Manipur: Land of jewels

Mukul and Shilpa Gupta
Filed on July 12, 2019 | Last updated on July 12, 2019 at 08.30 am
Loktak Lake in Manipur
SCENE OF TRANQUILITY: Loktak Lake in Imphal, Manipur is north-east India's largest freshwater lake


The north-east Indian state of Manipur punches far above its weight with stunning natural beauty and marvellous traditions.

We have gone back in time. Like the little children we once were, we're jumping - again and again - on a phumdi (floating island), unmindful either of our age or the disapproving looks of the boatman who has brought us to the lake.

The phumdi is no trampoline but it's spongy and bouncy, and we can't get enough of the fact that we're on a bed of weeds, soil and organic matter that refuses to buckle under our weight even when we stomp down with full force. Some sense of adult propriety prevents us from clapping our hands in sheer joy. However, within the space of a few minutes and some miles, we go from being childlike back to solemn adults as we read the epoch-making words on a plaque: 'The Indian tricolour flag was hoisted here for the first time on the sacred soil of India by the Indian National Army on 14th April 1944.'

Welcome to the contrast called Manipur, a delightful confluence of jaw-dropping history, stunning geography and a unique social fabric. Manipur, in India's north-east, means the land of jewels. There can't be a more apt moniker. From picturesque valleys and raggedy hills to thick forests and blue lakes, teeny Manipur punches far above its weight. It has given the world the record-smashing indomitable boxer Mary Kom, the sport of polo, a unique market, and the only floating national park. The state lures with a mosaic of cultures and traditions, like the martial arts of wrestling and sword-fighting as well as exquisite handicrafts and handlooms. Its attractions also include several dance forms - including the lyrical and devotional Manipuri dance.

A good place to get initiated into Manipuri history and heritage is the State Museum with its collection of tribal artefacts and weapons. For us, though, Khwairamband Bazaar proves to be the true mirror of Manipur's society that is said to be matriarchal. While the status and power of women may be debatable, the kaleidoscopic bazaar, aka Ima Keithel or mothers' market, indisputably displays the stellar role women play in Manipur. It is the world's largest market run exclusively by women. Here, all manner of commodities - utilitarian, decorative, cosmetic - are hawked by more than 3,000 women traders. While the genesis of the market is obscure (some estimate, inconclusively, that it has been around since the 16th century), there's no disputing the fact that it underlines the active role of women in Manipuri society.

A cluster of independent territories occupied by various clans became a consolidated sovereign kingdom under the Meiteis in the 15th century. Called Meitei-Leipak (Land of the Meiteis), its capital was Kangla, now renamed Imphal. Kangla Fort, a heritage site that holds archaeological and historical relevance, is representative of those days of glory. The fort complex houses the Shree Govindaji Temple, symbolic of Vaishnavite influence on the state, and the Hijagang Temple. Dedicated to Lord Krishna, the Shree Govindaji Temple is elegant in its simplicity with a paved courtyard and twin domes. It was originally built in 1846 using bricks and Burma teak but had to be reconstructed following a series of upheavals, including looting and earthquake.
Langthabal, next to the campus of Manipur University in Canchipur, is famous for the crumbling ruins of an early 19th-century palace that was built by Maharaja Gambhir Singh after the liberation of Manipur from Burmese occupation.

Apart from the brick-red vestiges of the palace, there are temples and other sites dating back almost two centuries, set amid pine and jackfruit forests. A secret Manipur keeps close to its chest is that the sport of polo has its origins here. Known as Sagol Kangjei, it differs slightly from the modern, universal version. You can catch all the action from October to June at the Mapal Kangjeibung, the world's oldest functioning polo ground in Imphal.

Palaeolithic remains have been found at various sites across the state and short excursions from Imphal yield vistas unique to Manipur. Whether it's the holy land of Bishnupur with several heritage temples, or Ukhrul, bestowed with ample natural bounty including peaks and limestone caves, the virginal Thoubal that's an ideal trekking destination, or the Dzukou Valley known for the rare eponymous lily (July is the flowering season of the Dzukou lily), the cup-shaped state holds sights that inadvertently delight.

An ancient land apparently referenced in the epic Mahabharat, Manipur was thrust into global consciousness for what eventually came to be the turning point of World War II. Its transformation from a peaceful haven of the Raj into a site for a bloody war was precipitated by the Japanese who, with help from Subhash Chandra Bose's Indian National Army (INA), wanted to wrest Imphal from the British. Today, all that remains to serve as reminders of the Battle of Imphal are two solemn WWII Cemeteries, immaculately maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, UK National Army Museum's declaration of Imphal/Kohima as Britain's Greatest Battle, and an assortment of sites - including many roads that were first tarred during the war. However, the most epic reminder of both battle and bravery is the INA Museum in Moirang (45 km from Imphal), once the unofficial headquarters of the INA. It exhibits a priceless collection of photographs, correspondence and artefacts of Bose and his INA comrades.

Loktak Lake, near Moirang, is unique not because it is north-east's largest freshwater lake but because of the incredible phumdis - floating mass of decomposing weed and vegetation, some doughnut-like, others forming islands. Larger phumdis are inhabited by local fisherfolk who have built huts, called khangpok. The Loktak is a lifeline for Manipur and it's a sight to behold as scores of fishermen set out fishing in their boats. Naturalists should also visit the Keibul Lamjao National Park, the only natural abode of the Sangai deer. It's a large phumdi, bestowing upon it the unparalleled honour of being the world's lone floating national park. But what we will remember forever is the ease with which Loktak transformed us into children. We admit it felt good.

What Manipur eats
The staple food of the state is rice. Fermented soyabeans, vegetables like mushrooms, and fermented fish dishes are everyday features (Hindu Vaishnavites consider fish to be vegetarian). Try iromba, a stew of veggies, bamboo shoots and dried fish, and ngri, another preparation with dried fish. Be careful of the heat though as Manipuris love peppers. Morok-metpa, a spicy sauce made of either red or green chillies and dried fish, is omnipresent.

Getting there
There are daily flights connecting Imphal, Manipur's capital, to New Delhi and Kolkata as well as the north-eastern cities of Guwahati, Dimapur, Aizawl and Silchar. Dimapur, 200 km from Imphal, is the nearest railhead. The under-construction India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway will connect Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand.