Myriad hues of Manipur

Amit Pasricha 23 Jan 2014

My first trip to Manipur was sometime in 1992, more than 20 years ago. I was invited to photograph Manipur by the state tourism department for their catalogues and posters. Since then I have made about five trips.

Apart from exploring the outskirts of Imphal, I have also travelled to the interiors and several districts in the state such as Ukhrul, Churachandpur, Bishnupur, Moirang, and Chandel. On one of my visits, I remember stopping at the Loktak Lake, which is barely 53 km from Imphal. This is one of the largest fresh water lakes in India and considered the world’s only floating lake. I am told now the lake has become an important picnic spot for locals.

Since my trips were always in pursuit of the ‘best of Manipur’ visually, I chose to travel during the festivals there. For instance, it would be during Holi (Yaoshang, as it’s locally known), Christmas and local festivals when the communities are in their festive mood, or the Sangai festival, an important annual festival held in Imphal and, of course during the bloom of the Siroi lily in Ukhrul district. Siroi lily is a rare kind of a flower that blooms only once in summer in the upper reaches of the Siroi hill ranges in Ukhrul and attracts thousands of people from around the world.

It was adventure from the word ‘go’ in Manipur. I can never forget my first visit. When the plane was landing, the pilot had to abort landing at Imphal till such time as the cow on the runway could be lured away!

That particular visit was in the winter months; I was there on the invitation of the tourism department who asked me to go to Ukhrul, one of the nine districts of the state and barely one and a half hour drive from Imphal. This district is home to the Tangkhul Naga community. As I arrived there, I was stunned by what I saw - hundreds of locals in stunning modern western wear came rushing out of the church after the end of Christmas Mass. The sound of singing and laughter filled the air. The singing carried on into the night and made me realise that Ukhrul and the surrounding area was the birthplace of many singers, guitarists and all things western.

The next morning was equally exciting. I was to visit the house of one of the former head-hunter warrior who had a cupboard full of human skulls – a rare event for me indeed, and quite a sight! Later, a trip to the ‘museum’ tribal hut and, the chance to sit outside the pristine and beautifully carved wooden traditional house and drink ‘rice beer’ from a tall cane mug with a tribal chief turned out to be an unforgettable experience. It is a pity that modernisation has taken place in villages and much of their traditional homes, too, are being replaced by concrete, tin and bricks. But the villages continue to be rather well kept and free of garbage, particularly, of plastic bags that are ubiquitious in the rest of the country.

On another visit to this area and a trek up the slopes of the Siroi hill ranges, it was wonderful to see families with their picnic baskets spend the day on the hill. It presented a serene and beautiful picture of the place.

My next stop was at a local village festival in the area. I walked past totem poles, the signposts of the village, and found that the ‘western locals’ of my last visit were now in traditional Tangkhul attire, dancing and singing a harvest song. Pearl necklaces had been replaced by colored beads and tiger claws around their neck. The old men looked rather threatening, much as I would imagine the head-hunter warriors of the primitive days. These hill tribes of Manipur seemed to be rather comfortable in both the worlds – the present and the past - and definitely proud of their traditions.

The valley (Imphal), which is more Meitei (Hindu) than the hills, didn’t lack in revelry either, though it was of a different nature. A ceremony at the Govindji temple in the heart of Imphal; a traditional Meitei marriage; young children who stopped vehicles to collect money for Holi; a group of elderly religious singers chanting in a village – the other side of Manipur was a revelation. My only regret was having to travel in a convoy, and not being allowed to venture out into the countryside alone. Even in Imphal there were curfews and regular skirmishes that brought home the fact that a rather vigorous armed rebellion to governance in Manipur, particularly in the hills, was very much alive. Such a pity indeed!

Cut off from the rest of India by geography and politics, Imphal has a huge challenge to develop against such resistance. It’s ironical that on the one hand, the people I interacted with presented a picture of calm and on the other, reports of grenade blasts and kidnappings appeared regularly in the media. The only incidence of violence I witnessed was unfortunately to do with me.

On one of my visits I photographed the Miss Kut contest, during Kut Festival, an important post-harvest festival of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo groups of Manipur. The local beauty pageant was followed by a fashion show. I thought that it would be rather good to photograph the modern face of Manipur. So, I chose a vantage point in front of the stage which I discovered was the spot that a local lad had his eyes upon too. Soon, I was muscled out of the spot and when I protested, things turned a bit ugly. I had to beat a hasty retreat out of the auditorium. I must say, they do back their muscle power with a bit of steel!

As I reflect on this incident, I refuse to let it colour my first brush with Manipur. The memories of their hospitality, songs, love of life and pride in their identities, carry me forward and urge me to return again to document their rapidly changing lives. In fact, I did return to the beautiful land again in 2011. But that is another story.

Amit Pasricha is an award winning author and photographer based in New Delhi. Among his vast repertoire, the Northeast features prominently.

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