Manipur: Long way home

The floating islands of Loktak Lake
Photographer: T Krishna Prabakar

Looking for a home away from home? Manipur might be it. Go forth in an exploration of its rich culture and welcoming people

WORDS AMIT GAIKWAD
PHOTOGRAPHS T KRISHNA PRABAKAR

I’M NERVOUS ABOUT GOING INTO MANIPUR.
As we wait at the airport in Imphal for our pick-up to arrive, my mind churns with random warnings about how the locals might not like people from another state, might not understand me, might even mistreat me. I know much of it is hearsay, but still…

Then Priyo comes along. A local. He is to be our guide on our maiden foray into Manipur. Priyo is friendly, approachable. Immediately, we feel calmer. Priyo’s presence feels… comforting.

MANIPUR is in the throes of the Sangai Festival, one of the state’s most-loved annual celebrations held each year from November 21 to 30. As we drive out of the airport, we find the street bedecked with posters and hoardings giving visitors information about the various events around the city. I can see Priyo making notes of the traffic patterns during the course of the ongoing festival.

Ten minutes from the airport is our hotel, Classic Grande, said to be one of Manipur’s finest, and packed to capacity with bureaucrats, athletes and journalists from around the world in the city for the Sangai Festival.

The plan is for us to head out soon after breakfast tomorrow to explore the city. But, when morning comes, to our surprise, Priyo has already worked out an itinerary for us. And, with my luck (I should have guessed it!), our first stop is a temple.

My trips in India always seem to begin with temples.

We find ourselves at one of the largest Hindu Vaishnav temples in Imphal, the Shree Govindjee Temple. Crisp in white, it follows the Nagra style of architecture and sits on an elevated square base. I pick a secluded spot and watch the faithful performing pujas and offering prayers. Our appearance makes us stand out in the crowd. Some, curious about our visit, want to take me on a tour. Others want to be part of Krishna’s photographs. Their warmth and joy at meeting us is palpable. It feels good to be welcomed and looked after. Who could have guessed that a visit to a temple could lead to such a perfect start? Priyo, perhaps?

Our next stop, not too far away, is Kangla Fort. Situated close to the banks of the River Imphal, the fort holds immense archaeological, historical and religious significance; Kangla was once the capital of Manipur. “This fort is one of Manipur’s biggest tourist attractions,” explains Priyo, pointing to the crowd gathered at the gates. The ground inside, near the Hijagang Temple, is now the venue for a photographic exhibition, part of the ongoing Sangai Festival. On display are photographs, mostly in black and white, showing Manipur in its different avatars.

Kangla Fort has been recently renovated and now offers visitors a garden, an artificial lake, the Hijagang Temple, the old structure of the Shree Govindjee Temple,a polo ground, a museum and, of course, the fort-like structure itself. One could easily spend hours exploring this gorgeous site, but, tired from our tour, we’re ready for a good Manipuri lunch.

Priyo takes us to Luxmi Kitchen, a place renowned for its fabulous Manipuri thali. It takes us 15 minutes to snag ourselves a table. “This thali is a bit different,” Priyo explains. “You will find at least eight to 10 dishes in your thali.” He’s right; when our non-vegetarian meal comes, there’s fried fish, fish stew, fish chutney, different varieties of dal and veggies. I’m amazed at the quantity of food offered in a thali that is so reasonably priced: just Rs.150. I pride myself on my good appetite, but finishing these gigantic portions is a happy challenge.

After a break, we join the locals at the Bir Tirkendrajit Park, an ideal place at which to spend an evening. I take a quick stroll along the cemented walkway, and the lush green park with its beautiful fountains and elegant design instantly soothes my fatigue away. One of the highlights of this park is the Shaheed Minar (Martyr’s Memorial), a stunning 11-metre-high vertical structure located at the northern end of the park, built in memory of those who sacrificed their lives in the Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891.

And then, on to the stunning Mapal Kangjeibung, the polo ground. Unbelievably, we find ourselves watching India beat England in the 12th Manipur Polo International Tournament, part of (you guessed it!) the Sangai Festival. I don’t know how, but Priyo has managed to get us some of the best seats at the ground. Sitting on the sidelines, we cheer every goal scored and defended. The contest, pretty much a one-sided affair, ends in India’s favour, with England trashed 4-7. I’ve never followed polo, but this unexpected introduction has made me a fan for life, especially when I discover that the game of polo was a gift to the world from this beautiful state of Manipur. Our last stop for the day is the Ima Keithal (Women’s Market), a unique market run by women in the heart of the city.

The next day, we pay our respects at the famous Imphal War Cemetery. This beautiful landscaped area is the resting place of all the brave soldiers who lost their lives in the battle against Japanese forces during World War II. I walk alone, reading the names of the headstones. Soldiers as young as 21 are part of the elite club here. As I head back to the exit, Priyo shows me a copy of the register that has the names of all the brave soldiers buried here. Then on to the Japan War Memorial (Red Hill Lokpaching), a beautiful memorial built by the government of Japan in 1994 to mark the 50th anniversary of the battle of 1944, honouring the lives of Japanese and INA soldiers who laid down their lives in that engagement. It makes a sombre close to our time in Imphal.

Travel NOW to know more about the people of Manipur and their rich culture, check out LPMI’s March 2019 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.