For the last 300 years Manipur has been celebrating a unique form of the Holi festival, that incorporates old traditions of the local Meitei people - who dominate the state, and the deep influence of Vaishnavism in the region. The Yaosang as the festival is called in Manipur, not only connects the past with the present, it also seems to have cracked the code on how to stay relevant, forever.
The Meitei are the dominant ethnic group of Manipur and the community primarily occupies the central plains in the state. Though mostly in Manipur, the Meitei are also spread, albeit in smaller numbers, across the neighbouring states of Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura and further afield in Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Vaishnavism took centre stage in Manipur during the reign of King Meidingu Pamheiba (1690–1751) of the Ningthouja dynasty. During the early 18th century, Hindu preachers from Sylhet (in present day Bangladesh) arrived in Manipur to spread ‘Gaudiya’ Vaishnavism founded by the 15th century Bhakti saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The King made Hinduism the official religion, and converted a large majority of the Meitei people to it. The celebration of Yaosang, as a Hindu festival dedicated to Krishna, began during this time. Before this, the Yaosang was a harvest festival.
The way the festival is celebrated also harks back to its ancient roots. Celebrated over 6 days the very name Yaosang, indicates the agrarian origins of the festival. The word Yaosang literally translated in Manipuri refers to a small hut used for keeping sheep (Yao- sheep, Sang – shed). Like ancient spring festivals across the world, the Yaosang too pivots around the full moon day or ‘Lamda’ in March, from when celebrations start.
– Celebrated over 6 days the very name Yaosang, indicates the agrarian origins of the festival
An interesting feature of this festival is the ‘Thabal Chongba’ or dancing in the moonlight, where participants dance in circles to the rhythmic beating of drums accompanied by folk music. In earlier times, conservative Meiti parents did not allow young girls to go out and meet young men without their consent. Thanbal Chongba was the only time when they could meet young boys - much like the Garba in Gujarat!
It is interesting how this old festival changed with the influence of Vaishnavism. Now during the festival, worshippers collect bamboo and construct a thatched hut (still called Yaosang). An image of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the founder of Gauda Vaishnavism is placed in the hut and offerings are made to the image accompanied by kirtans or hymns.
At dusk, after all the rituals are completed the image is removed and the hut is set on fire. The burnt embers of the hut are considered to be very auspicious.
Nowadays, for the youngsters, the Yaosang is mostly about the sports. The biggest draws during the festival are the variety of matches that take place in almost every town and valley across Manipur. It is a time to celebrate and excel!
On the first day of Yaosang, local clubs organize and visit the sacred Kangla Fort, at Imphal, for lighting of the torch to inaugurate the sports meet. The sport celebration ends with a half marathon.
From an ancient tribal festival, to a celebration of Vaishnavism and now sporting all the characteristics of a modern day campus youth festival - the popularity of the Yaosang remains unabated. This is probably thanks to how adaptive it has been - for millennia!
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