Basantarasa of Manipur

Manipuri Rasa is an important classical dance tradition of India. Rasa is dedicated to Lord Krishna aka Sri Govindaji. Basantarasa, one of the five forms of Rasa is performed in the full moon day of Manipuri month of Sajibu (during March-April). This blog is featured on experiencing the spectacular, yet soulful event of Basantarasa held in Sri Govindaji Temple of Imphal, Manipur.

What is so special about Basantarasa of Manipur?

You can witness Manipuri Rasa in any Indian classical dance show.  But what if you get to see 70-80 ladies, fully dressed in the traditional costume of Manipuri dance, dancing around the deities in an age old temple at midnight! Traditional musical instruments being played behind; devotees singing prayer songs soulfully! Won’t it be amazing!!

They are performing this dance as a part of religious rituals. Most of the Indian classical dances were originated as temple dances. Therefore, witnessing a temple dance in a temple – nothing like it!!

You may also like – Tanjore Dance Festival

How did we plan?

It was our second trip to Manipur. Earlier in December, we had a week long vacation in the north-eastern Indian state of Manipur, covering areas like Imphal, Loktak Lake and Moreh border. On that trip we visited Sri Govindaji Temple of Imphal and came to know about the event of Basantarasa. We asked the locals on which date the full moon of next Sajibu (Manipuri month) would fall. It was a week end of mid April. Then and there we bought air tickets for our next visit to Manipur.

Later we found out that general election of Manipur is going to take place in mid April and the election date of Imphal would be the day just prior to the day of Basantarasa. Since, Manipur is a politically sensitive area; there is high chance of Basantarasa not taking place in this year. We called the driver and homestay owners of our previous trip, but nobody knew anything about this. Should we cancel our tickets? Or take a chance? Whenever this type of confusion arises in our travel-life, we mostly opt for the later one.

Imphal, here we come. Again! We checked in a hotel at mid day, left our luggage there, hired an auto-rickshaw and rushed to Sri Govindaji Temple. I could hear my heartbeats while approaching towards the temple.

See, there is an electrician on a top of a ladder setting a flashlight on pillar. We screamed out of joy. People were busy in cleaning the courtyard. Ladies were arranging flowers and making garlands. White cloths were dumped in one side for decoration purpose. A clear indication of tonight’s event! Our trip is not going to be in vain. We asked the priests about Basantarasa. Come around 8 pm – They told us.

Our Experience of Basantarasa

Mandapa of Sri Govindaji Temple, Imphal on the night of Basantarasa
The Divine White

Such an eye-soothing visual! The milky white Sri Govindaji temple! The decoration of white lights and white curtains! The white full moon on sky above! All the priests, even the devotees sitting around are wearing white or light colored dress.

Devotees in front of Sri Govindaji
The Devotion

In our earlier visit to Sri Govindaji temple, we noticed that here locals maintain a white dress code. Therefore, tonight we two are also dressed in white. Nobody told us to do so. We did it to respect their culture.

Locals gather to see Rasaleela
The Devotees

The idols of the main deities, Sri Govindaji and Sri Radhika are taken out from the Garvagriha (sanctum sanctorum) and placed in the middle of the Mandapa (general gathering area). Here the ritual of  Rasaleela is going to take place. The priests are busy in final preparation.

The Final Preparation of the Priest and Deities (Radha & Krishna)
The Final Preparation

The dancers were getting ready on the right side of the temple complex. Expert dressers and makeup artists were there to help them. If you look at the costume of Manipuri Rasa, the most notable thing you will find is an elaborately decorated barrel shaped long skirt stiffened at the bottom and close to the top. This is called Kumil. The bride of Manipuri marriage ceremony and the female characters of Manipuri Rasa are usually dressed in Kumil. Along with Kumil, they cover their upper body with a velvet blouse.

Multiple Barrel Shaped Kumils
Kumils
Preparation before Rasaleela
Final Touch Up
A dancer wearing jewelries before Basantarasa
It takes time to put on all accessories

When we arrived their dressing and make up were almost complete. Some final touch ups were going on.  Dressers were busy in bordering the Kumils at the top with undulating gauzy translucent top skirt shaped like an open flower. Some of them were attaching translucent veils on the headdresses of the performers to cover their faces. That creates an elusive beauty.

A fully dressed Gopi of Basantarasa of Manipur
The Elusive Beauty
A Gopi waiting for Rasaleela - Basantarasa of Manipur
Eyes, full of words

Now it is the time for Rasaleela. At the beginning, the head priest performed an Arti in front of the deities. Then a group of priests started moving around the deities while singing, dancing and playing musical instruments.

Priests performing 'Kirtan' in front of Radha & Krishna - Basantarasa of Manipur
Priests performing ‘Kirtan’

The female dancers were waiting in queue outside the Mandapa. When the priests finished their rituals, they started to enter one by one. Slowly they spread throughout the Mandapa and encircled the deities.

Gopis in different mood
Selfie Time before Rasaleela

Manipuri Rasa is actually a dance drama featuring the love-story of Lord Krishna aka Sri Govindaji and Sri Radhika. Here these 70-80 dancers were playing the role of Gopis. Gopis are cow-herding women, famous within Vaishnavism for their unconditional love and devotion to Lord Krishna and are integral part of Rasaleela. In any stage show of Manipuri Rasa you will find two performers playing the roles of Krishna and Radhika. They usually dance in the middle of the stage among multiple Gopis around them. But here in the temple, nobody is playing the roles of Krishna and Radhika, because the idols of these deities are already placed in the middle of the Mandapa.

Basantarasa of Manipur
Sri Krishna, Sri Radhika and Gopis

The Gopis were dancing in a slow but graceful way, with frequent sinuous movements. It seemed that they were emphasizing on upper body and hand gestures. Actually their feet were invisible to us for being covered within the huge barrel of Kumil and we could not spot the movement of their feet. They appeared floating on the ground; as if from a different planet!

The whirling postures of Rasaleela
Floating and Whirling

There were different phases in Rasaleela. At a point, we saw them applying colored powder on deities just like Holi. Once, all of the Gopis stopped dancing; sat within their Kumils; only one Gopi kept dancing around Krishna and Radhika.

A Gopi dancing alone while others are sitting -Basantaras of Manipur
A Gopi dancing alone; while others were sitting

Then some aged Gopis started crying in front of the deities. It seemed like they were pleading again and again. We could not understand the language of music; had no idea about the Mudras (hand gestures). But still, we could feel their devotion. They were not acting anything. Whatever they were doing that night was straight out of their soul, their belief.

Basantaras of Manipur -Senior Gopis praying to Sri Govindaji
Senior Gopis pleading to Sri Govindaji

The Rasaleela continued for around 5-6 hours that night. Though we could not follow the story, but we did not get bored at all. The music, the dance, the decor, everything was so soft, smooth, divine and aesthetic; we enjoyed every single moment of that night.Gopis Dancing in Basantarasa of Manipur

On our previous trip to Manipur, I had experience of wearing a Kumil in our homestay near Loktak Lake. I know how heavy a Kumil is! And here these ladies were dancing continuously for 5-6 hours wearing these heavy barrels; maintaining perfect harmony and synchronization.The Perfect Harmony - Basantarasa of Manpur

A differently able lady is performing as Gopi in Basantarasa of Manipur
A differently able lady is performing as Gopi.

Along with the dancers, the singers were doing their job continuously. The songs were mostly on high notes. I was astonished by their stamina. They did not pause for a single moment. And what a soulful singing!

The singers and a musician playing a traditional string instrument in Basantarasa
The singers and a musician playing a traditional string instrument

Traditional string instruments and percussion were being played that night. The priests were playing big conchs. Never seen such big conch! Some of them were playing a pair of conchs simultaneously.

Playing a pair of conchs at a time - Basntarasa of Manipur
Huge Conchs

Rasaleela finished around 2 am with an Arti performed by the head priest.

'Arti' after Rasaleela
The Last ‘Arti’

Just after the Arti, all the performers and devotees rushed towards Krishna and Radhika to collect flowers, leaves and colored powder dumped in front of the idols; as a token of their blessing. The priests came, lifted the idols and taken inside the Garvagriha.

The idols are ready to go back to the sanctum.
Back to Garvagriha

It felt like a beautiful dream that came to an end. Very few people know about Basantarasa of Manipur. We were the only outsiders there. The dancers, priests, musicians, devotees, all of them were so friendly to us! So welcoming! There was language barrier; very few of them could communicate with us by uttering 2-3 English words; but still we felt their warmth. They were happy to see us dressed in white like them; felt honored as we were documenting the entire event of Rasaleela.

Seniors praying to Sri Govindaji
The old man looking at the camera told us proudly – “My grandfather was appointed by Rabindranath Thakur in Vishwabharati of Shantiniketan as a Manipuri dance teacher”.

Our hotel was 3 kms away from the temple. It was not safe to cover the distance by walking at 2.30 am of night. Kiran Kumar, a priest of Sri Govindaji temple arranged a car for us. While we arrived in front of the hotel, Kiran Kumar called the driver to know whether we were safely dropped or not.

World is full of kind-hearted people. They are the real motivation of traveling.

Things to keep in mind

  1. If you are planning to visit Manipur in time of Basantarasa, download a Manipuri calendar, find out the full moon of Sajibu (Manipuri month) and plan accordingly.
  2. Another Rasaleela, called Maharasa takes place in Sri Govindaji temple in Kartik Purnima (full moon of Hindu month of Kartik).
  3. Visit Sri Govindaji Temple in daytime before Basantarasa and ask the priests when it is going to start at night.
  4. Have an early and heavy dinner before coming to the temple. You have to stay awake for long if you wish to experience the entire event. You may carry biscuits with you, but eat them outside the temple.
  5. Try to wear white or light colored dresses. Avoid revealing attire and loud make up.
  6. Be respectful to all of them.
  7. This is a soulful event. Do not spoil the ambiance by insensible attempts of arranged photography. Click candid.