Through the decades, the Lai Haraoba festival was getting influenced by an extraneous religion. The age-old traditions were yielding space to frivolity that were not in tune with the spirit of this festival.
Over the years, the priests and priestesses had deviated from the original rituals. Songs, dance with film music, marital arts and local games were added, perhaps to spice up the celebrations. But in the end, the rituals took a back seat; glitz and pomp overwhelmed the main purpose of this festival.
But things are changing now. The group Umang Lai Kanba Lup or UKAL is striving to revive the festival. Formed by religious scholars and researchers, UKAL has been spearheading a movement to create awareness about the Lai Haraoba festival and what needs to be done to restore it.
UKAL publicity secretary Longjam Arun said: “We have been trying to put the Lai Haraoba festival on the right track. There is no harm in organising some competitions after the rituals. But there are guidelines as to what things are allowed and what aren’t. We have a written history of 2,000 years, our own language and script. We believe that Lai Haraoba is the mirror image of Manipuri society and it should be preserved in its original form.”
Keeping that in mind, UKAL activists have been interacting with village elders about the guidelines, he said. The response from the people has been encouraging. So now, the original rituals of Lai Haraoba festival are being gradually restored.
It’s not that the ancient religious practices had disappeared completely. For example, in Andro village of Manipur, the elders ensured that the rituals remained unaffected by any external factor. Outsiders are not welcome in the village, where pigs and wild animals are offered to Gods.
The people of this village still recall how their forefathers had resisted the forcible spread of Vaishnavism in 1706 by a missionary called Shanti Das Gosai.
In the recent past there was an attempt to bring the sylvan gods, Umang Lai, under the Govindaji Temple Board. In July 2014, the Manipur assembly had passed the Shri Shri Govindaji Temple (Third Amendment) Bill 2014 in this regard.
But there was already a 1996 judgement of the Gauhati High Court on this matter in which it was observed that keeping Umang Lais under the Govindaji Temple Board amounted to violation of Article 26 of the Constitution.
Eventually, Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh agreed to withdraw the bill in December 2014.
So today, the festival is being spruced up with vigour. The deities are being worshipped with much fervour but certainly guided by the traditions that define the ethos of this pristine society.
Simply put, Lai Haraoba is here to stay, ensconced in rich heritage and devotion.