Yaoshang is indigenous tradition of the Meitei/Meetei people. It is considered the most important festival in Manipur.
By Sanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh
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 rejoice the bloom of the spring time. It is the best time and season to celebrate. The legend has it that a famous Muslim tourist ULBARUNI has mentioned Holikosav in his memories. Other Muslim writers of that period mentioned that Holikosav were not only celebrated by the Hindu but also by the Muslims. In Bengal and Orissa, Holi Purnima is also celebrated as the birthday of Cheitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1533 AD). However the literal meaning of Holi is burning. In Manipur, Holi is celebrated as Yaoshang. Instead of fire, a hut is built and then set ablaze. The most prominent legend to explain the meaning of Holi is the legend associated with the demon King Hiranyakshyap. He wanted everybody in his kingdom to worship only him but to his great disappointment his son Prahald became an ardent devotee of Lord Naarayana. Hiranyakashap commanded his sister Holika to enter a blazing fire with Prahald in her lap. Holika had a boon whereby she could enter fire without any damage on herself. However she was not aware that the boon worked only when she enters the fire alone. As a result she paid a price for her sinister desires, while Prahald was saved by grace of God for his extreme devotion. The festival therefore, celebrates the victory of good over evil and also the triumph of devotion. Lord Krishna also started tradition of play with colours by applying on his beloved Radha and other Gopis. Gradually the play gained popularity with the people and become a tradition.
For the last 300 years, Manipur has been celebrating a unique form of the Holi festival that incorporates old traditions of local Meitei people who dominated 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 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 centres stage in Manipur during the reign of King Meidingu Pamheiba(1690- 1751) of the Ningthouja dynasty. During the early 18th century, Hindu preacher from Syllet (in present day Bangladesh) arrived in Manipur to spread Gauriya Vaishnavism founded by the 15th century saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The King made Hinduism the official religion and converted a large majority of the Meitei people to it. The celebration of Yaoshang as a Hindu festival dedicated to Krishna began during this time. Before this, the Yaoshang was a harvest festival. The way the festival is celebrated also, harks back to its ancient roots. Celebrated over 5 days, the very Yaoshang indicates the agrarian origin of the festival. The word Yaoshang literally translated in Manipuri refers to a small hut used for keeping sheep (Yao= Sheep, Shang=shed/hut). Like ancient spring festival across the world, the Yaoshang too pivots around the full moon day of Lamta (in February/March) from when the festival starts.
Yaoshang is indigenous tradition of the Meitei people. It is considered the most important festival in Manipur. Like Holi, the Hindu Meitei of Manipur play with colours during the festival. It is interesting how this old festival changed with the influence of Vaishnavism. Now, to begin the festival, worshipers collect bamboo and construct a thatched hut (still called Yaoshang). An image of Cheitanya Mahaprabhu is placed in the hut and offerings are made to the image accompanied by Kirtans of 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. Yaoshang begins just after sunset in every village of Meitei community with the Yaoshang Mei thaba or burning the straw hut. Then the children ask at every houses for monetary donations called “Nakatheng. On the second day, groups of local bands perform sankritan in the Govidagee Temple in Imphal East district of Manipur. On the second and third days, boys and girls go to their relatives for their nakatheng and block roads with ropes for collecting money from the passer-by. On 4th and 5th days, people pour or splash water on one another. Pichkari or syringes are also used by children to drench themselves. Abeer (colours) is of different bright shades of pink, red, yellow and green. Abeer is made of small crystal or paper like chips of mica. In some area it is also seen that groups of boys visit house to house asking donation in the form of rice or vegetables which will be used by them for their group feast after yaoshang is over on a suitable day.
The festival of Yaoshang is celebrated with singing, dancing and other traditional performance by the residents of Manipur, celebrated by the young and old of the place. One of the highlights of the festival is the “Thabal Chongba” dance, a traditional folk dance of the region. Thabal Chongba can be translated to “Moonlight Dance” which is thus performed several folk songs being sung with Dholakar (a drum). Males from various places will come to the site of the thabal chongba and dance in circles with females holding their hands. In earlier time, this dance was performed in the moonlight accompanied by folk songs with dholakar. Up to 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. Gaslight (Patromax) were also brought into use in the thabal chongba as a source of light. But now a day’s dholakar are replaced by the modern electronics drums and instruments and diesel generators (Electric generators) for the source of light. In those days boys wore Pheijom (dhoti) and girls wore Phanek( Loin cloth worn by female) in the thabal chongba but that is not seen these days as boys wear Jeans and any kind of trouser and few girls of course wear phnek but many wears sari. The Yaoshang festival also includes preparation of great local food and sharing them. It is celebrated by everyone in Manipuri Meitei irrespective of their age and gender. It is a colourful festival and a lot of merrymaking is done during these existing days. Of late, there has been a trends of channelling the festive energy towards sporting events to spot out talents at the grassroots level which is in line with the sporting spirit of Meitei. From an ancient tribal festival to a celebration of Vaishnavism and modern sporting, all the characteristic of a modern day campus youth festival, the popularity of the Yaoshang remains unabated. This is probably thanks to how adaptive it has been for millennia. However, due to pandemic Covid-19 the ecstatic of this festival seems to go at a very low profile this year.
(Sanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh is Asst Prof, JCRE Global College, Babupara, Imphal and he can be reached at email@example.com)Yaoshang (Holi) in Manipur