Photo: Inside the Kangla Fort
A first-time visitor from the mainland experiences local food, sights, and the popular question, “are you from India”?
My introduction to the Nagas and their decades old struggle for liberation is dramatic. I am informed, in a very matter-of-fact manner, by a political worker that it was with the leftover Japanese arms and ammunition of World War II that the Naga war against India began. This is during my maiden visit to Imphal, capital city of Manipur, and this is one of the many interesting facts that I will chance upon during my four-day stay in the city.
Manipur, one of the seven states that form Northeast India, is home to many ethnic tribes—the Meiteis, the Kukis, the Zos, the Pangans being relatively the better known ones amongst more than 40. The Northeast remains largely alienated from mainland India, and the clubbing together of the seven states is problematic to me, considering each state has its own culture, history, politics, and therefore a distinct identity.
In anticipation of this visit, as I was going through reading materials for information on the state, a friend offered practical advice: You will never understand a people unless you have tasted their food and drink. Taking this seriously, I head out to the unique Ima Keithel market of Imphal as soon as I have finished check-in formalities at my hotel. This is a 500-year-old all-women’s market, and has the distinction of being Asia’s largest such marketplace where approximately 5,000 women in their colourful mekhlas perform business without much ado. It is a large, covered portico roughly divided into sections depending on what is on sale—clothes, shoes, bags, trinkets, fruit and vegetables, incense and sandalwood, pottery, reed mats and baskets, meats: dried fish, even live fish so you can choose your pick. I feel like Alice in Wonderland, making my way through labyrinthine alleys. There are numerous food stalls as well and I sit down at one. I am served local food—plateful of rice, dal, fried pumpkin, blanched greens, squash and a serving of fried fish along with fish curry.
I try to strike a conversation with the lady who is busy frying fish and simultaneously attending to her many customers. I fail, as much because of language being a barrier as also this being a busy time for her. However, I do manage to gather a precious piece of information that Hindu married women wear a sandalwood tilak, right from the spot between their eyebrows midway down to their nose.
Stepping out of the market, as I walk around, I do not sense the kind of hostility one expects to encounter in a conflict zone, which, sadly, most of the Northeast is. Though there are gun-toting security personnel posted every few metres all across the picturesque landscape, I do not feel overwhelmed as I did when I initially visited Kashmir. It dawns on me that the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir is not the only unfinished business of the Partition of the Indian subcontinent. The Northeast remains an equally troubled, unfinished business.
Close by is the Kangla Fort—erstwhile palace and seat of power—which, for some reason, is closed for visitors for that particular day. Not very far from it is the Nupi War Memorial that highlights the fact that women in Manipur have not shied away from the war front. The memorial complex houses sculptures portraying Manipuri women fighting against the British. I am pointed towards a spot where in 2004, 12 middle-aged Manipuri women protested against the Indian Army by disrobing themselves. As much as this move broke all stereotypes, it also kept alive the fighters’ spirit of Manipuri women.
The following day, I hire a taxi to go sightseeing. The taxi driver, who, during the course of the day, takes on the role of guide, asks me: ‘So, you are from India?’ When I smile and nod a ‘yes’, he informs me: ‘Even though I also live in India, I don’t consider myself Indian.’ He belongs to the Sanamahi religion of the Meiteis of Manipuri. I ask him the reason for his discontent, and he responds: ‘India treats us differently. We don’t feel safe under Indian security. Visitors come and ask us for coins and stamps “of this country” to take back home.’
Our first stop is the Japanese War Memorial, a museum of peace built on the memories of World War II. The Nagas fought on behalf of the British, against the Japanese, along India’s border with Burma. Charles Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ When the locals woke up from the nightmare of war, in 1944, and as the smoke and dust settled, amongst the ruins the passing storm left behind, they inherited wartime infrastructure—airports, motorable roads—a rude initiation into the modern world.
We are driving towards the Sadu Chiru Waterfall, and women are guarding various checkposts to collect entry fee. It is a coming together of 3 waterfalls at the picturesque foothills of the Sadar Hills, about 20 kms away from Imphal city. On our return, much to the horror of my local friend and guide, I am curious to taste a homemade alcoholic brew, Atingba. Essentially a rice beer, it is impossible to describe how it tastes. Sharp, bitter, pungent, fermented, all at once, it has to be consumed to know that something could even taste as bizarre as that!
Next on the tour is the INA War Memorial where memorabilia of the valiant fighters of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army is on display. What catches my eye is a map that traces Netaji’s great escape route. In the open courtyard, a marble stone proudly proclaims: ‘The Indian tricolour flag was hoisted here for the first time on the sacred soil of India by the Indian National Army on the 14th April, 1944.’ I feel a sense of pride gushing through me.
After paying my respect to the INA, we head to the Sangai National Park. It is serene and calm in the afternoon sun, and the place is far removed from all the turmoil India is currently facing in the wake of the Citizenship Amendment Act. Though a Sangai—an endangered subspecies of deer found only in Manipur—sighting is rare, a visit to the national park in itself is enough to calm the senses and soothe the nerves.
The best has been saved for the last. At the end of the tour, we arrive at the largest freshwater lake in Northeast India, the Loktak Lake. Chunks of soil and vegetable, called phumdis, float on the waters. The Sangai National Park is a part of it, and amongst other things, the lake is a primary source of hydropower to the state of Manipur. On the floating phumdis are precariously balanced tiny huts, used by fishermen as shelter. It is a surreal experience to witness quaint ecosystems within the larger realm of the lake. I find a quiet corner and sit down to ruminate. As far as the eye can see, nature is resplendent in its full glory; land, water, phumdis and the horizon co-exist is perfect harmony.
Just before I leave Imphal, I head out to the RKCS art gallery, a museum of fine arts displaying historical, mythological and contemporary paintings by the pioneer artiste R.K. Yumjaosana Singh. As my taxi makes its way to the airport, I realise there is one thing that I was not able to do during this trip: visit Ukhrul district, home to one-of-a-kind Longpi pottery. The making of this pottery does not involve the use of a potter’s wheel; it is crafted entirely by hand and this ensures that no two pieces of this black clay-and-stone pottery are alike. The makers of this craft belong to the Tangkhul tribe. Don’t they say there is always a next time…
I certainly hope so!