History Of Manipuri Dance Forms

It is stated that the indigenous people of the valley were the Gandharva’s mentions in the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The dance patterns in Manipur must have a link with the Gandharva’s Culture – which is mythological believed to excel over all other dance forms…

Manipuri dance – as the name suggests, originated in Manipur, the north-eastern state of India – a paradise on earth when the nature has been extra generous in her beauty. Love of art and beauty is inherent in the people of this land from time immemorial. The people of Manipur are well-known for their high cultural sense. They are very religious minded exclusively attached to Sri Krishna and Sri Radhika, who are always in their thought. And it is difficult to find Manipuri girl who cannot sing or dance. Not only girls but boys too excel in art and culture. Dancing as a profession for few classes of people is unknown to the simple people. Every Manipuri can dance without additional effort and considerable time.

A young Boy plays the rule of Krishna in the Ras Lila. This child seemed to be too young to dance. Surprisingly most of the dancers do not have a formal training.

According to the popular thought, the indigenous people of this valley were the dance-expert Gandharva’s, mentioned in the epic Ramayana and Mahabharata [Ref 1.1]. The Aswamedha Parva of Mahabharata refer to the defeat of Pandava’s at Manipur and the identification of Babhrubahana, the son of Arjuna and Chitrangoda, the soul daughter of the Gandharva king Chitrabahana. Babhrubahana, the legendary King of Manipur played a vital role in the formation of the existing professional caste and races of Manipur. It is believed that the dance patterns in Manipur must have a link with the Gandharva’s Culture – which is mythological believed to excel over all other dance forms. Among the classical categories, ‘RasLeela’ – a highly evolved dance drama, choreographed on Vaishnav Padavali’s, is the highest expression of artistic genius, devotion and excellence of the Manipuris.


Theories about the Vedic origin of Manipuri Dance

The history of Manipur says that different clans of the Indo-Vedic and Mongoloid people lived side by side in Manipur for centuries. Now it assembled in her the major folks of the east and the west – the Meiteis and the Bishnupriya Manipuris [Ref 1.2]. Orthodox Bishnupriya Manipuris consider themselves to be the genuine Vedic decent, who according to them, came to Manipur valley from Dvaraka and Hastinapura, just after the Mahabharata war, which happening before the 9th century B.C. as generally accepted by modern research. The Meitheis, on the other hand, differentiate themselves as mongoloid group of people. But some orthodox Meiteis believe that they are the descendants of group of people coming from Mithila (Videha) which is the eastern frontier of Aryan culture for a long time.

Referring to the people of Manipur E.T. Dalton in his book “Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal”, states that, ” ..And, this hordes overrun a country(Manipur) that has been previously occupied by the people of Aryan blood known in the western India and to the Bards.” Also while explaining the appearance of the Manipuris, Dr. R. Brown says ” although the general facial characteristics of the Mannipurie are of Mongolian type, there is great diversity of features among them, some of them showing regularly approaching the aryan type”(Imperial gazetteer of India, 1908, Vol 17, page 126).

So certainly there was a bulk of Vedic people from the north-west of India had entered into Manipur valley in the pre-Christian era [Ref 1.3]. If we talk of the history in respect of the Aryan population, their migration, settlements and cultural penetration and the development of political institutions in Manipur Valley, there are a little source of information’s about this. Ancient temples like the Vishnu temple of Bishnupur, Govindajiew temple in imphal, the Kohima stone, old palaces and other related buildings and structures provide us little more historical information’s. G. E.Geraini, in his work, Researches on Ptolemy’s Geography, indicated the establishment of an Indo-Vedic state by the Bishnupriya Manipuris in the remote period in Manipur. He states, “From the Brahmaputra and manipur to the tonkin gulf, we can trace a continuous string of petty states ruled by those scions of the ksatriyo race, using the sanskrit or pali language in official documents and iscriptions, buildings, temples and monuments of old Hindu style and employing Brahmin priests at the propitiatory ceremonies connected with the court, and the state”.

The Manipuri Dance and Music of international repute basically center round Krishna Bhakti and is indeed a great contribution of the Gandharva’s and the Vedic immigrants to Manipur as per expressions found in Ashoka’s Pillar inscriptions.


 Lai-haraoba mirrors the pre-vaishnavite culture

The other race in Manipur, the Meitheis, moved in from Chinese territory and this is reflected in the name. Meithei means,, in Chinese, ‘people of this country’ i.e., Chinese territory. “It is quite probable that the kalachaias
[ Note 1.4 ] are the first cultural race in possession of the Manipur valley,” wrote Rajmohan nath in’ The Background of Assamese Culture’. R.M. Nath also held that- “The Meitheis were the later immigrants.” The Meitheis brought with them the experience and momentum of an ancient civilization. They probably had superiority in numbers and gradually they gained ascendancy. Manipuri folklore tells of an adventurer named Poireiton who came form’ the land of death’ and taught the locals many wonderful things. This mythical figure may have been an enterprising Meithei. It is also possible that Poireiton wasn’t a single person. It may have been a common name for the early settlers.

It is evident by a number of sources that china supplied some earlier racial elements that attributed to the development of the Indo-Chinese culture in Assam.The Accounts of Shung Shu (420 -479 AD) recorded the Chinese’s subduation of manipur valley, and also establishment of their suzerainty over Kapily valley which is to be located in Modern Nowgaon. Referring to the Chinese or Mongolian racial elements in the Manipur valley, Arther Pelliot (Deux Itineraries) stated that the Chinese invaded the valley in about 700 AD [Ref 1.5]. The Chinese called the people of the valley as Khalachas, i.e. the son of the wide lake( Loktak) and described them as highly civilized. Interestingly , the Meiteis of the Mongolian stock and later comers to Manipur used to call the Bishnupriya Manipuri as Khalachaya. E. T. Dalton held that by degrees the Meiteis became more powerful in Manipur. It encouraged them to introduce matrimonial relations with the indigenous people undoubtedly with the Vedic Aryan people, and it now merged into totally a new origin, i.e. Indo-Mongoloid Culture.

However, as mentioned in the Meitei sacred scriptures and texts, a most comprehensive dance form popularly known as Lai-haraoba mirrors the pre-vaishnavite culture and other types of solo, duet, group, etc., within its body.
Lai-Haraoba (Merry Festival of the Deities) is the festival of the recollection of the creation stories played by all these deities with the first origin of this universe and evolution of the plants and animals through the will of Atiya Shidaba, the Supreme God of the Meitei sanamahi’s.


A Remarkable Example of Cross-Cultural History

The people of Manipur and Bengal provide a most interesting example of cultural and aesthetic fusion. The story begins in the 15th century when religious developments from Bangladesh reached Manipur. By the mid-seventeenth century a full repertoire of songs and dances of Bangla origin took root in Manipur. This was aptly named ‘Bangladesh Pala [Ref 1.6]. Gradually the main center of Bangladesh’s distinctive school of the Kirtan-based songs and dances shifted to Manipur and has remained there ever since as an essential part of Manipuri culture.

The most obliging aspect of Manipuri culture is that, it has retained the ancient ritual based dances and folk dances along with the later developed classical Manipuri dance style. Among the classical categories, ‘Raas Leela’ – a highly evolved dance drama, choreographed on ‘Vaishnavite Padavalis’ composed by mainly eminent Bengali poets and some Manipuri Gurus, is the highest expression of artistic genius, devotion and excellence of the Manipuris.


Contribution of Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore, the world poet, was a great patron of the Manipuri dance and culture. He also deserves a honorable place in the style and regarded as the ” pioneer of Manipuri dance and culture”. It was he who popularized the style with its high zenith among the people of the world. The world poet was fascinated with the lovely and charming Manipuri Rasleela at Machhimpur, a Bishnupriya Manipuri locality in the modern Sylhet District in Bangladesh in 1920. He immediately decided to open a new department of Manipuri Dance in his Shantiniketon in Calcutta.[Ref 1.7] Consequently , he invited Guru Senarik Singha Rajkumar, – a native of kalijar downtown Silchar of Assam and Guru Nileshwar Mukharjee of kamlganj thana of undivided Sylhet district. Both of the Gurus belonged to the Bishnupriya Manipuri Community, [Note 9] and with them the new department of It was an epoch making events in the history of Manipuri Dance and within a decade in crossed its regional as well national fields and became a reputed international style.


Ritualistic, Recreational, Religious and Temporal

The traditional Manipuri style of dancing preeminently embodies delicate, lyrical and graceful movements which enhance the audience in its beautiful and colourful costumes and presentation. The Manipuri dance whether folk, classical or modern, is devotional in nature. The folk dances of people captivate the beholders with their exotic costumes and simple but graceful rhythm. Their folklore is rich in quality. The dances are ritualistic and recreational, religious and temporal. The ritual dances are performed at a particular rite or ceremony or sacrifice and these dances naturally have a spiritual and religious basis. [Ref 1.8]

From the religious point of view and from the artistic angle of vision, it is claimed that the Manipuri Classical Form of dance is one on the most chestiest, modest, softest and mildest but the most meaningful dances of the world.


More Info:
About Manipur: http://manipurinfo.tripod.com
About Manipuri Religion: http://manipuri.itgo.com




The Gandharva’s dance skills are mentioned in the Ramayana and Mahabharata and other Hindu Puranas. . In Mahabharata, there is reference to Manipur in at least four different places – once in Adi parva, twice in Aswamedha parva and once in Mahaprashthanik parva. According to the Mahabharata, the ancient name of this country was ‘Meckley’ and this is the name that was used when King Gaursham signed a treaty with the British in 1763. In 1876, the king of Manipur used the same name referred to his kingdom which is documented in the treaty with the British Government.

Scholars have different opinions as well as views regarding the exact location of the Mahabharatya Manipur with the recent Manipur. In the Allahabad stone pillar inscription of Samudra Gupta(4th century AD) there is no mention of Manipur, although the neighboring kingdoms are named. In old assamese records, Manipur is mentioned as Magloo or Moglai. The Burmese call the country a Cassey or Kassay. McCulloch described that “ The name Manipour accounted for by the Munniporie, who quote the Mahabharata in confirmation of its accuracy. They gave the same form Muni, a jewel. This jewel formerly in the possession of the Rajas of the country ages ago. The country was at one time named Mahindrapore, but one Rajah by the name Manipur was in existence before the birth of Babhrubahana, and Mahindrapore or Mahindra Parbhata was the name of the hill, situated but a short distance to the east of the capital”. On the other hand G. E.Geraini’s Researches on ptolemy’s Geography and The Gaits History of Assam compiled by Prof. Padmanath Battacharjee, stated that Bishnupur was the ancient capital of Manipur and Imphal come into existence in much later period than that of the city of Bishnupur.

Dr. Dinesh Chandra Sen( Brihod Bongo, 1935), Shri Ochchutcharan Chaudhury Tatvanidhi ( Srihotter Itibritta, 1905, ), Shri Janokinath Bosak( Manipur prohelika), L. Ibubghal Singha ( Manipura), Sri Sena Singha ( Prachinadhunik somkhipta Manipurer Itihas), Shri Mukundalal Chowdhury ( Manipurer Itihas), Shri Mohendra Kumar singha ( Manopurer Prachin Itihas), Shri Krishnamohon Dhar (Purbabango O Assam, 1909) and some other Indian scholars and historians idientified the present Manipur to be that of the epic as described in the Mahabharata, in their writings and articles. [ Back ]



The inhabitants of Manipur did identify them as “Manipuris” since past centuries. The land Manipur was formerly divided into small territories occupied by different clans, namely, the Khumals, the Moirangs, The Angoms, The Luwangs, the Ningthoujas, etc. The territories were after the names of the respective clans. Besides there are 70 Lokei( Ningthou –Khongya or members of Royel Family), Lempa Lokei (Thakcham), Moirango Lokei (Moirang –them) are the dominating groups. Each of the Lokei have their distinct ethnic identity( Gotros). So different clans of the Aryan and Mongoloid people lived side by side in Manipur for centuries. Conversion of Meiteis in Hinduism by Shri Santidas Babaji in 19th century at the instance of the king Shri Pamhaiba was aimed at linking the with the Aryans, the mainstream of people of Manipur and their language too with Sanskrit.The Aryans, the followers of Lord Vishnu denied to accept the initiation by Shri Santadas Babaji and the others(accepted). And thus the Manipuri people – Aryan and Kuki-chin group have been classified and renamed as Bishnupriya and Meiteis their language too. Culturally, the Meiteis and Bishnupriyas cannot be distinguished from each other. Both these two clans developed a homogeneous culture, and the concept of the one community grew among them. [ Back ]


By analyzing the root of establishment of Hindu dynasties in upper Burma, we can see that all the Hindu dynasties settled in upper Burma had to come across Manipur from the western and Northern India by road as Manipur was only the gateway of Far-East. The beauty of the land Manipur, lake Logtak and its surrounding areas also might have attracted them and some of them settled there and reigned there for years together.



Manipur-or Meckley -is actually on a tableland surrounded by hills. In the plains beside the loktak lake lived a race of people who had sharp Indo-Aryan features and used a language which was similar to the Kamrupi tongue rather than the Burmese-Chinese group. For centuries these Aryan people have been called ‘Khalachai’ which in southern Chinese dialect means ‘Children of the wide lake’ (Kha=Lake; La=Wide; Chai=Children) as described by Shri R. M. Nath in “The Background of Assamese Culture” , Page 86-87, 2nd Edn,1978. [ Back ]



Statement by Late L Iboonghal singha, Rtd. District and sessions Judge of Manipur in a monthly Magazine “Ritu”, 1959, page -21 : ” Arther Paliot in his History of China stated that the chinese invaded Manipur in about 700 A.D. and won over the war. They called Manipuris as khalachais or sons of the wide lake ( Loktak) and described them as highly civilized”. The Chinese inroads over the valley was authenticated in the writings of Hien-Tasng, the great Chinese traveler who has visited the court of Kumar Vaskar Varma of Kamrupa in the 7th Century A.D. [ Back ]


“CONTRIBUTE TO COUNTER AIDS”, a souvenir by APPIC Bangladesh, Jan 27 ,2000.

References from “Sribhumi Sylhete Rabindranath” written by NripendraLal Das, 1990, Bangladesh and Manipuri Rasalila Swaranika published by Manipuri raslila udyapan comitte, Bangladesh 1992).