Some call it the middle of nowhere.I call it the centre of my world
Manipur had been in our minds for a long time. It is a state abounding in richness, both natural and cultural, and yet rarely occurring in an Indian tourist diary.
When we zeroed in on visiting and knowing the state, there were several attractive events: Cheirosoba (New Year) in April, Kang (RathYatra) in July, HeikruHitongba (Boat Race) in September, Sangai Festival (Cultural Festival) in November. It was a difficult choice. We chose the month of May because it is the time of the Shirui Lily festival.
The travel options to Manipur are many – Imphal, the capital of Manipur has its own airport which is connected to Delhi, Guwahati and Kolkata. The airport is housed about 8 kms from the main city and there are taxi services to ferry passengers to the city. Train is not a time-friendly option to travel to Manipur because Imphal has no railway connection and the nearest railhead is Dimapur which is 215 kms away. However, there are regular bus services from all the neighbouring state capitals (Aizwal, Itanagar, Kohima, Shillong and Agartala).
Since we would be travelling from Kolkata, we found the flight to be most convenient for us. The air journey to ImphalJulihal Airport presented some breathtaking sights as the plane began its descent. Since Imphal is a valley, the blue coloured mountains visible from the air offered a heavenly sight. Along with that were the meandering rivers forming patterns that are visible only aerially. I learnt later that the state is crisscrossed by array of rivers and that there are 4 rivers basins here. The rivers are fed by the songs of the surrounding hills. The vast number of rivers feed the large family of vegetation ranging from reeds, grasses, flowers, pines and deciduous trees. The valley looked verdant and well fed even in the heat of May. “Heat” however is an alien term in the state. The maximum temperature rarely crosses 30 0C in the summer months. For this reason Manipur can be a good summer destination.
The first evening in Imphal was spent in leisurely walks along the lanes and alleys of the city. The state is India’s “Gateway to the East” (through the towns of Morah and Tamse), and this important position was quiute evident in the commercial hue in Imphal. The roads are abuzz with traders plying their goods, busy commercial stores and handicraft shops at every interval. One needs to mention that despite being a state with high trading gusto, the state of the roads is deplorable. But one could not miss the natural beauty of the place. The mountain ranges surrounding the state give the place a serenity and the subtropical pine forests lining the roads in many places add to the wintry, foggy beauty.
Conversations with locals led us to one of our important areas of interest – food. The staple diet of the people here is rice and fish. This is why vegetarians will find limited choice when it comes to food. The cuisine is markedly different from other Indian cuisine because of the use of various aromatic herbs like Vietnamese Coriander, Chameleon Plant, Chinese Chives etc. to name a few. The dishes are hot and spicy owing to the generous use of chili and peeper in most of their food items. The first evening we dined on Kangshoi which is a stew of various local vegetables topped with fried fish or dried fish. As a vegetable lover, I requested for the omission of the final seasoning. Kangshoi is best had with rice.
The primary reason for our visit to the state was the Shirui Lily festival and the very next day we set out for the hills of Shirui. Local myths refer to the flower as KashingTimrawon which protects the spirit that lives on the Shirui peak. Interestingly this species of the lily flower is found only in Shirui making it a rare species. The right location of the flower for a first time traveller to Manipur is the Ukhrul district which is located near the boundary of Myanmar on the East, Shirui on the West, Choithar to the South and Sihai to the North.
The lily has a very pale, mauve tint and the bell shaped petals exude a faint bluish hue. We were told that when seen under a microscope, all the seven colours can be faintly viewed. The Shirui plants grow to a height of 3 feet.
Ukhrul, where the lilies are seen growing in clusters, is a beautiful valley. The population is sparse and the landscape virgin. We met some local tribals, TangkhulNagas. We had heard of their friendly and welcoming nature. We were heartily treated to their famous Ngathongba, a fish curry, and ChagemPomba which is locally prepared with fermented soya and mustard leaves. Though our trip to Ukhrul had been for the Shirui lilies, Ukhrul by itself offered us a panorama – the Khangkhui Cave, the ShiruiKashing peak and the breathtaking Japanese pond. The locals urged us to go to till Senapati, which they promised would feed our souls but Senapati was about 120 kms away and we promised to return another time.
The next day was reserved for history. We took a trip to the Western banks of the ImphalRiver to visit the Kangla fort. Kangla in the archaic Manipuri language (also called Meetei) means dry land. The Kangla fort was home to several Meetei kings and Kangla was the capital of Kangleipak, the ancient name for Manipur. The fort dates back to 1597 AD. It became a significant powerhouse for all the ruling Kangla kings and after the accession of British in India, they used it as a cantonment area – the “British Reserve”. The fort is thus replete with histories spanning dynasties. We got so carried away by the fort that there was little time for the Shree Gobindji Temple.
This temple is also a historical site – built in 1846 AD by Maharaja Narasingha and is a place of worship even today. If one is prudent with time and doesn’t get carried away, one can have time for the KhonghamphatOrchidarium. The place houses 110 orchid varieties from all parts of the country. It is maintained by the Forest Department of Manipur. Some of the flowers are biologically modified to take the shapes of various animals like bees, moths and lizards.
A visit to Manipur cannot end without a visit to the phenomenon called Loktak Lake. The lake is famous for the biomass floating on it. It is famous also because it holds the only floating National Park in the world – the KeibulLamjao National Park. Further, the park is home to an endangered species of swamp deer – the Sangai, Manipur’s state animal. The biomass of the Loktak Lake is called Phumdis which is an organic mass of various flora in several stages of decomposition.
Our trip to Manipur has drawn to its end. Some more interesting places adjacent to the state like Dzukou Valley, Morah and Bunning Meadow lay in our list of places waiting to be seen.