The Vedic scriptures tell us that Manipur was a Krishna conscious land even more than five thousand years ago. But for the last several centuries the Manipuris have also worshiped various regional semi-historical deities, who hold a place in Manipuri culture even today.
In modern times, worship of Vishnu first gained prominence in Manipur in the fifteenth century, during the reign of King Kyamba. It is said that the Pong king Khekhombha of the Shan kingdom gave Kyamba a Vishnu chakra (the symbolic disc of Vishnu). The presence of the chakra seemed to bring about various supernatural events, so on the advice of brahmanas the king had a temple constructed for it and instituted regular worship. The worship was continued by his descendants.
The philosophy taught by Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was first introduced in the seventeenth century by five disciples of the great devotee Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura. The songs of Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura are still sung throughout Manipur, and his birthday is an occasion of festivities.
In the early eighteenth century, the powerful king Garibniwaj embraced the worship of the Personality of Godhead in the form of Lord Ramachandra. But the wave of devotion that turned the entire kingdom Krishna conscious took place during the reign of Garibniwaj’s grandson Rajarshi Bhagyachandra.
The Victory of King Bhagyachandra
Rajarsi Bhagyachandra ascended the throne in 1759, but in 1762 the Burmese, acting in concert with his envious maternal uncle, invaded Manipur, and the king, with his queen and a few attendants, fled to the neighbouring state of Ahom, now known as Assam.
The King of Ahom, Rajesvara, had heard of King Bhagyachandra’s virtues and was pleased to receive him. They became close friends, and Rajesvara arranged for Bhagyachandra to stay in the vicinity of the royal palace.
But Bhagyachandra’s crafty uncle wrote a letter to the king saying that the person taking refuge at his court was an imposter, not the great Bhagyachandra. The uncle advised the King of Ahom to destroy him.
The message seems to have influenced King Rajesvara. Though not entirely persuaded, he began treating Bhagyachandra with coolness and suspicion.
The real Bhagyachandra was said to have supernatural powers. So finally, on the advice of senior ministers, King Rajesvara reluctantly devised a test: In a public arena, Bhagyachandra, unarmed, was to catch and tame a wild elephant.
Confronted with this humanly impossible task, King Bhagyachandra prayed to Lord Krishna for guidance. Lord Krishna then appeared to him in a dream and advised him to enter the arena with a garland and japa beads in hand. Victory, Lord Krishna told him, was assured.
In the future, the Lord said, Bhagyachandra would be the sole king of Manipur. Upon regaining the kingdom, he should install a Krishna deity. The deity, Govindaji, should be carved from a certain old jackfruit tree growing on the slopes of a hill known as Kaina, and the physical features of the deity should match those the king was seeing now.
After installing the deity, the Lord said, the king should arrange for the performance of a rasa-lila, in which the deity should be worshipped with songs and dances. The Lord enabled Bhagyachandra to envision in detail the kinds of dress the dancers should wear and the manner in which the songs and dances should be composed.
The next morning, crowds waited on rooftops and treetops to see the fate of the supposed King of Manipur. Bhagyachandra solemnly entered the arena, holding the garland and japa beads chanting the holy name of Lord Krishna.
The elephant charged from a distance, but as it neared Bhagyachandra it slowed down and then knelt before him. According to some accounts, the elephant seemed as though struck repeatedly by some unseen enemy. King Bhagyachandra alone, we are told, could see Lord Krishna sitting atop the elephant’s head like a mahout. And to that Lord, the King offered the garland from his hand. The king then mounted the elephant and rode triumphantly through the cheering crowds.
Thoroughly convinced, King Rajesvara profusely apologized and offered his full assistance. He supplied men and arms to help King Bhagyachandra win back his kingdom.
After an arduous trek from Ahom through the jungles, Bhagyachandra returned with his forces to Manipur and regained the throne. He restored the kingdom to normalcy and set about to consolidate its small kingdoms into one state, while still preserving cultural diversity.
Lord Govindaji Appears Again
For some reason, some say because of repeated Burmese invasions, Bhagyachandra did not at once install the deity of Govindaji. But one day a tribal woman appeared at the gates of his palace, insisting on having an audience with the king. She bore a message, she said, from someone even higher than him.
Granted a private audience, the woman told the king that while she was cultivating vegetables in her field a young boy came before her and began playing tricks. He won the woman’s affection and asked her to convey to the king a message: He had made a promise, but now he was neglecting it, and the boy was very angry.
The king at once understood that the boy was Krishna Himself. He returned with her to her village – on the slope of Kaina – and there found the old jackfruit tree of which Lord Krishna had spoken.
The king arranged to fell the great tree, had it brought back to his capital, Langthabal, and appointed expert sculptors to carve the deity. He described to the sculptors precisely how the Lord should look, according to the vision he had seen, and advised them also to consult the descriptions in Srimad-Bhagavatam.
The sculptors carved a beautiful image, and when the king saw it he acknowledged that the form was superb. But it did not, he said, match his vision. By the king’s order, the deity was named Sri Vijaya Govindaji and opulently installed. An elderly uncle of the king became the priest of the deity. The king then ordered the sculptors to carve another.
They began again, but again the deity differed from the form the king had envisioned. This happened several times. Each time, the king had the deity opulently installed in a different temple and told the sculptors to try again.
The sculptors were getting anxious because not much was left of the tree – but at last they carved a deity that the king said matched his vision precisely.
With joyous festivities the deity was installed on the auspicious full moon day of Karttika month in 1776 and from the very beginning Govindaji was revered as the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The king himself, his court, his entire state – all were dedicated to Govindaji.
Skillfully, the king introduced all the features of traditional worship of Lord Krishna as taught by the followers of Lord Chaitanya. Rather than try to stamp out previous traditions of Manipuri religion and culture, by his own example he inspired his people in devotional service to Govindaji.
Devotion to Govindaji became the focus of the spiritual and cultural life of Manipur. The people became Vaishnavas, devotees of Krishna, but they expressed their devotion with a special Manipuri spirit. They were Manipuri Vaishnavas, and they are still known as such till this day.
The First Rasa-Lila
After the installation of Govindaji, what remained to be fulfilled was Krishna’s order that the King arrange for the performance of rasa-lila. The King now set about this in earnest. He engaged various experts to compose the music, design the costumes, and conceive the dances. The King himself provided guidance in all matters.
The dance was not to be merely an artistic performance. It was to be done for the pleasure of the deity and the spiritual upliftment of the audience. Krishna’s pastimes take place at the highest level of spiritual devotion, and the performance had to convey the pastimes of the Lord in all their purity. Grace, chastity, and deep spiritual feeling were to be hallmarks of the rasa-lila.
The rasa-lila was to be performed not in a theatre but in a ‘rasa-mandala’ specially constructed for the deity, Lord Govindaji. Govindaji Himself would be in the center of the rasa-lila.
At the time there was no deity of the Lord’s consort, Srimati Radharani. Who then would play her role? For the pleasure of Lord Govindaji, the King selected his own daughter, the young and beautiful princess Bimbavati. The King himself became one of the mrdanga drummers for the satisfaction of the Lord.
The rasa-lila was held in November 1779, on the night of the full moon. By all accounts it was splendidly performed. Over the years, the rendering of rasa-lila through dance and devotional song developed into a highly refined art, and even today it is celebrated as a sacred tradition in Manipur. Whenever it is performed, a prayer is made to Govindaji on behalf of King Bhagyachandra.
Perfecting a Life of Devotion
Princess Bimbavati herself was so overwhelmed that she renounced the world and spent the rest of her life serving Lord Krishna and singing His holy names. She became famous as ‘Sija Lairoibi’, meaning ‘the princess who owned the Lord’. The golden deity of Radharani at the Govindaji temple was later made in her likeness.
King Bhagyachandra was an ardent follower of Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura, an exponent of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. He was initiated by Srila Ganga Narayana Chakravarti, a disciple of Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura, who visited Manipur to spread the Bhagavata Culture. In 1798, after ruling for 39 years, King Bhagyachandra decided to retire from political life. With his sons, several queens and several hundred associates, he left the kingdom for a pilgrimage to Murshidabad (West Bengal), the birthplace of Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura.
The King handed over his state of Manipur to his eldest son, Labanyachandra, and spent the rest of his days in a life of detachment and devotion. He passed away in October 1799 at Murshidabad. His body was cremated there, near the tomb of Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura, of whom many devotees in those times believed him an incarnation. Thebrahmanas of those days gave him the title ‘Rajarsi’ meaning a sage in the form of a king. According to the King’s will, a portion of his ashes was bought back to Manipur and buried at the royal cremation ground, while another portion was brought to Navadvip, the abode of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
~ Jayadvaita Swami. (For information used in this article I am indebted to R. K. Gopal Singh and to Dr. N. Tombi Singh, author of Manipur and the Mainstream.)