This is where Britain fought its greatest battle ever; where weeds have become home and sanctuary; where hills steal hearts. Manipur is a journey that will take you farther, beyond every news headline and stereotype you have known
Words: ABHIJIT DUTTA
Photographs: HIMANSHU PANDYA
“IT’S like Dunlopillo”, says Raju, our guide, as he does a little jig on the phumdi, his feet pressing it down as if it were, indeed, a spring coil mattress. In response, the ground beneath us bobs happily, oozing a squishy mixture of black water and muddied weeds.
We are standing, if a tad unsteadily, on the world’s largest and only floating sanctuary – the Keibul Lamjao National Park in Manipur. The park’s vaunted highlight is the indigenous brow-antlered deer, the sangai, but, more than any animal, the park is its own greatest attraction. Created through a gradual, natural process over tens of decades, it is essentially a giant cluster of floating weeds, or phumdis, covering nearly 23sqkm. You would think that this is a bad thing. Aquatic weeds choke up a lake, depriving it of oxygen, and, when they grow too big or there are too many of them, it can kill the fish that live in it, eventually killing the waterbody itself.
Not here. In Keibul Lamjao, these phumdis have grown into each other to create an ecological marvel. Yes, the water is stagnant and all around you are solid masses of decomposing vegetation and organic garbage, but the reeds have come to mean life and sanctuary. Besides being the last known habitat of the endangered sangai, the park is home to a rich and diverse variety of flora and fauna, including a range of migratory birds, all of whom depend on it for survival. As a journey, it feels Amazonian: this is not the the kind of national park where you book jeeps for safaris, or walk down neatly-marked trails that guarantee a sighting. Here, you wait for a boatman to wind his way through the narrow riverine channels in between phumdis, and, when he is within earshot, you holler and wave and say please will you take me for a ride. You squeeze into his long and narrow boat, made from the trunk of a single tree, deep and solid, and you journey for an hour or two through grasses and bamboo stalks taller than two men standing on top of each other. You sit quietly, listening to the roaring silence in your ears – the calls of known and unknown insects, the buzz of bees and damselflies, the rustle of wind swooshing through vegetation.
At times the channels get so narrow and dense that you cannot help but be kissed by the wild flowers growing on either side. You begin to wonder if all that you knew about weeds was just bad press.
Keibul Lamjao is remarkable, but it is only half the story. In fact, only one-seventh.
The real ecological attraction is the lake on which Keibul Lamjao floats.