Saturday, September 27, 2014

Manipur

Manipur
Hrishikesh S. Sonalikar

27 September 2014 

The valley of Manipur is situated in the North-East region of India. It is surrounded by the trailing hills of the Himalaya Mountain. Many of us are not closely familiar with Manipur as it is situated in comparatively remote region. Therefore the ancient history of Manipur may come to you as a surprise. In this humble attempt, I will try to share with you some information I could gather from the ancient books.

From the Puranas, we understand that long time ago this valley was a huge lake. Lord Shiva emptied this lake and thus the valley was created. The valley was decorated with wonderful gems by the celestial snakes for the pleasure of Lord Shiva. Hence the name Manipur (Mani means gems).

The later history of Manipur is very closely related to Arjuna who is known as the great hero of Mahabharata war as well as the great devotee of Lord Krishna. In the Adi Parva of Mahabharata, we find that once Arjuna went on a pilgrimage. After visiting some holy places in Himalaya mountains, he reached Hardwar and stayed there for few days. While taking bath in the Ganga river at Hardwar, he was taken to the nether world of celestial snakes by a girl named Ullupi. She requested Arjuna to marry her. Arjuna in response accepted her in marriage but stayed there only for a day. Then he continued his pilgrimage towards the holy places in Eastern direction and eventually reached Manipur.

At that time, Manipur was ruled by a king named Chitravahana. He had a very beautiful daughter named Chitrangada. Arjuna requested Chitravahana to give him Chitrangada in marriage. Chitravahana happily agreed to this on a condition that the son of Chitrangada will be given the throne of Manipur. Then Arjuna was married to Chitrangada and a son was born to them. This son was named Babhruvahana. Arjuna stayed in Manipur for next three years and then continued his pilgrimage along the cost of Southern ocean. After returning to Manipur, Arjuna instructed Chitrangada to stay in Manipur and take care of Babhruvahana. He invited her to Hastinapur in future at the time of Rajasuya sacrifice to be performed by Yudhishtira.

In the Ashwamedha Parva of Mahabharata, we find that after the war of Kurukshetra, king Yudhishtira decided to perform a Ashwamedha sacrifice. In this sacrifice, a sacrificial horse is allowed to freely roam around the world for one year. The kings of different countries should either capture the horse and fight with the Pandava army or accept the sovereign of Pandavas over the world. After travelling to many kingdoms, this horse reached Manipur where, by that time, Babhruvahana was ruling. When Babhruvahana was told that a sacrificial horse has entered his kingdom, he captured it immediately. But when he understood that his father Arjuna himself was protecting the horse, he went to meet Arjuna in a humble and respectful mood. He wanted to return the horse to Arjuna but Arjuna, on other hand, wanted to see the valor and strength of his son. Therefore Arjuna did not receive the respect as well as gifts brought to him by Babhruvahana. In contrast, Arjuna challenged Babhruvahana to fight in the battle.

Babhruvahana was in dilemma about whether he should fight his father or not when Ullupi appeared there. She advised Babhruvahana to accept the challenge of Arjuna. In a great battle that followed, Arjuna's army was utterly destroyed and many great warriors on Arjuna's side were defeated. To our great surprise, Arjuna himself was beheaded and killed by Babhruvahana. After the battle was over, Babhruvahana and Chitrangada were overwhelmed with grief due to loss of Arjuna. But Ullupi, the only one who new the secret behind Arjuna's death, reassured both of them. She procured a powerful gem named Sanjeewani from the nether worlds. She brought Arjuna back to life by using the power of this gem. Ullupi also related the reason behind Arjuna's death to Babhruvahana and Chitrangada. She told that in the Kurukshetra war, because Arjuna had attacked Bhishma while putting Shikhandi in between them, the demigods named Vasus cursed that Arjuna will have to die in the battle. After hearing this, Arjuna was happily reunited with Chitrangada, Babhruvahana as well as Ullupi and continued his journey with the sacrificial horse.

The Ashwamedha Parva written by Jaimini gives a few more details of this incident. It tells us that Lord Krishna played a key role in bringing Arjuna back to life. Although the Sanjeewani gem was procured, the head of Arjuna was stolen by two envious celestial snakes and as a result the gem could not be used. It was Krishna who brought back Arjuna's head by using His mystic powers. This book also tells that although Arjuna's head was separated from his body, it was chanting the holy names of Krishna such as Govinda, Madhava etc.

The later kings of Manipur were faithful followers of Vedic culture. But it was during the time of the great King Bhagyachandra in 18th century AD that the Manipur accepted the culture of pure devotional service of Lord Vishnu (Krishna). When Bhagyachandra was a small child, his father was killed in the battle and his uncle took over the affairs of the kingdom. When Bhagyachandra grew up and started to rule the valley, his uncle became envious and conspired with Burmese kingdom to attack the valley of Manipur. Under this attack, Bhagyachandra and his mother had to flee and take shelter under the king Rajarshee of Ahom (now Assam).

A nice friendship developed between Bhagyachandra and king Rajarshee. King Rajarshee provided Bhagyachandra everything required for his peaceful and safe stay in Assam. But Bhagyachandra's uncle sent a letter to king Rajarshee saying that the person who is staying with the king is not a real Bhagyachandra but an imposter. The king of Assam was puzzled upon receiving this letter and decided to test Bhagyachandra. In this test, Bhagyachandra was to tame the wild elephant. If he could do that, the king of Assam would accept him as the real Bhagyachandra.

On a night before this test, Bhagyachandra was praying to Lord Krishna to guide him about how he should handle this difficult situation. In night, Lord Krishna appeared in the dream of Bhagyachandra. He told Bhagyachandra to approach the wild elephant with nothing but a flower garland and chanting beads. Lord Krishna also told Bhagyachandra that in future he will be the only ruler of the valley of Manipur. Krishna also asked Bhagyachandra to construct a temple for Lord Krishna with Lord's deity made in the exact form in which Bhagyachandra was seeing Him. Lord told that Bhagyachandra will find a jack-fruit tree on Kaina hillside. The wood of this tree would be used for making the deity. Lord also revealed the Rasa-Leela (Krishna's spiritual dance with gopis in full-moon night) in Bhagyachandra's dream and instructed the king to arrange for such Rasa-Leela dance performances for the pleasure of Krishna.

In the morning the crowds gathered to see if Bhagyachandra can control the wild elephant. When Bhagyachandra entered the arena, the elephant immediately charged towards him. As he neared, it was stopped by some unseen force as if it was hitting the invisible wall. This happened several times and finally the elephant knelt down in front of the king. Only Bhagyachandra could see Lord Krishna sitting on the elephant in full control. After taming the elephant, Bhagyachandra thanked Lord Krishna by giving him a flower garland. When Bhagyachandra mounted the wild elephant, the crowds as well as the king Rajarshee became cheerful. Then with the help of king Rajarshee and his army, Bhagyachandra defeated Burmese army and reestablished his kingdom in Manipur.

After regaining his kingdom, Bhagyachandra became so busy in organizing the state that he forgot the promise of building a temple for Lord Krisha. To remind the king of this promise, Lord Krishna appeared as a small boy and started to play trick with an old lady working in the farm. This farm was located near a hill where a particular jack-fruit tree was located. Krishna wanted Bhagyachandra to make a deity from the wood of this jack-fruit tree. Krishna then sent a message for the king through the lady. After making some tricky effort to gain an access to the king,  the old lady related a story about this boy. Bhagyachandra could understand that the boy was none but Lord Krishna. He immediately followed the lady to the spot where she had seen Krishna. Although Krishna had disappeared from there, the king found the jack-fruit tree for making a deity.

The king employed artists to make deity of Lord Krishna and told them about the form of Lord he had seen in the dream. The artists made five deities but none matched the description of the king. Each of these five deities were installed with great festival at different locations in Manipur. The king became  worried as the wood of the jack-fruit tree was about to finish. But when he saw the remaining piece of wood, he could understand that it was already having the required form. He immediately ordered the artists to prepare the deity from the last piece. This deity of Lord Krishna is known as Lord Govinda and is installed in the temple which is known as Govindji temple.  

King Bhagyachandra, his ministry as well as his citizens were all dedicated to the service of Lord Govinda. The king did not force anyone to give up their culture but encouraged everybody to engage in the service of Lord Krishna by his own example. He also engaged the artists to make the dresses of Lord Krishna as well as gopis exactly as he had been revealed in the dream by the Lord. Then he started the performance of Rasa-Leela dance for the pleasure of Lord. This is the origin of Manipuri style of classical dance as well as Manipuri dresses.

In the 15th century AD, the same Lord Krishna who protected the Pandavas in the times of Mahabharata, appeared in the secret incarnation of Lord Chaitanya to teach people about the glories of chanting the holy names of Lord. In 17th century AD, His great follower Narottam Das sent some of his disciples to Manipur to preach the glories of holy name. Even today the songs of Narottam Das are sung in the valley of Manipur. King Bhagyachandra later retired from the duties of the king and took shelter of Narottam Das. He stayed in Nawadweep Dham in West Bengal, dedicating his life for the devotional service of Lord Krishna.

Even to this day, the people of Manipur follow the Vedic culture of Vaishnava principles. Although the people following many other religions live in Manipur, traditional Vaishnava as well as tribal practices are highly regarded by everyone. The birthday of Lord Krishna is one of the biggest yearly festivals of Manipur. Other festivals related to the pastimes of Lord Krishna, like Holi, are also celebrated. A Rasa-Leela performance initiated by King Bhagyachandra is still a most important part of the culture. Apart from these practises, Manipur is also known for its martial arts as well as drum-dance.

In recent times, due to the efforts of His Holiness Bhakti Swaroop Damodar Swami (also known as Sripad maharaja), the culture and practices of Manipur have been rekindled. Apart from constructing a huge temple of Their Lordships Shri Shri Radha-Krishnachandra, he established The University of Bhagavata Culture to study and promote the ancient practices of Manipur. He has made special efforts to present the ancient Vedic culture in a modern scientific way as well as to spiritually unite the people following different religions. His contributions for preserving and promoting the culture of Manipur are priceless. Although today he is not present among us in person, his disciples are working hard to follow his instructions and continue his mission.  

I was given an opportunity to visit Manipur by the Bhaktivedanta Institute, Bangalore along with the other members of the institute. We took a train from Bangalore and reached Kolkata. From Kolkata we took a flight to Imphal, a capital of Manipur state. A huge festival to celebrate the 75th birth anniversary of Sripad maharaja was organized. This festival was the essence of Manipuri culture because it displayed all the aspects of Manipuri life and arts. A drama on the life of King Bhagyachandra, a Sanskrit drama based on Geeta Govinda, a drum-dance as well as Rasa-Leela dance were the performances which one can never forget. Apart from their spiritual nature, they were performed with a very high professional accuracy and creativity. We also visited the Govindji temple and other Krishna temples established by king Bhagyachandra. The deities of Lord Krishna in these temples are extra-ordinary in their beauty. We were staying near Radha Krishnachandra Mani Mandir of Imphal where festival was organized. I had a chance to have a wonderful interaction with some school students in Imphal. I found the people of Manipur very gentle and kind.

Many authors have written books about Manipur and its history. Compared to them, my research is very limited. I have considered only the spiritual history of Manipur, ignoring everything else. Therefore this article can not satisfy all the students of history. But it is my hope that this article becomes useful to devotees of Lord Krishna and persons who know His Holiness Bhakti Swaroop Damodar Swami who hails from Manipur.

My visit to Manipur has left some strong impressions on my mind. I was overwhelmed by the good qualities of Manipuri people. I feel it was an opportunity given to me by Lord to introspect myself in the best possible surroundings. Although I was in Manipur only for five days, I tend to think that I know Manipur.

Although I am unqualified to write this essay, I request the devotees to accept it as a humble offering. I hope the devotees will like this article because they are unlimitedly merciful. I thank Lord and His devotees because they have ignored my faults and given me opportunity to write this essay. Although my words are like that of a child who is just learning how to speak, I request the reader to forgive me for such a talk. 

References
1. Mahabharata, Krishnadwaipayana Vyasa, Geeta Press, Gorakhpur (India), Vikarama year 2070 (Sanskrit, Hindi).

2. Jaimini Ashwamedha, Vishnushastri Bapat, Varada Prakashan, Pune (India), 2002 (Marathi).

3. Srila Sripad in Switzerland, No authorship, Bhaktivedanta Institute, Kolkata (India), 2013 (English).

4. Spiritual India handbook, Stephen Knapp, Jaico Publishing House, Mumbai (India), 2011 (English).

5. A glimpse of 25 years of ISKCON in Manipur, No Authorship, Bhaktivedanta Institute and The University of Bhagavata Culture, Manipur (India), 2002 (English).

Acknowledgements
I thank Bhaktivedanta Institute, Bangalore for giving me an opportunity to visit Manipur. I also thank the devotees in Manipur for making our stay pleasant. I thank all the people of Manipur who have preserved the culture despite all kinds of challenges. I thank my friend Appala Naidu for sponsoring the entire set of books containing Mahabharata (Ref. 1). I also thank my wife for obtaining a copy of Jaimini Ashwamedha (Ref. 2) after taking much efforts.

Contact author
Hrishikesh S. Sonalikar,
Department of Instrumentation and Applied Physics,
Indian Institute of Science,
Bangalore 560 012.
email: hrishikeshsonalikar@gmail.com
Shri Shri Radha Krishnachandra Mani Mandir, Imphal.

A picture depicting Lord Krishna's Rasa-Leela dance with Gopis

Inside of Shri Shri Radha Krishnachandra Mani Mandir

A wood carving of Garuda created by devotees from Bali, Indonesia. All the wooden art in the temple is in Balinese style.

Govindji temple established by King Bhagyachandtra

Lord Krishna along with Radha, Lalita and Vishakha dressed in Manipuri dress.

Performance of Drum-dance
Portrait of Narottam Das Thakur

A Picture of Shrila Bhakti Swaroop Damodar Swami (Dr. T. D. Singh, PhD.)

Portrait of King Bhagyachandra of Manipur, A great devotee of Lord Krishna.