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Different Colours of Holi Celebrations from North-East India

April 1, 2022 Authored by: Dr. Ankita Dutta

Holi, for Hindus, is the time when we meet one another, play with colours, have fun, laugh, and most importantly, welcome the summer heat after the chilly winters. Holi in North-East India would perhaps remain incomplete without talking about the famous Doul Utsav festival of the culturally-rich Barpeta district in Assam. Home to the Barpeta Sattra, Barpeta district is very much closely intertwined with the Assamese cultural and religious sensibilities. Earlier known as the Barpeta Thaan, the Barpeta Sattra was established by Srimanta Sankardeva’s foremost disciple Sri Sri Madhavdeva in 1583 AD.

After spending 8 years in Barpeta, Sri Sri Madhavdeva passed on the responsibility of looking after this Sattra to Sri Mathura Das Burha Ata in 1595 A.D. It was under the able leadership and initiative of Mathura Das Burha Ata that the festival of Holi came to be celebrated as Deul or Doul Utsav or Phalgun Utsav at the Barpeta Sattra. Also, under the guidance of Mathura Das Burha Ata, the Vrindavani Vastra was intricately woven by a host of disciples of the Barpeta Sattra, depicting scenes from various episodes of Sri Krisna Leela.

Even today, Holi is popularly known as Doul Purnima in Barpeta and it is centred around the worship of Sri Krisna in different avatars. Deeply rooted in the Sattriya culture of Assam, Doul Purnima is much more than sweets, colours, and food. It is the one festival that Barpeta awaits for with much enthusiasm throughout the year. Doul Purnima is ritualistically celebrated every year by the Hindus of Assam at the Barpeta Sattra, which is visited by thousands of devotees at this time of the year so that they can be a part of this colourful festival.

The Barpeta Doul Utsav is an integral part of the Assamese Hindu culture and traditions, without which any celebration of Holi in any part of the state is considered incomplete. As per astrological alignments, the Doul Utsav festivities continue for 3-5 days in Barpeta. The three days Doul festival is called Deka Doul and the 4 or 5 day Doul festival is known as Bura Doul. As per tradition, the four-day Doul festival is held in the month of Phalgun Purnima (full moon) and the three-day Doul is observed in the month of Chot Purnima (full moon).

The first day of this festival is called gandhasava/gandhajatra or banhutsava when the murtis of Mahaprabhu Doul Govinda and Kalia Thakur, beautifully dressed in new costumes and ornaments and other traditional finery, are brought out to the courtyard of the main Namghar (prayer hall of the Assamese Hindus). The rituals and festivities begin with the burning of the mehdah with locally-manufactured fire-crackers called phanuch. This ritual is commonly known as meji puoa or magh puoa. It signifies the killing of asuras and demons and all other evil spirits lurking around us.

The mehdah is made out of locally-grown reeds and stems of the water hyacinth plant. This ceremony is quite similar to that of Holika Dahan which is observed in other parts of the country on this same day. Men and women could be seen clinging onto the murtis of Doul Govinda and Kalia Thakur, while they take circles around the bonfire. The second day is called bhara doul when various religious rites and rituals and cultural performances associated with the Mahapurusiya Naam Dharma tradition of Srimanta Sankardeva such as naam prasanga, ojapali, gayan bayan and dhuliya nritya are held at the Namghar premises by the Assamese Vaishnava Hindus.

The last day of the Doul Utsav festival at Barpeta is called phakua, when the murtis are taken out in douls (dola/doli in Hindi) in a huge procession. People offer their prayers and throw phaku (also known as gulaal in Hindi) along with coins at these douls inside which the murtis are being housed. Devotees who take part in this religious and cultural procession sing holi geets which are exquisite compositions in honour of Sri Krisna, dancing to the tunes of various musical instruments such as dhol, taal, khol, and nagara, etc.

These holi geets are beautiful songs, a unique literary and musical contribution of the rich cultural heritage of Barpeta’s Doul Utsav. One of the famous holi geets composed by Srimanta Sankardeva and sung during the Doul Utsav celebrations is – Range phaku khele chaitanya banamali, duhate phakur gunda sichanta murari. There is a tradition called bah bhonga parba or crushing of bamboos, associated with the Barpeta Doul Utsav. The story begins with Mahaprabhu Sri Sri Doul Govinda leaving behind Laxmi and going to Ghunucha’s place at the Kalabari Sattra.

This is also the story which is mentioned in detail in the Ghunucha Kirtan. However, the Mahaprabhu is not permitted to enter the premises of his home after he returns. He is made to pass through a bridge of four bholuka bamboos, also known as bholuka baanh in Assamese. The disciples of Mahaprabhu Doul Govinda and Ma Laxmi subsequently join in a power battle in which the bamboos are broken and the Mahaprabhu once again successfully enters the temple premises.

After having broken this bamboo barrier, the doul of Mahaprabhu Doul Govinda is taken around the Namghar seven times before finally placing it inside the monikut (garbhagriha). This is also believed to mark the completion of the Doul Utsav celebrations in Barpeta and as well as throughout Assam. The memory of this particular incident is evoked every year during the Doul Utsav celebrations at the Barpeta Sattra through various holi geets, one among which is – Sandhya samayat karia anek utsava, Doulor bhitar goiya pailanta Madhava.

There is a Doul Govinda temple dedicated to Sri Krisna, located in North Guwahati, on the foothills of the Chandrabati Pahar. It is one among the oldest and most famous temples of Assam. All festivals associated with Krisna’s life are celebrated here, Holi being one of the most important ones, besides Janmashtami and Maghi Purnima. However, Holi is the main significance and attraction of the Doul Govinda temple. It is celebrated for over a period of five days. During any other ordinary day, worship of the deity begins with the opening of the temple, bathing of the murti in water and milk, followed by archana and by noon offering bhog to the deity.

In the month of Phalgun, i.e. sometimes between February and March, the festivities of Holi, commonly known as Doul Jatra, commence almost a week before at the Doul Govinda temple. Various programmes are being organised in the vicinity of the temple. The murti of Sri Krisna is taken out in a palanquin for processions across the place. Devotees sing and dance to the rhythm of different musical instruments, while throwing phakua or gulaal at each other. The popular story associated with this temple is that the murti of Sri Krisna which is consecrated at the main garbhagriha was found miraculously.

It was once rumoured that a milk-giving cow used to free herself everyday before dawn, and enter the forests of a place called Sandhya-Jhar, which is located near the hamlet of Jekeria in Rangia subdivision of Kamrup district of Lower Assam. One day, it so happened that the cow was stopped by a small grass called Birina, after which milk began to flow spontaneously from her udders at the same place where the Dol Govinda temple is presently located. When the then Sadar Administrator of the area Gargaram Barooah heard about this event, he himself went to the particular spot on the back of an elephant to witness the entire episode and ordered his men to dig the place.

A beautiful murti of Sri Krisna made of a rare black stone and playing the flute was eventually discovered after the digging was complete. It was this same murti of Shri Govinda which was later consecrated at the Dol Govinda temple on the Holi utsav. Another murti of Shri Shyamarai stands near to the murti of Govinda. Locals in North Guwahati are of the opinion that the origins of this temple have a faint resemblance with the Khatu Shyam temple dedicated to Khatu Shyam or Barbarik, situated in the village of Khatushyamji in Sikar district of Rajasthan.

This connection of the Doul Govinda temple in Assam with the Khatu Shyam temple in Rajasthan’s Sikar is, however, not borne out of any fantasy or one’s imagination. It may be mentioned here that a few days before Holi, the famous Khatu Shyam Ji Nishan Rath Yatra begins in Nagaon district of Assam as a mark of the pre-Holi festivities. It continues for 3-4 days and devotees carrying yellow flags called Nishan in their hands walk barefoot to reach the Shyam temple in Nagaon, and have a dársán of Khatu Shyam before they formally begin celebrating Holi.

As per the Skanda Purana, Khatu Shyam or Barbarik was the son of Ghatotkach (son of Bhishma) and Maurvi. It is widely believed that on the advice of Sri Krisna, Khatu Shyam became an ardent worshipper of Devi Kámákhya at the Nilachála hills of the ancient kingdom of Kámárupá (present-day Guwahati). Khatu Shyam has a lot of recognition among the people of Assam even today. A popular belief is that by being a part of the Nishan Yatra and offering the yellow flag to Khatu Shyam at the temple, all kinds of problems in life can be overcome. There are many families in several parts of Assam who take part in the Doul Jatra celebrations only after having a dársán of Khatu Shyam at Nagaon.

Besides the Barpeta Doul Utsav in Assam, Yaoshang stands out as another important festival of colours celebrated in Manipur. It is a five-day long event that is observed on the full moon day of Lamda, the last month of the Meitei lunar calendar, which happens to be either end of February or early March as per the English calendar, around the same time as Holi. One of the most important festivals of the Meitei Hindus of Manipur, Yaoshang represents a beautiful blend of Sanatan Hindu traditions infused with local elements.

There are several such Hindu festivals in Manipur like Kang Rath Yatra, Heikru Hitongba (a traditional Manipuri boat race), and even Ningol Chakouba for that matter, which is celebrated around the same time as Deepawali and Bhaiyya Dooj. This is the underlying cultural unity of the beautiful land called Bharat, which binds each and every region from the North to the South and the West to the North-East into one single territorial entity. Yaoshang represents the essence of the rich culture and traditions of the Meitei Hindus.

Originally, Yaoshang was celebrated in Kangleipak/Sanaleibak (present-day Manipur) commemorating the birth of Ebudhou Pakhangba, the presiding deity of the Sanamahi faith system of the Meiteis. It was on this day that Pakhangba was born at Kangla to Leimaren and Salailen Sidaba. In the earlier days, a separate house known as Naoshang (Nao meaning baby/child, and Shang meaning house) was built from locally available raw materials for the delivery of a baby. Pakhangba was born at a Naoshang, and the celebration of Yaoshang in Manipur formally began from the day of burning of the Naoshang of Pakhangba.

With the arrival of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in Manipur and Raja Meidingu Pamheiba making it the state religion in 1717 A.D., there was a healthy intermixture of Vaishnava traditions with the local Meitei Hindu customs of celebrating this festival.  But, what does Yaoshang signify? Chaitanya Mahaprabhu who is worshipped as the founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in Manipur, is at the centre of this festival. In the morning of the very first day of Yaoshang, the murti of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is placed in a small thatched hut made of bamboo and straws, which is especially constructed for the occasion.

This is then followed by the singing of bhajans and kirtans, offerings of prasadam, and collection of donations from the people of every locality (leikai), by young boys and girls dressed in traditional Manipuri attire. Similar to the ritual of the burning of the mehdah during the Doul Utsav celebrations in Barpeta district of Assam, in Manipur too, in the evening after sunset on the first day of Yaoshang, the murti of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is removed from the hut. The hut is then set on fire amid chants of He Hari, He Ram, and Hari Bol. This ritual is known as Yaoshang Meithaba in the Manipuri language.

The ceremonial hut is being burnt in every Hindu locality of Manipur as an annual reminder of the greatness of Visnu in his avatar as Narasimha who had killed the demon Hiryánkashipu. The ash that is produced from the burnt hut is considered to be extremely auspicious. It is collected and smeared by the devotees on their foreheads. They also decorate the entrances to their homes with this ash. Yaoshang Meithaba not just marks the beginning of the Holi celebrations in Manipur but also the advent of the spring season. This is followed by Yaoshang Koiba, or visit to the homes of relatives and near-and-dear ones.

Locals taking part in the Yaoshang Meithaba ritual, in Imphal

Among the main celebrations of Yaoshang, there is a special ceremony called Nakatheng in which small children visit nearby homes showering blessings of success, prosperity and a long and healthy life upon the elders. In return, they receive gifts of money and clothes from the elders as a gesture of gratitude. As a part of Nakatheng, there is a beautiful tradition in which children block roads and the roadside traffic with ropes in their hands, to demand money from the passers-by which is obtained after exchanging some lighter moments of bargaining.

The prices can vary from Re. 1/- to Rs. 20/- and even Rs. 500/- but rarely more than that. The little kids are expected to buy sweets and toffees with the money they get and share it among themselves, as a celebration of the happy event. Nakatheng has thus come to be understood as a fund-raising effort undertaken mostly by girls, for merry-making during the Yaoshang festivities. Another important cultural highlight of Yaoshang is Thabal Chongba – a traditional Manipuri dance in which boys and girls hold each other’s hands and sing and dance in a circle to the tunes of the traditional Manipuri drum called pung.

Literally, Thabal Chongba means ‘moonlight dance’ for it is performed only at night. It is a typical Manipuri celebration of get-together on the night of Purnima. Thabal Chongba is a very special dance form that usually takes place on the second day of Yaoshang, but there is no strict rule as such and it can be performed on the other days of the festival as well, including the last night. In the traditional Manipuri Meitei society of the earlier times, since parents would not let their girls co-mingle with boys, they would make use of this night to mix up with boys from the neighbouring villages since the boys of their native village kept constant vigil.

Thabal Chongba being performed during Yaoshang at a locality in Imphal

Thabal Chongba provides a chance for young boys and girls to know each other in front of their family members and local elders of their community. It is also performed as a mark of the celebration of any happy event such as marriage ceremonies, childbirth, etc. Sometimes, married women and young girls of the community organize their own Thabal Chongba events called Mou Thabal or Leishabi Chakchanaba, on the third day of Yaoshang. These have become an inseparable part of the Yaoshang festivities. A traditional theatre play called Shumang Leela which is based on the life of Sri Krisna is another major attraction of this festival.

Devotional songs called Pala Eshei dedicated to Govinda, are performed by Manipuri Nat Sankirtana bands which are especially trained for the festival of Yaoshang by the elders of the community. This tradition is also known as Holi Pala Esheishakpa. It is performed on the occasion of Yaoshang in Manipur at various Hindu religious places of worship such as the Shree Shree Govindajee Temple located at Wangkhei in Imphal East district. Originally built in 1846 A.D. during the reign of Maharaja Nara Singh and later rebuilt by Maharaja Chandrakriti in 1876, the Govindajee temple happens to be the largest Hindu temple of Manipur. It houses the murtis of different Devis and Devátás.

However, can any discussion of Holi leave behind the important role that colours play in our lives? Colours constitute a significant aspect of the Yaoshang celebrations too. People apply colours on the faces of each other in a ceremony known as aberteinaba,and children splash water among themselves with water guns known as pichkari. In fact, the second day of Yaoshang is also better known as the Pichkarinumit (Pichkari day). This joy and excitement of playing with colours continues till the fifth or the last day of the festival. A procession is being taken out to a local temple where people pray to their different Kula-Devis and Devátás by offering gulaal.

Traditional Manipuri games and sports such as Mukna, Yubi Lakpi, and Laphu Kabee, are some of the other interesting and popular highlights of this festival. One after the other sports event is held during all the four to five days of Yaoshang. Hence, Yaoshang is also essentially hailed as the “Olympics” of the Meiteis of Manipur in which various sports competitions are organised alongside the traditional festivities. These events are mostly organised by local communities and clubs in their own local grounds and sometimes even on the roadsides, during the five days of Yaoshang.

On the very first day itself, a sacred fire is lit to commence the beginning of the festival after which a huge procession is taken out from the Kangla Fort in Manipur to inaugurate the local sports meet. Small children, local clubs, and various other important personalities of the state converge at this fort to light their torches after which, they carry this sacred flame to the sports complex where the events are being organised. The idea behind organising games and sports competitions during Yaoshang is to infuse among the youth of Manipur the importance of living a healthy and active life free from diseases.

It is an integral part of the Holi celebrations in Manipur that aims to foster the spirit of kinship and sportsmanship, besides encouraging talents. From recreational games to competitive sports, the games and sports events during Yaoshang witnesses participation of people from almost every age group. In many places of Mnaipur’s capital Imphal, Yaoshang has almost become synonymous with games and sports. Yaoshang finally comes to an end with a special religious ceremony called Brajamai that takes place on the fifth and the last day of this festival. A massive pala begins from the Shree Shree Govindajee temple to the Sri Bijaya Govinda temple at Sagolband Mantri Leikai.

This procession is known as Sri Govindajee Halankar (also referred to as Holi nowadays). It is a re-enactment of various scenes from Krisna Leela in the form of musical and dance performances. A ceremonial procession of Lakhi Keithel Kaba (Ma Laksmi) is also being taken out from Kangla towards Khwairamband Keithel, one of the largest and famous market complexes at Kangla, Imphal. Offerings of fruits and sweets along with prayers are being made to the deities. After Halankar comes to an end, the women splash colours and vermillion (sindoor/kumkuma) on one another, which formally marks the closure of this festival.

References

  1. https://barpetasatra.org/festivals/deul-holi/
  2. https://assamtribune.com/culture/barpeta-doul-utsav-when-kaliya-gosain-comes-out-of-his-courtyard-1360092
  3. https://thebridge.in/sports-culture/yaoshang-manipur-holi-celebrated-sports-festival-20417

(A special note of thanks to Jayalaxmi and her family for enlightening me on various minute details of Yaoshang and also facilitating my visit to Imphal from March 26-30, 2021).


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