The first thing most people would notice about Imphal, Manipur’s capital city, is that it seems to be overrun with shabby, worn down buildings, traffic and dusty streets. And the city often becomes the mirror for the state. But if you have flown over the picturesque Loktak Lake, you’d know there’s more to this sleepy state than meets the eye. And there’s more to the city as well.
At the hotel that our group of six is staying, for instance, international polo players crowd the lobby, while a sumo wrestler springs for a quick smoke break before heading out. The week-long state-run Sangai festival, held towards the end of the year, is underway, and a number of cultural as well as sporting events have been organised as part of the fest. Incidentally, Manipur is believed to be the birthplace of polo in India, a sport of the kings. Soon, one realises that underneath its unassuming exterior, Manipur is a place of mystery, age-old traditions, pristine natural beauty and eclectic food.
The well-maintained Kangla Fort in the heart of the city allows one to step into Manipur’s past—a good place to start your journey. Kangla functioned as the ancient capital of Manipur from where kings of the Ningthouja dynasty ruled over this eastern state from A.D. 33 until the 19th century. It is a spot of historical significance today, as well as a religious site for locals.
Since my travel companions and I are weighed down by an excellent Manipuri fish thali lunch at the neighbouring Luxmi Kitchen, we opt for the guided tours on trolleys. Seated comfortably, we are carted around the fort spread across almost 240 acres of land.
Our first stop is the Kangla museum where one of the more interesting exhibits depicts Manipur’s troubled history through a series of changing maps of Northeast India. At one point, Manipur goes missing from the map. This was the Myanmar invasion of 1819, a dark phase known as Chahi Taret Khuntakpa or the Seven Years Devastation. Frequent wars have shaped this northeastern state. Manipur’s skirmishes with the Burmese, the Anglo-Manipur War of 1891, and an attack by Japanese bombers during World War II has laid waste to many historical monuments including the Kangla Palace, which used to stand about a kilometre from the museum. The original statues of the Kangla sha—mythical guardians of Kangla with the head of a dragon and body of a lion, acting as sentinels to the Kangla Uttra or coronation hall—were also destroyed by Japanese bombers. They were recreated about a decade ago by the Kangla Fort Board (until 2004, Kangla was under occupation of Assam Rifles).
Near the western gate of the fort complex is a white marble temple. Along its pyramidical roof with horn-like projections are emblems of a serpent biting its tail. This is the temple of Ibudhou Pakhangba, the reigning deity of the Meiteis, the largest ethnic community in Manipur. Before Hinduism made its presence felt during the 18th century, the Meiteis followed their own religion called Sanamahi. Pakhangba, the snake god, is symbolised by a coiled serpent or dragon-like form, which is also why snakes are regarded as sacred within Kangla and generally left unharmed. In fact, we encountered one such reptilian visitor at a colonial British bungalow-turned-museum. Needless to say, we decided to skip that particular stop.
A very different temple with an equally unique history is but a kilometre away in the fort complex. The Sri Govindaji temple constructed by Maharaja Nara Singh in 1846 has a pivotal role to play in the history of Manipuri classical dance. It is believed that the first performance of Raas Leela in Manipur was held in the courtyard outside the temple. It’s easy to imagine dancers dressed in colourful potloi (bucket-shaped skirts), swaying with their faces covered with gossamer veils in the light of a full moon, when Raas Leela is usually performed.
At the end of the tour, we are left fascinated by the wealth of history—both beautiful and unsavoury. In striking contrast to the temples and images of graceful dancers are the more grisly stories of the Nunggoibi, where heads of enemies were buried including those of five British officers (the trigger for the Anglo-Manipur War), and the Luphou Nung, a large boulder upon which skulls of the royals were placed for their last rites.
In the city, the history lessons continue. For a more visual portrayal of Manipur’s past, visit the privately-run RKCS gallery. Established in 2003 by the late Rajkumar Chandrajitsana Singh, the gallery boasts of over 200 beautiful oil paintings depicting Manipur’s history right from 1704. Singh’s son R.K. Budhimanta can often be found in the courtyard armed with paint and a dozen or more half-finished canvases strewn around him. With a little coaxing, you might just be able to buy one of his artworks.
A 20-minute walk from the gallery will take you to Ima Keithel or Mother’s Market. Located at a busy traffic junction, this all-women’s market, which traces its origin to the 16th century, is the perfect place to find everything local. Over 6,000 women, dressed in traditional attire—the woven sarong, phanek, and the dupatta-like inna phee—sell fabric, food, produce and handicrafts. Making our way past rows and rows of hand-woven phaneks and rani phees (silk inna phees), we arrive at the open market where piles of dried fish and local produce is on sale. Amidst all this chaos though, we are reminded of the role women have played in Manipuri society. In 1939, for instance, it was the women of Ima Keithel who rose against the British when unfair trade policies were imposed on them.
The jewel on Manipur’s crown, undoubtedly, is Loktak Lake. It’s an hour-long drive from Imphal to our destination, Sendra Island, a hilly outcrop overlooking the expansive lake. Even this stretch is riddled with historical reminders. A war memorial stands about 16 kilometres outside Imphal at the foot of Red Hill where, in a turning point in battle, British and Indian soldiers forced Japanese forces to retreat during WWII. Moirang, a small town close to Sendra, also houses the Indian National Army (INA) museum containing war paraphernalia from WWII. Since INA had sided with Japan during the war, they also suffered a great number of casualties along with the Japanese.
Sendra Island is a short drive from Moirang, connected to the mainland by a slightly elevated road that shows off Loktak and its floating islands of spongy soil, or phumdi. A government-run boating facility takes you around the lake on motorised boats but the best way to experience the lake is by hopping onto one of the smaller local vessels. The water, when it isn’t covered with purple hyacinths or in phumdi, is crystal clear. As you glide further into the lake, you notice the small huts on the phumdis that are home to fisherfolk. But we aren’t just floating aimlessly across Loktak. We’re being rowed to a lunch on Manipur’s first floating homestay, Loktak Floating Homestay, which was inaugurated in April 2018.
Run by a local family, the simple thatch and bamboo hut has a small kitchen, two bedrooms and an outdoor bathroom for visitors. While the more intrepid traveller would probably like to spend the night here, most stop by for a leisurely lunch. Seated at a long narrow dining table laid out in the open, we are surrounded by water on all sides and have water fowls and two kittens for company. Lunch consists of freshly-caught fish, local duck curry, lots of greens, dal, badis or lentil fritters, sticky rice and the Manipuri specialty, singju—a spicy, crunchy salad of shredded cabbage, lotus stem and local greens in a spicy king chilli and sesame chutney dressing, which is sometimes flavoured with dried fish. As with our other meals, dessert is black rice kheer. Easily the best meal we’ve had here, the floating feast will stay in our minds for a long time.
It’s hard to surpass the Loktak experience, but a visit to the neighbouring Keibul Lamjao National Park comes close. The world’s only floating national park, the 40-square-kilometre wetland is covered in phumdi. The unique habitat is the only place on Earth where one can find the brow-antlered deer or sangai. The drama of the discovery, however, is partly negated by noisy tourists thronging the sole viewpoint that overlooks the park. Taking turns to peer through a telescope (available on rent), we spot a single deer feeding nonchalantly on the phumdi’s abundant vegetation. The sangai is also referred by locals as the dancing deer, because of its delicate gait. If time permits, rent one of the local forest department boats which will take you across a narrow water channel to one of the hillocks in the middle of the park. The viewpoints there, we are told, afford a better view of the sangai and other rare flora and fauna.
It’s hard to sum up Manipur in one word. Surprising, is perhaps the best descriptor. And whether you are a nature enthusiast, culture vulture or just someone in need of a different perspective, this quiet northeastern state won’t disappoint.
The author travelled with Curtain Call Adventures (curtaincalladventures.com), which organises curated journeys to the north east of India.
Shivani Kagti is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer who has previously worked with publications such as Midday, People magazine and Bangalore Mirror. Having grown up with a view of the Himalayan foothills from her farmhouse in upper Assam, she's always on the lookout for wilder horizons.