Vaishnavism and Raas Leela’s history in Manipur

Today is Janamasthami, celebrated as the birth of the Indian god Krishna, let us take a small journey to the picturesque North Eastern state of Manipur.

Why Manipur on Krishna’s birthday? This is because Krishna is still celebrated here in every form, through religion, art, architecture and the beautiful Manipuri dance.

One always thinks of Bengal and Orissa, the birthplace of Vaishnavism, the religious order with Krishna, an ‘avatar’ or reincarnation of the God Vishnu, as the central figure of worship. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is regarded as the person who initiated this order in the 15th century. It celebrated the mortal and immortal love for Krishna, between the human and the Supreme Power, and between Krishna, Radha and the ‘Gopis’ – it is not easy to understand Vaishnavism as it is a complex order but it struck a chord in the hearts of the most common person across India as it preached about divine love of Krishna as our inner consciousness. It did not have any hierarchical order like the difficult caste system and people were free to adopt Vaishnavism. Like my family did 3 generations back, that is why our surname is ‘Das’ meaning ‘servants dedicated to Krishna or Vishnu’. Those who became followers of Vaishnavism are still referred to as Vaishnavites.

Far flung, Rajasthan and Gujarat were even swept over by Vaishavism, more popularised through the musical treatise ‘Gita Govinda’ composed by Jayadeva in Orissa. (Govinda is another name for Krishna, he has several names across India).

I discovered the strong connection of Manipur to Vaishnavism in a recent trip and here is a small glimpse of it.

Manipur consisted of the Meiti tribe and was ruled over by them. Hindu religious leaders and Brahmins migrated to Manipur in the 15th and 16th centuries and some Meities started practising Hinduism. It is believed that in 1704, the Brahmin Nimbarka came to Manipur and spread Vaishnavism. He initiated the Manipuri King Chara Rongba and some members of the royal family into Vaishnavism, it was a personal choice and later adopted as a state religion. The Vaishnavism in Manipur is different from the Gaudiya Vaishnavism from Bengal.

Below are images of the 1st Vishnu temple built in Manipur, it is located in the Bishnupur district (not to be confused with the Bishnupur of West Bengal). “It is believed that the temple was built during the reign of King Khyamba (CE 1467-1506) of Manipur.” (ASI:

We visited Govindevji temple compound at Kangla Fort, the earlier palace and residence of the Manipur royalty. This temple was built by the King Nara Singh in 1845, but was destroyed by a devastating earthquake in 1869. There are no idols at Kangla anymore, though we saw the remains of the area where the ‘Raas Leela’ used to be performed. Only the pillars remain but to sit there and close one’s eyes and listening to Krishna serenading Radha with his flute is definitely a dream. Do concentrate on the intricate stone carving, of whatever remains. The pink carved door is behind where Govindevji idols were first made in Manipur and later taken away after the earthquake and the wars with the British for safeguard.

The idols were taken to the Shree Shree Govindevji temple in Imphal, recently restored in the palace complex. When you enter the complex you will find these huge iron gates, exquisitely carved, and then on the right after you will find a small pretty garden, with a few structures with interesting architecture. The entire temple here and other parts of Manipur, Vaishnavite or of other religious order, have striking amalgamation of architecture styles from different parts of the world. But that calls for another post!

The rituals are held keeping with the Vaishnaivite traditions and it was quite fascinating for me, presenting a small bouquet from the Govindevji Temple.

Here are some images of the loving dedication of the devotees, some women singing, craftspeople restoring the temple, handmade decorations and an elderly man writing from a religious text in his beautiful handwriting:

King Bhagyachandra who reigned from 1763–98 is credited for introducing ‘Raas – Leela’ – a dance drama depicting the love between Krishna and Radha, flanked by ‘Gopis’. Manipuri dance is one of the 8 classical dance forms in India. It is during the time of India’s rule by the British when the foreign rulers tried to destroy the very essence of India that Rabindranath Tagore revived Manipuri dance in his quest for creating a new identity, when India won freedom. He invited Guru Budhimantra Singh to Santiniketan to teach Manipuri dance to the students. Even today, the style of dance taught at Santiniketan has a strong influence of Manipuri dance and some of the dance teachers are Manipuri dance experts. We were lucky to watch a performance of ‘Raas Leela’ at the Iskon temple at Imphal.

I was lucky to witness the serene Srikirtan, dedicated to Krishna and divine love, at a temple in Imphal. It was sung by men, called the Pung and Kartal choloms. Here’s a small glimpse below:

These are small clips taken on a phone, please watch till the end 🙏🏾

All photographs and videos taken by the author, kindly credit if used. Thank you 🙂


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