Sangai : The dancing deer of Manipur

The Sangai, brow-antlered deer also called the dancing deer is a rare and endangered subspecies found only in Manipur.
The state animal lives in the swampy wetland in Keibul Lamjao about 45 km from the state capital. The habitat of the Sangai is now protected as the Keibul Lamjao National Park. The National Park is located between 24°27’ N and 24°31’ N latitude and 93°53’ E and 93°55’ E longitudes, covering an area of 40 km and the home range of the Sangai in the park is confined to 15sq. km. Nature has its own gift to every creature for survival. Phumdi, the floating mass of entangled vegetation formed by the accumulation of organic debris and biomass with soil is the most important and unique part of the habitat of Sangai.
Culturally, the Sangai is deeply embedded into the myths, folklore and ancient tradition of Manipur. In a popular folk legend, the Sangai is interpreted as the binding soul between man and the nature. The slaughtering of the Sangai, an unforgivable sin, is envisaged as the collapsing/breaking up of the cordial relationship between man and the nature. When man does love and respect the Sangai, it is honoring the nature.
In the Sangai, therefore, man does find a way of communicating his love for the nature. Th. Pryobor Singh writes, “A strong belief that Sangai at Keibul Lamjao was to nature out of transformation from a human being made the animal attached more to the sentiment of the Manipuris.” Socially, the Sangai is the symbol of a prized possession of Manipur. Identified as one of the rarest animal species in the whole world, Sangai is the apple of the eye for the people.
The Sangai discovery was a fall out of the Cachar road construction by Captain Guthrie, an engineer. In the construction of Cachar road, the Manipur state used Zeliangrong people of western hills as free labour under force labour. It took seven years in the construction (1837-44) of the road. This was the lifeline of Manipur in the 19th century. The Cachar road came to be known as the Tongjei Maril, a tube like narrow road. There were plenty of wild animals in the hills and valley of Manipur like the tigers, wild hogs, wild boar, deer etc.; the most popular deer was the Sangai.
The valley dwellers including the kings, members of the royal family, and nobles did face the tiger menace. It is stated in Royal Chronicle that tiger (Kei) was widely hunted in the valley area; in a year in 1839, Nar Singh, the regent of Chandrakriti Singh hunted twenty six tigers. In olden times, Sangai was available in all parts of Manipur Valley particularly in the marshy wetlands of Keibul Lamjao. The Sangai deer did come to the notice of Lt. Eldi Percy (the Assistant Political Agent of Nowgong District, Assam) who visited at Imphal to meet Captain Gordon in 1838. He visited all parts of Manipur valley and saw about 200-300 Sangais grazing around the Loktak Lake. He also met Captain Guthrie (who was the engineer of the Cachar road construction) and handed over some skeletons of bow shaped antler. In 1841, Captain Guthrie sent the same skeletons to John McClelland, an enthusiastic zoologist of the Calcutta Natural History Society. John McClelland was excited at the discovery of the Sangai. He was informed by Captain Guthrie, that he received the skeletons from Lt. Eldi Percy. After correspondence with Lt. Eldi Percy, John McClelland got the details of the Sangai: the body structure, habitat and growth pattern of the antler including all its behaviour. In the same year 1841, the finding of the Sangai was published in the journal of the National History of Calcutta. John McClelland gave the scientific name of the Sangai as Cervus eldi eldi McClelland in honor of Lt. Eldi Percy as he was the first discoverer of the Sangai. Manipur is the original homeland of the Sangai.
To conclude, Sangai is an integral part of the socio-cultural and economic life of the people of Manipur. Slaying of the Sangai means we move away from tradition and the nature. In the present trend, people look back to the root or try to revive the aged old culture and tradition. The world is ubiquitous – Sangai can be found on shop signage, cafes, clubs, a regional daily newspaper, even at an annual tourism festival. Let us protect the ecosystem of loktak Lake and its surrounds to save the rarest Sangai from extinction.

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