Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
Manipur is an exciting tourist destination but where is it? It’s time to reveal this. So here I am, after a brush with resurgent Manipur with its growing tourism, especially during the annual Sangai Festival that includes International polo tournament in November each year. The renaissance is best captured in the book, ‘The Other Manipur’ in 6 volumes, edited by H Dwijasekhar Sharma, my contemporary, and the most eminent economist Manipur has ever produced.
Let there be light, and Imphal became aglow during the Sangai Festival. Sana Leibak or the Golden Land of Manipur, was a tiny hideout country wedged between Myanmar and India, nestling among the uneven rolling green hills of the Himalayan range as it sweeps from the Indus Valley around the northern side of Assam, with a few blue peaks dipping in the white cloud. Its rich culture, indigenous people and food, landscapes and caves, and a psychedelic fishing Loktak Lake, have now become a tourist attraction for excitement-seeking visitors.
Manipur, an ecological lamp, was unknown to the rest of the world until WWII. Having been raised from a ‘shipwreck’ this folie de grandeur has opened up, allowing a constant flow of tourists, who take pleasure from its beauty and fragrance. The influx of tourists is partly due to improved security, and partly due to better facilities for visitors. Thanks to the ubiquitous presence of armed paramilitary troops. Imphal is now safer than London, where I live.
What’s more than navel-gazing for tourists, is the improvement in medical care in Imphal, with its two medical college hospitals, and a few state of the art private hospitals, at affordable prices for those whose insurers won’t pay. Mention may be made of the Imphal Heart Institute, sister hospital to Mother’s Care Children hospital. According to its Managing Director Dr Ratan Kumar, cardiac surgeries such as emergency bypass surgery (CABGY), and elective surgeries for coarctation of Aorta, Tetralogy of Fallots, mitral valve closure, and VSD closure in children, have been regularly performed for a few years, by a distinguished young Meitei cardiac surgeon, Dr Athouba Arambam. The success rate is 100% helped by ICU with a lot of advanced equipment in critical care.
My creative energy for writing about tourism in Manipur came from my recent visit with my wife to attend the annual Manipur Sangai Festival and the 11th Manipur International Polo Tournament.
There, I met a young entrepreneur, Yaiphaba Kangjam from Langthabal, who runs the “Battle of Imphal Tours”, promoting war memorial tourism.
I was also bowled over by the enthusiasm of Lt Gen Konsam Himalaya Singh, who is also very keen to promote foreign war memorial tourism. I met him by chance sitting next to him at the podium of the polo stadium in November 2017. I found him very humble despite his distinguished Army career I’ve read about.
Himalaya’s attention to detail, and ability to succeed at the most atrocious Kargil War, will remain a benchmark many years hence. He commanded 900-strong Rajput soldiers, in a daring daylight attack to evict well-entrenched Pakistani soldiers from an area covering 15 sq km near the Line of Control. He captured strategic ‘Point 5770’ at an altitude of 5852 m, between June 23-27, 1999, after wasting a number of Pakistani soldiers. He is the most decorated general (Rtd) in the Indian Army that has the highest per capita number of officers from Manipur.
Manipur saw the greatest defeat on land ever suffered by the Japanese in the course of their history at the “Battle of Imphal” in WWII in 1944, which was fought for 5 months from March until July 1944. The Japanese suffered 55,000 casualties including 13,500 dead. Most Japanese dead were from starvation, tropical diseases like malaria, and exhaustion. The Allies suffered only 17,500 casualties. There are many local war memorials around Imphal with graves for identified or unidentified Japanese soldiers, whose souls are stranded, hovering in a far foreign land. Also a Commonwealth War Cemetery in Imphal for Allied soldiers, listing 1,600 names.
For years, the relatives of the dead Japanese soldiers have been coming to collect bones, teeth and so on to identify their dead ancestors and give them a decent funeral to give their souls a resting place, while general tourists are trickling in to discover the scenic and cultural highlights of this historic region, now in India, bordering Myanmar. One can experience the picturesque beauty of the mountain ridges while travelling by the serpentine road to the border town of Moreh, reminiscent of Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia, US.
Visitors can find their perfect match with outstanding quality and value. You can simply absorb the diverse landscapes of the countryside of Imphal valley hemmed in by crumple-faced hill ranges, weighted down by colourful tribal dwellers with outlandish cultures that typify this golden land. Or take a trip to the breath-taking vista of the Loktak lake for a picnic and a boat ride, or stay in thatched holiday huts on its banks, soaking up the panorama and watching lonely women fishing from their canoes with a wide net called inn against the backdrop of the setting Sun.
Alternatively, you can just experience the buzz of Imphal city, feasting your eyes on the collaged innocuous spectacle of the largest women market in the world, or enjoy gourmet dining with lavish indigenous cuisines at world-class 4-star hotels. Or your meals can be tailored to Indian, Chinese or European palates. Perhaps you prefer to feed your sensual grandeur, watching the ecstatic classical Manipuri dances, mimicking the pastimes of Lord Krishna and his paramour Radha in Brindaban.
You have also choices of making a trip to magnificent Ukhrul, not unlike Musoorie, the home of very hospitable Tangkhul Nagas and see the rare Sirhoi lily. If you prefer, take a longer route to Tamenglong, the home of Zeliangrong Nagas with their graceful dances and appreciate the thrill of the Barak waterfalls, miniatures of Niagara Falls.
Manipur (city of jewels) is home to the rarest Sangai deer, singular Sirhoi lily and toughest war/polo ponies. According to Colonel Ranjit, organising secretary (Adm) all the world’s polo playing countries have now recognised Manipur as the birth place of modern polo with Mapal Kangjeibung, the oldest pologround in the world and is still used in the recent 11th International Polo Tournament.
Manipur is also the land of the bravest of the brave, such as teenager Chinglen Sana, and his commander Major Paona Brajabashi who led 400-strong Meitei soldiers to stop the mighty British column at the Battle of Khongjom in the Anglo-Manipuri war of independence in 1891.
Manipur was given well-deserved sobriquets: first by Lord Irwin, the Viceroy of India as “the Switzerland of India” when he visited Manipur in 1931; “a little paradise on Earth” by EM Somerville, a British Army matron in 1942; and “the jewel of India” by Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, when he visited it in 1953. Manipur for me, is “Kashmir of Northeast India”. I’ve visited Kashmir twice. The Imphal valley with the majestic Loktak Lake is a replication of Srinagar with the Dal Lake.
Travelling by road from Dimapur in Naga Hills to the Imphal plain reminds me of the terrain from Jammu to Srinagar. For authenticity I quote an excerpt from the book Imphal: “ The town of Kohima is 47 miles from Dimapur. The next stretch is tortuous, again along the slopes of mountain, along a rock ledge and again with a precipice on one side, and on the other the towering rock face with blinding corners, climbing to Mao at Manipur border, nearly 6000 feet up. From Mao and over another saddle at Maram and down the undulating country between mountains ranges covered with scrub and trees, past hillocks of bright green, and through deep gorges, sixty miles from Kohima lies Kangpokpi, where the scenery is hilly and well wooded. Then the road, passing through another gorge and between lines of silvery oaks, debouches into the Imphal plain.”
The stretch of road from Bishnupur to Moirang, lined on both sides by silvery oaks reminds me of the beautiful drive from Srinagar to Baramullah, lined on both sides by Lombardi poplar trees, which were planted by the British to hold up the raised road above water by their roots, as they do here. Manipur though less elegant, has beautiful gardens similar to Shalimar garden, Nishat Bagh or Nasim Bagh. Verinag, the source of the Jhelum River (Jhelum ka mumba) has its equivalent In Manipur – the source of the Barak river in the northern mountains.
The most negative appeal to visitors is prohibition. Tourists want respite with a drink of chilled beer during the day or to close the day in the evening. Never mind the conundrum. If there is a will there is away. Please visit Manipur if you don’t want to suffer an agonising choice. Whether you are looking to pay homage to the graves of your loved ones or simply plotting an exciting tour, you can be assured of a wonderful, awe-inspiring experience. The taste of the indigenous 100% proof Sekmai spirit, a cross between the Mexican Tequila and the Japanese Saki, would forever stay in your memory.
Useful contacts for WWII tourists (1) Lt General Himalaya (Rtd) for free consultations, Email: [email protected] (2) experienced guide for Japanese :Rajani Irengbam, Tel. +917005854480 (3)”Battle of Imphal Tours” Email: [email protected] Website www.battleofImphal.com
The writer is based in the UK. Email: [email protected] Website: www.drimsingh.co.uk