Manipur: A jewelled fairyland
Manipur, described as the Jewel of India, lies south of Nagaland and north of Mizoram. Assam is its neighbour on the west. Geographically, Manipur can claim a unique position since it is virtually the meeting point between India and South-east Asia. A breeding ground for graceful classical dance traditions, intricate art forms, sumptuous cuisine and (some claim), the sport of polo, Manipur sits pretty amid rolling hills along India’s border with Myanmar n the eastern & southern side. This ‘Jewelled fairyland’ is home to Thadou, Tangkhul, Paite, Kuki, Mao Naga and many other tribal peoples, but the predominant community is the Hindu Meitei tribe, who adhere to a neo-Vaishnavite order. Much of the state is carpeted with dense forests which provide cover for rare birds, but also drug traffickers and guerrilla armies, making it by far the Northeast’s most adventurous destination.
Foreign travellers are currently restricted to Imphal and its outskirts, an area which is deemed ‘safe’. Most tourists fly into Imphal; it is also possible to go by road from Kohima (Nagaland), or Silchar (Assam), if you have a guide. Travelling east of Kakching towards the Myanmar border is not permitted. Manipur valley stands at an altitude of 790 mts and is surrounded by nine hill ranges in circles, giving the impression of a hill and trough. Though lying on the remote extremity of India, Manipur is famous for its classical dance form, the Manipuri, marked by graceful and restrained movements, often depicting the Radha-Krishna Ras-Lila.
Imphal, a mini-metropolis, the capital of this beautiful land, has blue-green hills, cascading rapids, carpets of flowers and winding rivers. It has all the tints of a water color. Faiths and traditions and lifestyles seem to flow into each other with a soft-edged grace so that it is impossible to know where one ends and the other begins. And the character of the terrain changes, from parts resembling the delicate valley of Kangra, Himachal, to that of the flat-sub-mountain lands of Kerala.
As we land in the small but cute airport, a cool breeze kisses our face. We drive down to the Classic Hotel. Its outer facade, with coloured glass tiles, looks elegant. The Manager and the receptionist, both Manipuris, welcome us. The rooms are comfy. They serve excellent local, North Indian, continental and also South Indian dishes. Hotel Classic seems to be a household name in Imphal. It is located in a important area and is thronged by VIPs. We start our tour with visits to various temples. Besides being Hindus, Manipuris are followers of Sanamahism, the traditional Meetei religion and Christianity.
Govindajee Temple: The 1776-built Shri Govindajee Mandir, with two rather pronounced domes, is a neo-Vaishnavite temple with Radha and Govinda as the presiding deities. Adjacent to the temple is the Royal Palace (closed to visitors). Constructed with high quality Burma teak and bricks, this 19th-century temple boasts of a double domed shikhara, that was originally plated in gold. The gold leaf adorning the dome was sold off in a public auction in the year 1891—after the British army conquered this State. A unique feature of this temple is that the presiding deity is etched on the bark of a jackfruit tree. Just outside the temple is a pond, with an elevated spot with the cemented replica of the footprints of Lord Krishna. The main deities are flanked by the idols of Balabhadra, Subhadra, Krishna and Balaram on either side. The mandap, or the large congregation hall of the temple is the venue for the celebrations of several Hindu festivals — especially Janmashtami.
Sanamahi Temple: The temple is located in Imphal’s first Manipur Rifle Ground. It was patronized by King Kulachandra in 1891. The structure is raised on an octagonal base. The southern side has got flying steps. The roof is in pyramidal Gothic Style. It is the only temple devoted to the animistic faith in Manipur, constructed to enshrine the animistic deity, Lord Sanamahi. The rituals, prayers and decoration of the deity and dress of the priest are typically Hindu. The puja is performed by the priest daily, morning and evening, at the times of Ushakala and Samdhyakala. A weekly puja known as ‘Sagalchham’ is performed on Tuesday.
ISKcON Temple: ISKCON has beautiful temples across the country including one in Imphal, where Radha and Krishna are the main deities. The main temple has Lord Krishna and other incarnations of Lord Vishnu. There are beautiful paintings on the ceilings and pillars are beautifully carved. There is a large gathering of devotees at the time of “Aarti,” occurring daily. Adjacent to the main temple is Lord Narsimha temple in the south Indian architectural style. In the complex is a good vegetarian restaurant for food and snacks. There is a cowshed and lotus pond in the complex. It is a beautiful place to be in. Photography inside is not allowed.
Other religious attractions in Manipur are the famous Hiyangthang Lairembi Temple Complex, noted for its annual Durga Puja, the Shree Gopinath Mandir, one of the biggest temples in Manipur, with the presiding deity Shree Gopinath, worshipped by more than 10 lakh devotees on annual festivals like Holi, Diwali, Krishnashtami and Durga Puja & the Jama Masjid, beside Nambul River.
Imphal War cemetery
This peaceful, well-kept memorial contains the graves of more than 1600 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in WWI and II battles that raged around Imphal. You’ll find the cemetery across a shaded park at the end of a bylane off Imphal Rd. It is a memorial to the fallen soldier. Most are graves of outlanders - but it includes Indians also. A clean, quiet, serene place, with scenic beauty, to sit and ponder. Maintained by the Commonwealth Graves Commission, the memorial has a plaque with an inspiring message for visitors: ‘When you go home, tell them of us, and say for your tomorrow, we gave our today.’
Kangla fort: This expansive, low-walled fort was the on-again, off-again regal capital of Manipur until the Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891 that saw the defeat of the Manipuri maharaja and a British takeover. Entrance is by way of an exceedingly tall gate on Kanglapat. The interesting older buildings are at the rear of the citadel, guarded by three restored large white kangla sha (dragons). The pride of Manipur, this beautiful, partly-in-ruins fort is a doorway to the rich heritage of the people of Manipur and its culture. It is surrounded by greenish-blue moats on all sides and dotted with a plethora of giant trees. It is one of the holiest spots of the Meetei community. Coloured by numerous enthralling anecdotes and myths, it will welcome you to a world of a bygone era.
Ima Market: Officially known as Khwairamband Bazar, this unique, all-women’s market in the country is run by 3000 or more ‘Imas’ or mothers, and is split into two sections on either side of a road. Vegetables, fruits, fish and groceries are sold on one side and exquisite handicrafts, fabrics, pottery and household articles on the other. Must-buys at the market are colourful shawls and a wraparound skirt-dress, the Phanek.
Also near Imphal are the lovely Zoological Gardens, the Central Orchidarium, and Red Hill (Lokpaching), with its Memorial for Japanese soldiers.
Loktak Lake: It is the largest fresh water lake in the North East. From the Tourist Bungalow set atop Sendra Island, with its attached Cafeteria, visitors can get a bird’s eye view of life on the Lake’s small islands that are actually floating marshes of weeds called phumids, on which the Lake-dwelling fisherfolk live, among the backdrop of the shimmering blue waters of the Lake, with its labyrinthine boat routes and colourful water plants.