chakkouba, Wakching Sankranti, Emoinu Eratpa, Yaoshang.
Amongst the many festivities, one enjoyed and much and awaited both by young and old alike is Yaosang. Yaosang is a festival that ushers in the joy of spring and is traditionally celebrated for five days in the spring season. The festival begins on full moon of Lamta, the last month of the Meetei/Meitei Lunar calendar. Yaosang is an indigenous tradition. It is considered the most important festival of the Meiteis. Yaosang means a hut made of bamboo and the festival begins just after sunset in every village with the Yaosang mei thaaba, or burning of the straw hut by the locals. Then the children go from house to house collecting alms, called Nakatheng.
Various games including indigenous events such as Mukna and Laphu Kabee are extremely popular during Yaoshang sports. Apart from sporting events; academic events like Debate competitions, Extempore speech, song competitions, arithmetics competitions, poetry recitations, etc are also organized in the interests of budding students. Events like spoon race, tug of war, statue dance, football match, Poon pubi, chafuthugaibi (blind hit), etc are organized for children, teenagers, married women, etc. Yaoshang sports are the time when married women participate the most. It serves as a medium for socialising and a break from the normally busy life. Enjoyment and recreation boost our mind. We need them for a sound health. Work is worship, yet, work is not everything. However, conducting the various events by enclosing certain portion of a main road is not the correct way. Until an accident, nobody will speak of the life-threatening danger it possess. Art for art sake is not the correct way. Further, organizing committee should also put events that really aim at the psycho-motor development of a child besides the recreational games for adults. At the end, what counts will be the development in a child’s character and discipline rather than some mere prizes they won during the course of the five day period. Being a socialization medium, it should be used effectively by visiting one another and meeting one another, which were not humanly possible due to workloads one has to do during a normal shift.
However, with Sanskritisation we can see the festival being syncretised with the Holi festival of the Hindus. It is said that Holi, an ancient festival of India, existed several centuries before Christ. Holi is originally known as ‘Holika’. The full moon festival of Holika gradually became a festival of merrymaking, announcing the commencement of the spring season. Holi marks the end of the winter gloom and rejoices in the bloom of the spring time. It is the best time and season to celebrate. The low wave of Hindu migration took a sudden turn by the accession of Pamheiba in Manipur in the beginning of the eighteen century. By the end of the century, the Meiteis became almost completely Hinduised. In Bengal and Orissa, Holi Purnima is also celebrated as the birthday of Cheitanya Mahaprabhu (AD 1486-1533). This Holi festival was known as “Loipan” festival by the traditional Meities at early times. It was the festival of the merriment of gods and goddesses of creation from the immemorial times say round about 7000 B.C. In course of time the festival became synthesised with the Hindu festival of Holi during the reign of Jayshri Gharib-Niwaz Maharaja in 1709 and it became commonly known as Yaosang. In Manipur most of the festivals are introduced with nature and spiritually blended in their festivities. Among the Meiteis the Holi festival is closely related to Shri Krishna and Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu as the observance of the festival starts with the birthday of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu that falls on the full-moon of Lamda Purnima-(March) and continues for five consecutive days. As the wave of Hinduism that reached Manipur was one based on Cheitanya Mahaprabhu, it is celebrated to mark the birthday of the Prabhu as in Bengal and Orissa. As a part of the ritualistic celebration during the festival, locals perform sankritan in the Govindagee Temple. Like Holi, in Manipur people play with colours during this fest. The famous Muslim tourist Ulbaruni has mentioned about Holikosav in his memories. Other Muslim writers of that period have mentioned, that Holikosav were not only celebrated by the Hindus but also by the Muslims.
Lamta is the basic month of all months of the year. On another side this Holi festival falls in the month of Lamta has a deeper significance and spiritual implication from the point of view of traditional Meiteis. Lamta is the first month of the year. During this month all the seedlings of all varieties of the flowers and plants, the seeds of all kinds of vegetables are sown on the grounds of the mother earth. So it is regarded as the basic month of the year. Early beautiful flowers start blooming and fruits start giving shapes and colours. At such setting of the nature, the minds of the human beings are becoming tender and soft with a feeling of love of God. Thus, they start thanks giving prayer to the Almighty (Atiya Guru Sidaba) with the songs of creation better known as Ougri melodies of the Meiteis.
Another aspect of the Yaosang festival is the Thabal Chongba, without which the festival seems incomplete in our psyche. Thabal Chongba have been a continous relation if the past and the present. Ougri Hangel Chongba was a part of the creation myth of the Meiteis. Cheitharol Kumbaba records that it was introduced during the reign of king Loiyamba in 1074-1122 A.D. To N. Khelchandra Singh, Ougri was known from the time immemorial, but there was some modification during the reign of Loiyamba. In Naothingkhong Phambal Kaba, it is stated that king Naothingkhong before his accession to the throne, was taught Ougri by Luwang Ningthou Punshiba, the scholar chieftain of the Luwang Salai. This suggests the introduction of Ougri as a part of Lai Haraoba ritual festival from the 7th century A.D. In Lai Haraoba, men and women of same numbers formed a circle and held the ropes which were previously dedicated to the Lai. The Maibi, who was in centre of the circle, tied the ends of the ropes and also fastened a bell at the point of the knot. Every precaution is taken to prevent the ropes falling to the ground, as there is a belief that it may cause chaos and disorder in the community. Holding the ropes in their hands, the participants dance and sang “Ke kre ke mo mo …..”. “The present Thabal Chongba dance was derived from the dance of „Ke Kre Ke’.
Thabal Chongba being a folk dance form, has a similar pattern to Circle dance, or chain dance. It is a style of social dance done in a circle, semicircle or a curved line to musical accompaniment, such as rhythm instruments and singing, and is a type of dance where anyone can join in without the need of partners. Unlike line dancing, circle dancers are in physical contact with each other; the connection is made by hand-to-hand, finger-to-finger or hands-on-shoulders, where they follow the leader around the dance floor. Ranging from gentle to energetic, the dance can be an uplifting group experience or part of a meditation. Being probably the oldest known dance formation, circle dancing is an ancient tradition common to many cultures for marking special occasions, rituals, strengthening community and encouraging togetherness. Circle dances are choreographed to many different styles of music and rhythms. Modern circle dance mixes traditional folk dances, mainly from European or Near Eastern sources, with recently choreographed ones to a variety of music both ancient and modern. There is a growing repertoire of new circle dances to classical music and contemporary songs.
The literal meaning of thabal is ‘moonlight’ and chongba means ‘dance’, thus ‘dancing in the moonlight’. In earlier times, this dance was performed in the moonlight accompanied by folk songs. The only musical instrument used was a dholakar drum. Upto the last one century, this folk dance was performed only in the moonlight. Later, lanterns were introduced in the Thabal Chongba back in 1950s. Besides dholak, even dishes and metal tubs were also used as drums during that time. ‘Patromax’ was also brought into use in the Thabal Chongba as a source of light. Boys wore pheijom (dhoti) and girls wore phanek (loincloth worn by female Meetei) in the Thabal Chongba.
For those who came in late, Thabal Chongba is a folk dance with a purpose for the Meiteis. It 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 space which continues till today although the forms and settings have evolved. But, it is always under the watchful eyes of the brothers and mothers as it is always held at the locality of the girl. It merely coincides with the Yaoshang festivities, the Meitei Vaishnavite version of Holi. The only other occasion existing till today albeit only in some rural areas is ‘Likkon-Saanaba’ where young boys and girls gather for a game of dice. Perhaps it is because of the stars, adolescent urges to understand members of the other sex begin to develop in the Meitei month of Lamta as a prelude to the onset of the creation festivities like Lai Haraoba season in the month of Kalen. Every youth has gone through this phase and no one had bypass it. Thabal Chongba is one such occasion where the adolescent urges or itch is channelized ritually through a merry dance. It is not just of holding hands and dancing away the night with gay abandon.
Keeping in mind the large cultural significance they hold, youths of today should understand the essence of the festivals. Merely celebrating them with trends of development would not give the true meaning of culture. Instead we are unconsciously killing our culture. The psyche that every locality must conduct their own Thabal Chongba needs a check. With open areas and fields diminishing each year, the blockage of road for the conduct of Thabal Chongba is not a needed action. The elders of that particular locality should have an understanding with the girls who desire to have the event conducted. In a way, Thabal can be organized by constituting 3-4 neighboring localities. In this way, time, money and unnecessary inconveniences will be saved to a great extent. Further, it can increase the value of the event as well as the essence of it.