Manipur – The Land of Jewels

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By Sarah Koshy Johnson

We are just back after a fabulous holiday in the magnificent North- East, refreshed and rejuvenated. All set once again to face the eccentricities of modern day living. Transition from a holiday untouched by the hustle and bustle, where time has somewhat stood still, is also a difficult proposition. We literally have to push ourselves into the rigors of our mundane lifestyle once again in the midst of an anarchic surrounding. Fresh and crisp rain washed greenery all around,terraced Jhoom farming, smiling faces, light hearted people, woodsmoke and dung cooking fires are the treasures we have left behind trading it for the chaos and claustrophobia of the Metro.

Before embarking on this great holiday, I suddenly realized that way back in 1997 , I had left a big slice of my achy-breaky heart in the beautiful village of Tengnoupal, nestled in the hills of Manipur, a 70 km drive from the capital, Imphal. It was time once again to retrace my footprints, lost somewhere in the sands of time. After a long span of 17 years, I was going back to one of my favourite haunts where I had lived three years of my precious life. I still recall vividly how much in despair I was, when my husband was posted there way back in 1994. I had never heard of Tengnoupal. It all sounded so strange and alien. When my friends rang up to congratulate us on the promotion and posting, I had to mention where I was off to. Unfortunately none of them had heard of this quaint, pristine hill station. So much for our Geography lessons in school !!The erstwhile princely state of Kangleipak remained so till our independence. Thereafter it was merged to the Union of India and called Manipur- one of the seven states of the North- East popularly known as the ‘ seven sisters’. But I must second the fact that the seven sisters are so beautiful, that anyone would crave to go back in time and again and yet will remain in a mesmeric trance!

Manipur in the Meitei language means ‘The land of Jewels’ ! It has about 29 dialects, with a composition of 46 % Hindus who follow Vaishnavism since the 15th century AD  and Christians who comprise of 35% of the population. Manipuris are a highly cultured, soft spoken community. They have a rich cultural heritage to which they fiercely cling to. Theatre, sports and a form of martial art called Thang-ta  are extremely popular. Ras-Lila, the Manipuri dance form is very famous and is performed elegantly and rhythmically. Many of you will be surprised to learn that Manipur is the birthplace of Polo in the world. It has produced outstanding Polo players like Ojhatombi and Shyamjai Sharma who unfortunately did not get the opportunity of showcasing their talents in an International forum. The Manipuris are keen footballers too. Their woven fabrics, sarees and phanek innpahi are to die for. Rice is their staple diet with a lot of fish and leafy veggies. It is a sight to behold – the wide expanse of paddy cultivated fields all along the exotic Imphal valley. As the old Burma road unwinds, snaking it’s way uphill from Thoubal to Tengnoupal, pages of history slowly begin to unfold. This is the very road which has witnessed bloody and fierce battles between the Japanese and Allied Forces during the World War 2, all the way to the twin towns of Moreh(India ) and Tamu (Myanmar). It has been also a silent spectator to the havoc of the Naga-Kuki-Meitei insurgency. Sadly, a blood soaked road of yesteryears.

While we were there in the ’90s we were privy to a yearly ritual of Japanese delegations coming in chartered buses to pay tribute to their dead. It is a heart wrenching sight to see the young and the old, reverently carrying a picture of their loved one around their neck. They call out to their martyrs who lie somewhere in the folds of the hills, anonymously in everlasting rest. They indeed call out each of their names, say special prayers, strew flowers everywhere and keep their favourite food too. Some very old men and women would tearfully bid a sad adieu not knowing whether they can ever make it again in this lifetime. Surely time and tide wait for none! Whenever we would do some new construction in this area it was so sad and disheartening to see skeletons, skulls, ancient Military boots, helmets, water bottles, personal effects like keys and copper coins tumbling out of the hills. A grim reminder of unsung, unknown heroes and an era lost to the present day civilization.

Tengnoupal is approx 1490 mts above sea level in the Chandel district of Manipur – ‘The land of a thousand whistling winds’. I recall vividly standing on ‘ Top of the World’ overlooking the wide Burma valley (Kabaw valley). Surrounding hills and winds whistling past in urgency oblivious of any presence around are all part and parcel of this wonderful place. When I arrived in Tengnoupal for the first time, the officers almost scared me by telling me that the sounds  I was hearing were not mere winds  blowing but second world war aircrafts coming in for an attack. It surely sounded that way!!
Tengnoupal I discovered witnessed the most glorious sunsets. The skyline gets strewn with a myriad different colors and hues as though God himself was painstakingly painting this oversized canvass. I watched these pristine sunsets as often as I could and yet not had a fill of it. The sun would slowly and gradually sink behind the hills pulling the curtain over yet another splendid day. I would think to myself how fortunate I was while most of my countrymen had either not heard of this awesome part of India or endeavored to make a trip this side.

This time we had gone to specially attend a traditional Manipuri wedding of a friend’s daughter.What a great experience it was! Manipuri weddings are a rather formal affair unlike weddings in other parts of India.While the bride and groom are getting set to come to the Mantap , the drum dancers (Phung Cholom) perform a scintillating dance, an invitation to the Gods. The bride looks as radiant as an Oriental Princess dressed in a traditional Manda and all her finery. The couple does not smile or talk during the proceedings because they believe that if they do so, the opposite may befall them in their wedded life.

Unless we Indians travel the length and breadth of our country extensively,we can hardly savor India in her true form and vividity. Also worth a visit is the Loktak Lake with its floating islands that move, called Phumdi’ . The Seroi Lily in the Ukhrool district is a sight to behold.
It has a blueish pink hue and grows in the wild, over extensive areas. It flowers in the monsoon months of June and July, the peak season being May 15th-June 5th. The Seroi Lily is Manipur’s state flower. You would also consider yourself lucky to see the wide variety of orchids that flourish in the wild.The History tour will not be complete without a visit to Field Marshal W.J Slim’s bungalow nestled in the Kangla Fort, Imphal. Field Marshal W.J Slim was the Commander of the Allied forces in Manipur during the World War – II. 

A must see is also the RKCS art gallery, in Imphal.
So folks, next time you pack your bags and plan a holiday, do visit the North-East … It is an experience of a lifetime.
I sincerely hope and pray that we all can put our guns back in the armoury, every one of us , and join the mainstream , thereby looking forward to a better tomorrow. Enough of blood has been spilt; we need to infuse life now and work shoulder to shoulder to develop this beautiful State. Let’s dare to follow the star blazed road.

                  “Old candle – Let it burn bright – its light may show a path to someone in the dark”
                                                                                                                                   -Anonymous

* References:
Manipur – Wikipedia, the free encylopedia.
Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manipur

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Typical landscape around Imphal – with lots of water and paddy

Kabaw Valley – View from Tengnoupal

Tengnoupal village

The Japanese delegation paying homage to their martyrs

Our Manipuri Bride

Seroi Lily
Loktak Lake

Loktak lake with the floating islands

 

General Slim’s Cottage

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