Jagannath Worship in Manipur


BY: SUN STAFF - 23.8 2019

Historical artifacts establish the early presence of Jagannath worship in Manipur state , by Dr. B. Tripathy.

The North-Eastern region of India, consisting of the states of Assam, Manipur, Tripura and a number of tribal pockets before 1947, assumes much importance for the study of diverse culture and traditions that prevailed in the region throughout the ages. Besides the indigenous tribal religion, as practised by various tribes in the plains and the hills, the area has witnessed flourishing Saivism, Vaishnavism, Saktism, Surya cult, Tantricism and Buddhism in the early and medieval period of her history.

The cult of Jagannath, a manifestation of god Vishnu, was also popular in some pockets of Assam, [1] Tripura and Manipur, as attested by literary, archaeological and oral traditions.

The state of Manipur, in the words of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, 'A Jewel of India' [2], can be divided into two geographical regions - the valley and the surrounding hills. The valley area, known as Imphal Valley is surrounded by hills, on all the sides,[3] where various tribal groups have their settlements. The state is a landlocked one, connected with the neighbouring areas with a long border line, of which 352 kms are international borders with Myanmar (erstwhile Burma) on the east and Chin Hills of Myanmar on the southeast. At present, the remaining 502 kms connect her with other neighbouring sister states of North-East India.

Among the different ethnic groups of the people of Manipur, the Meities of the valley are the most dominant one and are considered to be a very advanced community.[4] Pakhangba, the founder of the Ningthouja dynasty in 33 AD, was the first known king of the history of Manipur,[5] and after him a series of kings ruled over the kingdom of Manipur establishing a powerful kingdom consolidating many neighbouring areas.

Though some forms of Vaisnavism seem to have flourished in the state since the 8th century AD, it became firmly established during the reign of Kiyamba in the 15th century.[6] During the period of king Charairongba (1697-1709) Vaishnavism, had its sound footing in the soil of Manipur. We are told in a traditional Meiti literature, entitled Bamon Khunthoklon that the Brahmana inhabitants of Tripura, Bengal, Mathura and Orissa migrated to Manipur during this period. The king is said to be the first Manipur king to be formally initiated into Vaisnavism.[7]

The literature further mentions that from Svetaganga Puri came a pious Brahmana named Krishnacharya, alias Rai Banamali, with some of his companions in October 1703 AD. His wife Krisnamayi, two Sudras and a Brahmana named Balabhadra Brahmachari are mentioned as members of his party.[8] The pilgrims were received favourably by the King. It is stated that Rai Banamali introduced King Charairongba to profess the Vaisnavite faith. The king along with his courtiers is said to have performed a fast on Wednesday, about April 15, 1704, and was formally initiated into Vaisnavism.[9]

Banamali's descendants are called Guru Aribam. The King is said to have acknowledged his gratitude to his preceptor by assigning a place of honour to him and to his descendants in festivals and ceremonies held in the palace. The is king said to have placed a village, a hill and 100 acres of rice field at the Guru's disposal. He constructed a brick temple of Radhakrisna at Brahmapur Guru Aribam Leikai. A nine-round brick house was also constructed in the honour of the Guru, which was destroyed by the Burmese in the early part of the 19th century.[10]

Thus the coming of the Guru from Puri was a turning point in the history of Vaishnavism in Manipur. In this connection, it is to be noted that cultural interaction of various states of Northeast, including Manipur with Orissa, already existed from an early historical period.[11] Instances are there to show that Brahmin and Buddhist scholars from Orissa and Northeast were responsible for maintaining cultural contact between both the regions.

It can be noted here that one Ganga king of Orissa, Anantavarman Chodagangadeva, issued a copper plate charter in 1122 AD [12] where the name of Brahmana Visnusomacharya, from Sringatikagrahar of Kamarupa Visaya belonging to Parasara gotra and well-versed in Veda and Vedanta, was mentioned, who was honoured by the Iing at the time of his brother's daughter marriage.

It is worth mentioning that the Tripura Maharaja, Kalyan Manikya, performed Tulapurushadanam, in which many renowned scholars from Mathura, Benaras, Orissa and Setubandha arrived to receive awards and dakshinas from the King in or around 1600 AD.[13]

The point to be emphasized here is that Orissan culture was not unknown in some areas of Northeast India, and Puri had already earned its name as the important centre of Vaishnavism in the medieval period. It can be assumed that the Manipuri king would have invited the Vaisnava Guru to Manipur for propagation of Vaisnavism in the early part of 18th century AD.

After Charairongba, King Chourajit had his devotion towards Lord Chaitanya and was said to have sent gold tangas to Puri, Nabadvip and Vrindaban to meet the expenses of the worship of Visnu.[14] His successor, Garibniwaz was initiated into Vaisnavism and worked for its cause by patronizing Brahmins and constructing a number of Vaisnava monuments.[15] Thus, we see that in the later part of 18th century, the root of Vaisnavism had already been strengthened in Manipur.

Here it may be mentioned that when Vaisnavism was becoming popular in the Valley of Manipur, the Vaisnava cult of Orissa in the form of the Jagannath cult had already become popular in some parts of Assam and Tripura, two neighbouring states of Manipur. The Kalikapurana (9th century) and the Yogini Tantra (16th century), two celebrated texts of Assam, popularized the concept of Lord Jagannath by linking Him with the important Vaisnava pithas of Assam.[16] The Yogini Tantra, while mentioning the greatness of Lord Jagannath, attempts to link the Hayagriva Pitha of Kamarupa with that of Jagannath at Puri, which is reflected in an Assamese text Manikuta of 1680 AD.[17]

Interestingly enough, the Ahom ruler of medieval Assam, is said to have sent one delegation to Puri for the worship of Jagannath, which is well attested in the Buranjis, traditional court literature of the Ahoms.[18] The biographies of Sankaradeva have dealt extensively regarding the impact of god Jagannath on the life and deeds of Sankaradeva, the Mahapurusha of Assam who is said to have visited Puri once in 1490 AD, and again in 1550 AD.[19] The writings of Sankaradeva attests to the fact.

The popularity of Jagannath in the socio-religious life of the people is known from a copper plate land grant of 1787 AD [20], the remains of a number of Jagannath temples in lower Assam, oral traditions prevalent in Kamarupa, and in sculptural and folk art of lower Assam.[21]

In the southern Assam territory of Cachar, the worship of Lord Jagannath was not unknown, as revealed from a British document of early 19th century.[22] In the Jayantia Hill (now a part of Meghalaya state), there is interesting information in the form of a land grant. The said grant mentions that one Queen Kasabati Debee, the consort of Bar Gosain, is said to have made gifts of some land for the worship of Basudeva, Jagannath and Bhudhara (Subhadra), with the consent of Raja Ram Sinha in 1735 Saka (1813 AD).[23]

An instance from Tripura refers to a donation of fifteen drones of land to Brahmins, to conduct the daily puja of Lord Jagannath in Tripura, era 1186 (1766 AD) by King Maharja Krishnamanikya.[24] A few Jagannath temples were even constructed in or around Agartala in 18th and 19th century AD. The above discussion makes it clear that already in the 18th century, the cult of Jagannath was not unfamiliar with some people of Kamarupa, Cachar, Tripura and Jayantia Hills.

Though the Vaisnava cult of Puri gained ground in Manipur in the 18th century, the beginning of Ratha Yatra (car festival) of Jagannath started in Manipur only in 1832 AD, the credit for which goes to Manipuri King, Gambhir Singh. The regional literature narrates one incident in connection with the beginning of Ratha Yatra in the state. It is told how once the king of Manipur, Gambhira Singh, was invited by the British Government for taking part in the expedition against the Khasis. The Manipuri work, Khaki Ngamba, provides a thrilling account of his exploits in war.[25] On Monday, April-May 1829, Gambhir Singh left Manipur for Sylhet and could defeat the Khasis, when at Sylhet he is reported to have quelled a communal riot between the Muslims and the Hindus. It is mentioned that in the particular year, the Muharram and Ratha Yatra occurred in the same day.

The Nawab of Sylhet, Gonarkhan, requested the Hindus to defer the celebration of the Ratha Yatra by one day. In the meantime, Muslim subjects took the law in their hands and assaulted the Hindus to dissuade them from observing the festival. Gambhir Singh dispersed the Muslims with the help of his troops. The grand festival in which the King and his people participated was held as scheduled. Gambhir Singh was hailed as a protector of Hinduism by the people of Sylhet. On his return to Manipur, he introduced the worship of Jagannath.[26] With his initiative, a twelve-wheeled car was made and the Jivanyasa ceremony of Jagannath was performed on a grand scale. The images of Subhadra and Balabhadra were also carved. In fact, Gambhir Singh was responsible for introducing the festival of drawing the car by the people to the accompaniment of chorus song and dance.

The Ratha Yatra, locally known as Kangchingba, was thus introduced in 1832 AD in Manipur. The Manipuri Vaisnavites observe the Ratha Yatra of the Lord on the model of the Puri festival, which is revealed from a passage of the Meiti work, Kumbaba.[27] It is a famous festival of nine days duration, in the bright fortnight in the month of Ingen (June-July), with elaborate paraphernalia. Fifteen days before the yatra, the images of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra are bathed on the day of Snanayatra. As per the tradition, on the day of the Ratha Yatra (2nd day of Ingen) at the main gate of the palace of the King at Imphal, thousands of people, including the royalty, considered it auspicious to pull the ropes of the Ratha. Every Krishna temple in the state observes the Ratha festival with the active support of the people, who contribute their mite to its success. The Darbar of Manipuri Maharajas used to make a special allotment of funds for the celebration of the chariot festival, which every year starts from Sri Gobindaji temple near the royal palace at Imphal.

On the day of the yatra, the Images are carried out on the Ratha to the accompaniment of music, with offering of fruits by individual householders.[28] Sometimes persons stand behind the Image and fan it with a yak tail fan, while in procession. The structure of the Ratha is like Kairen Kaijo and its ambari (head portion) takes the shape of a Burmese pagoda.

The daily recitation of Jayadeva's Dasavatara in the evening is an essential ingredient of the festival. In every village temple, Dasavatara Stotra is sung before Jagannath by old and young alike to the accompaniment of dances. The rite also sanctions the offering of rice and dal cooked in oil (khichri) and the priests distribute the Prasad among the Vaisnavas. The Meiti, including the royalty, considered it auspicious to pull the ropes of the Ratha. The nine-day programme of devotional music and dance is followed by the preparation of khichri and mangalutti on lotus leaves.

Two kinds of dances, i.e., the Jayadeva dance and Khubak Isei dance, are the gift of Ratha Yatra to Manipur culture.[29] The Khubak Isei is the dance performed to the accompaniment of musical sounds made by the clapping of hands. It became popular in Manipur after the Manipuri accepted the Gaudiya form of Vaisnavism.

In the Jagannath temple, Puri, when Lord Chaitanya resided there for the latter part of His life, the sight of the chariot of Jagannath threw Gauranga into a rapturous mood of Radha, feeling the pangs of separation when Krishna was invited to participate in the function. In another instance, Radha fainted while Krishna left for Mathura in the chariot of Kamsa. The sentiment of separation is beautifully expressed in Khubak Isei. The dance is in two forms, i.e., the tandava and the lasyaform. If a villager is unable to worship Lord Jagannath with Khubak Isei, he is expected to invoke God by reciting the verse of Gita-govinda.

A few other rituals are performed by the Vaisnavite Meiti in the Jagannath Temple. On the eleventh day of the bright fortnight in the month of Ingen, the people observe Harisayana. In this festival, the idol of Lord Jagannath is laid in water ceremoniously. Hariutthana is celebrated on the twelfth day of the bright fortnight in the month of Kartika, which marks the awakening of God Jagannath from sleep. The ritual consists in the awakening of God and the performance of Kirtana. On this day, youths and virgins indulge in stealing the fruits and sugarcane from nearby fields. Congregational walking in the night sometimes leads to fighting and abduction of girls.[30]

A number of Krishna temples are noticed in Manipur Valley from the 18th-19th century. The images worshipped in the village temples are those of Radha, Krishna, Jagannath, Subhadra, Balaram, Gopaladeva, Saligram, and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Wood icons of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra have been noticed in various parts of Manipur. A fine icon of Jagannath located at Bijoygovinda Temple at Imphal is represented with arms but no hands; the body is without legs and the head is almost flat. He is painted in black colour. Balabhadra and Subhadra are also of the same form, though different in size and white in colour. These icons are dated to the early part of the 19th century.[31]

The traditional Meiti literature does mention the visit of Manipuri Vaisnavites to Puri in the British period, which is well-supported by archival documents.[32] It is told that the Vaisnavite Manipuri kings were kind to the mendicants coming from Puri, Sylhet and Nabadvipa. No doubt, Puri being the abode of Lord Jagannath and considered as a holy place for Vaisnavite Hindus, it used to attract pilgrims from every nook and corner of India, including Manipur. Till today, Lord Jagannath is worshipped by the Manipuri Vaisnavites with love and devotion.

Notes & References:

1. Tripathy, B., Jagannath Worship in Assam, Bharati, vol.25, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi 1998-99, pp.93-102. 
2. Media Sub-committee, 5th National Games: Introduction to Manipur, Imphal, 1991, p.1. 
3. Bhattacharyya, M., Gazetteer of Manipur State, Calcutta, 1963, p.1. 
4. Kabui, Gangmumei., History of Manipur: Pre- Colonial Period, New Delhi, 1991, p.12. 
5. Singh Ibungohal, L. and N. Khelchandra Singh (ed), Cheitharol Kombaba, (Manipuri) Imphal, 1966, p.1. 
6. Kingh, Kirti M., Religious Developments in Manipur in the 18th and 19th centuries, Imphal, 1980, p.120. 
7. Singh Ibungohal, L., & N. Khelachandra Singh (ed), op. cit., p.56. 
8. Ibid., p.120. 
9. Singh, Sanahal, R.K., Manipur Itihas, Imphal, 1963, pp.47-48. 
10. Singh, Kirti M., op. cit., p.121. 
11. Tripathy, B., Orissa and North East India - A Study in Cultural Interaction, Utkal University, Journal of History, Vol. xvii, Bhubaneswar, 2004, pp.45-53. 
12. Banerji, R.D., History of Orissa, Vol. I, 1930, pp.232-241. 
13. Sen Vidyabhusan, K.P. (ed), Sri Rajamala, 2nd Cahar, Agartala, 1333 Tripura era, p.175. 
14. Singh, Sanahal R.K., op. cit., pp.86-87. 
15. Singh Kirti M., op. cit., pp.124-25. 
16. Tripathy, B., Aspects of Ancient Contact between Orissa and Assam, The Orissa Historical Research Journal, Vol. xlvi, No.2, Bhubaneswar, 2003, pp.119-28. 
17. Neog, Maheswar., Religions of North-Eastern India, New Delhi, 1984, pp.22-25. 
18. Bhuyan, S.K. (ed), Assam Buranji by Harkanta Sadar Amin, Gauhati, 1930, pp.20-23. Also one can see, Hemachandra Goswami (ed), Purani Asam Buranji, Gauhati, 1922, p.166. 
19. Nego, Maheswar., Sankaradeva and His Times, Gauhati, 1965, p.307. 
20. Choudhury, P.C., Ketakibari Satra: A Vaisnava Institution at Gauhati, Journal of Assam Rsearch Society (JARS), Gauhati, 1972, pp.68-72. 
21. Dasgupta, Rajatnanda., Art of Medieval Assam, New Delhi, 1982, p.143. 
22. Banarjee, A.C., The Eastern Frontier of British India (1754-1826), Calcutta, 1986, p.23. 
23. Ryanjah, Dianghummon., The Jaintia Landgrant Proceedings of North East India History Association (NEIHA), 27th Session, Shillong, 2007, pp.94-102. 
24. Sastri, Rabindranath., Influence of Sanskrit on the people of Princely Tripura in S.B.Shah (ed), Tribes of Tripura - A Historical Survey, Agartala, 1986, pp.39-57. 
25. Singh Ibungothal, L., & N.Khelachandra Singh (ed), op. cit., p.225. 
26. Ibid., p.229. 
27. Singh Kirti, M., op. cit., p.166. 
28. Johnstone, James, My Experiences in Manipur and Naga Hills, London, 1896, p.144. Also see, T.C. Hudson, The Meitheis, London, 1908, pp.104-07. 
29. Sharma, A., and M. Amubi Singh, The Brief Description of Manipur Dance, Imphal, 1958, pp.4-5. 
30. Singh Kirti, M., op. cit., pp.265-66. 
31. Singh Bheigya, S., Sculptures of Manipur in Bhaskar Chattarjee (ed) History and Archaeology, New Delhi, 1986, pp.186-190. 
32. Archival Documents such as Charles Grome Report of 1803 (preserved in Orissa State Archive Bhubaneswar) mentions the flow of Pilgrimage from various parts of Nepal and North East India to Puri, the Jagannath Ksetra in early 19th century. 
Source: Orissa Review