4. Garibniwaz—Warrior King
Pamheiba was bestowed the name Garibniwaz, meaning “saviour of the poor,” because of his practice of personally distributing paddy to the poor. He is known for his successful military expeditions and for extending the boundaries of Manipur after wars with Burmese kings in 1724, 1737, and 1738 (R. K. J. Singh 2014
In fact, his raids on Burma contributed to the end of the powerful Toungoo dynasty. He also fought successful wars with Tripura and Cachar, quelled many rebellions, and conducted over 27 military expeditions in the hills of Manipur (Sana 2010
). His military campaigns and policies launched Manipur as a formidable power in the region. Garibniwaz’s military expeditions were grounded in his religious zeal, as records in the CK show that military campaigns became more frequent after his conversion to Vaiṣṇavism. Furthermore, his guru often participated in the wars.
Interestingly, the CK shows that during the first 25 years of his life, Garibniwaz rigidly observed Meitei rituals and was indifferent to his father’s Vaiṣṇava practices. This was underscored when, after Charairongba’s death in 1709, Garibniwaz observed Meitei funeral rites by preserving his father’s head in a mound instead of following Hindu rites of cremation.8
His religious inclinations were made obvious in that he personally established several places of worship for the lais
, as shown by the following examples. In 1710, he had consecrated a stone in honor of the lai Wahaiba
in 1711, he built a temple for the lai Kangla
and in 1715, he built a pond for Wahaiba.11
In 1712, he patronized Maibas
to stop the effects of a solar eclipse.12
Overall, from 1709 to 1714, there is no mention of Vaiṣṇava or other Hindu forms of worship, indicating he may have even contested his father’s patronization of the incoming religion.
However, from 1715, his religious inclination underwent drastic changes. In that year, the CK reports that “the guru of the King of Tekhao (Assam)” arrived with 39 “beiragis
” or mendicants. Just five months later, construction for a temple for the Hindu goddess Kālikā began.13
The Sanamahi Laikan
(SL) informs us that a Hindu missionary referred to as “Bhamon (Brahmin) Gangadhar” initiated Garibniwaz into a Śākta14
tradition (B. Singh 1973
). In October 1717, just two years later, the King accepted Vaiṣṇava initiation from Guru Gopal Dās.15
The SL says that Guru Gopal Dās was from the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition, which originated in Bengal (B. Singh 1973
However, even after his Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava initiation, Meitei burial customs continued to be observed. Moreover, temples of the lais Pakhra
were renovated in 171917
and 1721, with the King personally laying down a foundation for the temple of Lai Wahaiba.18
Like his father and predecessor Charairongba, Garibniwaz articulated a hybrid regime of religious practice, worshipping gods of both traditions simultaneously.
The hybrid state sponsored religious practices of Manipur would be reconfigured into an exclusively Vaiṣṇava format when Garibniwaz later associated himself with Rāmānandī Vaiṣṇavism. The Rāmānandī Vaiṣṇavism was introduced through the medium of Śanta Dās Gosāi, a devotee of Rāma who came to Manipur from Sylhet (now located in Bangladesh) around 1720.19
Entries in the CK refer to Śanta Dās Gosāi as mahānta guru
(the great guru) or simply “the guru” in singular, indicating that he had a special influence over Manipur and Garibniwaz. Most likely, he was probably appointed as the chief guru of the court. That Śanta Dās had a close relationship with the King can also be inferred from records that show he regularly joined the King and queen in excursions to eat mangoes and other fruits, and was part of several military expeditions against Tripura, Maring, and Shairem20
Śanta Dās’s influence soon eclipsed the King’s advisor on the indigenous religion, Louremnam Khongnangthaba who protested Śanta Dās’ reforms and was subsequently withdrawn from his position and barred from participating in public affairs (Lokendra 2014
Although diverse religious traditions were present in Manipur and competed for Garibniwaz’s patronage, eventually, Śanta Dās Gosāi’s message resonated with Garibniwaz’s military ambitions and persuaded him to patronize the Rāmānandī sect over others. According to the SL, Śanta Dās Gosāi convinced the King to renounce Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism by telling him that only those who were able to control their anger and lust could practice Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism, and that Rāmānandī was more appropriate for the warrior-kings (B. Singh 1973, p. 48
). Garibniwaz seemed to have been convinced by this argument because, in 1728, he accepted initiation from Śanta Dās into Rāmānandī Vaiṣṇavism. It was prudent for Garibniwaz to adopt a religion that encouraged martial values because the state of Manipur was at war with Burma. It is noteworthy that the Rāmānandī’s principal deity was Lord Rāma, a warrior-king wielding a bow and arrow, as opposed to that of the Gauḍīyas’ Lord Krishna, an enchanting cowherd playing a flute. There is also a parallel between personal conduct and affect (sovereignty over self), and management of the conduct of the affairs of the state (sovereignty over the polis). Garibniwaz opted for the body of a warrior king as opposed to a more composed body, which, as I will show later, is an indicative of how he conducted the symbolic body of the king.
Although there are different disciplines within the Rāmānandī tradition, Peter van der Veer showed that all of them focus on acquiring supernatural power (shakti
) through ascetic practices, especially celibacy, which can be used for a variety of purposes (van der Veer 1989
). Particularly, the disciplines of one of the suborders, the nagas
, is believed to bestow their performers with supernatural military power. They were “fighting ascetics devoted to wrestling and military training and organized into armies (ani
) and regiments (akhara
)” (van der Veer 1989
). The Rāmānandī tradition enabled a connection between asceticism and transformative political activity upon the world, thereby linking religious and political power that provided Garibniwaz with the resources to construct a new form of sovereignty.
While there is no information on whether Śanta Dās belonged to this order, there are records in the CK showing that he personally participated in warfare alongside his disciple, Garibniwaz, in at least two instances in 1726 and 1727. Therefore, the martial practices that Rāmānandīs engaged in to discipline the body and build socio-political power could have convinced Garibniwaz to accept their order. It is clear that the new bodily discipline of the Rāmānandīs dovetailed with the interests and military logic of the state, which was to make effective warriors to fight their wars.
As mentioned earlier, the tribal groups that had been consolidated by the Ningthouja clan were composed of diverse ethnic, linguistic, and religious features. For the purpose of state formation, it made sense for Garibniwaz to impress upon his people the image of a hegemonic religio-political authority that they should submit to and under which they could be unified. It also made sense to align Manipur with a religious tradition within the Hindu fold, given that the neighboring kingdoms such as Assam, Tripura, and Cachar had already embraced some form of Hinduism by the 18th century and Garibniwaz’s main nemesis during that period was the Burmese Buddhists.
Garibniwaz’s reign was marked by frequent wars and territorial expansion of Manipur. To build a powerful army, he sought to creatively reframe kingship through a new paradigm rooted in a militarized version of Rāmānandī Vaiṣṇavism presented by Śanta Dās. Kingship and sovereignty were redefined to focus on military action framed within the martial ethos of Rāmānandī Vaiṣṇavism. To ensure full participation in the project of transforming Manipur’s religious demographics from the Meitei tradition to Rāmānandī Vaiṣṇavism, Garibniwaz, and Śanta Dās instituted a number of reforms such as mass initiation rites, building temples, employing genealogical paradigms to connect Manipuri kings to characters in the Mahabharata, the production of Hindu sacred texts, and cultural productions. Garibniwaz’s sovereignty was reframed through the lens of Rāmānandī devotionalism.
The formation of a unified theocracy with the King and his chief guru at the helm necessitated the performance of theatrical public ceremonies and rituals. According to Manipuri scholar Lokendra, “control over population, and not on possession of land was the principal focus of the ethno-state, and the relationship with people and populations could only be secured through control over the rituals and rites” (Lokendra 2014
). The CK records that in 1737,21
1738, and 1739, many people accepted Vaiṣṇava initiation through a sacred thread ceremony, a mark of being initiated into one of the higher castes.22
According to Sruti Bandopadhyay, from this time, the masses wore Vaiṣṇava markings on their forehead or tilak,
thus carrying a mark of religious distinction (Bandopadhyay 2010
). Overall, the mass initiation rites, the adorning of symbols on the body, and the promotion of a singular guru, Śanta Dās, over all other religious agents served to bring about a semblance of unification. These strategies in turn supplied Garibniwaz with legitimacy and political control over the people of Manipur.
Other modifications in public rituals involved cremation practices and changes in dietary practices. Meitei burial rites were replaced by Hindu cremation practices, which are followed until today. According to a report in the CK, in 1724, Garibniwaz dug out the graves of his ancestors, collected their heads and skeletons, and performed cremation ceremonies on the bank of the Ningthi River.23
This was 16 years after he had buried his father in accordance with Meitei rites. Inspired by Hindu Vaiṣṇava dietary prohibitions, he banned the consumption of beef. The CK reported that in September 1722, people of seven sageis
were arrested and beaten in public for eating beef.24
In addition to reforming public rituals, Garibniwaz remodelled Manipuri sovereignty in Vaiṣṇava terms. In 1724, he adopted the Indian title of “Maharāja” (great king),25
altering it from the earlier “Ningthem.” He also adopted the title “Manipureṣwar” (lord of Manipur) (Sana 2010, p. 60
) confirming that from his reign, the state came to be known as “Manipur”, mapping the state onto Manipur mentioned in the Mahābhārata and other Indian epics. Reflecting his special inclination to the Rāmānandī tradition, new coins minted by his government had “Jai Śrī Rām” (victory to Rām) inscribed on them, along with the King’s title and name (G. Singh 1982
). Hence, Garibniwaz’s sovereignty was reconstructed from that of the head of the Ninthouja clan to a devotee of Rāmā and warrior-king of the ancient Manipur of the Mahābhārata.
From the 1720s, Garibniwaz embarked on a number of projects installing Vaiṣṇava iconography. They include a Krishna temple built in 1722,26
and then after his conversion to Rāmānandī Vaiṣṇavism, a large tank with a mūrti
(image) of Rāma in 1727 (Shakespeare 1913, p. 61
), a temple dedicated to Rāma’s monkey devotee Hanumān27
in 1729, and temples with mūrtis
of Rāma, his brothers (Lakṣmaṇa, Bharata, and Śatrughna), and wife Sītā28
in Ningthem Pukri city in 1734. According to Laisram
(2009, p. 78
), some Hindu deities were also given Meitei names: Laphupat
Kālikā (Kālikā of Banana tree lake) and Thinungei Ramji Ningthou
(King Rāma of Thinungei).
Garibniwaz sponsored the literary production of Hindu texts such as the itihāsas
, which were circulated in Manipur for the first time with the aim of propagating Vaiṣṇavism on a large scale. In the early 18th century, copies of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa
(BhP), were imported to Manipur from Tripura. The BhP had become the most popular literature in Assam due to the influence of Vaiṣṇava missionaries such as Śaṅkardev (1449–1568) (Urban 2011
; Neog 1985
). When the rulers of Tripura procured a copy of the BhP from Assam and were delivering it back to their country, the Manipuris attacked the convoy and stole it from them (R. K. J. Singh 1986, p. 33
). Jhalajit Singh opined that Tripura invaded Manipur in 1723 to avenge this raid (R. K. J. Singh 1986, p. 33
Manipur, under the leadership of Garibniwaz, repelled the attack. Some Hindu sacred texts were also translated into the local language. Manipuri scholars E. N. Singh
(1986, p. 79
) and K. Singh
(2014, p. 10
) revealed that between 1717 and 1748, a poet by the name of Angom Gopi who was fluent in Meiteilon, Sanskrit, and Bengali translated some of the chapters of the Mahābhārata and Bengali Kṛttivāsa Rāmāyaṇa into Manipuri language. From this period, these were regularly recited in Manipur. (R. K. J. Singh 1986, p. 43
Reformation also extended into public Meitei festivals, which were reconfigured into Vaiṣṇava formats. In a traditional Meitei festival called Kwak Jatra
(crow festival), gunshots or other methods were used to startle crows into flying. The direction of their flight was used to make predictions about the future of society. Kwak Jatra
took place around the same time as Dusshera
, a Hindu festival that celebrates Rāma’s slaying of Rāvaṇa (September or October). Taking advantage of the overlap in time, Garibniwaz, replaced the shooting of crows with the shooting of an effigy of Rāvaṇa in 1726–1727 (Shakespeare 1913, p. 61
). Similarly, in other indigenous festivals, elements from Vaiṣṇava traditions were added. For example, Ayang Yoiren Iruppa
, an annual bathing ceremony held at Lilong Sahanpur during December and January was changed to snāna yatra
(bathing ceremony for the deity of Jagannātha, worshipped by Vaiṣṇavas) and an archery festival called Waira Tenkap
was replaced by a kīrtan
(devotional singing) to Rāma (Tejbanta 2015, p. 178
). It cannot be ascertained exactly when these changes were made, but they followed the patterns of sanskritization initiated by Garibniwaz.
It was also during Garibniwaz’s reign that Meitei society was reorganized to resemble, in some form, the Indian varna
(caste) structure. Indian migrants and Meiteis were divided into two of the four varnas
(priestly class) and ḳsatriyas
(warrior class). Many of the Indian migrants, and the Meitei families they married into, were classified as Brahmin, even though at least some of the migrants were not born in Brahmin30
families. They were assigned a specific title based on the particular region they came from. For example, descendants of those considered Brahmins from Shantipur amd Krishnanagar (now in West Bengal) were called Labuktongbams and Gurumayums, respectively. Migrants who were considered ḳsatriyas were called Ḳsetrimayums. Most of the Meiteis were classified as ḳsatriya.
It is inconclusive if scheduled castes were designated during the time of Garibniwaz. However, by the 19th century, caste notions of purity and pollution became entrenched. There were disputes about who belonged to which gotra
or Hindu birth lineage, and intermarriage with someone considered of a low caste was punished.31
In 1873, two persons known as Sri Damanadhi Thakur and Bhamon Hanjaba had to drink the water offered to Govindaji for eating rice in the house of a washerman, and under the order of the King, a man was beaten for marrying a girl from a family of laundrymen.32
In 1876, nine people were downgraded to the untouchable caste for eloping.33
During the reign of Churachand Singh (r. 1891–1941 CE), ritual and social segregation between the higher castes and lower castes became more pronounced. Social exclusion of the hill tribes and Yaithibis (sweeper and scavenger groups) was implemented as they were prevented from entering the court and public places (Kabui 1988, p. xxi
In the 19th century, British Political Agent for Manipur James Johnstone observed that the King had great powers in determining the religion of Manipuris. Sometimes “the inhabitants of a village were elevated en masse from the level of outcastes, to that of Hindoos (sic) of pure caste” (Johnstone 1878, p. 3
). He described that if the King so chooses, a person belonging to the hill tribe could receive the sacred thread of the twice-born castes and be admitted as a Ksatriya. It also seems that for the slightest infringements, one had to undergo purificatory rituals. In 1933, when the elder brother of King Churachand had attended a sraddha ceremony and was not allowed to eat the rice offered to Govindaji (CK 474). Although it is unlikely that these rigid rituals were introduced during the reign of Garibniwaz, their roots could plausibly be traced back to his administration.
To raise a formidable army for his military conquests, Garibniwaz modified a draft system that was introduced in the 11th century by King Loyumba (r.1074–1122 CE), who established the lallup
, a conscript system designed to recruit fighters for his battles against neighboring kings.34
Garibniwaz modified the lallup
system to pass a decree that all males had to engage in military service to the royal family for 10 days every 40 days, in return for land which was leased out.35
As part of their service during lallup
, men were trained in martial arts. This enabled large numbers of Manipuri men to familiarize themselves with an indigenous form of martial arts using swords and spears. The kings imposed a discipline on the bodies of his subjects, which produced an embodied habitus in generations of Manipuri men (Bourdieu 1977, p. 72
The martial arts, commonly called Thang (sword)-ta (spear),
would later have a significant role in the wars fought by Manipur and its cultural performances, as it influenced the choreography of hand gestures and feet movements that include sitting, jumping, spinning, and leaping movements. Significantly, it produced a martial class disciplined and loyal to the King, who himself was regarded as a great warrior.
Garibniwaz’s reign also oversaw a flourishing of performing arts and courtly aesthetics. Centralized structures known as loisangs
, were established to institutionalize artistic and cultural productions. Categories of institutions included the Ishei
(scholars), Lairik Yengba
(scribes), and Pena
(a local instrument whose name is derived from the stringed instrument veena) loisangs.37
They combined produced cultural goods that were patronized by the religious and political elites. The singing of kīrtan
(devotional hymns), which was popular in Bengal and Assam, was introduced at this time. Although there is no detailed information regarding these developments, scholars have claimed that a style of kīrtan
known as Bangdesh or Ariba
was introduced (E. N. Singh 1977, p. 5
). According to the CK, kīrtan
was performed during Garibniwaz’s shradda
(funeral rites) ceremony in 1753.38
This is the first mention of kīrtan
being performed during Manipuri life passage rituals. It is a practice that has continued in funeral rites and marriage ceremonies of present-day Manipuri society. Overall, Garibniwaz refashioned kingship using Vaiṣṇava aesthetic vocabularies and militarized tropes to project himself as a warrior devotee of Rāmā.
Apart from his devotion to Rāmānandī Vaiṣṇavism, Garibniwaz stands out from other monarchs in Manipur for his oppression of the indigenous religion. It is alleged by some historians that following the advice of his guru, he burned over 123 manuscripts of puyas
around 1725 (Kabui 2011, p. 253
). This incident is not recorded in the CK and other scholars such as J. Roy doubt it even took place (Roy 1958, p. 13
). This debate has continued to be controversial even as late as the mid 20th century, when individuals came forward with puyas
they claimed were hidden by their ancestors during the burning period. In fact, the burning of the puyas
has been mobilized by recent Meitei revivalists as one of the central sources of agitation against Manipur’s “Hindu” past.
What cannot be contested, however, is that it is recorded in the CK that Garibniwaz ordered the destruction of temples and images of Umang lais.
he demolished the shrines of nine lais
, and in 1726, seven images of the lais
, including Lainingthou, Panthoibi, and Sanamahi, were destroyed and molded into coins.40
The King, however, remained the head of the old religion. It was, therefore, unlikely that he repudiated it entirely, and evidence suggests that he did not do so. The lais
were sometimes destroyed; yet, at other times, they were reappropriated, reinterpreted, and reinstated. An entry in 1729 says that the King recognized Lai Wahaiba or Sanamahi as god and installed an image of him.41
The following year, he inaugurated a temple of Wayenbamcha Nongthongba.42
In the absence of Śanta Dās, who had temporarily left the capital, a number of temples for Wahaiba were inaugurated in 1732,43
and in 1733, an image of Laiyingthou Fallou Khomba, which had been previously destroyed, was recast and installed again.44
This suggests that it was in fact Śanta Dās, who was the main architect behind Garibniwaz’s aggressive policies towards the Meitei religion.
Following the destruction of the lais
’ shrines in the 1720s, Garibniwaz appointed Brahmins to initiate the worship of four other lai
, including two named Nongshaba and Yumthai Lai.45
Hence, some of the old gods came under the ritual control of the Brahmins, reducing the importance of the Maibas
. At the same time, the complete destruction of local traditions and forms of authority was avoided to appease the people. Nevertheless, the consequence of this policy was that a new orthodoxy was imposed by of migrant Brahmin elites. By patronizing new religious elites, Garibniwaz sought to reinvent his sovereignty through a Hindu Vaiṣṇava devotionalism. His special relationships with the new brokers of divine power enhanced his own divine status. In turn, this divinization supported his transition from “Ningthem” to “Maharaj” and brought him greater recognition as a Hindu king in the region.
With the support of Garibniwaz, the trajectory of influence of Brahmins from the 16th to 18th century moved from migrants, to ritual specialists, to initiators of the king, and finally, to the religious elite of Manipur, surpassing the earlier Maiba-Maibi institutions. Not surprisingly, his strategies led to a rupture in the religio-political fabric, by bringing the traditional priests and priestesses, who represented the ancient faith, into competition and conflict with Vaiṣṇava religious elites (Parratt 1980, p. 156
The resistance to Garibniwaz’s reformations was evidenced by the following curious narrative in the Sakak Lamlen Ahanba Puya
(Laisram 2009, p. 21
), which was probably constructed after the reign of Garibniwaz. According to this story, a Pangal
guru (probably a corruption of “Bengal” and hence referring to a Brahmin guru coming from that region) came to the land of the Meiteis during the reign of King Naophangba (452–518 AD). He tried to change the traditional customs of the Meiteis by persuading the king to order his subjects to replace their cremation customs with burials of the dead, to forbid the eating of beef, and to build a palace in the royal capital of Kangla, upon the sacred site wherein the Meiteis believe that the first King Pakhangba lies underground in the form of a coiled snake.46
In the myth, the Meitei god Atiya reincarnates in the form of a man known as Laiba and persuades the king to disregard the advice of the Pangal
guru. It is likely that supporters of the Meitei religion constructed this myth as a counter-narrative to Garibniwaz’s reforms.
Garibniwaz met with opposition mainly from members of the royal family who were patrons of the Maibas.
(L. B. Singh 2008, p. 5
). The CK reports an instance in which the queen disregarded dietary restrictions to partake of wine and meat. The CK described that she offered wine to Sanamahi on three successive occasions. One of these which took place in 1746 reads, “the Queen with all royal ladies wearing their best attire offered Yu
(wine) to Sanamahi in the market and they enjoyed a drinking party on Sunday the 26th.”47
According to Parratt, the practice of offering wine to Sanamahi was “nowhere before mentioned and neither is it the present custom to drink wine to Sanamahi”(Parratt 1980, p. 160
). In other words, this was an explicit and public protest against the king’s dietary restrictions and his neglect of the lai
(Parratt 1980, p. 160
). The opposition to the king’s guru, Śanta Dās Gosāi, is still depicted today in a Rāma temple that he attributably built with Garibniwaz. There is a curious image of Śanta Dās Gosāi with Garibniwaz below the mūrtis
of the gods in which the guru is depicted being handcuffed with chains. The exact date of the making of the images is not known, but it is clear that, at some point, Śanta Dās was both revered and reviled for his role in the religious affairs of Manipur.
The dietary restrictions, the alleged burning of puyas, and the purging of the lais did not resonate well with the adherents of the Meitei religion. In the last two or three years of his reign, there are references in the chronicles to Garibniwaz constructing temples for the lais. This suggests that Garibniwaz relaxed in his attitude to the lai as a response to the opposition to his policies in some circles. To appease his detractors, he tried to make some compromises. However, his efforts came too late.
In 1744, Śanta Dās was killed during a war with Myanmar.48
In 1749, Garibniwaz abdicated the throne and went on pilgrimage to Ramnagar in Uttarakhand.49
The following year, Garibniwaz’s younger son Chit Sai ascended to the throne and drove his father out from Manipur to Myanmar. In 1751, on his way back from Myanmar, Garibniwaz and his attendants were ambushed and killed by Chit Sai.50
The reason for Chit Sai assassinating his own father is unknown, but it would not be far-fetched to assume that it could very well be an expression of the feelings that some, including the Maibas
and members of the royal family, had towards Garibniwaz’s religious reforms.
Garibniwaz’s religious reforms, including the rites and regulations of the Rāmānandī sect enhanced the symbolic power and personal authority of the Lainingthou (god-king), who was transformed into a Hindu Maharaja. However, competition between the institution of Maibas/Maibis and Brahmins over the patronage of political authorities and dominance of Manipur’s religious field led to a Hindu–Vaiṣṇava discourse that involved appropriating Meitei gods and festivals, replacing Meitei texts with Vaiṣṇava ones, and re-organizing the structure of society into one that promoted the agenda of military conquests. The death of Garibniwaz ended the influence of the Rāmānandī tradition in Manipur. Nevertheless, the new practices he introduced such as the usage of Bengali script, the worship of Vaiṣṇava deities in temples, the production of sacred texts such as the Mahābhārata, Rāmāyaṇa, and Bhāgavata Purāṇa, and the sanskritization of Meitei festivals laid the foundations on which subsequent kingdoms in Manipur built their sovereignty. It also laid groundwork for the construction and popularization of the Manipuri cultural performances such as the rāslīlās. The responses from the Meiteis who opposed Garibniwaz’s suppression of their religious practices would later result in a particular form of Vaiṣṇavism unique to Manipur. This will be evident in the next section when I discuss the reign of Bhāgyacandra.
In his classic work The King’s Two Bodies
, Ernst Kantorowicz showed that early modern Western monarchies had developed a political theology which drew from Christian debates about the two natures of Christ. According to this theology, the king had two bodies: a natural body, which was his physical self, and an ‘eternal body politic’ or symbolic body endowed with divine right to rule (Kantorowicz 2016, p. 17
). The logics of kingship in Manipur, even when the Meitei religion was dominant, was not that different in the sense that the king was considered to be the chief priest of the state and patron of the lais.
However, when Garibniwaz refashioned kingship, the new symbolic body he tried to construct with the guidance of Śanta Dās did not resonate well with at least some sectors of his people. Disagreements over what the symbolic body of the king eventually led to the destruction of Garibniwaz’s natural body. The symbolic body of Manipuri kingship would then be refashioned again by his descendent, Bhāgyacandra.
5. Bhāgyacandra—The Devotee King
In 1753, after a short period of political instability, two grandsons of Garibniwaz inherited the throne of Manipur. The first, Gaura Shyam, also known as Maramba, ruled Manipur from 1753–1759 (Bihari 2012, p. 114
). Gaura Shyam was crippled and, due to his disability, shared the throne with his younger brother, Bhāgyacandra. This was a turbulent period in Manipur’s history, as it had been subjected to frequent invasions from neighboring states, especially from the Burmese, who were led by the illustrious King Alaungpaya of the Konbaung dynasty (r. 1752–1760). In 1754, Alaungpaya raided Manipur and captured two of Bhāgyacandra’s sons, Labanyanachandra and Modhuchandra (Sana 2010, p. 136
). Then, in December 1758, Alaungpaya returned to Manipur and sacked the capital, this time, with the help of Gaur Shyam’s uncle Khelempa, who revolted against his nephews for not granting him more power (BP. Vol. 2 1966, pp. 29–38
). For nine days, the Burmese plundered Manipur and took more than a thousand captives back to Burma.51
In 1759, Gaura Shyam abdicated the throne for his brother Bhāgyacandra to take complete sovereign control. One of the first things that Bhāgyacandra did when he became king was to destroy a temple constructed by the Burmese in the village of Mawan to commemorate their victory over the Meiteis.52
However, the Burmese continued the raids, attacking Manipur no less than three times during Bhāgyacandra’s reign. N. N. Acharya estimated that around 300,000 Meiteis were killed or captured during these invasions (Acharya 1988
The Burmese were successful because they had superior firepower from guns that were acquired through their contact with the French and the Portuguese (Sana 2010, p. 140
). To counter the Burmese alliance with the French, and to regain dispossessed land, Bhāgyacandra sought an alliance with the British. The British accepted his request because they saw it as a way to pressure Burma into providing reparations for the “repeated ill-treatment” of their workers in a factory at Negrain (Wheeler 1878, pp. 281–91
). In 1762, a treaty of mutual trade and defense was negotiated between Henry Verelst, Chief of the East India Company at Chittagong, and Haridas Gossain, the Bengali negotiator on behalf of Bhāgyacandra (L. C. Singh 1970, p. 8
). To assist Manipur, the British sent six companies of sepoys, but due to rain and an outbreak of disease, they did not reach their destination (Wilson 1852, pp. 19–20
In 1764, the Burmese King Hsinbyushin (r. 1763–1776) invaded Manipur with a large and well-equipped army and defeated the troops led by Bhāgyacandra, laying siege to his palace (Harvey 1925, p. 257
). The Burmese installed Khelempa as a puppet king and Bhāgyacandra fled to Cachar. Bhāgyacandra’s period of exile would prove to be crucial to his own and Manipur’s religious future. This liminal period paved the way for the emergence of a narrative that reconstructed his sovereignty. It is not possible to discern the historicity of the remainder of his story, but it is important to summarize it here because it was the foundational story that legitimized his sovereignty as a divine king in the consciousness of Manipuris.
While in Cachar, Bhāgyacandra supposedly visited the ancestral home of Sri Caitanya, the 16th century founder of the Gauḍīya tradition in Dacca Dakshin, Sylhet, now a part of Bangladesh. There, he met Rām Nārāyaṇ Siromani, a descendant of Upendra Mishra who was the grandfather of Sri Caitanya and received a Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava initiation from him (E. N. Singh 1986
). According to another account based on oral traditions in Manipur, Bhāgyacandra received initiation from Sri Rūpa Paramānanda, a disciple of Rām Gopal Mahasaya, whose ancestors migrated to Manipur during the reign of King Mungyamba (r. 1562–1597) (Sana 2010, p. 18
). Traditional narratives claim that they are from the lineage of disciples of Ganganarayan Chakraborty and his predecessor Narottama-dāsa Thakur (16th century), both famous in the Gauḍīya lineage for their missionary achievements in Bengal and Orissa (Jha 2016
). These narratives served to associate Bhāgyacandra with renowned persons and thereby increase his religious capital.
Having been initiated as a Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava, between 1764 and 1765, Bhāgyacandra then proceeded to Assam where he was received by King Rajeshwar Singha. According to the Tungkhungia Buranji
(TB), the royal chronicle of Assam, Rajeshwar Singha’s minister Kritichandra Barbarua advised him to assist Bhāgyacandra because of the latter’s mythical ancestral relations to Babruvāhana, borne out of the marriage between Arjuna and the Manipuri princess Citrāṅgadā from the Mahābhārata:
The Manipuri Rāja was descended of old from Babrubahan. He is a Kshatriya and there is no doubt about it. I hope Your Majesty will marry the princess (Kuranganayani)…54
This chief of Manipur has taken refuge with Your Majesty, being driven from his kingdom by the Burman king. The sastras
(scriptures) have said that a fugitive should not be denied protection; so, if Your Majesty can contrive to reinstate the Manipuri Rāja to his kingdom, that act will bring in to Your majesty both fame and piety.
This account indicates that, by this time, claims to biological connections to the central characters in the Mahābhārata such as Arjuna were already well known and accepted.
However, before Rajeshwar Singha could pledge his alliance, Bhāgyacandra’s estranged uncle Khelempa informed him via a letter that Bhāgyacandra was an imposter posing as the king of Manipur (Gosvāmī 2022, p. 28
). Consequently, Rajeshwar Singha felt doubtful of the identity of his guest, and wanted to test if he was indeed the true king of Manipur (N. T. Singh 2007, p. 26
). Singha put Bhāgyacandra to a test by asking him to tame a wild elephant because he heard that Manipuri kings were gifted with great strength and special power (Gosvāmī 2022, p. 18
While Bhāgyacandra accepted the challenge, he was overwhelmed by it, and later in the night he fell on his knees and pleaded to his deity, Krishna to save him. According to the narrative, on hearing his prayer, Krishna appeared in his dream and assured the King of victory, not only over the elephant but also that he would be reinstated as king of Manipur. Bhāgyacandra responded by requesting Krishna to be the king of Manipur and accept him as his servant. Krishna then instructed Bhāgyacandra to install an image of him carved out of a specific theibong (jackfruit) tree found on Kaina hill in Manipur after his return. Krishna then revealed his own rāslīlā dance to Bhāgyacandra and requested that he dedicate a rāslīlā performance to him when he returns to Manipur. Upon waking, the king summoned a member of his counsel, Pandit Gopīram Singh Patchahanba, and related his dream to him. He then requested Patchahanba to paint what he saw in his dream.
The next day, the test for Bhāgyacandra was arranged and a notorious wild elephant was brought to the arena. According to tradition, at first the elephant charged toward Bhāgyacandra, but as it got closer, it suddenly knelt before him. He tamed the elephant without difficulty and mounted it before parading around the arena victoriously (N. T. Singh 2007, p. 38
Rajeshwar Singha congratulated him and bestowed upon him the title “Jai Singh” (Devi 2010, p. 23
This episode is still widely celebrated in Manipur. Figure 1
shows a statue of Bhāgyacandra mounting the elephant at the crossroads of Manipur’s busiest business district, near the Paona Bazzar in Imphal. There are several similar portraits in temples throughout Manipur.
After Bhāgyacandra’s legendary victory, thousands of people volunteered to help him in his quest to regain his throne (N. T. Singh 2007, p. 39
). In 1767, after an initial failed expedition due to his troops getting lost (Bhuyan 1933, pp. 59–60
), a military force of 80,000 Assamese soldiers armed with guns, swords, and spears were sent to Manipur to assist Bhāgyacandra (Sana 2010, p. 145
). It succeeded in restoring Bhāgyacandra back to the throne and his triumphant return to Manipur is recorded in the CK.57
Bhāgyacandra was then recognized as the supreme ruler of Manipur, both by the people of the valley and the various tribes of the hill (N. T. Singh 2007, p. 42
). By the late 1770s, after Bhāgyacandra regained power, one of his first acts was to reverse the practices that the Burmese introduced. When the Burmese occupied Manipur, they appointed Chandragya as governor of Manipur. According to the CK, Chandragya suppressed Hindu practices and forced the Meiteis Vaiṣṇavas to remove their sacred thread.58
In 1781, Bhāgyacandra organized a ceremony in which he directed the Meiteis who were forced to remove their thread to wear it again.59
Having been reinstated as king, Bhāgyacandra then sought to repel further Burmese attacks, consolidate his sovereignty, and unify his people under a new religious framework. The pan-Indian appeal of Vaiṣṇavism was used by Bhāgyacandra to forge political alliances with Assam and establish Manipur as a regional political and cultural powerhouse. Vaiṣṇavism served a potent tool in his quest for political legitimacy. This is not to say that Bhāgyacandra’s support for Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism was solely due to political reasons and not influenced by his personal faith. As I will show later, Bhāgyacandra was a very active and interested participant of Vaiṣṇava devotional practices and rituals.
Between 1769 and 1776, the CK records that were a few more attacks from Burma, but these were repelled, and political stability returned to Manipur.60
Later, a peaceful compromise seems to have been made with Burma, as the Burmese released his sons from captivity in 1787.61
As the political situation gradually stabilized, Bhāgyacandra reigned over a peaceful kingdom that flourished with innovative cultural productions until his death in 1798. A period of peace in Manipur during the latter part of Bhāgyacandra’s reign allowed him to refashion kingship to focus on other activities such as arts and religion. These including minting coins, publishing sacred literature, patronizing performing arts, establishing networks for pilgrimage, and constructing temples, Bhāgyacandra minted gold and silver coins with “Sri Rādhā Govindaji” inscribed on them (Sana 2010, p. 182
). Bhāgyacandra chose aspects of Gauḍīya
Vaiṣṇavism that were already familiar with Meiteis, such as temple worship and dance dramas, to create cultural products such as the rāslīlās
that would resonate with Manipuris. References to aesthetics and religious logics that had been already internalized in the Meitei habitus made it less likely that Manipuris would resist the new religion’s rituals.
Hindu sacred texts were collected and circulated. Some texts such as the BhP, the Gītagovinda
, Rāmāyaṇa, and Mahābhārata were also recited in public and during festivals.62
These public readings of the epics and purāṇas
by religious specialists were popular means of transmitting and inculcating religious ideas to the illiterate masses. One particular reciter personally patronized by Bhāgyacandra was an Assamese Brahmin by the name of Jiu Ram Sharma who made the narrative style of poetry popular in Manipur (Bandopadhyay 2010, p. 62
). While in exile in Assam, Bhāgyacandra had met Jiu Ram Sharma and invited him to Manipur. In 1776 CE, when he finally arrived in Manipur, Jiu Ram Sharma attained fame for narrating the above-mentioned texts in Manipur. He was called “Tekhao Bhamon Leeba”—the storyteller Brahmin from Tekhao (Assam) (Datta 1986, p. 15
). The ritual of reading and explanation of scriptures important to Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas such as the BhP and Caitanya Caritāmṛta
came to be called “Wāri-leeba”
and are still practiced in Manipuri Vaiṣṇava temples.
The institution of loisangs
begun by Garibniwaz was expanded by Bhāgyacandra. They were committees with various responsibilities. The most influential of these was the Brāhman Sabhā
, the authority responsible for religious issues. The Brāhman Sabhā
would adjudicate on debates and controversies related to religion, especially involving issues of purity and pollution, and was the authority on deciding if plays or texts written by local composers were authentic. The primary function of the loisangs
related to the arts was to serve as figureheads of authority in the fields of dance and music, resolving disputes concerning village temple performances, and to act as advisers to the king, who, as the head of the committee, passed final judgment on these matters (S. Sharma 1989, p. 105
). Some of the prominent loisangs
formed subsidiary groups that were assigned to special roles. The Pālā loisang
was responsible for composing music and song for naṭa saṅkīrtan
. Two sub-groups that belonged to this loisang
were the Ariba pālā
that focused on the form of saṅkīrtan
during the Garibniwaz era and the nata sankīrtan pālā
, which was established during Bhāgyacandra’s era (Devi 2010, p. 34
The most visible form of transmitting Vaiṣṇava beliefs and practices to the masses was through performances of song and dance. The Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava emphasis on saṅkīrtan
as a primary religious practice resonated with the Meiteis who were already accustomed to appeasing their gods through song and dance. Furthermore, Bhāgyacandra continued a tradition of saṅkīrtan
that had already been introduced during the time of Garibniwaz, albeit with Gauḍīya sensibilities. In the CK, there are records of the king traveling to different parts of Manipur to attend saṅkīrtan
, indicating that it was performed all over Manipur.63
The significance of saṅkīrtan
in Manipur’s religious landscape is underscored by records in the CK and my own observation of the holī
Groups of singers numbering more than a hundred would perform saṅkīrtan
at various temples and homes for a week. I even found that several Manipuri homes had a courtyard which specifically served the purpose of hosting saṅkīrtan
Networks of religious travel between Manipur and Indian states were established, as more Manipuris travelled there for pilgrimage. For example, it is reported in the CK that in 1793, Queen Yipemma Yangampi Reimakhupi took her mūrti
(image) of Rādhāraman (a name for Krishna) with her and went on pilgrimage to Vṛndāvan,65
considered by Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas to be the spiritual capital of the Vraja region, in Delhi. Manipuris went to these places to study philosophy, rituals, and language, accumulating religious capital that they would exercise in their own state. Today, dozens of Manipuri temples are still active in the Vraja region.
As connections between places in Bengal and Vraja region became more established there was a need for Manipuri Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas to create their own sacred spaces in Manipur that resembled the Indian prototype. As Vaiṣṇavism became more widespread in Manipuri social life, new religious practices that were not previously present during the reign of Garibniwaz emerged. These include the recreation of sacred geographies resembling Vraja and Navadvīpa, pilgrimage places considered to be sacred by Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas, and the worship of deities specific to Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism such as Caitanya and Nityānanda. This ushered in the construction of a number of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava temples in Manipur. Especially noteworthy is the inauguration of the most prominent temple associated with the royal family, the Govindaji palace temple. The inauguration story of this temple weaves the creation of a new sovereignty with sacred spaces, sounds, images, and body movements. Like the earlier episode of Bhāgyacandra’s exile, the historical veracity of this story cannot be ascertained, as it contains mystical elements such as divine visions and hierophanies. Nevertheless, it is widely accepted as history by most Manipuri Vaiṣṇavas and holds an important place in the Manipuri psyche.
The story of the construction of the temple and the installation of an image of Krishna as Govindaji began in 1775, after Bhāgyacandra had regained the throne by repelling the final Burmese invasion. The CK reports that the king went to a hilly region, Kaina, and located the jackfruit tree that he saw in his dream while he was in Assam.66
The tree was then transported along the Iril River to the palace, and the image of Govindaji was carved out of it. According to Lokendra Arambam, a close motif of the serpent-dragon lai
known as Pakhangba was carved into the navel of Govindaji (Lokendra 2004
), indicating a desire to blend Meitei aesthetics with Vaiṣṇava practices. In November 1776, Govindaji was installed in the palace.67
Three years later, during the Manipuri month of Hiyanggei
(November–December), to fulfill Bhāgyacandra’s promise to Krishna, the first rāslīlā
was dedicated to Govindaji in the rās mandal
(courtyard where dance is performed) at Bhāgyacandra‘s new capital Langthabal, which he named as Canchipur (I. Singh and N. K. Singh 1989, p. 133
The entry reads as follows:
Friday, the 11th, the mūrti of Śrī Govinda was ritually bathed in the rāsmandal of the Canchipur. Rās was dedicated for five consecutive days.
Bhāgyacandra also dedicated himself and his throne to Govindaji and declared that he would carry out his royal duties by considering himself as the servant of his lord (Devi 2010, p. 32
). Thereafter, the same decorum and ritual fanfare given to kings was offered to Govindaji. This occasion was described 58 years later in the British periodical, the Chinese repository69
, as follows:
It was the command and example of a prince of Manipur, which first introduced Hinduism into the country. About the year 1780, an image of Govinda was publicly consecrated with much ceremony in Manipur, by the grandfather of the present Rajah (Chandrakirti). This was the first national profession of that faith, though its votaries had previously been resident there. At the same time, a proclamation was issued by the Rajah stating that, in order to avert the recurrence of such calamities as then oppressed them (the invasion of the Burmans). He wholly made over his country to his celestial proprietor, henceforward holding the government in his name. Near the same time, an inferior image was consecrated, to whom was entrusted the presumptive heirship, and the Rajah positively enjoined that no descendant of his, without the possession of these images, should ever be raised to the royal dignity. Hence, the possession of them was a fruitful source of dissension between his sons, up to the accession of Gambhir Singh, in 1824.
Through his act of ceremonially ceding his throne to Krishna and linking future kingship to the deity of Govindaji, Bhāgyacandra reformatted Manipuri sovereignty into a devotionalism bonded to Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism. The state of Manipur was in turn interconnected to Bengal, Orissa, and the Vraj region through religious networks. These connections would continue for the next two centuries.
There were six temples that were built for the other mūrtis
supposedly carved out of the same jackfruit tree. According to Tombi Singh, after the initial carving was completed, Bhāgyacandra felt that something was amiss in the image (N. T. Singh 2007, p. 58
). While it was beautiful, the figure did not exactly correspond to what he saw in his vision. He called for the carving of another image and named this one “Vijay Govinda”. Vijay Govinda was handed over to his uncle and senior minister, Anantasai, to worship. Other temples supposedly built for mūrtis
carved out of the same tree include Śrī Nityananda Prabhu at Arambam Leikei in 1795,70
Śrī Madan Mohan at Oinam Thingel, Śrī Anuprabhu in Navadvīpa, Bengal in 1795, Śrī Gopīnath at Ningthoukhong, and Śrī Advaita Prabhu at Lamangdong in 1793.71
Like the Govindaji palace temple, they hosted the ritual worship of the mūrtis
and devotional performances like the rāslīlās
After the consecration of Govindaji at Langthabal in 1779, the first rāslīlā,
later called the Mahārās
was dedicated for five consecutive nights, starting from the full moon night of Kārtik
(October–November). Nilakanta Singh suggested that since Bhāgyacandra had stayed for a long time in the court of the Ahom King, he might have been inspired by the Aṅkīyā nāṭ
dance of Assam, which is attributed to Śaṅkardev (Lal 2004
; Neog 1985
and was performed in monasteries called sattra
(E. N. Singh 1982, p. 71
According to traditional narratives, Bhāgyacandra himself participated in the naṭa saṅkīrtan
by composing songs, singing, and playing the pung
(a Manipuri drum) (H. I. Singh 2009
). Other members of the royal family were also involved in various roles. Bhāgyacandra’s uncles Ngoubram Shai and Dhar Shai were the lead singers (Khoni 2018, p. 2
). The ladies of the royal family participated in various roles as Gopīs
(milkmaid consorts of Krishna). Consequently, this infused the Mahārās
with a layer of power and authority as a bona fide religious expression in Manipur. No actor performed the role of Krishna. He was represented by the mūrti
of Govindaji. Significantly, the traditional narrative says that an image of Rādhā, Krishna’s principal consort, had not been constructed in time for the Mahārās
. Therefore, Bhagyacandra’s young daughter Bimbavati (also known as Sija Laiobi) played the role of Rādhā. In my interview with him, Manipuri historian, Arambam Lokendra, said:
was not just a dance event. It was a political event of the crowning of Bhagyachandra’s lord as the king of this land … There is a Meitei coronation ritual that when the king is crowned, his wife has to sleep with him for five days in the bridal chamber. The institution of royal marriage was a ritual process to allow energy from the ancestors to flow to their sexual organs. Through that, they will be given powers to do good for humanity by producing offspring.74
Lokendra was suggesting that Bimbavati’s playing the role of Rādhā had a symbolic meaning during the consecration of Govindaji. It was performed as part of the ritual to enthrone Govindaji and to connect the royal family to their new deity for the welfare of the state. Scholars and the general Manipuri public often say that Bhāgyacandra dedicated two more rāslīlās to Govindaji. They are the Kunjarās (bower rās) and Vasantarās (Spring rās). However, the CK records during Bhāgyacandra’s reign do not mention the names of these rāslīlās. Thus, it is not clear exactly in which year they were dedicated.
Bhāgyacandra’s efforts in promoting Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism and the traditional stories about his religious contributions earned him the title “Rājarṣi” (saintly King), and he is still referred to by that honorific today. His story is still retold in the form of dramas, murals in temples, and festivals. Bhāgyacandra’s patronization of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism enabled the tradition to become so widespread that it rose to prominence over the other existing Hindu and Meitei traditions. In fact, Rāmānandī Vaiṣṇavism gradually waned away and was replaced by Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism as the state religion of Manipur. The social changes and political upheavals experienced during warfare with the Burmese were periods of social fragmentation in which the established order by Garibniwaz was suspended and a new form of sovereignty was constructed.
However, it was his adoption of a Vaiṣṇava–Meitei habitus that served as a crucial ingredient in the process of reintegrating a Manipur divided by Garibniwaz’s controversial policies and humiliation suffered under the Burmese. Bhāgyacandra established his sovereignty as devotee-king of a newly defined Vaiṣṇava–Meitei framework that allowed him to unify his people, regain lost territories of Manipur, and impose law and order. Scholars have described how, in other parts of India, Vaiṣṇava traditions have had the capacity to absorb indigenous religions. Staal
) used the term “Sanskritization” to describe how indigenous religious traditions were absorbed into the purāṇic fold. In a similar vein, Bhāgyacandra’s brand of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism absorbed Meitei practices to construct a blended religion with overarching Vaiṣṇava beliefs and practices.
While Garibniwaz more or less adopted a rigid exclusivist stance that emphasized the exclusive worship of Vaiṣṇava deities, rituals, and texts, Bhāgyacandra preferred an accommodationist approach and openness to acculturation. He shunned away from dramatic acts of sanskritization and displayed greater sensitivity towards the Meitei culture. The following anecdote of Bhāgyacandra, shared by Tombi Singh, further illustrates this point. Once a proposal was made that the main mūrti
of Krishna in the palace temple of Govindaji should only be presented with types of food offered in Vṛndāvan. Bhāgyacandra rejected it and declared that the deity should be given the best of what Manipur has to offer, not only in terms of food but architecture, dress, and rituals of worship (N. T. Singh 2007, p. 58
). His ecumenical approach to and endorsement of local culture paved the way for Manipuris to practice both religions simultaneously. Thus, Bhāgyacandra based his sovereignty on a complex mixture of native and foreign elements and practices.
Bhāgyacandra’s transcultural approach would prove more successful and durable than Garibniwaz’s stress on military domination and expansion. His approach enabled him to more organically unify different religious and political factions and attain a high level of hegemony without reliance on brute force and political power. Antonio Gramsci’s
) concept of hegemony aptly describes the state’s management of religion by characterizing hegemony as a form of domination which is performed in a coercive sense—”calibrated coercion” (Gramsci 1973
). To stay in power, members of the ruling group need to persuade their subjects that they are working for the benefit of the citizens and that it is commonsensical and natural for the citizens to assimilate the values espoused by the state. Social control imposed by the ruling group is likely to be accepted voluntarily by the governed as necessary in order to achieve certain desirable objectives. Consequently, policies and actions are supported by the majority of the people and the power of the ruling group is uncontested.
The most salient aspect of Bhāgyacandra’s blended model was the relationship between Vaiṣṇava deities and the lais
. The introduction of Vaiṣṇava deities did not replace the lais
. There are numerous instances that show the royal court patronized both Vaiṣṇava gods and the Umang lais
. It is recorded in the CK that, in 1783, Bhāgyacandra’s uncle Anantashai inaugurated a new pond and on that day both the images of Govindaji and Sanamahi and other gods were bathed in that pond:
On 5th Hiyangei (October-November) Saturday, Ibungsi (the king’s brother’s son) Anantashai Nongthonba started to dedicate the tank. On the same day lai
Govinda, Sanamahi, and others, all the lai
of the land, were made to bathe in the Lamlongei tank. The King, Queen, all the leaders, the Rāmānandī, monks, and Brahmins, the old men, and men of rank—all of them were made to bathe in the tank.75
Bhāgyacandra’s sovereignty was based on kingship that sponsored the worship of important lais
, such as Sanamahi and Leimaren, often side-by-side with Krishna, without the degree of tension that had marked the Garibniwaz period (Parratt 1980, p. 169
). It was not uncommon for him to participate in rituals related to both and Sanamahi. For example, in February 1789, Bhāgyacandra presented an elephant to Sanamahi,76
and in a rain-stopping ritual of Manipur, both Sanamahi and Krishna were invoked. More than a century later, Col. J. Shakespeare
(1913, p. 63
), British political agent of Manipur from 1905–1908 and 1909–1914, observed that the prayer chanted by a rain-stopper contained the names of both Hindu and Meitei deities: “Sibo (Śiva) linga, Sri Swar Sanamahi, Sibo linga Sri Swar Thangjing, Makei Ngakpa Viṣṇu He! Narayan.
” Unfamiliar with the Manipuris’ habitus of harmonizing diverse religions, he wrote “the mixture of Hindu deities, Śiva, Viṣnu and Nārāyaṇa, with the Umang Lai is typical of the religious muddle in which the people are”, and “so in Manipur, Krishna is devoutly worshipped and Brāhmans are maintained, while at the same time every village has at least one sacred grove, the abode of the local god, who has his own priests and priestesses” (Shakespeare 1913, p. 63
Some of the Umang lais
were identified with Hindu gods and goddesses. Dr. Suresh, a researcher on the indigenous Meitei religion, noted:77
Over time, Panthoibi was identified to be Goddess Durga and her lover, Nongpok Ningthou was associated with Śiva, even though their stories bear little resemblance to one another. Today, on Koubrou Hill, people go there to worship a stone which is believed to be an icon representing Śiva. Previously, it was probably a place dedicated to the Meitei gods.
The association of Umang lais with Hindu gods blurred the boundaries between the two religious traditions.
In general, the lais
had a complex and subservient relationship with the new Vaiṣṇava gods and the ritual practices associated with them. In describing their interaction with Vedic religious practices, Colas
(2005, pp. 229–70
), for instance, wrote that “without being anti-Vedic or Tantric in character, [Vaiṣṇavism] tends to subordinate Vedic rituals to its own renunciative ideology which upholds non-injury (ahiṁsā)
and rites without animal sacrifice.” Similarly, the worship of lais
shifted to resemble Hindu ritual prescriptions that included substituting animal sacrifices for bloodless offerings (Parratt 1980, p. 169
). In some cases, Vaiṣṇava deities were introduced into public Meitei festivals. Bhāgyacandra used his position as a religio-political authority to add Vaiṣṇava elements into Meitei rituals. One example is the Heikru-hidongba
, a traditional Meitei festival observed since the time of King Irengba (r. 984–1074 CE). From the 16th century, during the reign of King Khagemba, a boat race was added to the festival, becoming an occasion of religious and social significance (Parratt 1980, p. 1
). The day before the race, in the early morning hours, the leaders of each team offer items of silver and gold in a container to the lais
. After Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism had become the state religion of Manipur, a mūrti
of Krishna consecrated by Bhāgyacandra, called “Vijay Govinda,” became a participant in the festival. Before the race starts, Vijay Govinda is brought on a procession along the sides of the moat on two boats tied together and people make offerings of fruits and flowers, performing pūjā.
Then, the boats are taken to the bay where the race begins, and the winner receives a garland worn by Vijay Govinda.
The integration of religious festivals was not a one-way process. Meitei practices were also added to Vaiṣṇava festivals. Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism underwent significant changes that reflected a distinct Manipuri predilection. Arambam Lokendra referred to this phenomenon as the “Meeteization (sic) of Hinduism” instead of the “Hinduization of Meitei”.78
In fact, in their course of their mutual encounters, Vaiṣṇavism and the Meitei religion were mutually transformed. This is reflected in the images and dresses of gods, life passage rituals, and public festivals. For example, during Janmaṣtami, the festival celebrating Krishna’s birth, traditional games played in Meitei festivals, such as yubi lakpi
(a rugby-like game, where each player tries to snatch a coconut and runs towards goal with it) and likol sanaba
, a game played with cowrie shells, are also present (Parratt 1980, p. 39
). During my stay in Manipur, I witnessed yubi lakpi
being played in a field next to the Govindaji temple. A small mūrti
of Krishna was brought out to the field in procession. Two teams of players would line up in front of the mūrti
and offer their prostrations before and after the game. Mixing religion with entertainment in the form of boat races, martial arts, wrestling, and rugby has been part of the Meitei habitus for centuries.
Despite the religious hybridization that pervaded Bhāgyacandra’s reign, Meitei rituals and practices were retained only to the extent that they did not contradict Vaiṣṇava religious principles. While Bhāgyacandra was more favorable towards patronizing indigenous Meitei rituals and traditions as compared to Garibniwaz, some acts that were perceived to violate Vaiṣṇava norms were punished. For example, the practice of potsem
(sorcery) was punished with exile.79
However, there is no evidence that Bhāgyacandra extended these proscriptions to the hill tribes. Mapping the hierarchy of gods onto the rulership, with Krishna as the supreme deity and himself as the supreme ruler, he accommodated existing tribal traditions, and the different tribes continued to be led by their different chiefs, as long as they acknowledged the king as their ruler. Emphasizing Bhāgyacandra’s accommodative policies with the people of the hill, historian Dwijendra Narayan Goswami, points out that one of his names, Chingthangkhomba, literally refers to “hugger of the hills (Ching)” (Gosvāmī 2022, p. 17
In general, it can be said that the same scheme of fusion within limits was applied in diverse ritual and festive domains based on a centuries-old disposition which sought to harmonize and synthesize. The Meitei house, gods, rituals, festivals, and other aspects I did not discuss in detail, such as language and naming conventions, were restructured with the same socially defined logics. A complete assimilation of Bengali Vaiṣṇava culture did not take place. Rather, Vaiṣṇava thought and practice were absorbed into Meitei structures of practice through fluid cultural boundaries and relatively inclusive hierarchies, modelled after Bhāgyacandra himself who was seen as being simultaneously a devotee par excellence of Krishna and a loyal patron of the lais.
In 1797, Bhāgyacandra, accompanied by his family members, went on pilgrimage to the Ganges and delegated his duties to his son, Labanyachandra.80
Along the way, he established Vaiṣṇava temples (Kamei 2007, p. 22
). He visited Tripura, where he gave his daughter, Harisesvari, in marriage to the King of Tripura, Rajdhar Manikya (Sana 2010, p. 189
). In Tripura, Harisesvari installed and worshipped her household mūrtis,
Rādhā-Madhava, which was gifted to her from her father, and the consecration was followed by a performance of a rāslīlā
(K. Singh 2011, p. 10
). During his stay in Navadvīpa, Bhāgyacandra established a temple of Caitanya called Srī Anu Prabhu, which was worshipped by his other daughter, Bimbavati, until her death (Kamei 2007, p. 22
). That temple also has a mūrti
In September 1798, Bhāgyacandra died in while still on pilgrimage in the Bengal region.81
For seven continuous days, saṅkīrtan
was performed at the Govindaji palace temple in his honor.82
Bhāgyacandra’s son Labanyachandra was entrusted with the throne. By that time, the two religious traditions co-existed in a syncretic harmonized structure. This continued until the mid-20th century. There was no further attempt to eradicate Vaiṣṇavism or the indigenous Meitei religion. In fact, later kings supported both religious traditions, even though Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism was the official state religion, following the framework of sovereignty established by Bhāgyacandra
It is difficult not to overstate the role that Bhāgyacandra played in shaping the Manipuri religious field and habitus, providing the rich terrain out of which the rāslīlās emerged. He promoted the inculcation of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava ideas and Assamese Vaiṣṇava performances, which he internalized during the period of his exile. At the same time, the memories of Meitei religious practices, especially the indigenous dances were not abandoned. In particular, Bhāgyacandra invoked the Meitei disposition towards harmonizing (but within a hierarchical order) religions. He activated the institutions at his disposal to construct performances that resonated with the general populace. In this way, Bhāgyacandra grounded kingship in Vaishnava narratives which was inclusive of Meitei practices and transitioned the basis of sovereignty from narratives of conquest to devotion and accommodation.
In this article, I have discussed two forms of articulating religio-political power, which, while sharing some elements, show contrasting ways to regulate the relationship between Vaisnavism and local religious traditions. In the short term, both forms were successful in establishing sovereignty. However, one strategy seems to have had more durable and widespread effects.
In the 18th century, Manipuri kings, Garibniwaz and Bhāgyacandra, sought to transform the Meitei religious landscape to absorb Vaiṣṇava beliefs and practices so as to produce a new doxa for experiencing the sacred. Garibniwaz aligned himself with the Rāmānandī Vaiṣṇava tradition because he saw it as an effective way to increase his military prowess. He introduced new practices such as the Bengali writing system, the sanskritization of Meitei festivals, substituting the lais with Vaiṣṇava deities in official ceremonies, and promoting the position of Brahmins in the religious field. He also suppressed the Meitei religion by stopping the worship of some lais, imposing restrictions pertaining to meat and alcohol, reducing the importance of Maibas and Maibis, and burning some of their puyas. He met with opposition from his own family members, and the Maiba/Maibi institution for suppressing the Meitei religion. As a result, his strategy to establish rulership, while relatively successful in keeping invading powers at check, was ultimately unstable.
In contrast, Bhāgyacandra, exiled after a military invasion by the Burmese, received initiation in the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition. On his return to Manipur, he introduced new additions to the Meitei religious landscape that included the performance of saṅkīrtan
a in life-passage rituals, the production and public recitation of Hindu texts, the borrowing of musical instruments and other aesthetic elements used in Assamese Hindu performances, pilgrimage to places held sacred by Gauḍīya
Vaiṣṇavas, the creation of sacred geographies and new temples in Manipur, and the formation of new cultural productions such as the rāslīlās.
Bhāgyacandra curated aspects of Gauḍīya
Vaiṣṇava thought and practice that were already familiar with Meiteis, such as temple worship and dance dramas to create cultural products such as the rāslīlās
that would resonate with Manipuris. He also continued to patronize indigenous Meitei religious rituals and aesthetics, and refashioning kingship as a devotee caretaker of the throne which symbolically belongs to Krishna (Govindaji) as well as patron of the lais.
While Bhāgyacandra drew power from Govindaji for his sovereignty, it is also noteworthy that after Bhāgyacandra had inaugurated the first rāslīlā, Govindaji’s importance in the social and religious life of Manipur increased. In the 19th century, when new bridges, markets, and roads were built, they were consecrated to Govindaji or Vijay Govinda.83
of Rādhā and Govindaji also functioned as rainmakers, as they were beseeched to bring about rain by offering them gifts, milk, and performing naṭa saṅkīrtan
in an open field.
As a result, Bhāgyacandra managed to construct a hegemony, with his subjects being more willing to accept the legitimacy of his power and the hierarchical order over which he reigned. He was able to achieve what Antonio Gramsci called hegemony, which is built on the ideological, cultural, and moral consent given by the subaltern groups to their leader (Gramsci 1999, pp. 203–7
). In fact, this hegemony was inculcated and made material through a panoply of ritual practices, performances of myths, architecture, the transformation of the Manipur geographic landscape, and the production and circulation of sacred texts, all of which resonated with the extant local habitus. This “in-corporation” of the religio-political authority made his enduring legacy possible. Bhāgyacandra used such hegemonic strategies to manage diverse religious and political groups in Manipur and be granted religious, political, and legal power over Manipur.
The hybrid Vaiṣṇava–Meitei religious practices introduced during Bhāgyacandra’s reign became new generative structures of practice in the religious field. Even the titular king in modern day Manipur continues to patronize both traditions. The involvement of Bhāgyacandra and the royal family in religious cultural products spurred further cultural innovations. Subsequent kings of Manipur, influenced by the saṅkīrtan
as and the first three rāslīlā
s, contributed to further developments in courtly religious artforms, sometimes participating themselves. Some examples are as follows. It is recorded in CK that in 1869, another dance drama called Shajenba
, as it is now called), based on stories of Kṛishna playing with his cowherd boyfriends and killing demons was performed and witnessed by the king.84
It is still performed in Manipur today, especially during Janmaṣtami
, the annual celebration of Krishna’s birth. Another play, which also continues to be performed today, Kalīyā Dhaman, or the punishing of the Kalīyā snake, was performed during King Chandrakirti’s (r. 1850–1886) presence in the village of Langthabal.85
Chandrakirti is also famous for organizing and participating in a grand saṅkīrtana festival known as the Rasa Humphumaree
(64 rasas). Sixty-four devotional emotions (rasas
) categorized by Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava theologians were performed through song and dance, in sixty-four sessions over thirty-two days. In 1919, a new genre of dance dramas known as Gauralīlās
were performed with King Churachand (r. 1891–1941)86
singing in the performance.
Examining the outcomes of king fashioning by Garibniwaz and Bhāgyacandra through the lens of Kantorowicz’s concept of the king’s symbolic body, Garibniwaz’s corporeal body was destroyed by those who felt it was in conflict with their vision of the spiritual body of the king—the Lai Ningthou, god-king and patron of the lais. It did not resonate with their cultural habitus. Decades later, in Manipur, which had been ravaged by Burmese raids, Bhāgyacandra reconfigured the symbolic body of the king into a devotee-guardian of the deity Govindaji as well as patron of the lais. He was able to harmonize Vaiṣṇava beliefs and practices with Meitei sensibilities, mainly by honoring the deities of both traditions and through cultural productions that synthesized elements of Meitei rituals with Vaiṣṇava concepts. This new symbolic royal body was the result of a negotiation between Manipuri Vaiṣṇava and Meitei religionists. It was preserved and handed down by subsequent kings and generations through an incorporated and taken-for-granted aesthetics that becomes reinforced, revitalized, and re-invented every time Manipuris perform and witness a rāslīlā or any other ritual performance.