By. N. Mangi Devi
This festival of Heigru Hidongba (boat race) is observed by the Meities society on the eleventh day of forthnight of Langbal month (September) of Meitei calendar. It is a very important joyous festival for all the people. It has been observed at the Thangapat (moat) of Shri Bijoy Govindajee, Sagolband, Imphal and not at any other place. This festival had been observed from the very early age say round about 984 and 1074 A.D. during the reign of MEDINGU IRENGBA. It is the festival of the race of two boats on that particular day with pomp and grandeur. However, the essence of this festival is the prayer to God for the welfare of the people and the country performed by the king and the nobles at earlier days. This festival has been syncronised with Shri Krishna Bhavana when the Meitei society accepted the Sanatana Dharma. There are certain rules for the ritual of this festival and the boat race itself.
One day ahead of the festival the Maiba (priest) cleans and purifies the boat with Mantras and throws Konyai on the boats and prays to Pakhagba (methological god of Meities) for the welfare of the king. Beisdes this, on the deck of the boats Sanakonyai (gold coin) and Lupakonyai (silver coin) with a towel (khudei) and a garland of Langthrei (a kind of ritual plant) are offered. Those who are to stand on the Tengmai (deck) should offer gold and silver putting together into a Nganthak Awumba (bowl of a hooka) to Shri Bijoy Govinda on late hours on day ahead of the boat race. On the day of the festival two boats joined together that is known as Hi-Khabak-Lakpa and Shri Shri Bijoy Govinda and Rashewori are to be installed and offer puja and garlanding a garland of Heigru(Amla) made of 108 Heigrus with an alternate bud of Hup (a kind of grass) and also a garland of Cheng Machang (fine whole rice) made of 108 pieces. The offered garlands of Shri Bijoy Govinda will be worn by the Tengmai Leppa of the two boats. The Maiba(Pandit) decide whether good or bad year from the result of the boat race who is the winner either of the wearer of garland of Heigru or that of Chengmachang. The king also offers Konyai (gold and silver coins) to Pakhangba for the prosperity of the land (country) temporary camps of two Tenmai-Leppa are put up on the south and the north of the Thangapat (moat) that runs from the east to the west. There are Hirois (rowers) and Khongbal Chenbas (assistant of boat race running on boat sides of Thangapat) of both parties are also there. Sitting arrangement for the king and the queen is made on the south bank and north bank of the moat respectively and sitting arrangement for the nobles was made on the eastern side of Thangapat and the public are crowded on both south and north sides of Thangapat. Before the race start both Tengmaileppa will offer Athelpot (decoratively arranged raw rice, vegetables and fruits) to Shri Bijoy Govinda facing the west then the race start with the muscal sound of Moibung (Sankh) which is the signal of starting the boat race not of gun firing. This boat race is known as Hiyang Tannaba in Manipuri society. All the visitors are attracted to the race. All the Hiroies and Khongbal-Chenbas are well dressed up with coloured turbans on their heads and special shirts and dhotis. They are extremely altert and vigilant in their duty and try at their level best to win the boat race. A strong string is put up on both sides of Thangapat from east to west that is 500 feet long so as to prevent the danger of crossing either by Khogbal-Chenba and the audience. The first winner Tengmaileppa will put up high his Nou(oar) to indicate that he has won he will prostratate before Shri Shri Bijoy Govinda and Rashwori. Then both parties will take rest and eat something at their respective Hingasang (temporary camp) for some time. Then the boat race will resume for the second time. The same procedure will be followed as is done at the first race. This time also the winner will follow the earlier process. The pandit will decide the good or bad of the year to come. There is a fixed number of Hirois (boat-rowers) depending on the size of the boat. Yet it is compulsory to have at least seven persons for each boat who wear decorative special wearings i.e. Ningkham-Samjin Chinba, Khadanchet Lakpa given different names to each of them for the purpose festival of Hiyang-Tannaba (boat-race) as specified:-
(i) Nou-Khongreng (ii) Nouba (iii) Teng-Maileppa (iv) Chang (v) Chang Mathong (vi) Langjei (vii) Tou. Theses boat men should be skillful and brave enough to control the boat and help Tengmai-Leppa all the time since Teng-Mai-Leppa does not hold the Nou(oar). The rest of the Hiroi wear coloured khudei (towel) and turbans. Thus this festival with faith and devotion has been observed every year at the afternoon of the day mentioned above. Pray to both Pakhanga traditional deity and Shri Bhagwan Krishna for the welfare of the state (country). It is conventional that until the day of this festival has observed no one is allowed to eat Heigru (Amla) in the Meitei society of Manipur. The unique feature of this festival is the pompous and graceful rowing of the two boats together into the shinning water of Bijoy Govinda Thangapat and the biggest gathering all round people of Imphal Valley. It is a wonderful sight to witness the most grandeur festival being held once in a year.