Unfamiliar, exciting and under-explored, Imphal makes for the perfect place to start exploring Manipur
Words: Sugato Tripathy
My encounter with Manipur was nothing less than a dream come true. Once called the “Switzerland of India” by Lord Irwin, Manipur lies in the deep corner of the northeast part of India. Surrounded by Nagaland in the north, Assam in the west, Mizoram in the south, and international border of Myanmar in the east, Manipur is every bit mesmerising and enchanting.
The capital is a flat valley surrounded by hills that extend into Myanmar. The unassuming city houses the expansive and historic Kangla area, the Imphal War Cemetery of World War II, and the Indo-Japanese Peace Memorial at Red Hill as its major attractions. The scenery changes dramatically once you drive out of Imphal. Dense, exhilarating green hills run into each other at every bend of the road. There are a plethora of options to pursue. You can wander in the ancient village of Andro in the gorgeous Santhei Natural Park. Do boating in the unique Loktak Lake (the lake of floating islands), visit the mystical monoliths in the spectacular mountain village of Willong Khullen, visit the INA War Museum in Moirang or you can just spend the evening at the famous Rita Café in Imphal with live Manipuri music at your disposal.
Kangla was the royal seat of the erstwhile capital of Manipur. Revered as the most sacred site of the state, it was ruled by the Ningthouja Dynasty from 33 AD until 1891 when the British Empire took over. Opened to the public again only in 2004, the 238 acres of Kangla houses the ancestral abode of the ruling clan, their burial places, temples, shrines and certain megalithic structures across its territory. The Kangla region has a cult status for Manipuri people as all relics, imprints and traces left behind throughout the history of Manipur originate from here.Built during the early 17th century, a few ruins of the Kangla Palace remain. Most of its structures were destroyed during the Anglo-Manipur War. The Govindajee Temple is inside the remaining fortified wall. Its array of pillars is a hallmark of the venerable structure. Another notable monument is the Hijagang Temple. Built in 1846, it has been renovated and is the most beautiful structure in the area. Two large white statues of “Kangla Sha”—a mythical animal as per Manipuri folklore—stand in front of the Uttra (coronation halls of the erstwhile kings) to commemorate the original wood and brick structures. The lush green surroundings make the visit pleasurable.
The War Cemetery
“There name liveth for ever more”, says an inscription at the Imphal War Memorial. This place is a grim reminder of the offensive in March 1944. Surrounded by the enemy from almost all sides, the Indo–British army fought valiantly for two months and stalled the aggression. More than 1,600 burials of brave young soldiers lie here. The names, age and their regiments are embossed on marble slabs placed aesthetically in several horizontal rows amidst a lush green landscape.
Santhei Natural Park, Andro
Believed to be dating back to 1st century AD, the ancient village of Andro had some of the earliest settlers of the state. An hour’s drive from Imphal, it is the ideal location for a day trip. It is famous for its handcrafted and unique style of pottery, tribal dolls, animal figurines and wood carvings. The products are sundried for four days before being baked in fire. The natural dye used by the craftsmen makes the colours durable, bright, and vibrant. The Santhei Natural Park adjacent to the village is a popular picnic spot with its lush green landscape, neat pathways, a sparkling lake and resplendently bright flower beds. Based at the foothills of the Nongmaiching Hill Range of Manipur, the place offers a beautiful panoramic view of the surrounding hills. Here, you can interact freely with the warm, simple and friendly villagers.
The unique “Phumdis” of Loktak Lake
The Loktak Lake is the largest freshwater lake in Northeast India. spread across 280 sq. km. Situated in the Bishnupur district, it is considered to be the lifeline of the people here. With more than 200 species of aquatic plants, 100 species of birds and 400 species of animals, it is an ecosystem in itself. Due to its varied flora and fauna, it has been given the tag of “Wetland of International Importance” by Ramsar Convention, characterised by innumerable circular islands (called Phumdis) seemingly submerged in the middle. These islands are a mixture of decomposed vegetation, organic matter, and soil. The Keibul Lamjao National Park at the southwestern part of the lake is home to the endemic Sangai, a brow-antlered deer. A national park housing them is situated on one of the largest phumdis (40 sq. km.), often considered to be the world’s only floating national park. There are plenty of boating options available here. The Sendra Park and Resort on an elevated large Phumdi, is the only accommodation option overlooking the lake.
Willong Khullen is a small village on the border of Manipur and Nagaland, which is situated at a distance of 120 km from the state capital. A 200 metre diversion from the National Highway takes you to the village.
The most striking feature of this obscure village is the beautiful church at the end of the cliff. Seemingly balanced close to the deep ravine, it is the largest structure here. A small statue of Lord Jesus looks over the village with spread arms and is perched near the top of the church. Owing to their proximity to the border, the architecture and design of the buildings have a striking similarity to Nagaland. Mithun horns are a signature of Naga architecture and can be seen in the design of the village community centre.
Just at the entrance of this road lie rows of vertical stone slabs in various shapes and sizes surrounded by barbed wires. These peculiar monoliths in the backdrop of the verdant green hills look like guarding sentinels of the modest settlement determined to intrigue visitors with no history of their builders and no story for the reason of their existence.
One can’t help but draw a comparison with the world famous megaliths (and monoliths) in England and France. Like Willong Khullen, these also have always perplexed historians and scientists. “These were built in the memories of the tribe warriors”, said Nomyank Lechung, a village elder, seemingly putting an end to all speculations. Others, however, don’t agree.
Many of the villagers consider these as holy spirits that come alive at night. According to them, counting the monoliths is forbidden by the spirits. Ironically, it is actually very confusing to count them because of their irregular positions with respect to each other.