from Back to Godhead, November-December 1995
Indian Airlines — from Calcutta via Guwahati — has brought us to Imphal. We’re a delegation of Krishna devotees from America, India, France, Italy, Iran, Australia, Singapore, and New Zealand. Hazy grey sky, mountains off in the distance to your left. The air is cool (Calcutta was blazing). We’re up on a plateau, at twenty-five hundred feet.
On the far side of the barbed wire that marks the parking lot from the airfield, an Army guard, turbaned Sikh, looks on patiently, rifle in hand.
A drought is on. This is mid March, supposedly a season of rain showers, but the last rain was in February, and that gave only a little. But, drought aside, today is the second day of the festivities for Holi, the festival of colors.
A group of devotees meet us and festoon us with fluffy garlands of cotton thread — bright red, white, green, yellow, with some silvery tinsel mixed in. Then we’re into a jeep, some cars, and Maruti vans, and on our way to our temple.
We get down a few blocks early: We’re in for a big reception. Awaiting us, lining the road, stand rows and rows of men and women, dressed in garments of bright Holi colors — solid red and pink-scarlet — with drums, cymbals, double conches. The faces are Chinese-Tibetan, and the chanting is Hare Krishna, loud and strong, in a unique Manipuri style.
People pour big pots of water on our feet and toss handfuls of flaked rice into the air — an auspicious greeting. In the midst of it all, Manipuri faces behind video cameras get it all on tape. (Sony has made it to Manipur.)
Ceremonies in the temple, some refreshments, some rest, and we’re off for sankirtana at the temple of Govindaji (Krishna, the source of all pleasure). The Deity of Govindaji is the ultimate object of love and devotion for people throughout Manipur, and today people have come to see Him and celebrate Him from all over the state.
In the courtyard of the temple, crowds arrive in parties for sankirtana (congregational chanting)– drummers, cymbal players, conch blowers, banner carriers — singing the glories of Govindaji.
The mood is joyful, and part of the fun is the traditional Holi spraying of colors — water dyed red or pink or purple, sucked up from vats and shot up into the air and onto the crowds from brass syringes the size of rifles. Everyone sprays and gets sprayed, so your clothes and face and arms and all of you gets thoroughly parti-colored. The fun goes on well into the night.
The next morning things have calmed down, the dye (less tenacious than in Calcutta) has mostly washed off your skin, and we’re off to Moirang, about thirty miles south. Along the way, bands of young girls at intervals barricade the road with rope or bamboo, demanding a rupee to let your car pass. In Manipur that’s another Holi tradition. Everyone gives.
In Manipur the Holi celebrations go on for six days. The markets close, and sankirtana parties travel from place to place, chanting the holy names of the Lord — Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
On our way to the city of Moirang, we stop at several towns along the road. At each stop, arrangements have been made for us to witness a performance of sankirtana. Sankirtana in Manipur is a highly cultivated art. Professional and semi-professional groups perform at birth ceremonies, weddings, festivals, and other such occasions. Usually, several groups perform at every function.
A typical performance takes place at Bishnupur, a fair-sized town (signs on shops: “Vishnu Pharmacy,” “Sanjit Video Parlor”). To start the sankirtana, the first group shouts out, “Gauranga Mahaprabhu ki jaya!” (“All glories to Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu,” the incarnation of Krishna who especially spread the chanting of the holy name of God, five hundred years ago.) Then the drumming begins.
This is power drumming, with five or seven pungs (Manipuri mridanga drums). Complex rhythms swirl into one another, punctuated by cymbals played with equal finesse. And the drummers dance with acrobatic virtuosity, tightly choreographed. The drummers play and dance with a look of serious, determined intensity, We’re reminded that Manipur has been a kingdom of kshatriyas, royal warriors, people you don’t want to mess with.
The drumming leads into the singing, songs glorifying the Lord. The melodies are attuned to the seasons. The melodies now are those of spring.
Groups take their turns drumming, dancing, and singing, groups of boys, of men, and of women also, the women dressed traditionally in lotus pink.
As each performance ends, the singers and dancers offer obeisances, and at the end of it all, prasadam is distributed (food eaten after first offered to Krishna) — tangerines and apples — and then we’re back on the road.
At Moirang we have another temple and ashram of ISKCON (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness). There, more sankirtana performances and then lunch prasadam. In Manipur the preparation, offering, and distribution of prasadam are also highly cultivated arts. The devotees offer Krishna many delicious varieties of food, made from what’s locally in season. The spicing is sometimes mild, sometimes fiery. Among the special items: vegetables and salads made with the roots of lotuses.
The plates themselves are made of banana leaves or lotus leaves, with the various items of food placed in boat-shaped cups, again fashioned from leaves of banana or lotus.
For the next several days, in the afternoons and early evenings we visit friends and ISKCON members at their homes. There we perform our own sankirtana and speak a little bit about Krishna. This too is part of the Manipuri Holi tradition: sankirtana groups go from home to home, chanting the glories of the Lord.
One ISKCON member whose home we visit is Sri Radhabinod Koijam, the deputy chief minister of Manipur. We chant in his courtyard, and afterwards he gives a few words of thanks: “By your visit, by your presence, our state is blessed, and my home is blessed today. By chanting the names of Lord Chaitanya and Lord Krishna — we are convinced — we can have peace, and we can relieve any problems affecting the state.”
Problems there are. Local political movements are in tension with the Indian central government. And the traditional culture of Manipur is in tension with the outside world.
We saw this graphically the last night we were there. As part of a cultural program, an ensemble of tribal people put on a demonstration of their traditional folk dances. Colorful and lively, this was a fairly slick performance by hill people now accustomed to city life in Imphal.
What wasn’t expected, though, was their last number, “The Fashion Show.” For this one, the flutes, gongs, and bass drums gave way to a tape of 1950’s American top 40. The young men and women who in the previous hour, dressed in blue and red indigenous costumes, had regaled us with such items as their harvest dance now lined up in Western-cut suits and satiny dresses and high heels and, one at a time, came forward to sensuously pose and posture in a perfectly serious and perfectly incongruous mimicry of what the world expects from Paris.
Defenders of Manipur, you have your task before you!